The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

What Does the Pill Prevent? Marital Permanence?

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Back in the 1960s, when the Pill first became available as an oral contraceptive, progressives anticipated it bringing nothing but good as couples, now in control of the consequences of sex, developed happier and less stressful marriages. These cheery-minded optimists could see nothing but religious obscurantism in Pope Paul VI’s warning that by separating sex from fertility, artificial contraception would actually weaken the marital tie. Fast forward half a century: the progressives look like Panglossian naifs, and the pope looks like a prescient prophet. The bad news that users of oral contraceptives are particularly likely to end up in the divorce court appears in a study recently completed by women’s health scholar Richard J. Fehring of Marquette University.

As Fehring set out to assess the relationship between the use of oral contraception and divorce, he was aware that advocates of Natural Family Planning (NFP) frequently claim that “couples who practice NFP have fewer divorces compared to couples who use contraception.”  But this claim has previously lacked empirical backing. Consequently, Fehring systematically compares divorce levels between couples who practice NFP with those among couples who use oral contraceptives (or use condoms, submit to sterilization, or even resort to an abortion). And because religious commitments often affect the use or avoidance of these various methods of controlling fertility, Fehring also compares divorce risks among regular worshippers with those among the religiously disconnected. His data for these comparisons was collected between 2006 and 2010 from a national sample of 5,530 ever-married women. 

Overall, a clear pattern emerges in the data: “ever having an abortion, sterilization, and/or methods of contraception increased the likelihood of divorce—up to two times.”

More specifically, Fehring calculates an Odds Ratio of 1.73 for divorce among women using oral contraceptives, compared to couples not using such contraceptives. The Odds Ratio for divorce also runs relatively high for women who have submitted to sterilization (1.67), compared to women who have not. And the Odds Ratio for divorce runs higher yet among women who have ever had an abortion (1.88), compared to women who have not. Perhaps surprisingly, the Odds Ratio for divorce runs the highest among women whose husbands used condoms (2.22) compared to women whose husbands did not. 

Fehring draws the inevitable inference: “Contraceptive use, sterilization, and abortion seem to have a destructive effect on the marital bond.”

In contrast, the data reveal that divorce rates run lower among women who use Natural Family Planning or rhythm than among women who do not use such methods of fertility control, though that difference does not reach the threshold for statistical significance. Because divorce rates do run significantly lower among women who attend church frequently than among women who attend seldom or never (p < 0.001), Fehring plausibly conjectures that “there is less divorce among NFP users . . .  due to their religiosity.” Still, Fehring cites an earlier study finding that “among US couples . . . 80 percent of the husbands and 85 percent of the wives felt that using NFP was helpful to their marriage.” Fehring also points to earlier research comparing couples relying on NFP with peers using artificial contraceptives and concluding that “NFP couples reported higher levels of spiritual well-being and intimacy.”

On the other hand, in trying to account for the elevated divorce rates among women reliant upon oral contraceptives, Fehring turns to earlier research uncovering evidence that because “the female brain is a major receptor of the synthetic hormonal steroids found in hormonal contraception . . . birth control pills have structural effects on regions of the brain that govern higher-order cognitive activities, suggesting that a woman on birth control pills may literally not be herself—or is herself, on steroids.” These problematic neurological effects of oral contraceptives may, Fehring reasons, “help explain marital dynamics that lead to divorce.”

Regardless of just what neurochemistry it triggers, the Pill has—contrary to what its progressive champions once promised—helped fill far too many divorce courts.

(Richard J. Fehring, “The Influence of Contraception, Abortion, and Natural Family Planning on Divorce Rates as Found in the 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth,” Linacre Quarterly 82.3 [2015]: 273-82.)