Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Human Development, Human Capital, and Contraception

Michael S. ponders:

The other day, I read the obituaries of a 21 year old male with three children bearing two different last names and an unrelated 17 year old with six siblings carrying four different last names. (May they rest in peace). As I read, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a connection between the lack of human development (flourishing), the predictions of Paul VI concerning the widespread acceptence of contraceptives, and the complicated family situations of so many people, including these two young people.

Of course, my first thought when reading Michael's post was that, given the number of children/siblings involved in his examples, the problem in these young men's tragically short lives might not have been contraception but rather the lack of it, but his question is a serious one and  deserves more than my snark. 

I think it's very difficult as an empirical matter to attribute the poor showing of the U.S. on the human development front to contraception.  As one MOJ reader correctly observed to me in an email, Europeans consistently do quite well on human development, and their  widespread use of contraception is well noted among defenders of HV.  (Whether Europe's declining population, which is no doubt related to European use of contraception, is really a problem in a world projected to hit 9 billion people shortly and whether the notion of Europe's "demographic suicide" -- to use George Weigel's phrase -- has some  extremely unfortunate eugenecist overtones is a discussion for another day.)  On the other side of the coin, use of contraception in Central America is more limited than in both Europe and the United States, and Central American countries do particularly badly on human development measures.

Rob Vischer's observations in his most recent post are also relevant to Michael's query.  If one reads the social encyclicals during the roughly 70 years before HV, one finds very rich discussions from Rerum Novarum on about the many social and cultural maladies that result from poverty and inequality, including things like the breakdown of the family, the rise of immorality, and spiritual despair.  Unlike the claims made on behalf of contraception, there are actually a number of studies that have found a connection between, for example, economic inequality and failure of the poor to invest in human capital.  I suspect that, if there's a connection between  contraception and the U.S. problem with human development, it is the one Rob's post obliquely highlights -- our poverty policy discussion has, since the 1980s, been dominated by people who are ideologically far more interested in combating the spread of contraception than in investing in the development of the human capital of the sorts of people in Michael's example. 

Personally, I believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the responsible use of contraception within marriage, and that it is usually not appropriate to judge something (whether it be guns, cars, alcohol, or contraception) solely on the basis of its least responsible (or most oppressive) uses.  Nor do I think the evidence remotely supports Eberstadt's view that virtually every sexual, marital or cultural dysfunction that has emerged in Western societies since the 1960s can be attributed to the widespread use of contraception.  Nevertheless, I think I'd be willing to accept our president's current policy of official hostility to contraception (e.g., abstinence-only sex education, etc.) if the trade-off were a serious governmental commitment to human development among the poorest Americans.  Unfortunately, that deal has never been on the table, at least not during my lifetime.


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