By Maria Wiering
ANNAPOLIS – A few years ago, Dr. Mary Ann Sorra, like most obstetrician-gynecologists, regularly prescribed artificial contraception to her patients. A Catholic, Sorra knew church teaching prohibited its use, but she thought it was good preventive medicine, she said. She reasoned that it empowered women and decreased the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions.
Then, Sorra said, she realized she was wrong.
In her practice, she noticed unmarried women feeling obligated to have sex. One woman told her she had no reason to say no. Another asked for a total STD screen because she didn’t trust the man she was sleeping with.
“I thought it (contraception) would help women take control of their body, but it just enslaves us in a different way,” she said. “I see this all the time. Women have so much sex because of birth control … They have the freedom to have sex, but they have sex that is incredibly unfulfilling. Women feel incredibly lonely and used and unloved.”
Her other assumptions, that contraception mitigated abortion and unintended pregnancy, weren’t supported by statistics. The rate of unintended pregnancies and abortions has increased since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill in 1960, she said.
Sorra stopped prescribing contraception, and has since incorporated the Creighton Model of natural family planning, a church-approved method that helps couples achieve or avoid pregnancy. She brought her practice to St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore last year.
Sorra shared her perspective as part of a panel on contraception held May 20 at St. John Neumann, a church of St. Mary’s Parish in Annapolis. Gloria Purvis, a pro-life advocate in Washington, D.C., and Father Larry Swink, pastor of Jesus the Divine Word in Huntingtown, Md., also sat on the panel.
Titled “Sex, the Pill and Your Health: Can the Church Be Right?,” the panel was moderated by Ginny Dauses, St. Mary’s High School campus minister.
The panelists each gave a 15-minute presentation before taking audience questions for an hour. Together, the trio focused on contraception’s cultural, moral and medical consequences.
Purvis focused on the “war on women” in which the Catholic Church has been accused of participating because of its stance on contraception and abortion. She countered that the real “war” on women is society’s message that women have to render sterile their healthy bodies to achieve freedom.
Sex is intended to be for “babies and bonding” within marriage, she said. When sex’s purpose is reduced to only pleasure, it conveys the message to women that something is wrong with them because they can bear a child.
“It pits a woman against herself,” Purvis said.
In distorting the nature of a woman, it also distorts the image of God, in which woman was made, Purvis said.
Sex isn’t just good, it’s holy, because it’s God’s way of bringing forth new life, she said.
The Catholic Church is the only denomination that now opposes contraception, but it’s a stance that all Christians once shared, dating back to the early church, Father Swink said. The teaching is rooted in natural law, and it is a teaching where the church will not pivot, he said.
Contraception use among Catholics, however, is ubiquitous, he said.
In the 1960s, some Catholics expected the Catholic Church to change its position, but Pope Paul VI – whom Pope Francis plans to beatify in October – issued “Humane Vitae” in 1968, affirming the church’s teaching on contraception’s immorality. The encyclical included four consequences if the use of contraception became widespread, which many consider prophetic: greater marital infidelity, a “general lowering of morality,” decreased respect for women and, in some countries, governmental imposition of contraception.
It’s also led to a culture hostile to having children and large families, Father Swink said.
Pope St. John Paul II further expounded on God’s vision for sex and marriage in a series of talks that have become known as the Theology of the Body.
“When we live these (the church’s) teachings, the world is a much more beautiful place,” Father Swink said.
The church permits the use of natural family planning, or NFP, which relies on the tracking of a woman’s fertility cycle. Studies show NFP can be as effective for avoiding pregnancy as contraception, even for women who are postpartum, perimenopausal or have generally irregular cycles, Sorra said.
NFP can also be an effective means to overcoming infertility and help women avoid the risk of side effects associated with various forms of contraception, she said.
The trio fielded questions ranging from the morality of using contraceptives to treat health issues, to concerns about overpopulation and the promotion of contraception to low-income populations.
Purvis, who is black, took particular issue with the widespread belief that poor minority women benefit from using contraceptives, calling the attitude “fake sympathy.”
“It’s really more about our unwillingness to be charitable,” she said, adding that people would rather a woman not be a mother than make sacrifices to help her. “What you’re really saying is she (a poor woman) is unworthy of having a child.”
In her closing remarks, Sorra acknowledged that church teaching on contraception is hard.
“If you have doubts and are confused, it’s OK. I still have doubts and I’m still confused,” she said. “Continue to seek God as he speaks to your heart, and really open your heart to what he’s trying to tell you.”
About 120 people from at least 24 parishes attended the event, said St. Mary parishioner Laura Jones, who organized the panel with her husband, Tom.
She hoped the audience gained a better understanding of church teaching and the effectiveness of natural family planning.
“If people don’t know their faith, if they don’t love their faith, they won’t fight for it,” she said.
The Jones organized the event in response to the U.S. Health and Human Services’ mandate requiring employers, including most religious employers, to provide insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore is among Catholic institutions suing the federal government over the measure on the grounds that it violates religious freedom.
The panel discussion was the third event related to religious freedom the Joneses have organized. They hope to hold another in August.