st. joseph, a regular contributor to the blog, has referred from time to time to methods of contraception which are claimed to act as abortifacients. This subject hasn’t fitted easily into the other posts but it is such an important question that it ought to be discussed. In effect it leaves on one side, for the time being, the issue of the unqualified prohibition on contraception in Humanae Vitae, and challenges everyone to consider the morality of several methods which are in common use.
I claim no particular expertise on this matter, although I have accumulated research files over the years, so this brief introduction is more than usually open to corrections and additions. And of course updating by those who have the relevant statistics and experience to hand.
First, we should distinguish between the lay view on very early abortion and the Church’s teaching. In this country the House of Commons took the view that ‘a pregnancy begins at implantation’ (rather than at conception) and that this was ‘the accepted legal and medical view’.
By contrast the Church teaches that the essential human being is present from conception. Guided by its DNA, modified by its environment, it develops to maturity not only in the womb but thereafter. Implantation takes place by about day 7, and the “primitive streak”, which is the first sign of the nervous system appears at day 15. There is good evidence that the axis of the embryo is set by the point at which the seed enters the egg. Put “axis” into the search box and you will find “Human beings from conception” (9 Oct 08) for fuller details.
Let’s start with the ordinary contraceptive pill. Or perhaps we should use the plural because different combinations of chemicals are used, usually with the aim of finding the best formula for the individual woman. The mini pill for example contains no oestrogen, and for that reason it suits many women. But in a substantial proportion of cases it will not suppress ovulation and so achieves its objective by inhibiting implantation through causing a thinning of the wall of the womb. The standard pill contains both oestrogen and progesterone, and is more effective in suppressing ovulation. However ovulation occurs between 2 and 10 percent of the time. Here, again, the conceptus will not implant because of the effect on the uterine lining. In both these cases the rate of unsuppressed ovulation is much higher than the rate of actual pregnancy. It has been inferred that this difference is, in sexually active women, a measurement of the number of abortions which are taking place. This is difficult to measure in other ways because, in many instances, a woman will not know whether she has miscarried or merely carried on with her usual cycle.
The “morning after” pill can work by preventing or delaying ovulation or the meeting between the seed and the egg. But it also works, on a long-stop basis, by affecting the uterine lining, as in the case of the long term pill.
Intrauterine devices (IUDs) have a contraceptive effect — either from the material from which they are constructed or by their production of hormones. But they also have the effect of making the womb inhospitable to implantation.
As st.joseph implies, the moral questions which arise are not often discussed. And we must remember that the long term pill at least can have therapeutic qualities such as regularising cycles, reducing cramps and minimising pre-menstrual symptoms. The Church permits the pill for such benefits, accepting the temporary sterilisation as an unwanted side effect. But, by the normal application of moral theology, the intended and unintended effects must be proportionate. For a sexually active woman the symptoms which the pill is intended to relieve might have to be very disabling to provide justification in the face of the abortion danger.
I have not attempted to reach a conclusion on these matters, and I hope that your comments and thoughts will help me to do so. It may even be possible to publish a column in the CH in due course based on what I have written, but taking your comments into account.