On Preventing Conception

note: this is long.


These are my friend’s icebreaker lines to Catholics he knows. He’s probably kidding, more often than not. But he has a point. The church’s teaching on sexuality (esp contraception) is probably the most controversial doctrine around.

Contraception per se
Ok let’s get this straight. The church isn’t against contraception per se. The church is against the attitude that rejects children, which contraception (in couples) necessarily entails.

I’ll elaborate further. But you can already see why sex-workers are ‘allowed’ to use contraception. Because for them, children (and love) is a non-issue. And if condoms can reduce health risk, then it’s a good thing. In Father David’s words, “Between the choice of engaging in unprotected or protected sex, a prostitute would do better using a condom than not using it and so the Pope calls this “a first act of responsibility,” “a first step on the road toward a more human sexuality.” This is a choice of conscience, which has no bearings on the teaching of the church regarding contraception among spouses.” Then again, the whole concept of prostitution is not even condoned, so using condoms to prevent HIV in prostitution is simply a lesser of two evils.

So let’s go. There is no faith-based reasoning here (i.e. no arguments like ‘because the bible says this’), so I should think the argument is accessible to everyone. That being said, scripture/tradition references are abundant if you search.

Contraception is contrary to love
So back to basics – The only proper attitude to a human person is love. (I don’t know if anyone will contest this, but I’m just taking it as self-evident for now.) Contraception, by its very definition, deliberately prevents conception. It thus entails the rejection of children, and necessitates an attitude that is contrary to love.

Also, contracepting means loving (or consummating love) with the condition that there will not be a child. Contraception thus harms spousal love – because spousal love should be free and total.

A lot of us assume today that three things can be separated distinctly: (1) sex, (2) love, and (3) fertility. But they can’t really. They are interlinked; they encompass one another. Sex is the consummation of love; sex expresses love through the body and is thus our most intimate encounter to us as personal beings. Fertility is integral to sex and is thus an aspect of our personhood. When you remove fertility from the equation, sex becomes less than what it is meant for. It becomes conditional, in the sense that the spouses do not give themselves fully to each other because they reject a personal aspect of one another – their fertility and their potentiality for children. The love that is communicated in protected sex is thus neither total nor free.

This is not to say that the church mandates procreation in every sexual act. There are perfectly legitimate and morally justifiable reasons for wanting to avoid (NOT prevent) a pregnancy e.g. health risks, responsible parenting etc (finding children burdensome do not belong to this class of ‘justifiable reasons’). This is where NFP (which is morally justified) comes in. So the more difficult argument is distinguishing between NFP and contraception.

NFP vs Contraception
Different nature
The first distinction to be drawn is the difference in natures of NFP versus contraception. To illustrate this, I must first distinguish between three types of decisions – (1) actions, (2) omissions, and (3) non-decisions. I use the analogy of a man and a drowning person.

(1) Action – The man deliberately chooses to save the drowning person.
(2) Omission – He deliberately chooses not to save the drowning person.
(3) Non-decision – He is nowhere near the drowning person, and thus has an absence of consideration of whether to save the drowning person or not.

The key idea is that (3) clearly has no moral element because there is no conscious or deliberate element. The concept of morality only applies when a person has free choice. In the case of (3), no choice is being made at all.

To draw this back to our issue, this is the nature of the two decisions:

NFP – (1) Action to have intercourse during non-fertile period; (2) Omission to have intercourse during fertile period; (3) Non-decision whether to conceive a child, because the couple is not in the situation to have a child.

Contraception – (1) Action to have intercourse during non-fertile period; (2) Action to have intercourse during fertile period; (3) Action (because you are actually doing something – whether it is a physical or chemical method) to prevent conception.

Thus, NFP does not have the immoral nature that contraception has – the conscious or deliberate decision to reject a child.

Doctrine of Double Effect
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctrine_of_double_effect – I refuse to concede that this doctrine is faith based, despite it being originated by Aquinas. Simester cited it often, even judges cite it e.g. Re A: Conjoined Twins. It is mainstream philosophy.)

In the words of Doctrine of Double Effect, the end goal of both NFP and contraception is the same – responsible parenthood, avoiding health risks etc. The ‘evil’ effect is the attitude of rejection of the child. The conscious and deliberate element in contraception turns the rejection of the child into a ‘means’ to the end. NFP, on the other hand, does not even include the parties taking on this attitude of rejection (and even if they do, it will be a side-effect, rather than a means).

Moreover, NFP is a form of abstinence (virtue of continence), and thus the omission of fertile sex is morally good in itself. Sex with contraception, as argued above, is immoral in itself because it stymies love. Contraception thus violate the (1) nature-of-the-act condition, and the (2) means-end condition, whereas NFP does not.

Different attitude
The second distinction to be drawn is the attitude. Inherent within the ‘risks’ of NFP is the attitude that if there is an unplanned pregnancy, the child will be a surprise, but not unwanted (granted, this may be an assumption, but not a very big one considering the church’s stand against abortion). This is in stark contrast to the attitude in contraception that a failed-contraception child is necessarily an unwanted child. The fact that couples use contraception because they ‘want to be sure’ that they will not have children elucidates this.

Once again, it all goes back to love. The attitude in NFP is loving, because the couple essentially says that they are not ready for a child (acting in the good of the child), but if a child comes, they are still open to him or her. In contrast, the attitude in contraception is un-loving, because the couple essentially says that they do not want a child at all, and if a child comes, they did not want it and it is thus rejected.

It does not matter whether the couple receives the child with love if there is a failed-contraception. The morality of the act in question is the contraception itself, which is unaffected by what is done after the child has been conceived.

Ok that’s basically it =)

For Christians in particular,  you can do a quick search on the ‘Lambeth Conference in 1930’. You’ll find that all Christian denominations condemned contraception prior to this conference. So hm it’s not that the church came up with her own rules on contraception.

Honestly, this didn’t come to me intuitively; I had to research. I don’t know if y’all will find it convincing. For me, it’s more of backward reasoning. Essentially, my main reason for following the church’s teachings is because I’m Catholic. You’d think that I am Catholic because I believe in the church’s teachings. That is true to some extent I guess. But there is too much to find out and too much to analyze; I’d wouldn’t be baptized before I died if I waited till I understood every single church doctrine before I took my leap of faith, simply because the doctrines are too rich.

So I accept all the church’s teachings because I guess I have to be consistent. I can’t pick and choose what I want to believe. The theology comes as a package. But it’s not exactly a very hard thing to do. Cos the more I delve into things that I initially didn’t agree with or didn’t understand, I find that every teaching makes sense and is coherent with one another.

There’s still stuff I don’t know, like why the church allows the death penalty, though it’s so clearly against the dignity of the person. And I’m willing to challenge that teaching. But only from the inside. But more importantly, I guess I’m open to the idea that I may be the one that has not understood and has not the wisdom to understand these things. Humility is the hallmark of Christianity, after all.


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About Mel

I dreamt I was a whale. https://melvynfoo.wordpress.com/about-mel/