Statement on the Government and Birth Control

National Conference of Catholic Bishops1


November 14, 1966

1. The good of the individual person and that of human society are intimately bound up with the stability of the family. Basic to the well-being of the family is freedom from external coercion in order that it may determine its own destiny.

2. This freedom involves inherent personal and family rights, including the freedom and responsibility of spouses to make conscientious decisions in terms of nuptial love, determination of family size, and the rearing of children. The Church and the State must play supportive roles, fostering conditions in modern society which will help the family achieve the fullness of its life and mission as the means ordained by God for bringing the person into being and maturity.

3. We address ourselves here to certain questions of concern to the family, with special reference to public policies related to social conditions and the problems of our times.

4. In so doing, we speak in the light of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World adopted by Vatican Council II. Faced with our Government's stepped-up intervention in family planning, including the subsidizing of contraceptive programs at home and abroad, we feel bound in conscience to recall particularly the solemn warning expressed in these words:

5. "…[There] are many today who maintain that the increase in world population, or at least the population increase in some countries, must be radically curbed by every means possible and by any kind of intervention on the part of public authority. In view of this contention, the Council urges everyone to guard against solutions, whether publicly or privately supported, or at times even imposed, which are contrary to the moral law. For in keeping with man's inalienable right to marry and generate children, the decision concerning the number of children they will have depends on the correct judgment of the parents and it can in no way be left to the judgment of public authority" (Church in the Modern World, Section 2, No. 87).

6. Therefore, a major preoccupation in our present statement must be with the freedom of spouses to determine the size of their families. It is necessary to underscore this freedom, because in some current efforts of government—federal and state—to reduce poverty, we see welfare programs increasingly proposed which include threats to the free choice of spouses. Just as freedom is undermined when poverty and disease are present, so too is freedom endangered when persons or agencies outside the family unit, particularly persons who control welfare benefits or represent public authority, presume to influence the decision as to the number of children or the frequency of births in a family.

7. Free decision is curtailed when spouses feel constrained to choose birth limitation because of poverty, inadequate and inhuman housing, or lack of proper medical services. Here we insist that it is the positive duty of government to help bring about those conditions of family freedom which will receive spouses from such material and physical pressures to limit family size.

8. Government promotion of family planning programs as part of tax-supported relief projects may easily result in the temptation and finally the tragic decision to reduce efforts to foster the economic, social, and indeed moral reforms needed to build the free, enlightened society.

9. In connection with present and proposed governmental family limitation programs, there is frequently the implication that freedom is assured so long as spouses are left at liberty to choose among different methods of birth control. This we reject as a narrow concept of freedom. Birth control is not a universal obligation, as is often implied; moreover, true freedom of choice must provide even for those who wish to raise a larger family without being subject to criticism and without forfeiting for themselves the benefits or for their children the educational opportunities which have become part of the value system of a truly free society. We reject, most emphatically, the suggestion that any family should be adjudged too poor to have the children it conscientiously desires.

10. The freedom of spouses to determine the size of their families must not be inhibited by any conditions upon which relief or welfare assistance is provided. Health and welfare assistance should not be linked, even indirectly, to conformity with a public agency's views on family limitation or birth control; nor may the right to found a large family be brought properly into question because it contradicts current standards arbitrarily deduced from general population statistics. No government social worker or other representative of public power should in any way be permitted to impose his judgment, in a matter so close to personal values and to the very sources of life, upon the family seeking assistance; neither should he be permitted to initiate suggestions placing, even by implication, public authority behind the recommendation that new life in a family should be prevented.

11. For these reasons, we have consistently urged and we continue to urge, as a matter of sound public policy, a clear and unqualified separation of welfare assistance from birth control considerations—whatever the legality or morality of contraception in general or in specific forms—in order to safeguard the freedom of the person and the autonomy of the family.

12. On previous occasions we have warned of dangers to the right of privacy posed by governmental birth control programs; we have urged upon government a role of neutrality whereby it neither penalizes nor promotes birth control. Recent developments, however, show government rapidly abandoning any such role. Far from merely seeking to provide information in response to requests from the needy, government activities increasingly seek aggressively to persuade and even coerce the underprivileged to practice birth control. In this, government far exceeds its proper role. The citizen's right to decide without pressure is now threatened. Intimate details of personal, marital, and family life are suddenly becoming the province of government officials in programs of assistance to the poor. We decry this overreaching by government and assert again the inviolability of the right of human privacy.

13. We support all needed research toward medically and morally acceptable methods which can assist spouses to make responsible and generous decisions in seeking to cooperate with the will of God in what pertains to family size and well-being. A responsible decision will always be one which is open to life rather than intent upon the prevention of life; among religious people, it includes a strong sense of dependence upon God's Providence.

14. It should be obvious that a full understanding of human worth, personal and social, will not permit the nation to put the public power behind the pressures for a contraceptive way of life. We urge government, at all levels, to resist pressures toward any merely mathematical and negative effort to solve health or population problems. We call upon all—and especially Catholics—to oppose, vigorously and by every democratic means, those campaigns already underway in some states and at the national level toward the active promotion, by tax-supported agencies, of birth prevention as a public policy, above all in connection with welfare benefit programs. History has shown that as a people lose respect for any life and a positive and generous attitude toward new life, they move fatally to inhuman infanticide, abortion, sterilization, and euthanasia; we fear that history is, in fact, repeating itself on this point within our own land at the moment.

15. Our government has a laudable history of dedication to the cause of freedom. In the service of this cause it is currently embarked upon a massive, unprecedented program of aid to underdeveloped nations. Through imaginative and constructive efforts, it shows itself willing to do battle with the enemies of freedom, notably poverty and ignorance. We gladly encourage our government to press this struggle with all the resources at its disposal and pledge our cooperation in all the ways in which we or those responsive to our leadership can be of assistance. Our nation's duty to assist underdeveloped countries flows from the Divine Law that the goods of the earth are destined for the well-being of all the human race.

16. In the international field, as in the domestic field, financial assistance must not be linked to policies which pressure for birth limitation. We applaud food supply programs of foreign aid which condition our cooperation on evidence that the nations benefited pledge themselves to develop their own resources; we deplore any linking of aid by food or money to conditions, overt or oblique, involving prevention of new life. Our country is not at liberty to impose its judgment upon another, either as to the growth of the latter or as to the size of its families.

17. Insofar as it does so, our country is being cast in the role of a foreign power using its instrumentalities to transgress intimate mores and alter the moral cultures of other nations rather than in the historic American role of offering constructive, unselfish assistance to peoples in need. Indeed, we are aware of existing apprehension in the minds of many of the peoples of the world that the United States, in its own great affluence, is attempting, by seeking to limit their populations, to avoid its moral responsibility to help other peoples help themselves precisely that they may grow in healthy life, generous love and in all the goods which presuppose and enrich both life and love.

18. Programs inhibiting new life, above all when linked to offers of desperately needed aid, are bound to create eventual resentment in any upon whom we even seem to impose them and will ultimately be gravely detrimental to the image, the moral prestige, and the basic interests of the United States.

19. Obviously, therefore, international programs of aid should not be conditioned upon acceptance of birth control programs by beneficiary nations. Equally obvious, however, should be the fact that, in the practical administration of overseas assistance, neither direct nor indirect pressures should be exerted by our personnel to affect the choice of spouses as to the number of children in their family. In the international field, as in the domestic field, both our government in its policy and our American representatives in their work should strive above all to bring those economic and social advances which will make possible for spouses conscientious family planning without resort to contraceptive procedures fostered among them by controversial policies backed by American political power and financial aid.

20. Sobering lessons of history clearly teach that only those nations remain stable and vigorous whose citizens have and are encouraged to keep high regard for the sanctity and autonomy of family life among themselves and among the peoples who depend in any way upon them. Let our political leaders be on guard that the common good suffer no evil from public policies which tamper with the instincts of love and the sources of life.

1Because the documents of Vatican II were issued in 1965, the American bishops decided not to issue their own Pastoral that year. At the November 14-18, 1966, meeting, the National Welfare Conference, which had served as the general secretariat of the American Bishops since 1919, was reorganized as the United States Catholic Conference, and the Bishops' organization was restructured as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Since the formation of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1966, their Statements have not been signed. Where the title would not make the subject completely clear, an introductory sentence was usually used by the bishops to explain the topic. This original format is followed in this volume.