When Mary Eberstadt first published Adam and Eve After the Pill: The Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution in 2012, she cast a critical eye on reproductive dynamics in the post-liberation world, offering a contrarian message about the large-scale consequences of a mass-produced contraceptive device, the birth-control pill, that would enable couples to blithely separate sexual activity from its natural procreative end. Many weren’t ready to hear what she had to say.
That was then. A lot has changed in the decade since. As Eberstadt acknowledges in the book’s updated version, Adam and Eve After the Pill, Revisited, the social unrest of the last 10 years has primed a rising skepticism of liberation’s false fruits, sometimes among the most unlikely sources.
I should start by saying I was reading Adam and Eve After the Pill, Revisited at the same time I was rereading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the 2006 novel about a father’s tortured mission to protect his son in a post-apocalypse inhospitable to the most vulnerable. My reading of the two colored each other. And so, I was struck, like others, by Eberstadt’s discourse on the "fury of the fatherless," which draws a connection between a pill that enables would-be fathers to abdicate their responsibilities and a raging fatherless generation that turns to identity politics and activism to foster a false sense of kinship that a traditional family, in a bygone era, would have otherwise provided. This is in stark contrast to the selfless father in The Road, who tirelessly wills the good for his child, in the most brutal circumstances.
Let’s unpack that. The arc of one of Eberstadt’s primary arguments goes something like this: The innovation of the pill has undermined the natural law that conception is the co-creative end of sex, instead suggesting it’s a result more of the woman’s agency, insofar as she has the option to take the pill or not. It also enables women to delay childrearing in favor of career, which amplifies competition in higher education and frustrates hypergamy (marrying up). Both conditions have undermined male agency which, coupled with the government’s willingness to play "super-daddy" by providing welfare to single moms, has exacerbated fatherlessness in America. "Some 40 percent of all children lack a biological father in the home," Eberstadt writes.
Of course, none of this is new to the ultra-religious right. What’s new is the colorful array of examples the past 10 years have provided of the disorder a fatherless society can foster. Eberstadt connects the "fury of the fatherless" to the uptick of violent unrest in America surrounding flash points like the confirmation hearing of Amy Coney Barrett, who defies the idea that childrearing, faith, and career achievement must conflict, or the BLM protests in the summer of 2020. Many of the leading anti-racist activists, themselves, she points out, are wounded products of broken homes.
At the same time, she warns, Christians shouldn’t take for granted that their church will always stand in defiance of the sexual revolution’s permissive ethics. Many haven’t—to their own demise. "The churches that have tried to protect themselves from intolerance by ceding to its demands are dying," Eberstadt warns, alleging that "some will not even exist a hundred years from now." This is part of a larger arc, detailing how Christianity has fallen apart in the last century because of a civil war between two camps: one hoping that the revolution can be accommodated and another "convinced by history that this experiment has been tried over and over and has always failed." She describes the undoing of mainline Protestant churches "over their chronically unsuccessful attempts to build the Church of ‘Nice’"—an aim we see in the news just this month as the Church of England considers gender-neutral pronouns for God.
But it’s not just Protestants. Even Catholicism isn’t safe. Eberstadt documents the "scramble over doctrine in the Catholic Church," driven by advocates who believe Catholic teaching can be reconciled with the faith of secularism, which, she demonstrates, has a fervent religious nature of its own.
That there is perilous division in the Catholic Church is poignantly underscored by the fact that the book’s introduction is written by the late Cardinal George Pell, who died in Rome earlier this year. In the weeks following his death, Vatican journalist Sandro Magister told the Associated Press that Pell had been the author of a controversial memo, written under the pseudonym "Demos," that had circulated among cardinals last year. The document had called the pontificate of Pope Francis "a disaster," pointing out among other complaints that the Holy Father had fueled confusion by elevating voices that flout sexual morality, while engaging in "active persecution" against those who adhere to traditional teaching.
In other words, "Demos"—Cardinal Pell, if Magister is to be believed—accuses Pope Francis of fostering what Eberstadt’s book would call "Christianity Lite," instead of acknowledging that stricter churches are stronger churches.
So, where does this leave us? One of Eberstadt’s central messages is the importance of Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that first inspired her deep-dive into contraceptive culture 10 years ago. Anyone skeptical of post-liberation should challenge themselves to read it, even if they wouldn’t consider themselves religious. As for Christians, they should recover strong adherence to it, recognizing that the "effort to throw out the unwanted bathwater of the sexual code takes the proverbial baby—the rest of Christian practice and belief—along with it."
Another core message is the need for compassion toward the "walking wounded," those injured by the soft biowarfare post-liberation has inflicted (so, all of us, to some degree). Children of divorce, men addicted to pornography, women bruised by hookup culture—these people are in pain, Eberstadt exhorts. But whereas "the rival church of secularism shortchanges mankind," Christianity has answers. "The human race, plodding and delinquent though it may be, perpetually shows signs of wanting more than the church of the new secularism can deliver."
To that end, she includes a beautiful passage about Chartres Cathedral—where Pell was to have offered the traditional Latin Mass this summer with those same "Traditionalists" cited in his memo. She writes that 11th-century Christians in Chartres, having witnessed their town devastated in a fire, were wounded and defeated. But they set to work rebuilding.
"Among the most sublime creations on earth, [the cathedral] is the legacy of men and women in a particular time and place who had witnessed the signature disaster of their era—and who refused to resign themselves to it," Eberstadt writes. "So too will the Church of tomorrow come to be built, not by partisans of the new intolerance, or by people who buckle to censorship or self-censorship; it will instead be laid stone by stone by some of the very people burned in the original fire."
Adam and Eve After the Pill, Revisited
by Mary Eberstadt
Ignatius Press, 199 pp., $19.95
Nora Kenney is director of media relations at the Manhattan Institute.
Published under: Book reviews , Catholic Church , Culture , Family