Love, Death and Sterilisation

The Honourable Henry Thynn was born on 30 December 2016. His father was Lord Weymouth, but Lady Weymouth, 30 years old, did not give birth. That was an unnamed American lady who, for a consideration, undertook to carry the baby to term. Apparently US laws on surrogacy are more secure than ours. I am not concerned here with the morality of such an arrangement (which also, I assume, involved conception in vitro) but rather with the situation of any married woman for whom a pregnancy would be medically dangerous.

Lady Weymouth, 30 years old, has a rare condition called hypophysitis. It is a complex condition which had caused difficulties with her first pregnancy, and would seriously threaten her life through a second one. But for my purposes her condition stands in place of many commoner conditions which foresee dangers in pregnancy. I think in particular of a close friend who, after four children, was told that she should have no more because of her increasing tendency to blood clotting. She was 32. It must have been a difficult decision.

If we stand back from Catholic moral theology, we might think that the choice would be sterilisation. I know that in this case the couple considered this since they were faced by an imperative to avoid a conception. Their other possible choices were to use completely safe methods of contraception, or to cease marital congress for some 20 years and the arrival of menopause. They rejected contraception as the best approach, not only for aesthetic reasons but because the degree of danger, through faulty methodology or practice, was too high a risk where failure would mean the threat of maternal death.

Would this couple instead be well advised to reject refraining from marital congress? There was a time when the Church believed, and Augustine taught, that the sexual aspects of marriage were regrettable and only justified by the need for reproduction. It was taught that, although marital congress, being ordered by God, could not itself be condemned provided there was explicit intention to reproduce, it was effectively impossible to partake without being guilty of at least venial sins of lust. This teaching was never seriously questioned until the late 19th century, but step by reluctant step, the establishment has gradually accepted that, notwithstanding the obvious perils of lust, a married couple having a fine time in bed is a good thing.

We now understand that marital congress is at the centre of the intimacy which draws the couple together, completing and maintaining the concept of two into one flesh which Adam and Eve first expressed. And science complements this by noting the hormone release which itself draws the couple together. Of course there are times, even long times, when congress must be eschewed; these must be borne with supportive love. But to opt, as my friend might, to refrain for some twenty years would be a hazardous choice, and inconsistent with the relationship of marriage.

So we might expect them to choose sterilisation. I don’t suppose they were much concerned with Catholic moral theology. But in our circumstances, Catechism in hand, we should be. It is of course permitted to remove damaged organisms for the good of the body. But to, for instance, ligate healthy fallopian tubes in order to achieve permanent sterility is gravely wrong, irrespective of reasons. It comes under the condemnation of “mutilation”. Humanae Vitae confirms this prohibition “whether of the man or the woman”. Vasectomy for the husband would be a permanent loss of function – which he might require were he widowed and re-married. But it is harder to see why my friend’s fertility is of value to her life or her marriage when she must never use it.

But moral theology does not see it this way. The appeal is to natural law from which we may read from human structures what God requires. There are no exceptions, though in this case some might feel that the outcome is extreme. But in fact there have been exceptions. Although never formally approved, the Church was complicit in the castration of young males for the Vatican choir. Much more recently the gift of a kidney between living persons was regarded as a mutilation. What was once taught as an intrinsic evil is now hailed as an instance of heroic love.

Is this another case of a definitive law, long maintained in our moral tradition, which must nevertheless yield to particular circumstances? I am not going to tell you what my friend and her husband decided, but let’s imagine that they consult you about this decision. How would you advise them? You might dodge the problem by saying that it is a matter of conscience for them. But you can’t dodge me. If you were in their position, what would you decide?

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About Quentin

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

27 Responses to Love, Death and Sterilisation

  1. John Candido says:

    Augustine and the early church have a lot to answer for. They may have been a part of early human history which is their only saving grace, but to follow their prescriptions about sexuality is just about as sick as you can get. Kudos to time and doctrinal development.

    Augustine gave us the doctrine of original sin which is demonstrably untrue as well as his poisonous and destructive notions of human sexuality. Augustine virtually created the guilt industry that so many of us have fell victim to. Alongside the church’s penchant for legalism and rigorism, they are both responsible for creating scrupulosity and other pathologies surrounding human sexuality.

    Both original sin and his teaching on human sexuality have probably been a correlative precursor to the international sexual abuse of children by catholic clergy as well as behind other Christian denominations. Augustine has been a total disaster for the church. From the vantage point of the 21st century, Augustine can quite fairly be categorised as the original vandal.

    I would counsel this couple to not be too worried about the catechism and advocate sterilisation and surrogacy for their circumstances.

    • Vincent says:

      That’s a straight answer, John. Typical of you. But we need to take into account some elements as they were seen in Augustine’s time. I think we are all aware that lust is dangerous insofar as it has the strength to overcome rational decisions. Not surprising that the first reaction following the Fall was Adam and Eve’s shame at their nudity. Secondly, at that time sexual intercourse always carried the danger of pregnancy with no facility to control outcomes. Thirdly Augustine appears to have been a sensual man, rescued by conversion from an irregular sensual life. Converts are likely to be particularly sensitive to the habits they have escaped.

    • tim says:

      John, I couldn’t disagree more with what you say, but still delighted to see this! You haven’t been contributing much (or at all?) recently, and I’d started to fear you might be ill.

      • John Candido says:

        Thank you, Tim! I was not ill but in need of a break! I get really tired replying too often. It doesn’t help when Quentin is so prolific! I know he means well. I cannot expect the blog to cater to my desires when there are lots of people who read or comment on its articles. Secondsight must never cater to a single person, meaning me, but to the broad mass of its readership.

  2. Horace says:

    My comment 19 Aug 2008 at 2.23 pm is perhaps relevant here.
    It is not necessary to have recourse to contraception or sterilisation to avoid having children when this would endanger the health or life of the spouse. I am sure that StJoseph would agree!

    • Quentin says:

      Horace, in drawing attention to a much earlier posting it is easier for people to find if you quote a short phrase or an uncommon word from the relevant post – then readers can do a search.

      • Horace says:

        Sorry, doesn’t seem to work for me, but try the sequence below –
        Find August 2008
        Open Natural Family Planning –
        Search for Horace (third entry)

  3. Hock says:

    I recall something similar many years ago when I read in one of the ‘rags’ at the time that a man, a practising Catholic, had been refused the sacrament of matrimony in his Catholic Church by his PP on the grounds that his disablement prevented him from being able to ever ‘father’ a child and consummate his marriage; and therefore any marriage was not open to new life.
    I am unsure how this ‘panned out’ in the end but , from memory, it seemed to be the case that the pp. was ‘technically’ correct, but he was ignored and the marriage went ahead in another Catholic Church.
    Not sure on the veracity of the principles behind this but , if correct, does this not also apply to couples who marry late in life and are unable, through age, to have children? Or indeed unable to be open to new life for whatever reason when marrying.

    • Quentin says:

      Lack of fertility is not a bar to sacramental marriage (although at one time sexual intercourse after the menopause and during menstruation was forbidden – a legacy of Augustine again). Use of the safe period, had it been understood at the time, would certainly have been prohibited. But the inability to perform sexual intercourse is regarded as a bar and, if present from the beginning, grounds for nullity. This is because the exchange of sexual rights is fundamental to marriage. You cannot exchange a right which you cannot effect. I wonder how Viagra fits into all of this, or inserts into the penis which provide a pseudo erection.

  4. galerimo says:

    Well, I confess I have tried to dodge you long enough Quentin so with my catechism in hand here goes.

    First, my sincere sorrow for the trauma that the very beautiful Lady suffered at the birth of her first child. I fully support mother and father in their generous love by wishing to bring new life into their family and our world for nurture and blessings.

    I would like to enquire further into the issues with contraception which would be my first preference. Once satisfied with your explanation of “faulty methodology or practice” I would invoke the principle of “double effect” and recommend adoption of future children (I don’t think the British laws of inheritance are an obstacle to this anymore), and then for the sake of the mother’s on-going health, sterilisation.

    My problem would be surrogacy – which I believe to be a legal mine field at this time and not a very safe basis for the child’s future progress through life in terms of personal and social identity. Also the role of the surrogate mother is still not well enough established to ensure the stability of future relationships within the family.

    PS – very enlightening exchange here between John’s reflection for Original Blessing (love your pic John – can almost breathe the fresh air on the mountain top) and the balancing context that Vincent provides.

    Personally I have always thought Irenaeus of Lyons was the real father of Western Christianity and Augustine the surrogate .

  5. grannygill says:

    I don’t understand why, in your list of choices for your married couple, you do not include Natural Family Planning. You seem to have listed every other choice including contraception and sterilisation. NFP when properly taught and followed faithfully is very safe from conception – there are parts of the month when conception is just not possible.
    Also all of life is risky – we can never protect ourselves from all danger. We just have to live our lives as best we may and rely on God to see us through.
    I had a friend who was dying of breast cancer and was afraid, with all the therapy she was having, that if she conceived the baby it would be damaged, but she loved her husband and did not want to deny him “marital congress” as you call it. I counselled her ( which is really just listening to her) and she gradually came to the conclusion that her life and that of any potential baby was in God’s hands. She did not conceive and died a peaceful death.
    I myself caught German Measles in the first 6 weeks of pregnancy some years ago and the NHS were determined that I should have an abortion and were very rude and cruel. I couldn’t do what they were asking so I had my baby – she is now a teacher and married with three children. We just don’t know what God has in mind for us and we live with hope.
    My reason for answering you is “Simply proclaim the Lord Christ holy in your hearts, and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you have. Peter 1:3;15)

    • Just a little correction needed here. NFP is contraception. It was not approved by the Church until 1930 — and then there was opposition which did not clear until it was confirmed by later popes.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Quentin.
        I believe that Fertility Awareness is not a contraceptive, only when the system is used indiscrimitely.Meaning to avoid pregnancy where their is no reason to do so!.

      • Quentin says:

        One can certainly speak of artificial contraception and natural contraception. But the general word contraception covers any action which prevents conception which might otherwise take place. In the context of my article the general word was what was intended and so chosen. It is an elision of contra and conception. Contra, of course, is the Latin for against – as in contradiction etc.

      • St.Joseph says:

        NFP which I prefer to call Fertility Awareness is equally used to assist with conception.
        So to generalise by calling it contraception cannot be right. Also, if it establishes when a woman is biologically unable to conceive (i.e. when she is in her infertile stage of her cycle), how can it, in this instance, be referred to as contraception?

  6. Martha says:

    I do not think my parents had heard much about NPF or if it was approved by the Church in the 1930’s. When the doctor told them after the third birth that it would be inadvisable to have another baby, at least for some time, they acted accordingly and stopped sleeping together. For a husband and wife who both completely accepted Church teaching and the importance of obedience this was the obvious and only answer, and they got on with their lives and looked after us. The situation was replaced by another one which faced most families a few years later when husbands and fathers were called up to fight in WW2, especially those sent to the Far East who could not come home on leave at all. and only returned, if at all, after four years.

    I think GrannyGill describes the best way to deal with this problem, eighty years later, now that NFP is better known and available. It is not advocated widely enough, and should be, as St. Joseph has often told us.

    The outcome of a pregnancy affected by German measles, of course, is not always so happy, and the only answer is our hope and trust in God which she describes with the lovely quotation from St. Peter.

  7. Peter Foster says:

    Augustine had a formidable intellect and Christian drive. His religious sermons and letters and formal works were indexed before his death in his own Retractions and in Possidius’ Indiculum. This greatly enhanced his influence. More recently, in 1975, his ordinary letters were discovered and showed a less refractory personality. We see that not all of his Christian contemporaries agreed with his theology. (Epilogue of the new revised edition (2000) of “Augustine of Hippo” by Peter Brown.)

    However, from antiquity until the sixteenth century there was no distinct idea of truth. Truth was what was written in famous texts; even when there were contradictions, for example, where known anatomy contradicted Galen.

    This vague idea of truth supported the uncritical acceptance of Augustine’s views on original sin and of the purpose of sex.

    The church has been caught in this trap from antiquity.
    Similarly with natural law theory.

    We have to find ways of working in this situation, together with the overwhelming biological revolution, through love and justice. Not a simple matter!

    • John Candido says:

      How are you travelling these days St.Joseph? Well, I hope!

    • John Candido says:

      I was wondering if anyone saw an episode of ‘Trust me I am a Doctor’ on BBC2, where Dr Michael Mosely ran a human trial of 90 people, on whether the Indian spice called turmeric, has any health benefits if it were to become a regular part of your diet?

      Of course, these questions have to undergo further confirmation, but it cannot do any harm if you were to start using it in your own cooking. I have been using turmeric in my cooking ever since seeing the episode in question. I am hoping that further analysis will confirm the health benefits of adding turmeric to your diet.

      http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37408293

      • John Candido says:

        Thank you very much for the link G.D.! Mightily appreciated!

        Your link certainly confirms in my mind that there is something in turmeric that can be of use in preventing some forms of cancer, of help to some people with arthritis and in some other conditions as well.

        The link you have provided refers to the difficulty of making Curcumin (turmeric’s active ingredient) available for the absorption by your body. I have also read elsewhere that this is the case. Your link details a couple of methods that assist in making it more available for absorption. These methods are too time-consuming in my humble opinion.

        I always look for easier ways of doing things if possible and have read elsewhere that taking a supplement of Curcumin is a waste of time because of absorption issues. This can be overcome through a natural substance called ‘piperine’, which I think has a trade name of ‘Bioperine’, and is used in Curcumin supplements to overcome the absorption issue of turmeric’s active ingredient.
        I take an off the shelf supplement of Curcumin from my pharmacist that has Bioperine in it. I hope that I have been not been misled! I am not a research scientist!

        Thank you again for the link G.D.!

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piperine

        A website that I would recommend to all who might be interested in the nutritional value of all sorts of vegetables and fruit, is called ‘The world’s healthiest foods’, and seem to me to be responsible people who are not overtly interested in your money.

        http://www.whfoods.com/

        All the best!

  8. Finbarr Corkery says:

    I have seen your blog for the first time.

    As I am retired GP I suspect I tend to see things from the perspective of today and individual people. That said the impression I have is this that Augustine equated sexual relationships with lust. I suspect that this simplistic evaluation would no longer be accepted. Should a couple decide to avoid sexual intercourse in order to avoid a pregnancy then that decision must be respected and, in a certain light , be admired.

    It is not an option practically available to everybody. Significant and destructive relationship issues may develop resulting in injustice to one or other partner and any family members already born.

    I also feel that the existence of this moral precept is related to the concept that celibacy is a superior vocation. I do not accept this.

    Finally an absolute correlation between sexual intercourse and pregnancy is a distortion of fully human relationships and tends to equate them with the animal kingdom where such a connection is frequently seen.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Finbarr Corkery.
      All the more reason for those to understand their sexual relationship within marriage to be explained in pre-marital instructions between Catholics.
      I presume you are speaking in general with your beliefs not taking into account the truthful beliefs of the Catholic Church!!

      • Finbarr Corkery says:

        Thank you very much for your reply. I am not sure that it is possible to explain to people in their 20s or 30s who have not yet established and independence permanent relationship how they might cope with a fundamentally changed emotional situation 20 years down the line. I suppose part of my problem is that I have seen the beliefs/rules of the Catholic Church modified very significantly over my lifetime. I recognise of course that other people will have a different approach. As you suggest my views are ,of course ,my own though I would consider myself a member of the church. Thank you again

  9. John Candido says:

    Thank you, Finbarr! Well said!

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