‘Massive embryonic death’

While we're on the subject, I note the following from the August 2006 Harper's. This is an excerpt from "The Rhythm Method and Embryonic Death," by Luc Bovens, published in the June 2006 Journal of Medical Ethics:

It has not gone unnoticed by pro-life advocates that if one is concerned about abortion because of the moral turpitude of killing embryos (and fetuses) then one should also be concerned about contraceptive techniques — the morning after pill, intrauterine devices and the contraceptive pill — that cause embryonic deaths. Catholics might welcome this, since the official position of the Church is that, aside from the rhythm method, no contraceptive techniques are permissible. What has gone unnoticed is that the rhythm method may well be responsible for massive embryonic death.

Rhythm-method users try to avoid pregnancy by aiming at the period in which conception is less likely to occur and in which ovum viability is lower. So their success rate is due not only to the fact that they avoid conception but also to the fact that conceived ova have reduced survival chances. Just like in the case of pill usage, we do not know in what percentage of cases the success of the rhythm method is due to the reduced survival chances for the conceived ovum. Nonetheless, one could argue that even if the mechanism has only limited effectiveness, it remains the case that millions of rhythm-method cycles per year globally depend for their success on massive embryonic death. Even a policy of practicing condom usage and having an abortion in case of failure would cause fewer embryonic deaths than the rhythm method.

Bovens isn't entirely fair to the Catholic Church — its opposition to contraception is not based entirely on "the moral turpitude of killing embryos," but also on arguments involving God's providence and sovereignty. These latter arguments are rather severely undermined, if not contradicted outright, by the insistence of many within the Church that the rhythm method, scrupulously applied, is more effective than the forbidden methods. (This supposed greater effectiveness ought therefore to constitute a greater supposed insult to providence.)

But Bovens' main point here seems to require some response. And here I think — by characterizing the willfull ignorance of consequences as "what has gone unnoticed" — Bovens may be overly charitable.

If reliance on the rhythm method does, in fact, result in massive embryonic death, then consistency would seem to require that the most strident advocates of saving the lives of early embryos ought to be opposed to the use of this method. Yet instead we find that this method is vocally endorsed and promoted by this same group. Odd. How to explain this inconsistency?

Seriously. How?

Update: Belatedly checking my e-mail, I see that Gordon W. sent me a link to the complete Bovens article several days ago. Thanks G.W., and here's that link: "The Rhythm Method and Embryonic Death."

  • Toby

    Even Catholic dogma must somewhere cave in to common sense, and allow couples to have sex while still exercising some measure of control over how many babies they pop out. There just has to be some way for Catholics to do that.
    And the rhythm method, unlike condoms and the pill and whatnot, is natural, and so doesn’t really count as interfering with the natural function of sex. Fertilized ova that are lost in this way are lost naturally, and so, again, that’s OK.
    Keep in mind that a largish proportion (I forget the exact stats) of fertilized ova fail to implant whether the couple is trying to avoid pregnancy or not–this isn’t a moral problem, because it’s natural.
    “Natural” = “according to God’s plan” = “good”.
    “Unnatural” = “against God’s plan” = “bad”.
    Catholics aren’t the only ones to place this much weight on some supposed connection between natural/unnatural and right/wrong. Personally I’ve never been able to make much sense of this connection, or even what the word “natural” is supposed to mean in such contexts. (In this particular case, for example, I don’t see how the carefully planned schedules of the rhythm method are any more natural than condoms or pills.)

  • Richard Hershberger

    This touches on one of the problems with anti-abortion arguments. If a fertilized egg is a full human being, why don’t we act like it? Where are the funerals for non-viable ova? Where are the billions of dollars for research to prevent these uncounted (literally) deaths? I’m not talking about abortions. I’m talking about natural occurrences. If comparable numbers of, umm…, post-birth humans were dying there would be massive movements to do something about it. But for pre-birth humans, we get indifference. It is almost as if the claim that fertilized eggs are fully human is mere rationalization, and the real issue is that people are having dirty, dirty sex!

  • Chad Orzel

    Two comments on this, as someone who had a Catholic wedding, and thus sat through the Catholic pre-marriage counseling:
    1) They don’t just promote the “rhythm method” as contraception, they also claim it helps determine the best times when you’re trying to conceive. And, in fact, the couple brought in to do the presentation when we went through the counseling used that as the primary pitch, and mentioned the contraceptive aspect as sort of an afterthought.
    (We asked: They had seven kids.)
    2)Ultmately, I think the “rhythm method” stuff is a minimal concession to modern Western sensibilities– the congregation would be shrinking even faster than it already is if they tried to take a hard line on their opposition to contraception. They don’t push it very hard at all, and the whole issue of birth control was touched on as lightly as possible during the counseling program. They have to say something, so they offer a minimal method, but mostly, they try to avoid the subject.
    It’s not like the “rhythm method” is some sort of unofficial eighth sacrament, as some stories about this make it seem.

  • Lucia

    The article assumes that a conceived ovum resulting from an “old” gamete has reduced odds of implanting and surviving to birth. The author admits, though, that there’s no direct evidence for that assumption, so I don’t buy the idea that rhythm causes more embryonic deaths than other contraceptive methods. I’ve always wondered, though: if God really wants married couples to have kids, why is rhythm or natural family planning better than any “mechanical” method? Either way you’re trying to thwart God’s will.
    I think “God’s will” is the unspoken reasoning behind the insistence that every fertilized egg is a full human being, even though most of them don’t make it. If no one interferes with the conceptus, whether it becomes a baby or not is left entirely to God’s will, with which we have no right to meddle. This in turn, I think, comes from the ancient habit of attributing anything we can’t control (fertility, crop success or failure, weather) to divine providence or wrath, as the case may be. Scientific advances and subsequent ability to control these things make a lot of people nervous.
    Giving people detailed information on how to do something framed as instructions for doing the opposite is an oldie but a goodie. (The story has it that union organizers used to go around orchards putting up signs for the fruit pickers: “Don’t hammer nails into the trees! It ruins the fruit.”)

  • the opoponax

    the supposition that to use any technological means to avert pregnancy is counter to “God’s Will” assumes a God who is not terribly omnipotent. people who use birth control have accidental pregnancies all the time, many of which are happy accidents which result in a happy family. pills fail, condoms break, diaphragms are forgotten, etc. etc. this isn’t to say that those methods are “bad”, just that it “works in mysterious ways.” the idea that anyone can know God’s will, and know how their own life choices work either with or against that will (or the idea that anyone can really work “against” the will of an omnipotent being). if God means you to have a child, it will happen. despite your being a pro-choice feminist with 3 forms of regular contraception and a pack of morning after pills in the medicine cabinet.

  • David

    A lot of the talk of “God’s will” in this threat seems kind of odd, not really in keeping with Catholic or protestant use of the term. Catholics don’t oppose artificial birth control because it’s “preventing God’s will,” as though God has a particular opinion about whether you’ll get pregnant this time and you’d better not mess it up. Nor is it related to embryonic death, which is a natural process that can’t be prevented.
    But I’d hope it’s clear that, even if you think it’s insigificant, there still is a philosophical distinction between embryonic death that occurs because the body rejects the embryo (which is still very poorly understood, and the connection with NFP in this article is entirely unsupported speculation), and one that occurs because embryos were deliberately created outside the body.
    In Catholic theology, sex and childbearing are very bound up in each other, more so than most people realize. Artificial birth control is proscribed because “every marriage act should be open to life” (which makes me suspect the people Fred mentions, who claim NFP is more effective, are a little fuzzy on both their science and their theology about the issue), and not because of possible embryonic death. It’s considered wrong because it divorces childbearing from sex. But on the other side of things, IVF and even artificial insemination are considered wrong for the flip reason: they lead to children without sex. Again, nothing to do with embryonic death, which doesn’t really enter the theology of it at all as far as I know.
    Of course, all of this might sound crazy. I just wanted to point out that it’s not really inconsistent doctrine, since the “embryos are fully human” objection to stem cell research is coming mostly from evangelicals and poorly informed Catholics, not from the Church itself.

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Have to agree with opoponax there. In fact, the idea that thwarting God’s will could in fact be so easily done seems cousin to the idea that some magical invokation (“the sinner’s prayer”) could oblige God to your salvation.
    On the other hand, giving the religious viewpoint its due, the point isn’t that you might succeed at thwarting God’s will, but that you evince pride, contrariness, and disobedience by the attempt. C. S. Lewis would probably have something to say along those lines–see Perelandra and the tabu on sleeping upon the Fixed Land.
    Me, I just have a hard time with the idea that God is interested enough in the minutiae of each life that S/He could be said to have any Will or preference as to the outcome of the next time my husband and I engage. I have to imagine that God’s view of the big picture is much too large to focus on my (to Him) microscopic womb. (cf. Tepper, Grass, “very small beings.”)

  • Lucia

    the idea that anyone can really work “against” the will of an omnipotent being
    Except, as I understand Christian doctrine (not being a Christian myself), God allows us to choose whether to do what He wants or not, that is, He allows us the free exercise of free will. So God’s will or intention that a given child be born at a given time could be thwarted by human action.
    I will freely grant that trying to make some kind of consistent sense of how free will and divine will would interact in this scheme gives me a headache, especially with predestination and belief in biblical prophecy thrown into the mix. (It’s my considered belief that God can’t be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent: you have to pick at most two.)

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    (Looks like David and I posted at the same time. David, good point–I should know better about it, but my family’s parish didn’t spend a lot of time on the subject. Maybe they would have discussed it with me if I were still in the church when I got to be childbearing age.)

  • Lucia

    Speaking of Lewis — I was going to mention that in That Hideous Strength Jane Studdock does in fact thwart God’s will that she bear the champion of Logres. She has decided that she would rather finish her degree before having kids, and presumably she and Mark practice birth control, although that’s not spelled out.
    I’ll have to read Grass. The only Tepper I’ve read is The Gate to Women’s Country, my favorite dystopian fiction in the “be careful what you wish for” category.

  • kim

    Breastfeeding is also endorsed as a natural and acceptable means of birth control for Catholics, yet breastfeeding interferes with conception and implantation in the same way that birth control pills do. Should mothers give their newborns formula to avoid possible embryonic death? The fact that so many fertilized eggs naturally do not survive has to make one wonder if embryonic death is part of God’s plan for human reproduction rather than a tragedy.

  • Lucia

    Oops, I didn’t see David’s post either. I used to be a Christian but never a Catholic, and I wasn’t thinking of the question specifically in terms of Catholic doctrine. But since you bring it up, David — if you practice rhythm/NFP with the intention of avoiding pregnancy, regardless of how well it works, are you not divorcing sex from childbearing just as much as if you used an artificial method? You’re still trying to have the fun without the work, which I always understood to be the conservative Christian (Protestant as well as Catholic) objection to nonmarital sex as well as contraception.

  • David

    “Having the fun without the work” is somewhat oversimplifying the issue, but never mind ;)
    if you practice rhythm/NFP with the intention of avoiding pregnancy, regardless of how well it works, are you not divorcing sex from childbearing just as much as if you used an artificial method?
    First, a disclaimer, that though I probably have more knowledge of Catholic doctrine than the average American, I am not an expert, and I’m sure I’m missing some subtleties on these points. However:
    There is still a difference, for a couple reasons. First, NFP doesn’t work as well as most artificial methods. When practiced carefully, it can be decently reliable (though it varies depending on the particular couple involved), but it will never be as reliable as a condom. It certainly doesn’t make conception impossible, which is the intent, if not always successful, of most forms of birth control.
    Second, there is a difference between knowing you are fertile and, with birth control, having sex anyway, and knowing you are fertile and, because for whatever reason a child would be a difficult responsibility right now, choosing to wait. In Catholic theology the former is a problem because “the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife [i.e. sex] is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other” (from the Catechism of the Catholic Church). Basically, you can so arrange your sex as to minimize the chance of conception, but as long as you’re going to have sex, you can’t actually take additional positive action to prevent conception. Catholic theology aside, those are still two very different reactions to the dilemma — there are practical arguments in both directions, but I hope you can see that there is a moral distinction being drawn there.
    Also one more note, I’ve rarely heard this discussed but NFP is also against Catholic teaching when it is done for the wrong reasons. Catholics are supposed to examine their consciences and motives when starting NFP, since it is inappropriate to do it out of selfishness. So this isn’t just a blanket “artificial methods are bad, natural methods are good” distinction.

  • Lucia

    Interesting. I do (sort of) see the distinction being drawn — but there is probably a very fine line between “a child would be a difficult responsibility right now” and “selfishness.” (How difficult? Do you not trust God to help you if you put your hand in His?) By some reckonings it’s always selfish to have sex if you don’t want to get or make someone pregnant.
    Assuming that you were fertile and didn’t want a child, I would think “total reciprocal giving” would be easier if you did use reliable birth control. Otherwise part of your mind would be worrying about getting pregnant instead of giving itself wholly to the experience and to your spouse. Never having been Catholic, though, and never having lived in a world without the pill, it’s very hard for me to grasp all the aspects of the linkage between sex and childbearing that you describe.
    The difference between a world with and without the pill, I think, begins to bend back toward my theory that when an event previously beyond human control and considered to be the province of God becomes controllable, people at first see that control as dabbling in the dark arts.

  • David

    …when an event previously beyond human control and considered to be the province of God becomes controllable, people at first see that control as dabbling in the dark arts.
    There is something to that — but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, or at least, that is only a small part of it. While reliable, easily available birth control is “new,” there have been birth control methods (of varying reliability) for pretty much as far back as we have records. The Catholic opposition to birth control isn’t something that just came out in the 20th century, it’s something they’ve enforced from very early in church history, long before there was anything like “embryo death” to talk about. The fuzzy understanding of biology in the middle ages also caused the conflation of early-term abortion with birth control — both were considered wrong not because they ended a human life (since there was no biological understanding of what was going on at that point), but because they were methods of “artificial birth control.” So, this doctrine/reaction isn’t just because we’ve recently learned to do something that we were previously unable to, unless the reaction has just lasted 1500+ years (and even when the doctrines were being defined, birth control wasn’t “new”).
    there is probably a very fine line between “a child would be a difficult responsibility right now” and “selfishness.”
    True. But there are fine lines all through Christian ethics. I just bought a new video game last week, with money that could have been donated to charity, and by some standards that could be a “selfish” decision — but no church really teaches that it is immoral to ever spend any money on our own enjoyment. It’s a balancing act.
    There are plenty of childless upper-middle-class Americans for whom avoiding children is not even remotely a matter of hardship — they just prefer to invest their time in themselves and their posessions, rather than taking responsibility for another human being. And there are plenty of people below the poverty line for whom children would be an enormous stretch, at least without community support. And as always, there’s a large fuzzy area in the middle where things could go either way. The point in this is not to get caught up in legalistic guilt over whether you’re really doing something for “the right reasons” — the point is healthy self-examination and self-knowledge, which is a positive thing regardless of your particular religion or philosophy.
    How difficult? Do you not trust God to help you if you put your hand in His?
    Hah — that’s evangelical thinking, not Catholic. Somehow the idea of trusting God means “if you really believed, you’d know that nothing bad can ever happen to you” (and insert e.g. the Romans passage about “God works all things for the good of those who love him” — so of course, the idea that it would be a financial hardship to have another child indicates a lack of faith). It always frustrates me when such people tell me that my awareness of a possible negative outcome in some situation means I don’t really trust God. [Side note: at the extreme end, I've even been told my opposition to the Iraq war means I don't trust God, because after all he must be working things to the good, so how can I oppose his will that way? Blech.] Anyway, Catholic theology recognizes that sometimes bad things happen and there’s nothing you can do about them. Intelligent avoidance of a bad outcome is fine. Our faith comes into play when we choose to obey God in a situation where that obedience could itself produce a “bad outcome” (either from an objective or personal standpoint) — not because we know that nothing bad can happen (Christians don’t have a “get out of life free” card that exempts them from human suffering). Our faith is not that we will not suffer, but that despite short-term appearances, obedience to God is the greater good than disobedience. (Easy example: torture. No, it is not okay to torture that alleged terrorist even if he might tell us where and when the bomb is going to go off, thereby saving lives.)
    I would think “total reciprocal giving” would be easier if you did use reliable birth control
    An understandable perspective in this culture — but “giving” in the sense it is used here is more than just a matter of pleasure or emotion. In this philosophy, the possibility of producing life is/should be an inherent part of this total giving. The stereotype today is of the church teaching that sex should not be pleasurable, and should be done rarely, and only for the explicit purpose of procreation — an obviously distorted view from a modern perspective, and one the church corrected long ago (I don’t think that was ever its official teaching, though Augustine was very against sex for pleasure, and his influence lasted a long time). But by the church’s teaching now, the modern western idea of sex exclusively for pleasure, ruling out the possibility of childbirth, is just as much a distortion. Both extremes are wrong — the pleasure and emotional connection, and the possibility of conception, are both necessary elements bound up in sex, and are both part of the “total reciprocal giving.”
    Never having been Catholic, though, and never having lived in a world without the pill, it’s very hard for me to grasp all the aspects of the linkage between sex and childbearing that you describe.
    Same here ;) I’m actually not Catholic yet, though I’ve been reading a lot about it and intend to start my conversion process this fall (I’m a recovering Evangelical). But I haven’t grown up with this perspective, and I’m still trying to understand it — like I said, I’m sure I’m still missing a lot of the subtleties. It’s very interesting, since the overall Catholic philosophy of life is not bound up in any one culture, unlike evangelicalism which is very much western and especially American. But it means that a lot of assumptions that people tend to make when approaching it don’t even really make sense — it’s really a very different way of looking at the world.

  • hapax

    “I don’t think that was ever its official teaching, though Augustine was very against sex for pleasure, and his influence lasted a long time.”
    We-e-l-lll… Actually, his position was a bit more nuanced than that. For an interesting discussion on this topic, see:
    http://www.jknirp.com/aug3.htm
    (Sorry. I can’t help but find conditionals and nuances in practically any blanket statement. All right, I’ll go along with “torture is always wrong.”

  • bucketsofg

    As I understand it, the reasoning is ultimately Aristotelian: that the teleological end, or fundamental purpose, of intercourse is procreation and to engage in it while consciously thwarting its end is sin. By analogy, the purpose of eating is nutrition, and to conciously thwart that end (e.g., by regurgitating a meal) subverts the end and is therefore against the natural law.
    This is, I think, the core argument. I don’t endorse it. But it is not quite the case (as Fred said) that it is about disrespect for God’s providence.

  • magistra

    One historical comment to make is that the Catholic position on contraception has not been consistent over the centuries (as John Noonan’s study showed 40 years ago). In the patristic period and down through much of the Middle Ages, if not longer, it was held to be sinful to have any sexual act within marriage except for the purposes of procreation. (As specific cases of this, it was sinful to have sex during a wife’s period or her pregnancy). Therefore anything like the rhythm method would have been condemned by the Catholic church in that era.
    Incidentally, the idea that all sexual acts must be open to the transmission of life seems fairly logically dodgy to me. Is it therefore sinful to have sex with a post-menopausal woman (or an impotent man)? There will be cases where you have chosen to marry such a person knowing their condition, so you’ve made as much of a positive decision to thwart God’s will for procreative sex as if you used a condom with someone fertile.

  • Duane

    Incidentally, the idea that all sexual acts must be open to the transmission of life seems fairly logically dodgy to me. Is it therefore sinful to have sex with a post-menopausal woman (or an impotent man)? There will be cases where you have chosen to marry such a person knowing their condition, so you’ve made as much of a positive decision to thwart God’s will for procreative sex as if you used a condom with someone fertile.
    God wanted that woman to be fertile or that man to be impotent so it’s okay. Whatever God wants, God gets. On the other hand, two consenting adults shouldn’t have a say in the matter.

  • the opoponax

    “Incidentally, the idea that all sexual acts must be open to the transmission of life seems fairly logically dodgy to me. Is it therefore sinful to have sex with a post-menopausal woman (or an impotent man)? There will be cases where you have chosen to marry such a person knowing their condition, so you’ve made as much of a positive decision to thwart God’s will for procreative sex as if you used a condom with someone fertile.”
    and this is the thing for me, the reason we can’t play these cute little “thwarting the will of God” games.
    ok, so what if it’s the will of God for a married couple to conceive on this one night. but the husband decides he’d rather watch that rerun of Seinfeld, or the wife wants to go out for drinks with the girls or they get into an argument or whatever, and consciously decide not to have sex (for whatever completely free-will decision). or what if the husband gets off via some non-intercourse sex act and thus can’t inseminate his wife? aren’t they thwarting the will of God just as much as if they’d had intercourse after all and used a condom? or are the desires of the couple part of God’s will? if we have free choice, can we say that The Will Of God really comes into anything we do, at all?
    also, i’d add that in Catholic school, i was most certainly told that birth control was taboo because it would be thwarting the will of God, not these grey area “giving of oneself” issues.

  • David

    also, i’d add that in Catholic school, i was most certainly told that birth control was taboo because it would be thwarting the will of God, not these grey area “giving of oneself” issues.
    Of course. In a group as big as the Catholic church, there will always be a gap between what the church officially teaches, and what certain individuals believe. Many public highschools do a very poor job of teaching scientific principles, but this doesn’t indicate confusion on the part of the scientific establishment, or invalidate its position on a given matter.
    Look at any brand of Christianity in any time or place throughout history (including modern America) and you’ll see that even when the “official” doctrine is fairly consistent, the beliefs of the average layman are hugely influenced by popular culture and superstition. This also applies, to a hopefully lesser degree, to priests, nuns, bishops, and all the way up — just because a bishop says something doesn’t mean it’s official church teaching.
    Or, on the other hand, there is a case to be made that the “thwarting the will of God” approach is a reasonable simplification that is more easily understood, though I think it distorts the real doctrine quite a bit.
    I agree with you, by the way, about the thwarting God’s will games — I’ve dealt with people who were practically convinced that they shouldn’t decide what to eat for lunch without discerning God’s will on the matter — and every decision they made, it was urgent that they know God’s will, because for some reason it wasn’t important enough for God to make it clear to them, but it was definitely important enough that they were in deep trouble if they picked the wrong choice. Ah well…

  • Lila

    I too would be interested in hearing what the official Catholic line is on sex between married people of whom at least one is sterile.
    The inability to produce children is an argument I’ve heard fairly often from Evangelicals who oppose gay marriage, but they all seem to be okay with sterile heterosexuals having sex. Perhaps they are counting on an Abraham-and-Sarah scenario where if God really wants you to have a baby, He’ll reverse your menopause.

  • Lucia

    I too would be interested in hearing what the official Catholic line is on sex between married people of whom at least one is sterile.
    Me too. I’m also wondering if, in cases where having a(nother) child might be an unbearable burden, the Church allows married couples sexual practices that don’t cause pregnancy.
    Very interesting perspective, David, and article, hapax — I now know more about Catholic theology than I ever expected to, which is still very little :).
    Btw, hapax, I really like your handle. It seems to fit you well.

  • David

    I too would be interested in hearing what the official Catholic line is on sex between married people of whom at least one is sterile.
    That’s fine — the problem isn’t with not conceiving, but with deliberately making conception impossible. And the Catholic church is fine with fertility treatments in such cases as long as, in the end, conception happens through sex (hence no IVF or artificial insemination).
    I’m also wondering if, in cases where having a(nother) child might be an unbearable burden, the Church allows married couples sexual practices that don’t cause pregnancy.
    The answer is no, but I can’t really comment much more about it — I don’t know much about this situation or how a Catholic would explain/deal with it. Anyone else know?

  • Christine

    I may be misremembering (the last time I was Catholic was about twenty years ago), but my recollection is that if one or both people is sterile, they would not be allowed to get married in the Catholic church. If a partner becomes sterile after marriage, it’s OK to go on having sex though.
    It certainly makes as much sense as describing FAM as a “natural” method of contraception, as opposed to those unacceptable “unnatural” methods. FAM involves taking one’s temperature daily using a highly accurate specialized thermometer, analyzing cervical mucus and position daily, and charting such data according to a specific formula, then abstaining from sex when the woman’s sex drive tends to be highest. Yeah, that sounds really natural.
    Either God wants you to have sex for procreation only, or He allows contraception. No explanation of why one method of contraception is OK while others are not has ever been remotely convincing to me.
    Oh, and FAM (as opposed to the old style Rhythm Method of simply counting calender days) is highly effective. The perfect-use rate of failure is about 1%, with real-world use failing from 1% to 25% of the time, depending on compliance (and the 25% includes people who knowingly decide to have sex on a fertile day, not just mistakes).
    I’m an atheist, and I use FAM for both birth control and planning conception. I think it’s fantastic in my situation. But I wonder if deep down the Catholic acceptance of it is tied to the fact that it is pretty much incompatible with anything but a fully committed, monogamous relationship, and that it’s easy to go “off plan” and get pregnant. I.e., it all comes back to women being punished with pregnancy for “promiscuous” behavior.

  • Bulova

    According to an article (“Our Phantom Children”, by Jared Diamond, May, 1992) in Natural History magazine:
    Of pregnancies clearly recognized by the mother, only 15 percent end in miscarriage. However, modern hormonal tests can detect many other pregnancies that terminate within a couple of weeks, indicating a total miscarriage rate of about 50 percent rather than 15 percent. [...] Outcomes of attempted artificial fertilizations of ova within the fallopian tubes suggest that still more embroyos are lost even before implantation, adding up to a total loss rate as high as 80 percent.

  • cjmr’s husband

    Having just been through Catholic premarital counselling (a fifteen minute meeting, since we’d been married fifteen years already):
    The Church will marry a couple if either is infertile — marriage is Sacrament, and NOT just for procreation. You must, however, agree that you will accept any children that you are blessed with, even if you are of the opinion that it is impossible (ask Sarai and Abram).
    If either is infertile at the time of the marriage and does not disclose this fact, an Anullment may be granted.

  • bellatrys

    Assuming that one considers the Vatican to be somewhat authoritative on what “Catholics believe”, there are a couple of different arguments against contraception, and for the loophole of
    Anything which causes an abortion is right out. “Thou shalt not kill” (unless you’re the government, because what it REALLY means is “no murder” and it isn’t murder when the govt executes someone or drops bombs on them, see–)
    The Church has argued, for at least the past 30 years, that the Pill is really an abortifacient. This is accepted as gospel by every prolifer I know – including the Evangelical ones – and opposed for this ostensible reason. HOWEVER, I know from inside information that the Church has allowed nuns in war zones to be on the Pill in case they’re raped – something I heard about in the mid-90s from an ex-seminarian, regarding the former Belgian Congo; and which was verified in the news a few years ago regarding the Balkans. So the whole “no exceptions even for rape” thing DOESN’T apply to the clergy themselves.
    BUT, you might ask, why does this – granting the HIGHLY arguable assertion that hormonal contraceptives work by expelling fertilized eggs, and also the premise that full human life (ensoulment if you will) begins at the instant of fertilization – rule out barrier methods? And there you get a Sophists’ Soup of reasons from the Humani Vitae crowd. Condoms and diaphragms create a “contraceptive mentality” which will make people more likely to have an abortion if they fail. Every sex act between a married couple should be Open To Life, in order to mirror God’s fertilizing gesture to the universe. (Yes, this does sound spookily like something out of Hesiod, dressed up in sanitizing waffle. I call it “God the Divine Fucker, Humanity the Sacred Fuckee” when I’m really good and tired of reading Yet Another Editorial in one of the conservative Catholic publications explaining how this is why women can’t be priests, not having penises with which to Image Forth the Divine Nature.) And if you’re not married (to someone of the opposite sex) well, you shouldn’t be having sex, so of course you aren’t.
    Alternately [condoms/diaphragms are ickyickyicky] – er, if you’re not Giving The Full Gift Of Yourself, by which we must understand that Yourself is most deeply expressed in skin-to-skin contact and bodily fluids, then you don’t REALLY love your spouse.
    What, you don’t buy any of that? Hang on, we can rummage around in the collective rhetorical deposit and find something that works…Oh, how about this? Would you believe that every drop of sperm contains microscopic fully-formed seed babies, and if you don’t let them all into the fertile “matrix” of the maternal womb, you’re committing murder? What, that’s so pre-Leeuwenhoek? Wait, I’m sure we’ve got something you’ll buy – how about that most couples who contracept, divorce–? Or that the Pill causes cancer? or–

  • Bugmaster

    Out of curiosity, where in the Bible does it say that life (or, rather, ensoulment) begins at conception ? I know there are lots of passages to the extent of “be fruitful and multiply”, but I can’t remember any in-depth discussions of the theology of the human reproductive system.

  • Bugmaster

    Also, why is it that the “natural good, unnatural bad” rule of thumb is only applied to sex ? There are lots of other things humans do that are decidedly unnatural — vaccinations, penicillin, dental prosthetics, pacemakers, the internal combustion engine, even agriculture… Why are they ok ?

  • bellatrys

    Bugmaster, it doesn’t. In the Middle Ages, it was believed to occur at “quickening” – that is, when you first feel the baby kick. There’s very little in the Bible other than “thou shalt not kill” and an obscure, much-argued over passage regarding legal penalties to be paid if two guys are fighting and one accidently hits or knocks down a pregnant bystander and causes a miscarriage (it’s *not* a death-penalty worthy offense, critically).
    Also, why is it that the “natural good, unnatural bad” rule of thumb is only applied to sex ? There are lots of other things humans do that are decidedly unnatural — vaccinations, penicillin, dental prosthetics, pacemakers, the internal combustion engine, even agriculture… Why are they ok ?
    Because not even churchmen want to do without them. You can dress it up with a lot of sophistry about how agriculture etc are natural *to humans* since God made us tool-using animals, but all of those can be equally applied to condoms and the Pill. Partly they’ve written themselves into a corner, by insisting that only [principally-, potentially-] procreative sex is permissible. Now they have to justify it, by whatever means comes to hand – including a lot of unscientific, ahistorical *lying* about how contraception causes divorce, doesn’t work, causes more abortions, has Destroyed Western Civilization by making us materialistic, etc etc. Ignorance-only sex-ed and the birth-control immoral positions have resulted in a lot of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, shotgun marriages, and abortions, among the good orthodox Catholics of my acquaintance. All of which they pretend doesn’t happen, so they can go on reciting their false statistics and validating their refusal to deal with sex honestly.

  • Fraser

    A book I read–I’m not sure which, at this point–said that one of the objections to condoms is that its equivalent to the “sin of Onan,” i.e., spilling your seed instead of putting it into the woman (there are also other interpretations of Onan’s sin, but I’ll leave that out) and that pill supporters in the Vatican argued for that reason the pill didn’t in fact violate God’s law since the sperm all goes to its intended destination.

  • Jen R

    bellatrys: You might be interested to know that there is dissent among pro-lifers about whether the Pill works by preventing implantation. This article sums up the arguments pretty well: http://www.aaplog.org/decook.htm
    Among the pro-lifers of my acquaintance who oppose birth control pills (which, again, is not all of them), they seem to fall into two camps. One camp is going to be against the Pill no matter what, since they oppose birth control in general. The other camp is fine with barrier methods, but just doesn’t want to take any chances of promoting something that might be abortifacient. I know more of the latter than the former, but then, I would.

  • ohiolibrarian

    Does the Catholic Church have any allowance for contraception for women who might die the next time they become pregnant? Having many children in a short period used to be a major killer of women.
    Would you believe that every drop of sperm contains microscopic fully-formed seed babies, and if you don’t let them all into the fertile “matrix” of the maternal womb, you’re committing murder? What, that’s so pre-Leeuwenhoek?
    How about a rousing chorus of “Every Sperm is Sacred”? I just love the thought of those homunculi fully formed within each and every sperm, and the homunculi fully formed in those homonuculi and so on ad infinitum. So much for genetics.

  • Lucia

    Does the Catholic Church have any allowance for contraception for women who might die the next time they become pregnant?
    I should let David or someone else with actual knowledge of Church doctrine field this one, but in a novel I read the protagonist, who has been advised by her doctor not to get pregnant again, asks her priest this very question. He says no, if she and her unborn child both died it would be God’s will. She goes away, thinks about this for a while, comes back and rings the rectory doorbell late at night and, when he answers it, tells him, “You are an arrogant bastard and your God is a misogynist jerk and I want nothing more to do with either of you.”

  • Jeff

    Lucia:
    He says no, if she and her unborn child both died it would be God’s will. She goes away, thinks about this for a while, comes back and rings the rectory doorbell late at night and, when he answers it, tells him, “You are an arrogant bastard and your God is a misogynist jerk and I want nothing more to do with either of you.”
    I would hope that she shot him someplace vital, and as he lay there, said, “I guess this was God’s will, too!”

  • bellatrys

    The “baby pesticide” camp is growing, Jen, thanks to fusion and crossover between the Catholic and Evangelical prolife [sic] camps – ever heard of Scott Hahn? Deal Hudson?
    Does the Catholic Church have any allowance for contraception for women who might die the next time they become pregnant? Having many children in a short period used to be a major killer of women.
    Just Say No To Sex, ohiolibrarian. What, your husband won’t let you? He should of course “exercise charity and mutual respect”, but if he insists on his Pauline rights – well, sucks to be you! But hey, the Church might canonize you as a martyr for Life, so there’s always some silver lining, right?

  • bellatrys

    Link to sainthood-by-dying-in-pregnancy story.

  • Jen R

    bellatrys: yes, I think you’re probably right about the trend. Just wanted to bring in another perspective.

  • Duane

    Just Say No To Sex, ohiolibrarian. What, your husband won’t let you? He should of course “exercise charity and mutual respect”, but if he insists on his Pauline rights – well, sucks to be you! But hey, the Church might canonize you as a martyr for Life, so there’s always some silver lining, right?
    LOL!

  • NancyP

    Yes, I have heard of Deal Hudson. He’s the guy who used to be a university professor in NYC, but was quietly fired when it turned out that he was sexually harassing a depressed freshman scholarship student (female). Then he got a job as a Catholic pundit/ periodical publisher, then as Catholic advisor to W Bush, then lost the latter two jobs when the schtupping-the-student episode was brought back to public notice.


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