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 

October 5, 2016 (Volume 4: Issue: 34)

The Topic: Birth Control and Marriage

The News Story: World Contraception Day—Saving and Transforming Women’s Lives

The New Research: What Does the Pill Prevent?  Marital Permanence?

The News Story: World Contraception Day—Saving and Transforming Women’s Lives

September 26 was World Contraception Day, and the international media hailed the advances of modern-day hormonal contraception and mourned for those poor women in benighted countries who couldn’t obtain it.

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, writes for the Huffington Post, “Family planning is one of the best investments countries can make for women’s empowerment, gender equality and economic prosperity.” He tells the story of “Melody,” of the Republic of Benin, who had an unplanned child with her partner when she was 18 because she didn’t have adequate access to or information about family planning. She later had an IUD inserted while she and her partner achieved “financial stability,” then had it removed when they were “ready” to start a family. But Dr. Osotimehin warns that worldwide, “some 225 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are not using safe and effective family planning methods,” and that the programs that Melody was able to access are in danger of cuts.

But research reveals that some of the most touted methods of birth control—hormonal contraception, IUDs, and condoms—also seem to be the best at wrecking marriages, and that policymakers would do well to consider such effects before hailing the wonders of contraceptives.

(Source: Babatunde Osotimehin, “World Contraception Day: Saving and transforming women’s lives,” September 27, 2016.)


The New Research: What Does the Pill Prevent?  Marital Permanence?

Back in the Sixties, 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. Now 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 were collected between 2006 and 2020 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 even higher among women whose husbands use condoms (2.22) compared to women whose husbands did not use condoms.

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 such methods of fertility control, though the 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. 

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King, forthcoming in “New Research,” The Natural Family 30.4 [2016]. Study: 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]: 273-282.)