Why all the media interest in contraception and the Catholic Church?
There has been a great deal of attention to the recent Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring almost all private health plans to cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
With all of the media coverage, many people are now wondering what the Catholic Church actually teaches about contraception and sterilization and why it matters. The teachings on love, sexuality, marriage, and contraception are based on the Church’s sincere concerns about the human person and society as a whole.
What is contraception?
Contraception, sometimes referred to as “birth control,” “artificial birth control,” or “family planning,” refers to the prevention of pregnancy by use of mechanical devices (such as cervical caps, diaphragms, IUDs, and condoms) or chemicals (such as the pill, the patch, and injectibles like Depo Provera). These methods are typically reversible. People can stop using them to try to conceive. Sterilization, on the other hand, is a permanent surgical procedure that renders a woman or man infertile and is very difficult to reverse.
Contraception and sterilization are not neutral medicine. They work against the natural gift of fertility, treating pregnancy as if it were a disease and fertility as if it were a pathological condition. Some methods can also act to prevent implantation, causing the early death of a newly-conceived human being.
What does the Church teach about married love?
Marriage is more than a civil contract; it is a lifelong covenant of love between a man and a woman. It is an intimate partnership in which husbands and wives learn to give and receive love unselfishly, and then teach their children to do so as well. Christian marriage in particular is a “great mystery,” a sign of the love between Christ and his Church (Eph 5:32).
Married love is powerfully embodied in the spouses’ sexual relationship, when they most fully express what it means to become “one body” (Gn 2:24) or “one flesh” (Mk 10:8, Mt 19:6). The Church teaches that the sexual union of husband and wife is meant to express the full meaning of love, its power to bind a couple together and its openness to new life. When Scripture portrays God creating mankind “in his image” (Gn 1:27), it treats the union of man and woman as joining two persons equal in human dignity (“This one, at last, is bone of my bones / and flesh of my flesh,” Gn 2:23), and as being open to the blessing of children (“Be fertile and multiply,” Gn 1:28). (See Married Love & the Gift of Life.)
What does this have to do with contraception?
A husband and wife express their committed love not only with words, but with the language of their bodies. That “body language”—what a husband and wife say to one another through the intimacy of sexual relations—speaks of total commitment and openness to a future together. So the question about contraception is this: Does sexual intercourse using contraception faithfully affirm this committed love? Or does it introduce a false note into this conversation?
Married love differs from any other love in the world. By its nature, the love of husband and wife is so complete, so ordered to a lifetime of communion with God and each other, that it is open to creating a new human being they will love and care for together. Part of God’s gift to husband and wife is this ability in and through their love to cooperate with God’s creative power. Therefore, the mutual gift of fertility is an integral part of the bonding power of marital intercourse. That power to create a new life with God is at the heart of what spouses share with each other.
To be sure, spouses who are not granted the gift of children can have a married life that is filled with love and meaning. As Pope John Paul II said to these couples in a 1982 homily, “You are no less loved by God; your love for each other is complete and fruitful when it is open to others, to the needs of the apostolate, to the needs of the poor, to the needs of orphans, to the needs of the world.”
When married couples deliberately act to suppress fertility, however, sexual intercourse is no longer fully marital intercourse. It is something less powerful and intimate, something more “casual.” Suppressing fertility by using contraception denies part of the inherent meaning of married sexuality and does harm to the couple’s unity. The total giving of oneself, body and soul, to one’s beloved is no time to say: “I give you everything I am—except. . . .” The Church’s teaching is not only about observing a rule, but about preserving that total, mutual gift of two persons in its integrity.
This may seem a hard saying. Certainly it is a teaching that many couples today, through no fault of their own, have not heard (or not heard in a way they could appreciate and understand). But as many couples who have turned away from contraception tell us, living this teaching can contribute to the honesty, openness, and intimacy of marriage and help make couples truly fulfilled.
Does saying “yes” to children at the altar mean never using contraception?
Some argue that if a husband and wife remain open to children throughout their marriage, they need not worry about using contraception occasionally. But practicing what is good most of the time does not justify doing what is wrong some of the time.
Even if I see myself as a truthful person “on the whole,” any occasional lie I tell is still a lie, and so is immoral. By such acts, I begin to make myself into the kind of person who lies. This is no less true when we falsify the “language of the body,” speaking total love and acceptance of the other person while denying an essential part of that message.
A couple need not desire or seek to have a child in each and every act of intercourse. And it is not wrong for couples to have intercourse even when they know the wife is naturally infertile, as discussed below. But they should never act to suppress or curtail the life-giving power given by God that is an integral part of what they pledged to each other in their marriage vows. This is what the Church means by saying that every act of intercourse must remain open to life and that contraception is objectively immoral.
Are couples expected to leave their family size entirely to chance?
Certainly not. The Church teaches that a couple may generously decide to have a large family, or may for serious reasons choose not to have more children for the time being or even for an indefinite period (Humanae Vitae, no. 10).
In married life, serious circumstances—financial, physical, psychological, or those involving responsibilities to other family members—may arise to make an increase in family size untimely. The Church understands this, while encouraging couples to take a generous view of children.
What should a couple do if they have a good reason to avoid having a child?
A married couple can engage in marital intimacy during the naturally infertile times in a woman’s cycle, or after child-bearing years, without violating the meaning of marital intercourse in any way.
This is the principle behind natural family planning (NFP). Natural methods of family planning involve fertility education that enables couples to cooperate with the body as God designed it.
Why shouldn’t contraception be considered part of women’s preventive health care?
Contraception should not be considered part of preventive health care because pregnancy is not a disease.
To pose contraception as “basic health care” treats a woman’s fertility as an unwelcome aspect of who she is as a woman. It also undermines a basic principle of real health care, which has a responsibility to affirm how a healthy body functions, always treating it with respect and reverence because it is integral to who we are.
Preventive health care is meant to prevent illness, not undermine a normal, functioning reproductive system. On the contrary, use of contraceptive drugs can pose an increased risk of a range of harmful conditions, from blood clots, tumors, strokes and some cancers, to an increased risk of contracting STDs.
Is there ever a time “contraceptives” may be used for medical reasons?
Catholic teaching does not oppose the use of hormonal medications – such as those found in chemical contraceptives – for legitimate medical purposes, provided there is no contraceptive intent.
But artificial hormones typically treat only the medical symptoms. They do not correct the underlying disease or condition. They also carry the same physical health risks as hormonal contraceptives.
Thankfully, with growing advancements in understanding fertility, knowledgeable gynecologists can often prescribe non-contraceptive drugs and recommend safer and healthier treatments to correct underlying problems or eliminate discomfort.
Do some contraceptives pose health risks?
Yes. The use and availability of contraceptives is linked to the increased spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. Casual sex, encouraged by widely available contraception, has resulted in about 60 million Americans being infected with one or more sexually-transmitted diseases, many of them incurable and emotionally devastating. The estimated cost of treating these illnesses is now $19 billion a year in the U.S. alone.
Planned Parenthood and secular sex educators recommend using condoms for protection against STDs. Yet condoms offer almost no protection against the epidemic of incurable viral STDs, such as genital herpes and human papilloma virus (HPV), strains of which cause genital warts and virtually all cases of cervical cancer. Numerous studies have found that typical condom use offers inadequate or little protection against even bacterial STDs, such as Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis.
Hormonal contraceptives themselves have inherent health risks. Synthetic hormones powerful enough to disrupt a woman’s reproductive system may affect every major system of her body. Depending on the type and strength of the hormonal contraceptive, over five percent of women experience some of the following symptoms: headaches, weight gain, acne, mood swings, depression, anxiety, breast pain, dizziness, severe pain during menses, a range of bleeding problems, and a lack of desire for sex. In the case of Depo-Provera, there can also be a 5-6% loss of bone mineral density after five years’ use, which is only partially reversed in the years after discontinuation.
Among the less common side effects of hormonal contraceptives are the following: blood clots in the veins, lungs, heart, and brain, potentially causing heart attack and strokes; breast cancer; potentially life-threatening ectopic pregnancy (in which the embryo most often implants in the narrow tube between the ovary and womb); liver tumors; and ovarian cysts.
The link between hormonal contraceptives and breast cancer has been known for over thirty years. The World Health Organization has classified synthetic estrogen and progestin in contraceptives as carcinogenic to humans. According to a major meta-analysis, women who use oral contraceptives before age 20 have a 1.95% elevated risk of developing breast cancer.
(For more info, see Life Matters: Contraception)
But doesn’t contraception reduce unplanned pregnancies and abortion?
It would seem that contraception reduces unplanned pregnancies and therefore abortion, but the opposite is actually true. Numerous studies show that increasing the availability of contraception in a large population does not reduce rates of unplanned pregnancies and abortions, and may increase them.
Consider the facts:
- 1 in 3 teen girls will become pregnant within two years of initiating sexual activity, even while using contraceptives
- almost half (48.4%) of low-income cohabiting teens using the pill, and 72% of those using condoms as their primary method of birth control, will become pregnant within 12 months
- 65% of women who reported unplanned pregnancies in a major French survey were using contraception
- experts in contraception now concede that pills are “an outdated method” and perfect use is impossible “for most humans”
- 54% of U.S. women seeking abortions were using contraception in the month they became pregnant
- an analysis of 23 studies on emergency contraception (EC) found no evidence whatsoever that increasing access to EC reduces rates of unplanned pregnancy or abortion
- a 63% increase in the use of contraception between 1997 and 2007 was accompanied by a 108% increase in the abortion rate in Spain.
(For the sources, see Life Matters: Contraception.)
What is Natural Family Planning (NFP)?
Natural Family Planning is a general name for the methods of family planning that are based on a woman’s menstrual cycle. A man is fertile throughout his life, while a woman is fertile for only a few days each cycle during the child-bearing years. Some believe that NFP involves using a calendar to predict the fertile time. That is not what NFP is today. A woman experiences clear, observable signs indicating when she is fertile and when she is infertile. Learning to observe and understand these signs is at the heart of education in Natural Family Planning.
When a couple decides to postpone pregnancy, NFP can be very effective. NFP can also be very helpful for couples who desire to have a child because it identifies the time of ovulation. It is used by many fertility specialists for this purpose. Thus a couple can have marital relations at a time when they know that conception is most likely to take place. (See Married Love & the Gift of Life)
Visit the NFP site to learn more!
Is there really a difference between using contraception and practicing Natural Family Planning?
On the surface, there may seem to be little difference. But the end result is not the only thing that matters, and the way we get to that result may make an enormous moral difference. Some ways respect God’s gifts to us while others do not. Couples who have practiced Natural Family Planning after using contraception have experienced a profound difference in the meaning of their sexual intimacy.
When couples use contraception, either physical or chemical, they suppress their fertility, asserting that they alone have ultimate control over this power to create a new human life. With NFP, spouses respect God’s design for life and love. They may choose to refrain from sexual union during the woman’s fertile time, doing nothing to destroy the love-giving or life-giving meaning that is present. This is the difference between choosing to falsify the full marital language of the body and choosing at certain times not to speak that language.
The Church’s support for NFP is not based on its being “natural” as opposed to artificial. Rather, NFP respects the God-given power to love a new human life into being even when we are not actively seeking to exercise that power. However, because NFP does not change the human body in any way, or upset its balance with potentially harmful drugs or devices, people of other faiths or of no religious affiliation have also come to accept and use it from a desire to work in harmony with their bodies. They have also found that it leads couples to show greater attentiveness to and respect for each other.
As one NFP practicing husband shared: “NFP has helped me mature, though I have a long way to go. . . .It has called me to cherish my wife rather than simply desire her” (Faithful to Each Other Forever, 45-46). (See Married Love & the Gift of Life)
What has been the experience of spouses who practice NFP?
Every couple is unique, and yet many who practice NFP have a beautiful story to tell, like these spouses:
“[Natural Family Planning] has become more than a totally safe, healthy, and reliable method of birth regulation to us. The essential qualities of self-restraint, self-discipline, mutual respect, and shared responsibility carry over to all facets of our marriage,
making our relationship more intimate.” (Faithful to Each Other Forever, 44)
“NFP made our union different, more of a total giving. . . . Because we’re open to life, we’re giving everything.” (Natural Family Planning Blessed Our Marriage, 64)
“NFP does require communication and commitment, but isn’t that what marriage is all about? We have gained so much by using NFP and have lost nothing.” (Natural Family Planning Blessed Our Marriage, 18)
Can some methods of birth control cause abortion?
Some methods of birth control are aimed at preventing the union of sperm and egg and therefore act only as contraceptives — including barriers such as condoms and diaphragms.
By contrast, hormonal methods such as the Pill may work in several ways. They can suppress ovulation or alter cervical mucus to prevent fertilization, and thus act contraceptively. But they may at times have other effects, such as changes to the lining of the uterus. If the contraceptive action fails and fertilization takes place, these hormonal methods may make it impossible for a newly conceived life to implant and survive. That would be a very early abortion. Medical opinions differ on whether or how often this may occur. Currently there is no way to know precisely how these drugs work at any given time in an individual woman.
Concern about the risk of causing an early abortion is stronger in the case of pills taken after intercourse to prevent pregnancy (“emergency contraception” or “morning-after pills”). In some cases these pills are taken when sperm and egg have already joined to create a new life, in which case the drug could not have any effect except to cause an early abortion.
What has been the impact of contraception on society?
Many would likely be surprised at how long all Christian churches agreed on this teaching against contraception. It was only in 1930 that some Protestant denominations began to reject this long-held position. Those opposed to this trend predicted an increase in premarital sex, adultery, acceptance of divorce, and abortion. Later, in 1968, Pope Paul VI warned that the use of contraception would allow one spouse to treat the other more like an object than a person, and that in time governments would be tempted to impose laws limiting family size. Pope John Paul II called attention to the close association between contraception and abortion, noting that “the negative values inherent in the ‘contraceptive mentality’ . . . are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation [to abortion] when an unwanted life is conceived” (Evangelium Vitae, no. 13).
These predictions have come true. Today we see a pandemic of sexually transmitted diseases, an enormous rise in cohabitation, one in three children born outside of marriage, and abortion used by many when contraception fails. A failure to respect married love’s power to help create new life has eroded respect for life and for the sanctity of marriage. (See Married Love & the Gift of Life.)