Sex, lies and schnitzel

wiener-schnitzel02One of the journalism terms we use on this site is the “hook.” Like it sounds, it’s that thing in the lede of a story that snags reader/viewer/listener attention. There is so much news and information competing for attention that news consumers need a reason to stop and read or watch or listen to your story.

If you want to catch their attention, a hook — some new angle, fresh piece of information or area of common ground — is the way to go.

This story — about how confession varies among major religions — has no hook. I have no idea why it ran now and not, well, 400 years ago. Here’s the lede:

“Confession is good for the soul,” says a Scottish proverb from the mid-1600s. Most religions would agree. Verses from the Torah, the Bible and the Quran speak of the importance of confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness from a God who is merciful.

With all of the many sin, confession and forgiveness angles in the news each and every day, it’s a shame a story about a very interesting topic couldn’t have a fresher lede.

But sometimes you have a hook — a really, really good hook for discussing hot-button issues — and no story. And yet that’s exactly what happened this past week with the revelation that one of the inventors of the pill denounced his own invention. It’s been all over the blogosphere and I have yet to find much of any mainstream media attention to this story. Here’s a bit from the Guardian, which covered the story and its reaction in the Vatican:

Roman Catholic leaders have pounced on a “confession” by one of the inventors of the birth control pill who has said the contraceptive he helped create was responsible for a “demographic catastrophe”. . . .

The assault began with a personal commentary in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard by 85-year-old Carl Djerassi. The Austrian chemist was one of three whose formulation of the synthetic progestogen Norethisterone marked a key step towards the earliest oral contraceptive pill.

Djerassi outlined the “horror scenario” that occurred because of the population imbalance, for which his invention was partly to blame. He said that in most of Europe there was now “no connection at all between sexuality and reproduction”. He said: “This divide in Catholic Austria, a country which has on average 1.4 children per family, is now complete.”

He described families who had decided against reproduction as “wanting to enjoy their schnitzels while leaving the rest of the world to get on with it”.

The fall in the birth rate, he said, was an “epidemic” far worse – but given less attention – than obesity. . . .

The head of Austria’s Catholics, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, told an interviewer that the Vatican had forecast 40 years ago that the pill would lead to a dramatic fall in the birth rate in the west. “Somebody above suspicion like Carl Djerassi … is saying that each family has to produce three children to maintain population levels, but we’re far away from that.”

Schonborn told Austrian TV that when he first read Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical condemning artificial contraception he viewed it negatively as a “cold shower”. But he said he had altered his views as, over time, it had proved “prophetic”.

So the story goes out of its way to avoid neutral language in describing Djerassi’s views. But at least they printed them! That’s more than can be said of any American media outlet, near as I can tell.

Djerassi is a professor at Stanford and longtime resident of the United States. He was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Nixon for his work on The Pill. U.S. media tend to be a bit American-centric (just check out the Religious Newswriters Association list of top 10 stories of 2008) — but just because this story broke in Austria is no reason to ignore it here. And no matter where Djerassi dropped his bombshell allegation or where he lives, how many millions of women here in the United States have used oral contraceptives and might be interested in something their creator has to say about its unintended consequences?

There’s just no news justification for obscuring this story.

Remember a few months back when the media highlighted every story of every conservative or even right-leaning person who had decided to support then-Presidential nominee Barack Obama? Well, they did that because it makes for a great story. In the same way, when one of the inventors of oral contraception denounces its effects, that’s what we call news. What should have happened is for journalists to run stories with just the news, then to run stories that use that hook to explore more substantive issues. Demographic issues in Europe and the rest of the world, the change in the relationship between sex and procreation, the unintended consequences of inventions, etc.

There are many interesting places to go with this story. But it’s kind of hard to go anywhere when we don’t even get the initial news.

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  • Dan Crawford

    Of course, there is justification for ignoring this story. Who wants to know the consequences of one’s behavior? We live in a Planned Parenthood culture, one that is death-obsessed and anti-children. No great surprise that the story is either ignored or killed.

  • Dave

    Perhaps the story — and it is a story worth reporting — got glossed over in America because our population is still growing.

  • Pingback: One inventor of the pill ‘confesses’ « BaptistPlanet

  • Stoo

    To echo Dave; Austria is I believe one of those western nations with a falling population. But the US and UK aren’t – as far as looming Dooms go, running out of people really isn’t on the radar. (and it isn’t for the world overall either)

    That’s not to say this isn’t newsworthy – but it’s not really headline material either

  • Jay


    This should be news under the “man bites dog” story. But it isn’t, because it doesn’t fit the template: conservatives who support liberal positions (i.e. those of the MSM) are enlightened, but liberals who support conservative positions are Neanderthals.

    I imagine you’d find the same (lack of) coverage for the parallel remorse of Norma McCorvey.

    To Dave and Stoo: US Population is growing through immigration, not through net added births by American-born parents.

  • liberty

    I recall reading that some feminist quipped ‘If woman were priests the pill would be a sacrament’.

    It seems that somehow the pill has actually become a sacrament of the prevailing secular culture. Part of that means that never will a news story against it get wide play. When was the last time your read a story about negative effects from the pill such as estrogen in the water supply?

    No matter that as the inventor of the pill Djerassi might have something important to say on the subject… as long as what he is saying is the wrong thing… it won’t be covered.

  • Joe

    Is everything said in the Austrian press about Austria news, or only those things related to the US.culture war?

  • Maureen

    But this is old news. One of the American inventors (a Catholic, who had assumed the pill would only be used for hormone therapy and menstrual cycle problems) has long inveighed against its use as contraception. This is just some other inventor guy joining him.

  • Tom Heneghan

    Mainstream media (apart from the Guardian) didn’t run this “confession” story because it has a fatal flaw — Djerassi never confessed to anything! His article in the Vienna daily Der Standard on Dec. 21, which is presented as the source for this, is a commentary on how short-sighted xenophobic right-wing parties in Austria are because the country will need immigrants due to its low birth rate. While he does call this a “demographic catastrophe” and does talk about a “horror scenario,” he never mentions the pill as the reason for this. The only reference to the pill is in the short bio blurb at the end of the article, which the newspaper probably wrote anyway. So no confession, no confession story.

  • Hector

    Chaucer disowned the Canterbury tales, that doesn’t mean that the Canterbury Tales is not worth reading.

    It’s not clear to me how much of this story is Djerassi’s actual quotation, and how much is Catholic commenters interpreting what he said. It’s also not clear to me whether on balance, Djerassi regrets inventing the hormone, or whether he thinks that in spite of its many bad effects, it was still the right thing to do.

    Yes, contraception can be used for bad reasons as well as good ones. Most obviously, it can be used to facilitate prostitution or one night stands, as much as it can be used in the context of healthy relationships. And, yes, it can be used to facilitate lazy and selfish people who can’t be bothered to produce the next generation. Cars can be used for good purposes or bad, as well. What should be mentioned is that the Pill, while presenting us with the catastrophe of declining populations in Europe, has also saved us from the potentially even greater disaster of overpopulation. It is still a threat in Africa and the Middle East, and would be a threat in many other places if it wasnt for effective birth control.

    I would suggest that if Austrians want to increase their population (which they should) it would make more sense to ban abortion than to try to get rid of contraception. That would increase the birth rate to above replacement, but it wouldn’t increase it back to African levels (which would be, in the long run, ecologically unsustainable).

    Relatively few women in Poland use contraception (the method of choice there is NFP) but their birth rate is almost as low as Austria. Conversely, Brazil and Argentina have birth rates at just about replacement level, with widespread use of chemical contraception. the issue is the purposes and motivations why people abuse the pill, not the technology that they use.

  • Mollie


    Really? In what context was the discussion of the separation of sex and procreation?

  • Tom Heneghan

    Mollie, this op-ed piece is about immigration and xenophobic politics in Austria, not contraception. Djerassi says he wants to wake up Austrians who voted for anti-immigration parties in the September 2008 general election (where the far right surged) to the demographic challenge the country faces. The discussion of the low birth rate is part of an article that also discusses Germany’s demographic situation, U.S. immigration policy and suggestions that Vienna subsidize German lessons in India, Brazil and Nigeria (“mostly its Catholic areas,” he says) to better prepare educated young people to come to Austria. He says that Austria and Germany, “like most European countries, are suffering from a serious illness, the rapid aging of the population.” But he never says how they got there.

    It’s too long to translate in full but the first three paras give an idea of where it’s going:

    “The results of the last Austrian elections brought great successes for parties that are oriented against foreigners. Even if the growing support for these parties cannot be based only on xenophobic motives, the strengthening of these tendencies has surprised me very much — not only for moral reasons, but also because they are evidence of a stupid outlook. Apparently almost 30 percent of the residents of this country have been educated in schools that teach nothing about the demographic situation in today’s world.

    “These Austrians are still under the illusion that their small country doesn’t lie in the middle of Europe but on an island where the dear Lord lets them live and enjoy their schnitzels independently of the rest of the world. It’s even more shocking when you see that the majority of those who vote for xenophobic parties is under 30. My comments here should help wake these people up.

    “I would like to start with the realistic fact that in the future, there will be no connection at all between sexuality and reproduction. In Catholic Austria, a country with an average of 1.4 children per family, this split has basically already been completed. Most Austrians enjoy sexual intercourse without having children or wanting to have them.”

    He then launches into a comparison with the situation in Germany. The “demographic catastrophe” comment comes almost as an afterthought in a paragraph lower down that is, again, about immigration:

    “East European countries, which of course could deliver immigrants with the best cultural adaptability, have just as few children as the Germans and Austrians and can hardly contribute to a solution for the demographic catastrophe.”

    After praising U.S. immigration policies for attracting so many intelligent foreigners and keeping the population growing, he ends as follows:

    “As an American from Vienna, or an American Viennese, I consider it my duty to make clear these rarely mentioned implications of the last election.”

  • Tom Heneghan

    Correction: There’s a typo in my first comment. The Djerassi op-ed is in the Dec. 12 issue of Der Standard, not the 21st.

  • Dave

    Jay (#5) wrote:

    US Population is growing through immigration, not through net added births by American-born parents.

    So what? That means that the US is not running out of people, despite our freedom to embrace whatever reproduction level suits us as individuals. Thus the pill as a demographic monster is not a story here.

    There is a story in the fact that immigration is hastening the day when there will no longer be a white majority in the US. But that’s not a demographic disaster (to most of us), just a demographic fact.