Monday, March 12, 2012

Birth control is moral (but not all methods)

Related to the HHS mandates controversy, I have seen a lot of reporting that has said that the Catholic Church objects to birth control because the Church objects to contraception. First, it is simply false that the Church is opposed to birth control. Second, and it may come as a surprise to some, but contraception is not the only method of birth control, and therefore the two are not interchangeable.

The Catholic Church teaches that it can be moral for married couples to engage in birth control:

CCC 2368: "A particular aspect of [marital] responsibility concerns the regulation of procreation. For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children."

CCC 2399: "The regulation of births represents one of the aspects of responsible fatherhood and motherhood."

According to the natural law, procreation is indeed one of the ends to which marriage (CCC 2366), and the sexual expression thereof, is ordered; and large families are valued as "a sign of God's blessing and the parents' generosity" (CCC 2373); but it can be just and moral - according to reasons "arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances" (HV 16) - for a couple to intentionally regulate the timing and number of children they have.

So to be clear, it is not the Catholic position that married couples are morally required to have as many children as they possibly can, that all women have to be pregnant during all of their reproductive years, or even that couples cannot intentionally regulate time and number of children that they have. On the contrary, the Church teaches that "for just reasons spouses may wish to space the births of their children" and that "the regulation of birth represents one of the aspects of responsible fatherhood and motherhood", as well as that women and men can choose to forgo marriage and therefore forgo sexual intercourse and procreation all together. (CCC 2368CCC 2399)

Thus, rhetoric that claims that the Catholic Church is against birth control, that the Church just wants all women to always be pregnant no matter what, or that the Catholic Church wants to take away a woman's right to regulate her own fertility is simply false.

So then, aside from sustained misrepresentation in mainstream media and culture of the actual teachings of the largest religion in the world despite the fact that the Church's teachings are publicly and easily accessible in an organized and systematic form, what's all the fuss about?

The Church holds that good or noble goals cannot make permissible what are otherwise bad or immoral methods. In other words, the ends don't justify the means.

The Church has no problem with people regulating their fertility, but she does hold that the means used to regulate fertility themselves must also be moral.

The term "birth control" is somewhat of a vague term. There are a number of very different ways that a woman can avoid giving birth to a child, including:
  • Abortion: engaging in sexual intercourse at any time, but intentionally killing the child that is conceived before he/she is born
  • Sterilization: engaging in sexual intercourse at any time after having had a surgery that intentionally damages her reproductive organs (or those of her male partner) to make conception of a child unlikely or impossible
  • Contraception: engaging in sexual intercourse at any time, but only under conditions created by devices, chemicals, hormones, or other means that make it unlikely that she and her male partner will conceive a new child that later could be born, even if she is fertile when they have sex
  • Abstinence/Celibacy: not engaging in sexual intercourse at all and thereby precluding any possibility of conceiving a new child that later could be born
  • Natural Family Planning: engaging in sexual intercourse, but only when she thinks she's infertile, thereby making it unlikely that she and her male partner will conceive a new child that later could be born
As one can readily see, contraception is only one of at least five different ways of practicing birth control. Birth control does not equal contraception.

So then what does the Church think of these various methods? The Church evaluates them not as singular issues compartmentalized from the rest of life, or only from their perceived final utility; she instead evaluates them objectively based on foundational moral principles and the sound use of reason.

Our Lady of the Sign
The intentional killing of innocent human beings is always wrong, and since direct abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent human life, direct abortion is ruled out. (see my Pro-Life tab)

Intentional mutilation of one's body, without any medical necessity, is wrong, and so intentional sterilization is also precluded.

The conjugal act has two natural purposes: the unity of the couple and the procreation of children. Contraception disrupts both: although contraception is most directly aimed at thwarting the natural procreative aspect of sex, the only possible way of accomplishing that is to employ means that prevent one or both of the partners from fully giving themselves as male or as female to their partner. So, because contraception disrupts the natural purposes of sex (that are true of sex prior to any discussion of the permissiveness of contraception), contraception is a misuse of sex and is thereby impermissible. Bl John Paul II explains:
[T]he innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality. (Familiaris Consortio, 32)
(For more on the Church's teaching regarding contraception see Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, Humanae Vitae, or Familiaris Consortio.)

That leaves both abstinence/celibacy and natural family planning, both of which are moral means of regulating births.

Temporary abstinence (with the plan of eventually engaging in sexual intercourse) or life-long celibacy are both not only morally permissible (no one is morally required to have sex), but morally praise worthy (1 Cor 7). Both are a real option that is sadly often dismissed out of hand by most today; many actually consider the idea of not having sex for a long time, especially a life time, to be absurd or even unhealthy.

It's not as though the Church offers this as a legitimate option without any credibility: most of the same clergymen that give this teaching have themselves taken vows of celibacy, along with thousands of monks nuns/religious sisters throughout the world and throughout history. And of course, the pre-eminent model of a person living a celibate life is Jesus himself (followed in second place, ironically, by his own mother, and perhaps also even his step-father).

If a person does not think that it is God's will for their life to have any children at all in their life, they should consider the celibate life. And since sex is an expression of marriage, if an unmarried person plans on eventually getting married and having children, they should abstain as long as they are unmarried.

So far, we have reviewed three means of birth control that permit a couple to have sex while controlling births - but that are morally impermissible as means - and one method that involves having no sex at all (or not for a while). Is there no middle ground?

Yes, there is! This final method permits a married couple to have sex but regulate births, and does so without killing children, permanently mutilating anyone's body, or disrupting the natural purposes of sex, and its name calls it exactly what it is: natural family planning.

The idea behind natural family planning is fairly simple:
A married couple is free to have sex or not whenever they choose, and a woman is only fertile for a few days each month. If they wish to avoid conceiving a child at the present time for a just reason, they should simply not have sex when the woman is fertile (or just prior since semen can survive for a few days inside the woman).

The trick, of course, is knowing what days to have sex or not. A couple can certainly try to make their best guess, or abstain for large swaths of each month, but neither is necessary today since various methods have been developed that can help a couple know what days to have sex or not when they are trying to avoid conceiving a child (for a relatively new, highly effective method, I've heard/read praise of the Creighton Model Fertility Care System).

Natural family planning is morally permissible because it is not the intentional killing of a child (abortion), the intentional mutilation of one's body for no medical reason (sterilization), and it does not contravene the natural purposes of any individual sex act (contraception); instead, when one uses natural family planning to regulate births, one is respecting the natural order of one's body (and one's partner's body) and simply employing one's sexuality with care, reason, and control.

The Church witnesses to the principle that how we do things matters just as much as our ends. We cannot misuse a noble goal (regulating births) as a cover for any and every means to that end. Instead, the Church carefully applies general moral principles of the natural law that are accessible to everybody to distinguish moral means from immoral means.

And as we can see, the Church is not against birth control, only certain means of birth control; and regarding those means that are in line with the natural moral law, the Church offers full support.


  1. Very insightful -- thanks Brantly.

  2. I couldn't get a response into 4096 characters so I did a blog post this morning addressing NFP: Why Natural Family Planning (NFP) is a non answer

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