08/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

40 Years Later, an "Infallible" Ban on Modern Birth Control

The pill, the pill,
I'm pining for the pill.
I'll never have any more
Because they're going to bless the pill.

That's the chorus of a song Scottish folksinger Matt McGinn wrote in 1968 after meeting a mother of 22 who wanted to try the pill. That July, advisors to Pope Paul VI reportedly urged reversal of longstanding Catholic Church opposition to the use of artificial contraception by married couples. Instead, 40 years ago today [July 25, 2008], Paul issued the encyclical known as Humanae Vitae.

The document banned "any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation." Paul locked a door already closed to sexual expression free of the risk of pregnancy. Then, in claiming papal infallibility for the statement, he threw away the key.

Using birth control nonetheless remains a common sin, rarely confessed. Catholic parents are as likely as anyone else to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Indeed, some of the countries with the smallest family sizes in the world are those in which most people consider themselves Catholic. Take Spain and Italy. And if average family size -- Catholic families included -- hadn't fallen from 4.9 children in 1968 to 2.6 today, world population would have been some 1.8 billion higher than it is today. Millions more women would have died in childbirth.

Though it doesn't guide the behavior of many Catholic parents, the Church's policy paradoxically has made it harder for people of every faith to use safe and effective contraception, especially if they are young, unmarried, and poor. Governments even of countries with religiously diverse populations are often loath to risk the wrath of the Vatican or national Church leaders. Policies on reproductive health, or the lack of them, reflect this fear.

In the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo denies anything but natural family planning methods to low-income citizens interested in preventing pregnancy -- even though she concedes she used modern birth control to plan her own family. On the world stage, delegates to United Nations conferences no longer talk about population and reproductive health, wearied by the Vatican's talent for turning such conversations into diplomatic dust-ups over abortion and non-marital sex.

Such silence has consequences. Each year 76 million unplanned pregnancies occur worldwide because women or their partners lack access to modern contraception or counseling on how to use it effectively. Unplanned pregnancy is a critical factor not only in the ongoing growth of world population but in the 46 million abortions and the 529,000 maternal deaths that occur each year. The whole world, Catholic and non-, would be better served if today's Church hierarchy would find some way to undo the damage inflicted in Humanae Vitae.

Robert Engelman is vice president for programs at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. His book More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, is published by Island Press.