Abortion by unintention

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)

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Abortion by unintention

  1. st.joseph says:

    Quentin ,thank you for all the work and the time you have made available for abortifacients on your blog.

    I sincerely hope that it will benefit someone in the long run.
    I also believe that it is the Work of Our Lord and His Blessed Mother through the Power of The Holy Spirit ,Willing this knowledge to be known ,making the Way forward for the Salvation of souls.
    We do have a Life line open to those who wish to move on from the contraceptive mentality, as I see that as the culture of death, and we ought to be living as catholics, the culture of Life.
    To progress further in the field of Natural Family Planning, we need Grace . It may not be easy for some without it, and of course the ‘Sacrament of Matrimony’received with that Grace. No doubt it will be easier for catholics who are living the life of Grace,or anyone who has a mind to achieve it.
    We will move forward as we instruct more teachers and proper Marriage Care, so that the teachers we teach have couples to benefit from it.
    We would do well to follow the example of the U.S.A.

    I am not presumptious about these remarks, but as a teacher since the early eighties and with the experience from couples and non catholics I know how effective it is.It is necessary to have the commitment and the will.

    I will be going away with my family on Sunday D.V. for 2 weeks
    so I wont be blogging until I come back
    I look forward to seeing any comments in the Catholic Herald.

  2. Andrew Lack says:

    As I read this I was reminded of a portrait of Queen Anne. All fourteen of her children died before she did. She looks so terribly sad in the portrait – but wouldn’t any of us under the circumstances. It seems to me that the price of childhood survival is contraception. So I feel relief indeed that the church has changed its mind about what used to be called the ‘rhythm method’ (is it still? I have not heard the term for a long while). It is now virtue. Sex has such an important bonding function as well as procreative function. Perhaps the church has seen that marriage is too important to let sex slip away within it.

    The burgeoning population in this country, and in many other countries, has already had some severe consequences. To my mind the most important consequence in this country has been the destruction of the majority of the English countryside, one of its greatest glories – and it really is about more people; look at France which has a similar population but a much larger area to put them in.

    We have to do something, so I was grateful to see Quentin’s column, even if ‘under interdict’. I have no experience whatever like Quentin’s or others’ in marriage guidance. But, as far as I can see, all these things, from abortion to contraception to natural planning, to having numerous children, to abstaining from sex altogether, have psychological, and spiritual, effects. And these effects go way beyond the family concerned. Apart from the fact that, like any sensible person, let alone any Catholic, abortion must be seen as wrong (I have read a fascinating secular anti-abortion account), the question is only which of the others is least unacceptable?

  3. gerry says:

    Steady on there in the Greek philosophy and logic department! Most ordinary people can see enormous differences between an acorn and an oak tree and between a fertilised ovum and an adult. The fact that we thoughtful people cannot detect any great difference is all very well, but we should be extremely careful about putting more burdens onto the backs of ordinary folk when we express our views. After all, it is just possible that they are right and we are wrong. In the matter of artificial contraception, I will be surprised if the Greek philosophy view is not soon accepted as being mistaken, although many people steeped in philosophy will, no doubt, continue to believe that they are right.

  4. claret says:

    I would strongly suspect that the Ancient Greeks were well aware that if you destroyed all the acorns you would eventually end up with no oak trees.
    I seem to recall that we have had the debate about over-population before on this blog so at the risk of sounding repititive i would just point out that the ‘destructiuon of the majority of the English Countryside’ through such over-population is a myth or wild generalisation without any basis in fact.
    The entire population of the world could fit onto the Isle of Wight ( standing room only!) so there is still plenty of room left.

  5. gerry says:

    Claret, you are quite right, on every point as far as I know. Sensible philosophers, like sensible people would leave the right amount of both acorns and fertilised ova. We can see this in Cuba, where every woman who is two weeks late is offered menstrual regulation, a simple vacuum extraction of uterine contents, when no one knows whether there is a pregnancy or not. But, every woman, every time, does not accept this offer, and Cuba has a stable population.

    (Cuba has had the lowest fertility rate in Latin America for decades and, in fact, Cuba’s fertility rate has been lower than that of the UK since 1980. This is why Cuba does not have the shanty towns we see in many other Latin American countries, and this is why Cuba is getting along quite well, despite having one of the worst economic systems ever devised. Recently, I believe, contraception has become more popular and the menstrual regulation method is used less.)

  6. gerry says:

    Isle of Wight uncertainty. Claret, On writing that you were right on all points I belatedly realised that it was over fifty years since I first heard that everyone in the world could fit onto the Isle of Wight, standing room only. The calculation may have been made before this, when the population was only two billion. If so, we would now need three or four Isles of Wight to fit us all in. I wonder if some arithmetically inclined reader would kindly do the calculation so that we can update this intriguing and often quoted statistic. How many square feet are there in the Isle of Wight?

  7. claret says:

    I once went on a boat trip on Lake Windermere and the guide on the trip made, (what I assume to be a proud boast,) that if the Lake was drained of all its water then the entire population of the world could be fitted into the empty lake . ( Another assumption of mine is that this would only be possible if they were laid head to toe!)
    As for the I of W then i am not sure of its area but when I was last at Wembly stadium, that seats about 90,000 people, I could not but help notice that this figure could easily be one million ( viz. a multiplier of about ten,) if it was standing room only and every square inch was covered.
    That would mean that 60 Wembleys of the same size would hold the entire population of the UK.
    Now I am not sure what the acreage is of Wembley but it means that the whole population of the UK could fit into an area of a modest sized town.
    How many modest sized towns could the I of W hold with standing room only populations? Enough for the population of the world i would estimate.

  8. The area of the isle of Wight is 380 km2 (ex Wiki); which converts to 380,000,000 m2. You might reasonably expect to fit 2 standing people to 1 m2.. Thus the total population would be 760,000,000 – or about 3/4 of an American billion. Check my maths.

  9. claret says:

    Quentin. I am sure your Maths are correct so the I of W falls some way short of the entire population of the world but still points to how small an area would be covered if everyone on earth was confined to the one ‘standing room only’ area. So this idea that we are somehow ‘overcrowded’ is more of a terror for the imagination than reality.
    I shall though console myself with the knowledge that the area of I of W is not even sufficient to hold all the world’s Catholics
    (even with standing room only,) but sadly the downside is that there is more than enough room to hold all practising catholics.

  10. st.joseph says:

    Upon reading Andrew Lack’ comment, reminds me of the typical thoughts of the ignorant population regarding the churches teaching on birth control,especially his knowledge on the Rythmn method. His little or no knowledge is the danger and trap that married couples fall into today, appearing to be so ‘modern’ in their thinking -but therefore knowing nothing in the long run.

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