Fertility and Gender is a collection of papers mainly derived from a conference by the Linacre Centre (now the Anscombe Bioethics Centre). It is edited by Helen Watt (£16). The subjects are marriage and meaning, contraception, virtue and technology, HIV prevention and the ethical treatment of infertility. Its central assumption is the moral aspects of the marriage act, as taught by the Magisterium, regarded in terms of its procreative and unitive aspects. The form of the marriage act is procreative in the sense that its structure is directed towards a procreative outcome. That is, we can properly refer to it as a reproductive act through its own nature. This identity is not a matter of what the participators intend, nor whether or not conception is a possibility at the time. Its dynamic is as it is because God made it so.
It follows that the contraceptive intention motivating the use of the safe period (NFP) is strictly irrelevant – as is, for example, the possibility that the wife cannot conceive because of age or because she is pregnant already. For in all such cases the reproductive identity of the act is preserved.
The unitive purpose is not separable from the reproductive form. That is, its unitive character necessarily involves the reproductive character of the act. Reciprocally, conception taking place through methods which are not part of the marital embrace (the obvious, but not exclusive, example is the test tube) violate the unitive character of the act.
This description is amplified by John Paul II in his Theology of the Body. It is not a secret, however, that acceptance of the intrinsic evil of the contraceptive act is by no means universal, even among the clergy. It is, as one might say, more honoured in the breach than in the observance. There are those, such as the priest demographer Andrew Greeley, who would claim that this doctrine has a major responsibility for the gross diminishment of the Church, at least in the developed countries. He would not be alone if he claimed that it has been taught by the Magisterium but has not been received by the Church.
In my conversations with several people I am clear that in many cases those who disagree with the Church’s ruling do not fully understand it. These papers will be invaluable to those prepared to accept the possibility that they are among the number.
They may be provoked into so doing by reflecting on a point to which reference is often made in this collection: accept that you can separate the marital act from either its procreative or its unitive form and then explain why it should be confined to marriage or indeed why the exercise of genital sexuality should have any intrinsic rules. If an act has no inherent form, then the concept of perverting (or deforming, if you wish) that act has no meaning. Indeed, more than one contributor argues that an inability to accept the central assumption of the papers is inconsistent with the virtue of chastity.
Nevertheless, some important issues are not addressed here. The collection cannot be criticised for this; it was not the objective. But it is as well to note that these issues exist, although I do not have space for an exhaustive account.
The papal commission of the 1960s, which recommended a fundamental change in the Magisterium’s teaching on contraception, indeed recognised the special value to be accorded to the marital act in the fullness of its reproductive and unitive nature. But it was unable to demonstrate that contraceptive intercourse as such was contrary to the Natural Law and therefore wrong under all circumstances. This demonstration is still not forthcoming.
Consideration needs to be given to what is meant by stating that the marital act, and its consequent imperatives, is formed by God. At a biological level it is a product of evolution. The natural rate of female fertility is an adaptive answer to the need to reproduce population. Throughout the history of the human race up to about a century ago, it was necessary for a wife to average some seven or eight pregnancies for this to be achieved. This is no longer so. Maintaining that biological structure is an immutable datum for behaviour certainly invites questions.
A cardinal issue in the commission’s debate was that a reliable study had shown that while well-motivated, active, Catholic couples had on the whole valued natural family planning, a large majority had also found it had harmed their relationship in various ways. This is no place to discuss the issue; I merely note that experience shows that the use of the safe period can endanger as well as benefit the unitive expression of a marriage.
McCarthy and Pruss’s paper is enlightening when they argue that permitting serodiscordant married couples to use condoms as prophylactics would remove “the foundation for the Church’s position on sexual ethics in a way which has very serious implications”. This is correct: the verdict follows ineluctably from the basic assumption I have described above. Others argue that the inevitability of such a grotesque conclusion throws serious doubt on the integrity of the assumption itself. It seems likely that the problem caused by settling for either solution is the latent reason for the Church declining to decide.
What does seem clear to me, however, is that those who are making moral choices about the conduct of marriage should be familiar both with the arguments in this collection, and the difficulties which those arguments present.