THE OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY: Unintended Consequences – Kudzu, Digital Billboards, and the Birth Control Pill

Do you remember the silly children’s song about the old lady who swallowed the fly?  The poor, misguided woman tried again and again to rid herself of her problem, by swallowing bigger and bigger things—a spider, a bird, a cat, a dog, a goat, a cow, and finally a horse—and she’s dead, of course!

The law of unintended consequences, popularized in the 20th century by American sociologist Robert Merton, is like that.  Someone does something, no doubt with the best of intentions, but the plan blows up in his face because he fails to imagine all the things that could go wrong.

THE KUDZU LESSON – In the Southeastern United States, kudzu is a case in point.  Kudzu (genus Pueraria lobata)was brought to the U.S. from Japan in 1876 as an ornamental plant and later used to prevent soil erosion; but without its natural enemies, it has grown like the man-eating plant in the 1960 cult film “Little Shop of Horrors.”  Growing as much as a foot a day, kudzu was declared a weed in 1971 when officials recognized the vines’ propensity for overtaking parklands, climbing telephone poles, all but obliterating fences, and smothering all in their range.

DIGITAL BILLBOARDS - Another, more recent threat to the American landscape would seem to be that newest example of technological highway blight, the digital billboard.  You’d think we’d have learned back in the ‘60s, when the Highway Beautification Act was signed into law.  By the mid-60s, when the government belatedly realized that we had a problem, unregulated billboards had usurped the view along most of America’s roads, vying for drivers’ attention, both a safety hazard and a blight.

But regulation is most frequently done after the fact—Who would have guessed, for example, that road warriors with pulsating boom boxes in the rear would also install custom purple fluorescent lights beneath their vans, shining downward onto the road, wreaking havoc for the other drivers?

The newfangled digital billboards seem to me to be destined for after-the-fact regulation.  The primary objective of the flashing, pulsing, gyrating signs, of course, is to cause drivers to look away from the road; and it’s only a matter of time until the incidence of accidents near these neon hazards brings about increased regulation.  Problem is, the billboards are so darned expensive, and banning them will mean major financial hardship for sign companies and advertisers alike.

THE BIRTH CONTROL PILL – The last example of technology-run-amok for today is that bulwark of American social freedom, the oral contraceptive.  Approved by the FDA in the early 1960s, “the Pill” was far more effective than most previous methods of birth control.  With its use, women had unprecedented control over their fertility.  Soon after the birth control pill was legalized, there was a sharp increase in college attendance and graduation rates for women.  The ability to control fertility without sacrificing sexual relationships allowed women to make long term educational and career plans.

But not all news was good news.  The Pill had an enormous impact on the individual and on society as a whole:

  • Moral Consequences – Pre-marital Sex and Promiscuity. Never before had sexual activity been so divorced from reproduction. For a couple using the Pill, intercourse became purely an expression of love, or a means of physical pleasure, or both; but it was no longer a means of reproduction.  “If it feels good, do it” became the mantra of the tumultous sexual revolution.  The spread of oral contraceptive use thus led many religious figures and institutions to debate the proper role of sexuality and its relationship to procreation. The Roman Catholic Church in particular, after studying the phenomenon of oral contraceptives, re-emphasized the stated teaching on birth control in the 1968 papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (On the Regulation of Birth).    The encyclical reiterated the established Catholic teaching that artificial contraception distorts the nature and purpose of sex.
  • Ethical Consequences – The Pill as Abortifacient – If you’re pro-life, as I am, you believe that deliberately killing a child in the womb is a grave wrong.  But one of the ways that the birth control pill works is just that:  If a woman happens to conceive while taking contraceptive pills, the uterine wall will not soften sufficiently to enable the embryo to implant; and the fertilized ovum, or embryo, is simply passed off in the woman’s menstrual cycle.  In effect, an early-term abortion has taken place.
  • Health Consequences – Link to Breast Cancer. As the Pill was increasingly the method of choice for women choosing to delay or avoid pregnancy, researchers began to identify a problem:  women who used chemical contraceptives began to show higher than average rates of breast cancer, and possibly increases in other cancers, as well.  Whereas feminists had originally hailed the Pill as an “equalizer” that had given them the same sexual freedom as men had traditionally enjoyed, this new development caused many of them to denounce oral contraceptives as a male invention designed to facilitate male sexual freedom with women at the cost of health risk to women.
  • Environmental Consequences – Where Are the Macho Fish? In our environmentally-conscious society, it is perhaps this last complex of problems that will have the greatest impact on consumer attitudes toward the Pill.  That tiny little pill ingested by a contracepting woman (or the hormones absorbed from a contraceptive patch), won’t just “disappear”—of course, if you think about it, What Goes In Must Come Out.  The woman excretes estrogen and other hormones in her urine and feces. These hormones, flushed down the toilet, can pass through water treatment plants and into rivers, where they are ingested by fish and wildlife.  The frightening result is more female fish than male, and congenital abnormalities and sterility among male fish and other animals.  Like the canary in the mine, these genetically impacted fish in contaminated waters sound an alarm to environmentalists.
  • Social Consequences – Do You Love Me? In the days before the oral contraceptive, a couple understood their fertility to be an integral part of their identity.  Reaching that depth of love in which the man and woman choose to devote their lives to one another, they decide to marry.  With confidence in the spouse’s life-long love and commitment, the woman freely enters into one-flesh union with her beloved; and should God choose, this physical symbol of love and unity may result in the ultimate gift of self:  the embodiment of love in the creation of another person.  Lacking this depth of commitment, a woman may engage in sex just to “hold onto” the man, or simply for physical pleasure (we call that type of coupling “lust”).  But we are created for love; and always there will be that nagging hope:  Does he love me?

For further reading:  A Study Guide to Humanae Vitae.

  • Kathy Schiffer

    William, Absolutely! Would appreciate the link back, if you don’t mind. I’m not sure what you found helpful, but Priests For Life has lots of useful info, and I’m guess the National Catholic Bioethics Center ( would be helpful, too.