A Challenging Truth, Part One: How Birth Control Works

How can something be both immense and minute at the same time, something upon which all of human history depends, yet fragile and almost non-existent to the eye?  It is the union of an egg and sperm — an embryo.  Such is God's way.  He takes something smaller than a mustard seed and brings forth all of civilization.  After creating everything in the universe single-handedly, He created us in his own image and bestowed upon us the power to become co-creators with Him.  Working in union with us, when the sperm unites with the egg, not only has a new human life been set in motion, but so too has a spiritual life.  God places an everlasting soul into the being of every son and daughter.

Most of us rarely think that deeply about it all.  In our worldly way, we forget eternity and begin to affix costs — physical, emotional and monetary.  The costs can seem exorbitant when we focus only through the eyes of the world.  And looking through those same worldly eyes, the way to prevent the miracle we clearly do not recognize as such is so easy, inexpensive, and ironically, also so small — the birth control pill.  But the pill does not just prevent the miracle, it also destroys it, a fact that is often surprising to committed pro-lifers.  This fact is true for all contraception that works through manipulation of hormone levels.


The pill has become a symbol of freedom to those who have been told they can "have it all".  And it has become a symbol of destruction to those who support a "Theology of the Body," philosophy, the essence of Catholic teaching that artificial means must not disrupt God's natural order of things.

The first birth control pill received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 1960.  Using a synthetic estrogen hormone, the pill tricked a women's body into thinking it was pregnant.  No egg would be released thereby preventing the opportunity for conception. 

Although the pill was initially introduced with the idea of affording women a reliable way of limiting their family size, it soon became the ticket to the Sexual Revolution that began in the Sixties and never really ended.  The pill promised something it's never been able to deliver: sex with "no strings attached".  There are always emotional and moral consequences to thwarting God's purpose, but women discovered physical problems too.  Blood clots, heart attacks and strokes were some of the side effects caused by the Pill's high estrogen levels.  Drug manufacturers lowered these levels in order to reduce the side effects but that also increased the incidence of breakthrough ovulation.  With the lower levels of estrogen, eggs would sometimes still get released and pregnancies resulted. 

 The drug companies tackled this situation by adding the synthetic hormone progesterone, which makes the uterine wall (the endometrium) inhospitable to implantation by an embryo.  So if an egg was released and became fertilized by a sperm, thus creating life, the pill would have actually failed to prevent a conception, meaning it failed as a contraceptive.  But, through preventing implantation of the embryo, the pill acts as an abortifacient and stops life from continuing to the next stage.  (A clear and simple demonstration of this can be seen here.)

Since some women actually do become pregnant while on the pill, there are some embryos that manage to implant into the uterus.  Whether it's RU-486, Norplant, Depo-Provera, the morning after pill, the Mini-pill, or the Pill, there is no chemical "contraceptive" that always causes an abortion.  There is also none that never causes an abortion.


There is no way of knowing what percentage of pregnancies result in abortion through the pill.  The woman using the pill with this scenario never even knows that she conceived a child.  Her cycle will continue on schedule with no realization that an embryo is being flushed from her body.  The Catholic Church has never wavered on the teaching that life begins at conception.  Although Catholics are contracepting at rates parallel to non-Catholics, using artificial means to change our body's natural functions in order to block the potential for life has been recognized as rebellion against God's plan for humanity.  However, using natural means to understand the rhythms of life and then to work in union with God is encouraged through Natural Family Planning.

The issue of birth control is a big one where misunderstanding and ignorance often misguide people.  But when it comes to the pill, the ignorance that many women fall prey to is lack of understanding of its abortifacient properties.  Most women don't consider that while taking their birth control, they may also be aborting a life within them.  As Pope Paul VI predicted when he issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) in 1968, the use of artificial contraception would lead to abortions.

Although it seemed to many to be an overdramatic prediction, it proved to be prophetic.  In hindsight, its logic in saying that widespread use of contraception would lead to "conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality" was prophetic.  Since the Pill began to be sold in 1960, divorces have tripled, out-of-wedlock births jumped from 224,000 to 1.2 million, abortions doubled, and cohabitation soared 10-fold from 430,000 to 4.2 million.

Sex both inside and outside marriage ceased to be about a bond of marital love in which a couple became one in union with God.  It became merely an activity for personal satisfaction devoid of anything more.  The Pope predicted man would lose respect for woman, considering her "as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion."

Society as a whole moved from recognizing sex as something reserved for married couples to something for everyone, since the possibility for pregnancy was greatly reduced (although never completely removed).  Thus, people completely opposed to having children could have sex with others whom they had chosen as bed partners but would never chose to co-parent their children.  The most intimate experience intended to be shared in love and self-giving with the potential for creating life became merely a form of recreation.  And if life sprang forth, such a life was easily regarded as nothing more than an unintended problem that could legally be disposed of through abortion.

But women choosing abortion and the men who either make that choice with them or plead for them to do otherwise, are very aware of the decision that is being made, whereas women who choose to take birth control pills are not so aware of the potential ramifications of their choice.  There is not a baby with a heartbeat who must forcefully be removed, but unbeknownst to many, there is a baby.  Since life begins at conception, a life, even though undetectable to us, is still a life.  It is the way God chooses to begin things, small and yet mighty in its eternal existence. 

In addition to the pill, IUDs, Depo-Provera and Norplant also cause early, undetectable abortions.  Doctor usually fail to warn women of the abortifacient properties of the pill.  I've heard some doctors admit they were not actually even aware of these properties.  Women often choose contraception as a means to avoid pregnancy without realizing they are not actually stopping pregnancy, but quickly ending it.


In his booklet, titled Does the Birth Control Pill Cause Abortions?, Randy Alcorn states: "The question of whether it causes abortions has direct bearing on untold millions of Christians, many of them pro-life, who use and recommend it.  For those who believe God is the Creator of each person and the giver and taker of human life, this is a question with profound moral implications."

Alcorn was a Protestant pastor who not only used the pill in his married life, but also counseled other married couples to do so.  He had a vested interest in not recognizing the pill as an abortifactient.  But when confronted with the facts through his own research, it demanded changes in his own behavior and philosophy.  His booklet was written in 1998 to inform others of the truth.

Alcorn's booklet has met some opposition.  According to him: "Despite evidence, some pro-life physicians state that the likelihood of the Pill having an abortifacient effect is infinitesimally low, or nonexistent.  Though I would very much like to believe this, the scientific evidence does not permit me to do so."

Alcorn, surprisingly, found that the greatest resistance to recognizing the abortifacient quality of the pill comes from the Christian community.  "Dr. Walt Larimore has told me that whenever he has presented this evidence to audiences of secular physicians, there has been little or no resistance to it.  But when he has presented it to Christian physicians there has been substantial resistance.  Since secular physicians do not care whether the Pill prevents implantation, they tend to be objective in interpreting the evidence.  After all, they have little or nothing at stake either way.  Christian physicians, however, very much do not want to believe the Pill causes early abortions.  Therefore, I believe, they tend to resist the evidence.  This is certainly understandable.  Nonetheless, we should not permit what we want to believe to distract us from what the evidence indicates we should believe."  

It's easier to be pro-life when we limit the discussion to the abortion industry.  The inclusion of artificial birth control complicates and confuses people.  With so many opinions even among Catholics, how is a person to know what to believe?  I understand the confusion.  While living in Montana, I had a doctor who was also a priest, who told me it was not realistic to expect a couple to follow the Catholic teaching on birth control.  He prescribed birth control pills to many of his female patients.  So, is it any surprise there are many Catholics, ones like me, ignorant of the true teaching?

Yet, we must cut through the false teachings and erroneous opinions to reach the truth.  Our lives, our bodies and our souls are all we have.  They are gifts that must be safeguarded. Christopher West, author and speaker, has written books and articles explaining the beauty and truth of God's plan for men and women.  In his book, Good News about Sex and Marriage, he asserts that the Church's teaching on sex and marriage is good news because it's the truth about love and true love is the fulfillment of the human person.  He also admits that the news is challenging.  "This is so because the truth about love is always challenging."

Patti Maguire Armstrong


Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. She has appeared on TV and radio stations across the country.  Her latest books, Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and children’s book, Dear God, I Don’t Get It are both available now. To read more, visit Patti’s Catholic News and Inspiration site. Follow her on Facebook at Big Hearted Families and Dear God Books.

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  • Guest

    The truth is, the humanity of the newly fertilized egg was not questioned until the modernists began their systematic dismantling of Western civilization.

    The medical community has been effected by the poison as well.  That is why textbooks were changed about 40 years ago to state that fertilization is not when pregnancy begins but implantation is when pregnancy begins. They changed the definition of conception to reflect implantation NOT fertilization. Therefore, a pregnancy has not begun yet if the blastocyst hasn't implanted.  (according to  the modernist medical schools).

    Now, even Christians have progressed past the point of recognizing life in its nascent form of a single celled person.  (Oh, I know person is a legal definition.)  Maybe these doctors should read medical textbooks from the 1950s.  Then they'd know that the scientific fact of when life begins doesn't  change just because morality has progressed down a sinful path.

    Thanks for this series. 

  • Guest

    This article is absolutely wonderful.  Thank you, Patti.

     Elkabrikir, you are right on!  Five years back, I was so desperate to have a baby (the only possible way was through ICSI/IVF), I bought into the lie that pregnancy begins at implantation, not fertilization.  So so many are buying into the lie and fail to see how God wants us to be co-creators. 

  • Guest

    ….calling them modernists sounds too much like a compliment. How about "troglodytes" in lieu?

  • Guest

    Patty, God bless you for having the humility to realize in retrospect that life does being at fertilization.  I have also struggled with infertility, and in 10/06 my  husband and I did an IUI attempt.  The Church is still on the fence about IUI, and I was so desperate that I used that as an excuse to go ahead and try it.  Afterward I realized that it detracted from the dignity of our marital act, and I have since realized that I was pushing the envelope, trying to see how far I could go and how much I could get away with.  Infertility can definitely lead to desperate choices.  I have a beautiful one year old niece who is one of 18 embryos conceived via ICSI (16 are currently frozen, and one was transferred along with my niece and ended up miscarrying).  For a long time I had a lot of anger toward my brother and sil for this blatant disregard for life.  They aren't Catholic, but it still seemed to me that they should realize how irresponsible it is to create and freeze 16 human beings.  I have since forgiven them, as I understand their desperation and realize that their consciences aren't properly formed when it comes to life issues.   They provided considerable financial assistance to my husband and me for the adoption of our beautiful new baby Jeffrey, and I think this was God's way of teaching me humility and forgiveness.

  • Guest

    Until the Catholic Church makes it clear that people who use the pill or have an abortion, people who vote for politicians who vote for the pill or abortion, and people who advocate for the pill and abortion are not true catholics, i.e., are excommunicated, then all this is hogwash.  When the 'Catholic' federal legislators made their statement last year regarding their beliefs being contrary to the church's teaching and the church did nothing it condoned their behavior.  The church has abdicated its role as moral authority in these matters.

  • Guest

    Thank you, Claire.  This is still such a sensitive subject for me, in that I know now how I went against God and Our Church's teaching.  The more I understand what God wants, and how much sense it makes, the more I understand the error of my ways.   When my hubby and I went through IVF, we set our own moral standards (that we would transfer all embryos in my uterus/give all a chance to implant, and we would not use donor sperm -although highly recommended by the "Catholic" dr since it was my hubby's low count and poor morphology that was the source of our infertility).  You are right on- the whole thing took away from the dignity of our marital bond.   And then, the use of birth control pill!  ugh!  I had no clue it was an abortifacient until a few years ago, not to mention the moral and emotional consequences I came to realize.  I just praise God he is so merciful and forgives me, one of his wayward sheep. The teaching of the Theology of the Body is absolutely amazing. It makes so much sense and permeates with complete Truth.  I pray my two little miracles (via adoption, too (-: waiting for #3)  will follow God's, not society's, plan for men and women.


    PS I wonder if couples who have children via IVF/ICSI will ever understand the immorality of this act because they ultimately got what they wanted-a child?  ie How can one understand something is sinful (IVF) when the outcome of that sin is something so beautiful-the creation of a child?  

  • Guest

    Allow me to make one comment on this beautiful article.  Early on, the author states that the Pill "soon became the ticket to the Sexual Revolution that began in the Sixties and never really ended."  My only quible is with "began."  I would argue that the Sexual Revolution really began in the 1920s when the liberals were proposing contraception-based "companionate marriage."  Secular humanist pundit Walter Lippmann commented on this in his 1929 work, A Preface to Morals. 

       "In the discussion which has ensured since birth control became generally feasible, the central confusion has been that the reformers have tried to fix their sexual ideals in accordance with the logic of birth control instead of the logic of human nature" (Transaction edition, 1999, page 306). 

       Speaking of organized religion, he also noted: "Obviously that which all married couples are permitted to know every one is bound to know.  Human curiosity will make that certain.  Now this is what the Christian churches, especially the Roman Catholic, which oppose contraception on principle, instantly recognized.  They were quite right.  They were quite right too, in recognizing that whether or not birth control is eugenic, hygienic, and economic, it is the most revolutionary practice in the history of sexual morals" (page 291).   

       In one of the great ironies of history, it was in February 1930, just months after that book was published, that a German medical journal carried an article by Japanese researcher Kyusaku Ogino explaining his calculations for what we now call the "calendar rhythm" system.  Then just six months later, despite all of this, the bishops of the Church of England gave their acceptance to marital contraception, breaking what had been a universal stand of organized religion against unnatural forms of birth control.

       In sum, the liberals started the sexual revolution in earnest in the 1920s, the Anglican bishops poured gasoline on the fires in 1930, and the Pill added rocket boosters to fuel the sexual revolution in 1960 and thereafter. 

    John F. Kippley


    Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality (Ignatius, 2005)

  • Guest

    Patty, I'm ashamed to say that I also used the pill when I was in my 20s (and unmarried!).  Even though I was away from the Church at the time, I never would have used it had I known that it was an abortifcaient.  (I'm an obgyn nurse, so I should have known, but I never bothered to read the insert.)  I just pray that I never conceived and miscarried while on the Pill.  Incidentally, my RE was also "Catholic", and he tried to talk us in to doing ICSI, saying that we should speak with a priest.  He was right that in my liberal diocese I'm sure we wouldn't have had any trouble finding a priest who approved it.  It's very sad, and I hear what you're saying about people never realizing the sinfulness of IVF when it yields such a great outcome.  Hard as it is, you and I need to be confident that God has forgiven our sins, and hopefully we can use our experiences to evangelize others.

  • Guest

    In hindsight, its logic in saying that widespread use of contraception would lead to "conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality" was prophetic.

    As is the case of many true prophets (IMHO), Pope Paul may have simply put historical memory to good use. You see this throughout the Old Testament books of the prophets: Israel rebels, is called back by a brave prophet, rebels again, is called back again, and so forth. And often, the next prophet called by God recalls the words and deeds of a previous prophet, even one from centuries before the current prophet's own time.

    So also, I think, with the issue of contraception. Pope Paul certainly would have been familiar with the 1920s episodes and the Catholic responses, particularly that of Casti Connubii. In addition, Pope Paul very likely would have studied the histories of Church action in the face of contraceptive behavior… dating all the way back to the prehistory of the Church:

    History further illuminates the Church's position on this subject. Anthropological studies show that means of artificial birth control existed in antiquity. Medical papyri described various contraceptive methods used in the year 2700 B.C. and in Egypt in the year 1850 B.C. Soranos (98-139 A.D.), a Greek physician from Ephesus, described 17 medically approved methods of contraception. Also at this time, abortion and infanticide were not uncommon practices in the Roman Empire (Fr. Saunders's "The History of Contraceptive Teachings").

    There is ample evidence that contraception was a fairly common practice among Roman households at the time of Christ. I just found a secular article that confirms some things I learned when I was entering the Church five years ago:

    Approximately 2,600 years ago… [a] gaggle of enterprising Greeks eventually erected the city of Cyrene on Africa's northern tip. There, the settlers encountered a local herb which would ultimately bring them and their progeny fantastic wealth. The prized plant became such a key pillar of the Cyrenean economy that its likeness was stamped upon many of the city's gold and silver coins… The plant was known as silphium or laserwort, and its heart-shaped fruit purportedly brought the ancient world a highly sought-after freedom: the opportunity to enjoy sex with very little risk of pregnancy ("The Birth Control of Yesteryear").

    Silphium ultimately became extinct due to overproduction and the difficulty in transmitting its cultivation to places other than its native habitat. However, the larger point Christians should take is this: the Church has been here before and eventually emerged with her teachings intact. God also has watched his people walk along this path, and has guided them back to the Truth. I find it hopeful to ponder that Pope Paul would have known this history as well, and would have drawn from this font of the Church's very early history in composing the prophetic phrases of Humanae Vitae.