What American Papist isn’t telling you about Plan B

What American Papist isn’t telling you about Plan B September 29, 2007

Perusing through the Catholic blogs in search of commentary on the unsettling news that the Connecticut Catholic Conference has conceded to the inevitable distribution of the emergency contraceptive drug, Plan B, to victims of sexual assault, I came across a comprehensive post at American Papist. Please read over his entire post.

The American Papist, also known as Thomas N. Peters, has been following the story at a distance and has already formed a judgment: “Thus this statement of the CCC appears to contradict both Church teaching and USCCB directives.” While it may appear to Thomas that this statement “contradicts” Church teaching on abortion and contraception, the indisputable fact is that there is no contradiction whatsoever. Thomas’ is a serious charge for any one to make, and one ought not to jump to such conclusions without a thorough knowledge of all the relevant facts.

Thomas bases his erroneous and hasty judgment on three points. I provide them in full:

  • The medical facts regarding the abortifacient effects of Plan B are not up for debate. If administered to a woman who is ovulating Plan B may cause an abortion. Plan B itself admits its abortifacient potential on its warning label and website.
  • The Catholic Church teaches (c.f. DV #13) that contraceptives with abortifacient potential fall under the same moral category as abortion because, when acting abortifaciently, they cause the death of a human being. The United States Bishops have similarly ruled-out the use of abortifacient pills like Plan B when the women is ovulating (c.f. Ethical & Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, # 36).
  • The document claims “To administer Plan B pills without an ovulation test is not an intrinsically evil act”, but for the reasons already mentioned, since Plan B can act as an abortifacient in cases where the women has ovulated, it is at least gravely irresponsible to administer chemicals that could very well bring about the death of a human being.

Let me address each of Thomas’ points here:

1. Thomas is correct to note that Plan B may cause a woman’s body to abort a human life. He is also correct to point out that Plan B’s warning label indicates as much, though in different words. The Plan B label reads: “It may also prevent fertilization of a released egg (joining of sperm and egg) and or attachment of a fertilized egg to the uterus (implantation).” The Plan B website tells us: Plan B® may also work by preventing it from attaching to the uterus (womb). It is important to know that Plan B® will not affect a fertilized egg already attached to the uterus; it will not affect an existing pregnancy.” What can be concluded from these warnings is that Plan B may potentially and indirectly cause the woman’s body to abort a human life if it prevents a fertilized egg to attach to the uterus. All we have is a possibility stated here, not an ability. As of yet, there is no scientific consensus to verify whether Plan B can indirectly cause an abortion.

2. Thomas’ assertion that certain types of contraceptives fall under “the same moral category as abortion” is categorically false and unsupported by Catholic moral doctrine. Abortion is always and in every case intrinsically evil and qualifies as nothing less than deliberate and intentional murder. Contraception, even that which has “abortifacient potential,” is of a different moral category. This is not to minimize the gravity of the sin of contraception, but it does takes into account the motive, intention and knowledge of those moral subjects who have recourse to contraceptives. These are necessary pieces in the evaluation of the moral rectitude of a given act. Thomas even refers us to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which actually contradicts Thomas’ assertions:

Certainly, from the moral point of view contraception and abortion are specifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment “You shall not kill”.

The close connection which exists, in mentality, between the practice of contraception and that of abortion is becoming increasingly obvious. It is being demonstrated in an alarming way by the development of chemical products, intrauterine devices and vaccines which, distributed with the same ease as contraceptives, really act as abortifacients in the very early stages of the development of the life of the new human being. (Evangelium vitae, no. 13)

The document of the USCCB to which Thomas refers states that emergency conception may be used in the event of sexual assault provided the drug does not have as its purpose or direct effect the aborting of a fertilized ovum:

A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum. (no. 36)

Thomas’ two sources, which supposedly serve as the bedrock for his judgment, do nothing to support his claim.

3. Thomas pulls a fast one here on his readers, misrepresenting the facts. Thomas key premise is “Plan B can act as an abortifacient,” and yet that is not what the manufacturers of Plan B or the scientific community have told us. There is a gross difference between saying that something can cause X and that something may cause X. To say that it can indicates that something possesses the power and the ability to bring about X. To say that it may suggests merely that there is an uncertainty as to whether something possesses the power and the ability to bring about X. Now, on the surface this may appear to be a tedious, hair-splitting semantic game, but the distinction between can and may is extremely important in the discussion of causality in both ethical and scientific literature. Thomas’ alteration of one word, however unintentional it may be, carries significant ramifications.

And so we can conclude without a shadow of a doubt that Thomas’ judgment is false. The bishops have not contradicted Church teaching, nor do we have any grounds to conclude that they are “wrong,” as Thomas suggests. Shame on him for issuing such a verdict on bishops of the Church.

Unlike Thomas, I think it is clear that this case is not so neat and perspicuous that we can conclusively decipher what the right course of action for the bishops would be. What makes this matter so confused and turbid are the following points:

  • The Catholic Church teaches that the deliberate use of artificial contraception within the context of conjugal relations for the express purpose of preventing conception is a grave sin
  • The Church teaches that it is permissible for a woman who is the victim of sexual assault to utilize emergency contraception that does not have as its purpose or direct effect the aborting of a human life
  • The Catholic Church has not pronounced on the licitness of the use of emergency contraception that has not been determined to be an abortifacient in the event of sexual assault

In light of the complexity of this case, the question that should be asked is not whether the Connecticut Catholic Conference contradicted Church tradition (it did not), but whether it acted prudently and in full knowledge in the light of the might of the law and the expediency of scientific findings. I do not see anything problematic from a strictly doctrinal standpoint. The problem as I see it is compounded by additional moral questions: Because we do not yet know scientifically whether or not Plan B is an abortifacient when taken after conception has occurred, should the drug be administered in the interim? If it turns out that Plan B can be scientifically shown to cause abortion, then would not the culpability of this evil effect be diminished due to ignorance? If it turns out that Plan B can be scientifically shown to not cause abortion, then wouldn’t the bishops’ decision be a positive provision that provided a good service to women who were sexually assaulted? In other words, the real question is prudence–not courage–where the bishops must determine whether to approve a medical measure that provides a good for women despite the fact that there is no conclusive evidence that Plan B either can or cannot cause abortion.

Jimmy Akin, to my surprise, provides a very balanced comment on what may have been the Connecticut Catholic Conference’s process of decision. Aside from the closing comment that draws an analogy between hunting and medical procedure for victims of rape, Akin’s post is worth a read.

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