Calling George Bailey
Every Christmastide we are obliged to see the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet we often forget the ordeal the main character George Bailey had to endure before coming to that titled conclusion. For much of the film, life is harsh, mean, sinister, apparently random, and barely worth living. Things haven’t changed much since then, and we might say that they are decidedly worse in one important sense. Rather than Clarence, the bumbling, good-natured angel who grants George Bailey’s wish never to have been born, our culture has called on another sort of spirit to accomplish the same for many millions more.
I speak of contraception.
Let’s cease speaking for a moment of contraception in polite, clinical or theological terms. To me, it’s personal, and it should be personal to you as well. Look to the right of you, look to the left of you, look all around. Imagine all the people who might be there. That’s contraception at work. Sure, when you’re stuck in traffic, jammed in a subway car, or waiting in line at the DMV, you may not lament the loss. But think of your own family. Perhaps there’s a brother or sister missing. Or a child you never had. Maybe you’re not supposed to be alone right now, with no kin to call, visit, or care for you. Perhaps the soulmate who would have been your spouse was never born.
This is the ultimate argument from absence, and I realize that it may seem weak to our inner logician. Can you assert anything about what’s not there? “Nothing” cannot hold a place in the syllogism of your life. But I’m not talking of two-column proofs. I’m talking of haunting. We should be haunted by the absence of persons who might have been, who would have been, who should have been, but are not. Haunted by their hinted presence, as expressed chillingly in these lines by the poet William Hughes Mearns:
Yesterday, upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away.
There are multiple millions of such figures who will not go away, hiding at the end of hallways we never entered, behind doors we failed to open, or hanging over the sterile sheets of barren marital beds. We know it; we know it in our bones, in our flesh, in our inner organs, if you will, that not only is there so much more to life than what we see, there are so many more souls that should have been. We know also that this absence in our lives and in the world is due ultimately to a lack of love.
This is not a new insight. It’s what George Bailey’s experience is all about. He gets to see what the world would be like if he’d not been born, how the people he knows would suffer from not having known him. If someone could make It’s a Wonderful Life on the theme of contraception, the practice would be gone in a generation. Or not. Maybe we are so cold-hearted and selfish that we would forsake the birth of a million George Baileys so to live in a dark, soulless, outwardly prosperous yet tinselly brittle Pottersville. We’d never know the loss of what was not. But what if we could pierce the veil of the small pleasures and questionable comforts of our contraceptive culture, and see with George Bailey the eternal value of one simple life?
Yes, I’m coming close to heresy in some pro-life circles: relating contraception to abortion. After all, what if and what might have been are arguments we use against abortion. The researcher who would cure cancer, the first woman president, the inventor who would save the world—they may all have been aborted. It’s an appeal to emotion, to imagination, to hope, and ultimately to love—a powerful appeal that adds personality to the basic scientific facts of conception and prenatal development. But move the focus from the time of conception to the act of contraception and you risk conflating the latter with the infinitely more heinous act of abortion, confusing preventing life with killing it.
I understand. Yet in some way, the two are related, as even our Supreme Court has affirmed. People will seek abortion when contraception fails. It’s part of the mindset that is the foundation of our culture of death. If a child is not wanted, he or she has no right to life, and contraception is the first rejection.
But contraception is a wrong not just because it is the seedbed of abortion. In itself, it is the destruction of love and of everything else that holds us together as a people. Divorce and family breakup: contraception. Confusion in relationships: contraception. Fear of the other: contraception. Cancel culture: contraception. Lack of compassion: contraception. Loss of identity: contraception. Societal decline: contraception. The remedy to almost every problem in our society is this: a willingness to accept others and work for their good, despite suffering or setback to myself. Yet contraception undermines the willingness to sacrifice and sows fear of what we can’t control.
I know the effectiveness of positive messaging when selling something, but to stop something, a little negative advertising might work. We need to show, in this Twitter age, that what you think is good for you is really bad. Not healthy but harmful. If #contraceptionsucks is too crude, try #contraceptivesick. This hashtag may attract attention, especially since the word “sick” has a double meaning for millennials: the regular meaning of “ill” and the slang meaning of “cool or awesome.” Someone seeing #contraceptivesick on social media may not know if it’s for or against, and be intrigued enough to find out the true meaning of the message.
That’s my small contribution to ending contraception, as we await the birth of a new George Bailey.