Mary Eberstadt is my friend, but I’ll risk charges of special pleading and self-plagiarism by quoting my endorsement on the dust jacket of her new book, Adam and Eve after the Pill (Ignatius Press): “Mary Eberstadt is our premier analyst of American cultural foibles and follies, with a keen eye for oddities that illuminate just how strange the country’s moral culture has become.” That strangeness is on full display in the ongoing controversy over the HHS-“contraceptive mandate”—an exercise in raw governmental coercion depicted by much of the mainstream media (and, alas, by too many Catholics on the port side of the barque of Peter) as a battle between Enlightened Sexual Liberation and The Antediluvian Catholic Church. Anyone who thinks of this battle in those terms should spend a few evenings reading “Adam and Eve after the Pill.”
As the talismanic year 2000 approached, and like virtually every other talking head and scribe in the world, I was asked what I thought the history-changing scientific discoveries of the 20th-century had been. And like the rest of the commentariat, I answered, “splitting the atom (which unleashed atomic energy for good or ill) and unraveling the DNA double-helix (which launched the new genetics and the new biotechnology).” Today, after a decade of pondering why the West is committing slow-motion demographic suicide through self-induced infertility, I would add a third answer: the invention of the oral contraceptive, “the Pill.”
With insight, verve and compassion, “Adam and Eve after the Pill” explores the results of what Mary Eberstadt bluntly describes as the “optional and intentional sterility in women” the Pill has made possible for three generations. A careful analysis of empirical studies, plus a close reading of literary sources, leads Eberstadt to conclude that the “human fallout of our post-Pill world” has been severe. How? “First, and contrary to conventional depiction, the sexual revolution (which the Pill made possible) has proved a disaster for many men and women; and second, its weight has fallen heaviest on the smallest and weakest shoulders in society—even as it has given extra strength to those already strongest and most predatory.”
Elite culture has been in comprehensive denial about this fallout, argues Eberstadt—a claim reinforced in February by the lynch mob that attacked the Susan G. Komen foundation for daring to hold Planned Parenthood to account for monies Komen had donated to PP (chief guardian of the flame of the sexual revolution) and which PP had misused. Such public quarrels, however, touch the surface of the cultural implosion that followed widespread use of the Pill. Weaving her way through the social sciences and literature with equal dexterity, Mary Eberstadt digs deeper and describes the human costs of the sexual revolution: the “pervasive themes of anger and loss that underlie much of today’s writing on romance;” the “new and problematic phase of prolonged adolescence through which many men now go”; the social and personal psychological harm caused by the availability of pornography on a historically unprecedented scale; the “assault unleashed from the 1960s onward on the taboo against sexual seduction or exploitation of the young”; and the “feral rates of date rapes, hookups and binge drinking now documented on many campuses” (the direct result of a sexual revolution that has “empowered and largely exonerated predatory men as never before”).
“Adam and Eve after the Pill” also explores the cultural weirdness that has followed the Pill’s inversion of classic western and Judaeo-Christian values; in a particularly insightful chapter, Eberstadt analyzes the food taboos that have replaced discarded sexual taboos. The book ends with a telling, if ironic, judgment on the long-term impact of the 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae”: “one of the most reviled documents of modern times, the Catholic Church’s reiteration of traditional Christian moral teaching, would also turn out to be the most prophetic in its understanding of the nature of the changes that the (sexual) revolution would ring in.”
Contrary to what you read in the papers, the “birth control debate” isn’t over. It’s just beginning.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Weigel’s column is distributed by theDenver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: 303-715-3215.