Bless me, readers, for I have sinned. For some time now I have been aware of an important moral question – which could disturb a number of people. In fact it disturbed me, although for reasons of age it has no practical consequences. But I wanted to avoid examining the details; I was, as Cardinal Ratzinger (and St Paul) would say, not listening to the voice of God. I knew that, if I listened, I should have to write. And so, belatedly, I do – and at the urging of a regular Second Sight Blog contributor.
We all know that a large proportion of Catholic laity, and indeed clergy, reject or at least have serious doubts about the Church’s unqualified condemnation of contraception. I don’t want to discuss that question but I do want to examine the different types of contraception which might be used. I am speaking primarily about the long-term pill, the intrauterine device (IUD) and barrier contraceptives. I will give you a reference to more detailed information below. But here I summarise.
I hold, but will not argue in detail here, that, at conception a new and separate human being is formed. It contains full DNA instructions from its parents, and proceeds to develop towards maturity according to these instructions. The development is gradual and continuous: no particular incident, such as the implantation of the conceptus in the womb, is more than just a necessary stage in the process. This is in fact the Church’s understanding, but I would defend it independently of ecclesiastical fiat.
When the Pill was introduced in the early 1960s it contained two hormones: oestrogen and progesterone. It was intended to be, and was seen as, a reliable method of preventing ovulation. But it proved to have a number of side effects, and prospective side effects – and this led to a modification of the formula in the direction of lessening the oestrogen. And nowadays we also have the progesterone-only pill. Such a pill can work by inhibiting ovulation, or by preventing conception by changing the rate of motility, in both directions, in the fallopian tube. These are contraceptive effects. But its fail-safe effect is abortifacient. It prevents the conceptus from implanting in the womb, and thus it is passed, unnoticed, with the next period. The statistical evidence is that, for a sexually active woman, a live conceptus would be aborted on two occasions over 15 years with the oestrogen/progesterone pill, and one abortion a year with a progesterone-only pill.
The IUD, once the early side effects had been controlled, became – on the face of it – the perfect contraceptive. It could remain inserted for long periods of time, but could be quickly and conveniently removed. I won’t detail the types here, but it operates as a contraceptive by changing motility in the fallopian tube and has a spermicidal effect. But its major effect (through its structure which in some types is enhanced through hormones) is to make the lining of the womb hostile to any further foreign body. Quite simply, it causes an abortion by preventing the conceptus from implantation, and so developing further.
It is not my business to tell anyone how to behave but I would suggest that it is hard to speak of a formed conscience without studying this question. I would recommend starting with a major document to which a blog contributor directed me. And, for obvious reasons, I would value any comments on my technical description, and the inferences I draw from this – particularly from those who are experts in either or both aspects.
It may seem strange to list alternatives in an area which is under an interdict, but in the interest, at least, of lessening evil I should do so. Natural family planning, which is not a contraceptive but a contraceptive procedure, has strangely mutated in the Church’s eyes from vice to virtue; it must come first. I am well aware of its good and bad psychological side effects for some, and its impracticability in certain marital circumstances. It could also be an irresponsible, and therefore unloving, option for some.
Barrier contraceptives, if not infallible, are pretty reliable in principle – and failures do not cause abortions. Then there is permanent sterilisation for either sex. On the horizon is the male pill, which operates by removing a protein needed for the seed to become fertile. It has no abortifacient properties, and, as yet, no side effects are apparent. But it is not yet thoroughly tested and is unlikely to be available for three years or more. Recent work has discovered a key gene for sperm production which has remained unchanged for 600 million years, and is present in virtually all animals. This may prove another route.
None of these latter methods will be acceptable to the Church for the usual reasons. Nevertheless, methods of family limitation are common throughout Catholic populations. We can, at least, avoid – and teach others to avoid – those which work by abortion.
Nor do I forget that moral theologians were happy when the direct purpose of the Pill was to regularise cycles, etc. In such cases the suspension of ovulation was seen as an acceptable, if unwanted, side effect. (Although I understand that there was a sharp increase in women requesting treatment for such conditions following Humanae Vitae. I wonder why.) But the intended effect and the side effect must be judged as proportionate. Is the risk of abortion too great to justify the therapeutic usage of the Pill? That question needs more discussion.
I would like to thank several blog contributors whose thoughts and expertise have helped this column to be a co-operative feature.
(This is a copy of the link above for those who prefer to paste into a browser: http://www.dialoguedynamics.com/content/learning-forum/interviews-and-articles/article/mons-jacques-suaudeau-on-the-link)