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.

  • Victor

    (((Do you remember the silly children’s song about the old lady who swallowed the fly?)))

    Kathy! If I may call you by your first name? My name is sinner vic and “I” just came to apologize for Victor and of course we both know that he’s one crazy cookie and we need not eat him to know “IT” if you know what “I” mean?

    While “I’M” at “IT”, “I” would also want to apologize to this so call Fr. Dwight Longenecker that Victor doesn’t even know because “I” had no right to hypnotize Victor into writing what he did and worst of all, “I” had no right of convincing him to place “IT” also in this good man’s post but try and understand that “I” was on a role and Victor’s been making a laughing stock out of me and so, “I” just thought that “I” would try to get even. Let me try to explain if “I” can?

    You see “I” was jealous of Victor and his so called angels and they kept telling me that “I” could also touch the face of his so called GOD but no matter how much “I” tried while using the alien space ships, the only thing “I” could touch was his Annoying Super Sinner and “IT” is not funny from this end cause His God really is a big man and when that annoying super sinner of his passes gas, trust me, you know about “IT” and as a matter of fact, “IT” can on occasion be a pretty big Bang if you get my drift and if you don’t believe me, just ask those dinosure cause “IT” literally blew them away!

    Look “I” could go on and on but long story short, we NOW light an air fresh her candle in various galaxies called suns and “IT” seems to be working but we still can’t do anything about the black holes his Annoying Super Sinner creates if you know what “I” mean? Between you and me, I had nothing to do with those alien gods who have been bottling this gas of his and believe “IT” or “NOT”, they’ve been selling “IT” to humans who plan on using “IT” in the future as Atomic bangs. Go Figure, or is that comic bombs and “IT” is all kind of like a BLADE RUNNER interview , when Victor’s He motion thinks about “IT” which can be kind of scary in “Time”, “I” mean at times.

    I’ll close NOW and ask you to keep praying for Victor cause he’s praying for you!

    Will you stop creating your own twenty first century fairy tales sinner vic! :)


  • Elizabeth K.

    Great breakdown of the problems with the Pill. For the life of me, I can never figure out why the very same people who freak out about BIG PHARMA seem to lose all objections when it comes to the Sacred Pill. Ideology really is blinding.

  • JB

    Don’t forget to add to the list the increase of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS & HPV (more sexual activity, more chances to spread disease).

  • doc

    Sure, for the Left, corporations are evil, except for all those occasions where they move the agenda along. Then the crickets chirp.

  • Brian A. Cook

    I hope that you’re not saying that women should never go to college. If that’s not what you are saying, then what are you saying? I just ask questions like this to get at the truth.

  • Brian A. Cook

    P.S. I learned in public, secular schools that sexual activity results in reproduction.

  • Brian A. Cook

    Maybe I was overly critical or snide in tone, especially with that second comment. To elaborate, I have been feeling deeply frustrated with the Culture War, I’ve been asking difficult questions about the Faith, I’ve been working at getting at the truth.