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The diet beverage debate and the first over-the-counter birth control pill: The urgency and power of discernment

July 18, 2023 -

A woman crosses her hands in an X as someone offers her a diet soda. The WHO recently declared that the artificial sweetener Aspartame may cause cancer, resulting in diet drink sales plummeting. © By KomootP/

A woman crosses her hands in an X as someone offers her a diet soda. The WHO recently declared that the artificial sweetener Aspartame may cause cancer, resulting in diet drink sales plummeting. © By KomootP/

A woman crosses her hands in an X as someone offers her a diet soda. The WHO recently declared that the artificial sweetener Aspartame may cause cancer, resulting in diet drink sales plummeting. © By KomootP/

Diet drink sales plummeted recently when the World Health Organization declared that they contain an artificial sweetener that causes cancer. Then we learned that a 154-pound person would have to drink more than nine to fourteen cans of diet beverage every day over the course of their life to raise safety concerns. And multiple other studies have reportedly concluded that the sweetener in question is safe as an ingredient.

In other medical news, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the first over-the-counter birth control pill. At first glance, this seems like good news for pro-life supporters: anything that prevents unwanted pregnancies should result in fewer abortions, or so we might think.

However, as with the diet drink controversy, there’s more here than meets the eye. And the implications of this issue go deeper even than the crucial issues it raises.

Thirty-five potential side effects?

The FDA approved the first oral contraceptive on June 23, 1960. Until the FDA’s announcement last week, however, such medications could be dispensed only with a physician’s approval and oversight. Why is this significant?

The over-the-counter drug being approved is called Opill. It contains the hormone progestin, which works by suppressing ovulation and causing changes in the cervix and uterus that decrease the chance of pregnancy. It was first approved by the FDA as a prescription in 1973.

Most women in the US use birth-control pills containing both progestin and estrogen; women on progestin-only pills tend to have more unscheduled bleeding. Some are concerned that users, particularly teenagers, would not know to seek the help of a health care provider in this case.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center “strenuously” opposed the FDA’s decision, stating that a patient should first be medically evaluated for contraindications to the drug as listed by the manufacturer: known or suspected pregnancy; known or suspected carcinoma of the breast; undiagnosed abnormal uterine bleeding; hypersensitivity to any component of the product; benign or malignant liver tumors; and acute liver disease.

The Center also listed thirty-five serious potential side effects from the drug for which consumers should be screened and monitored by health care providers. In their view, making it available without a prescription violates the “do no harm” ethic foundational to medical practice.

The morality of “the Pill”

“The Pill” was a major factor in the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s. For the first time, women could engage in premarital or extramarital sex with less fear of pregnancy.

As I note in The Coming Tsunami, Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl encouraged single women to be sexually active. Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique argued that women are victims of a false belief requiring them to find identity and meaning in their lives through their husbands and children. It is difficult to imagine the popularity of these books and their ideas without the advent of the Pill.

And it is difficult to imagine that making oral contraceptives available without a doctor’s or parent’s consent will not lead to a significant rise in teenage sexual activity as well.

On the other hand, some reports claim that oral contraceptives prevent unwanted pregnancy and thus lead to fewer abortions. For example, one study found that providing free birth control to a specific group of women lowered the abortion rate among them by 62 percent to 78 percent.

However, other research indicates just the opposite, stating that contraceptives often fail to prevent pregnancy. For example, the progestin in Opill is much less effective if taken over three hours later than usual. Using contraceptives has also been found to encourage higher-risk sexual activities.

One ten-year study found that a 63 percent increase in the use of contraceptives was accompanied by a 108 percent increase in the rate of elective abortions. Researchers at Duke, Yale, and the US Centers for Disease Control concluded: “Programs that increase access to contraception are found to decrease teen pregnancies in the short run but increase them in the long run.”

How to “approve what is excellent”

Yesterday we focused on the battle being waged in our culture against a spiritual enemy who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10, my emphasis). Today let’s add the fact that winning this battle depends greatly upon the use of discernment.

As we have seen with the diet beverage and oral contraceptive debates, there’s almost always more to a story than meets the eye. Media outlets typically have their own agendas and reasons for reporting the “news” as they do. And we seldom know today what we will learn tomorrow.

This need for discernment is especially urgent with regard to the spiritual dimensions of our cultural engagement. Satan is “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9), a “liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Consequently, we are warned: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).

How do we do this?

First, seek guidance from your Father: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). Accordingly, pray for our “love [to] abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that [we] may approve what is excellent” (Philippians 1:9–10).

Then “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, my emphasis) so we can “abstain from every form of evil” (v. 22). This discipline is vital because our “powers of discernment” are “trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).

“Reclothe us in our rightful mind”

To be culture-changing Christians, you and I must obviously “distinguish good from evil” before we can help those we influence do the same. To this end, let’s offer this intercession by the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whitter for ourselves and our nation:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

How will you help God answer your prayer today?

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