Legitimate Therapeutic Means: Can Catholics Use the Pill?

Legitimate Therapeutic Means: Can Catholics Use the Pill? July 27, 2016


It’s NFP awareness week. So let’s talk about the Pill.

Specifically, I want to talk about people who are struggling with NFP hard cases, people who are profoundly frustrated and in some cases on the edge of despairing about their faith, who actually have legitimate reasons for going on the Pill:

“On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.” (Humanae Vitae)

I want to talk a bit about this passage, because I find that many faithful Catholics are confused about what the Church teaches regarding the legitimacy of taking the Pill for reasons that are not birth control. Basically, the difficulty arises from the fact that most Catholic sources fall into one of two categories:

a) liberal sources, which simply reject Humanae Vitae outright

b) pro-life sources, which tend to give an overly rigorous reading of Church teaching

This means that couples who are trying to follow the Church’s teaching on contraception are likely to get their information from sources which exaggerate the dangers involved in artificial contraception, overstate the effectiveness of NFP, and widen the scope of the Church’s prohibition.

The costs of this are potentially very high. In my own case, several years ago I had a disorder that I saught medical attention for, and I was told that the only available medication was the Pill. I had been taught that going on the Pill for any reason was always evil because the Pill functions as an abortifacient and therefore it can never be justified as “lawful therapeutic means.” Charting my cycles was functionally impossible, and even though I tried to play it as safe as I could, I got pregnant. My thought, at the time was, “Fear that which can destroy the soul, not that which can destroy the body. Maybe this will kill me, but I will have done the right thing, so what is death to me?” (Yes, I think like that. For real.)

What actually happened was that I had a miscarriage. I was devastated. I had tried to make a very hard moral decision in the right way, and the result of it was that my unborn child died. For obvious reasons I was really angry and deeply grieved for a long time, and a lot of that anger was directed towards the Church. I felt that I had been given false information that prevented me from getting medical help, and that a child had died as a result.

For a lot of people in my situation, it would have ended there. It almost did for me. The combination of grief, trauma and moral exhaustion was nearly enough to break my faith – and it was enough to sink me into very deep depression for several years. I know that other people who have been through this type of spiritual wringer often simply leave the Church. They conclude that the teaching doesn’t make sense, that they’ve been sold a load of goods, and they hit the road. Maybe they go to another denomination, maybe they give up on Christianity altogether.

This is why I’m writing about this: telling women that they cannot receive medical treatment to which they are legitimately entitled is not pro-life, and it’s not Church teaching. It is a scandal, in the sense that it places women in an impossible bind that often makes them feel as if they have no choice but to abandon their faith.

If we go back to Humanae Vitae, we can see that “ the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from.” This means that you are allowed to take medication that causes temporary sterility, provided your reason for doing so is to treat a physical ailment, rather than to avoid conception. Although the Pill is generally marketed as birth control, the fact is that it’s also the treatment for other conditions. Using it to treat illness is not the same as using it to frustrate a natural process. This is actually implicit in one of the most common arguments against hormonal birth control, which is that you are treating a healthy bodily function (fertility) as if it were a disease. If your reproductive system is functioning in a way that places your health at risk, and you take the Pill in order to correct it, then you are not treating a healthy system as though it is sick – you are treating a sick system as though it is sick.

There are however two common objections to this in pro-life circles which need to be addressed: the argument that there are the better solutions, and the abortifacient argument. We’ll deal with them in that order. After all, if we can use NFP to treat all of the problems that the Pill will supposedly help with, then surely there is no moral justification for using the Pill, right?

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