Legitimate Therapeutic Means: Can Catholics Use the Pill?

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


Everything Might Be An Abortifacient

Probably the most common objection to the legitimate use of the Pill is that it’s supposed to be an abortifacient. If this were true, it would be a serious consideration – but according to the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, there’s not especially good evidence to support this claim. It’s basically a theory which has not been proven, but which is repeated in the insert for the Pill because manufacturers of artificial contraception are trying to sell…well, contraception. Three mechanisms, including a back-up “failsafe” mechanism in case breakthrough ovulation occurs, sounds safer and more effective than two mechanisms if by “safe” you mean “no pregnancy.” For obvious reasons, pro-life Catholics who are deeply worried that this third mechanism might constitute an abortifacient effect are not a significant product demographic for marketers of hormonal birth control, and since both the pro-life movement and the pharmaceutical companies have an interest in upholding this belief the will to correct it is negligible at best.

But even so, is it morally legitimate for a pro-life Catholic to take a chance? Even if it hasn’t been proven, doesn’t the mere possibility that this could cause an abortion enough to make it morally illegitimate?

Okay, so the problem with that is that life in its earliest stages is fragile. Any number of things that you do on an ordinary Tuesday could accidentally cause a fertilized egg not to implant. Being stressed out, for example – there’s a good chance that that sometimes causes non-implantation. Drinking, even in moderation, maybe causes non-implantation. X-Rays: they could cause non-implantation too. We could theorize mechanisms for any number of human activities to prevent implantation. However, just because we can theorize it doesn’t mean that it happens – and even if it does happen, it’s not a culpable abortion.

Humanae Vitae actually implicitly makes this distinction: “We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.” Paul VI uses the word “direct” twice in this passage – and there’s a reason for that. A direct abortion is one in which the killing of a child is the directly intended outcome of a person’s action. An action which indirectly and unintentionally causes the death of an unborn child is not a direct abortion, and it isn’t subject to the same kind of absolute moral prohibition.

In cases where there is a chance that an otherwise legitimate behaviour might bring about the death of a human being, we are allowed to engage in the legitimate behaviour – provided the death in question is not intended, the risks are proportionate, and we’ve taken due precautions. For example, every time we get in a car, we know that there is a risk of accident – and we know that by operating motor vehicles we are participating in an activity that causes over 30 000 deaths per year in the United States alone. Yet we are allowed to drive automobiles.

This is why the Church distinguishes between direct, intentional killing and indirect, though foreseeable, killing. (The example in the Catechism concerns the use of pain medications in dosages that could cause death at the end of life “The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable.” CCC 2279)

If we were prohibited from every activity that could conceivably, indirectly, cause the death of a human being, life would be literally unlivable. If this prohibition extended to situations that are not even known to cause actual deaths, but which have been theorized to possibly cause deaths, we would be completely unable to act at all. In any case, the purported abortifacient effect of the Pill does not involve direct killing even in the theory: the theory is that the fertilized ovum would die a natural death after passing out of the body as a result of being unable to implant in the uterine wall. There is no sense in which a person who is using the Pill for non-contraceptive reasons could be held responsible for a remote, theoretical, indirect early pregnancy loss that might accidentally happen as a result of taking medication.

The popular pro-life doctrine that the Pill must always and everywhere be avoided at all times, for all reasons, is not the teaching of the Church and it is dangerous to women to promote it as if it were. We are not required by the Church to mistrust our physicians, to believe that they are involved in a conspiracy to destroy our fertility, or to reject whatever medications are available – even if they are not always ideal. When Catholics insist on extending the teaching of Humanae Vitae to prohibit what it in fact allows, this is a cause of scandal, not a defense of human life.

Image credits: pixabay

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