What is your conception?

No. I am not going to write about artificial contraception in the terms of natural law or the attitude of the Church, as confirmed in Humanae Vitae. I want to look at it as a phenomenon. Throughout the whole history of the human race the possibility of pregnancy has controlled the use of sexual intercourse and led to the confining of its practice to marriage or, at least, to a long-term formal relationship. The strict punishments applied to those who broke the rules were understandably harsh, particularly for the poor. By the 20th century, methods of contraception were being broadly used. They tended to be crude and often unreliable. Most importantly, they were primarily controlled by males. In practice, females had to depend on their partners being responsible, and were often ill served.

Then came the 1960s and the ‘pill’. At last there was a reliable and convenient method, and, importantly, one which was under the control of the female. Given that this was a change in a most fundamental element of homo sapiens, not surprisingly over time society changed. And it is still changing.

While, at the biological level, intercourse may remain the ‘marriage act’, and is so used by married people, the connection is weakened. It can range from casual sexual physicality to compassionate romance. Our young millennials accept without further thought that living together as though they were man and wife, is a natural route to marriage at some later time. Sadly, in too many cases, the lack of formal commitment turns out not to be commitment. I imagine that parents and grandparents, Catholics or not, would hope that the unmarried couples are using proper contraception.

While contraception and abortion are very different things, I wonder whether the assumption that we can, and perhaps, should, control fertility by modern methods, contributes to the acceptance of abortion when everything else has failed. Wikipedia, reporting on Catholic attitudes to abortion, tells us “Although the church hierarchy campaigns against abortion and its legalization in all circumstances, including threats to a woman’s life or health and pregnancy from rape, many Catholics disagree with this position, according to several surveys of Western Catholic views”.
None of this is surprising. When the human race changes the way it does things, and particularly when it occurs as something so fundamental as sex and breeding, we should not be surprised if the mores of society change as a result. And we are only just at the beginning.
How do you see the future?

About Quentin

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

31 Responses to What is your conception?

  1. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    // How do you see the future? //

    More of the same. Aldous Huxley was prescient, as many others have been, no doubt. People will always do and think what people around them are thinking and doing. Those around them, in the West today, have no doubts that the highest purpose of life is to experience the most physical and emotional pleasure possible. Child bearing is onerous and children are a monumental obstacle to parents’ pleasure.

    The other day, I encountered for the first time the term “existential security”. When people no longer need fear for personal safety, income, housing, and health care, existential angst disappears. No fear, no God. All pleasure, all the time.

    • milliganp says:

      Thank you for introducing us to “existential security”, I’ve already read a couple of interesting articles on the subject.
      Not wishing to be contradictory but based on different data, in my ministry I officiate quit a lot of funerals and I find that loss of faith increased greatly immediately after WW II in Britain. War is definitely an existential threat, I wonder if people gave up on God when they realised that all the praying they did seemed to have made little contribution to the progress of the war.

      • FZM says:

        WWI and WWII seem to have had this effect in Britain and some other Western European countries, perhaps mainly the Protestant ones?

        Usually during wars stress levels in a society increase and people become more ethnocentric and there is some connection between ethnocentrism and religiosity. It may be in Britain ethnocentrism and nationalism was seen as a cause of destructive war and a rejection of that contributed to a rejection of religion as well.

        Strangely the opposite thing seems to have happened in Europe east of Germany, for example the Soviets eased off their persecution of the churches during the war and a kind of revival was happening in the 1950s. In the early 60s this worried Krushchev enough for a massive anti-religious campaign to be started across the USSR.

      • David Smith says:

        testing testing testing testing frogs and bears and cantaloupes

        FZM writes:

        // Strangely the opposite thing seems to have happened in Europe east of Germany //

        I imagine that’s in part due to East Europe’s being less materially prosperous than the West. It seems that in the East, most people live closer to the bone. Fear of the future may be much higher there. In the West, on the other hand, existential security has taken hold, acting as a tranquilizer, calming consciences and providing an endless stream of distractions.

      • David Smith says:

        That silliness at the top of my comment today on FZM’s post is an attempt to disguise the comment as new. When I first tried to post it maybe a week ago, WordPress first simply threw it away, and then, when I tried a second time to post it, WordPress insisted that I’d “already said that”. The brave new world of electronic communication is, alas, filled with annoying little bugs, both big and little. Pray for patience.

  2. Olive Duddy says:

    In 1957 I went to Medical School from a Convent boarding school with the Headmistress’ advice not to sleep with the boys as they would not respect you and not marry you.
    Then very soon came Enavid, the first hormone contraceptive pill. Welcomed by so many as a liberation from the fear of pregnancy. Previously many women had used the vinegar or lemon juice and cotton wool pessaries or potions such as pennyroyal..
    Very soon came the steady increase in the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases including gonorrhoea and syphilis, and the presence of dead young women in the postmortem room.
    At first the backstreet abortionist had fewer clients.
    The drug manufacturers adjusted the doses of the hormones until there are pages of different ones for the doctor to chose from.as well as the intrauterine coils, implants, patches etc.
    The British Pregnancy Advisory Service published statistics last year that say two thirds of terminations of pregnancy are due to contraceptive failure. The numbers are staggering.
    Yes, the young people have been lulled into thinking that they do not need to marry to have a steady relationship, and a good time and the pill etc is foolproof, .but the UK Office of National Statistics ONS publish that the first cohabitation lasts 34 months and the second and third cohabitations are shorter until they are living alone, the man with casual partners and the woman with two or three children by different fathers and in poverty.
    These children are at risk of mental disorders. The Lancet published Swedish research the results of the rate of mental disturbance from a million teens . Those living with a single parent had twice the rate of mental disturbance than those living with birth parent. The level of mental disturbance included schizophrenia, suicide, depression, murder, drug and alcohol addiction etc.
    In a previous study 1999 by the Downing Street Think Tank of only 20,000 young people, found the rate of mental disturbance was 7,5% in those living with married parents, 11% living with cohabiting parents and 18% living with a lone parent.
    Denzel Washington said that if the father is not in the home the boy will find one on the street, then the Judge becomes his Mother and the prison his home.
    So what is the answer to these awful statistics?
    Marriage is a Sacrament that gives graces to enable them to live together from the day of the wedding to the death of one of them.The grace is a gift from God who is always present and loves each of us.
    In the Sacrament of Marriage the Husband and Wife know that God is the Creator. So when they decide together that it is not time to accept another child they prayerfully ask God to wait with them while they abstain from intercourse for the week or so when a child could be conceived. That is called Natural Family Planning, NFP, which is spreading steadily as many young woman are finding that the side effects of hormonal contraception are not acceptable to them.
    There are now Fertility Apps for the couple to record the natural signs of impending ovulation. They are becoming popular of all continents.
    The rate of divorce in couples using NFP is small. . I in 3 for couples in general, 1 in 7 for couples who have had a marriage preparation course but 1 in 150 in couples who use NFP.
    The side effects if hormonal contraception include shrinkage of the hypothalamus in the brain which controls moods as well as the ovulation. A Grandchild of mine says he can notice a big change in personality when one of his peers at dancing school stops the Pill. Depression is a major side effect. Subfertility when the pill is stopped. Increase incidence of cancer of the ovaries and breast cancer. Pulmonary embolism and heart attacks.
    Recent research into the transgenerational epigenetic effect of the hormonal contraception points to gender dysphoria and autism.
    So why run the risk of these appalling side effect? So that a man can have sex because he sees it as his right.. I ask is that man a true man?

    • milliganp says:

      I hadn’t seen the BPAS statistic on abortion as “late contraception” but had wondered if this was now its major reason.
      I’m reminded of the old adage “O what a tangled web we weave…”. At it’s worst, we have destroyed the very foundation structure of human society. I wonder if even Pope St Paul VI foresaw the long term effect of contraception. At the time many of us thought contraception a possible good to help married couples to space their children.
      Another societal effect of contraception is that children are now seen as an optional choice rather than a natural part of life. I’ve said it before but in Europe we have a real existential problem with not creating future generations.
      However, I think the challenge we could try to add address in this discussion is “how do we correct this change”? As Christian’s were supposed to believe in hope and redemption, how do we redeem our society?

  3. Quentin says:

    I notice in the Telegraph today (24 Jan) a statement from the Church of England: “Sex belongs only within heterosexual marriage, and that Christians who are in either gay or straight civil partnerships should remain sexually abstinent.”

    • milliganp says:

      It was on the Guardian website yesterday afternoon, I almost fainted. Naturally (and thankfully), comments were not enabled.

    • milliganp says:

      A few days on and over 3000 Anglicans have accused their bishops of being intolerant and lacking in pastoral care. We have reached the point where having any traditional moral viewpoint is considered a form of extremism.

  4. Geordie says:

    What are our bishops saying? Not much.

    • milliganp says:

      To be fair to our bishops, this news item arose because there is an Anglican Synod going on, and it hit the headlines because many protestant churches have moved towards acceptance of gay marriage and monogamous homosexual relationships.
      During the lead up to the introduction of gay marriage in the UK, the Catholic Bishops were very active in attempting to influence parliament and encouraged Catholics to sign petitions and write to their MPs.

  5. galerimo says:

    To take a look at the controlling of human sexuality, purely as a phenomenon is to take a brave view indeed.

    Our recorded history makes us poorly resourced for such a view. Impoverished as it is by the lack of the female voice for almost the entire Judeo-Christian enterprise.

    Often in key roles throughout the emergence of our story, the female voice is either not heard or misrepresented. “Have a bite of this, Adam”.

    As a phenomenon, human sexuality appears dispensable as far as God’s purposes for us are concerned. We can do what we please.

    The part Sarah has to play in the new era of Abraham is crucial but relegated almost to insignificance. God appears to have little regard for fertility in his choice of her. And her neglect and abuse by Abraham does not seem to make any difference to God’s purpose in the end. Why then should a marriage mean any more for us?

    Do what you like with sex, God can make it happen or not happen anyway!

    Even with the angel of death sent from heaven to kill all the new born, women were still pivotal in the emergence of God’s chosen ones as a People – as sexual beings their power was not limited to procreation; their sexuality meant and means more.

    Without Shiphrah and Puah, without Moses’ mother and sister, without the treacherously compassionate daughter of the Pharaoh and her loyal female attendants, without the quick thinking Zipporah, God’s amazing purposes would not have played out as they did in the liberation from slavery.

    In their sexual activity as mothers and lovers, these women made it happen and controlling morality didn’t matter, or at least, didn’t appear (phenomenon) to matter.

    Appearances (phenomenon) surrounding Hannah, mother of Samuel the king maker, herself the barren second wife, apparently favoured by God regardless of any propensity for procreation, she presents as one whose God appears to have scant regard for female fertility – it is not key- even God can rustle it up when it is needed.

    Evidently (phenomenon) the power rape of Bathsheba by God’s anointed King David is another instance of our cultural education around the value of sex quite definitely as a means to an end.

    Here is a very powerful woman; without her Solomon’s own half-brother Adonijah might have replaced him on the throne or managed to usurp him; her sexual activity is not confined to child bearing; rather it defines her powerful role as a nation maker.

    Marriage and sexuality, as phenomena amount to no more that a simple human contract. Like any human contract it can be negotiated, voided or renewed between differing partners and re-negotiated for both old and new partners.

    In fact our science makes the pro-creation of children totally independent of consensual sexual activity between a bonded male and female. And as you say, this is just the starting point.

    So those who see themselves as, “in but not of the world”, are free to include God in their marital social contract if they wish.

    But it would appear from the Wikipedia source you mention that even Catholics of the West, who are prepared to include God also can exclude God when it might come to aborting – and exclude in large numbers.

    As for the future of sex and marriage, phenomenally speaking, thank God it no longer belongs to us – given what we have done with it in our past.

    • David Smith says:

      galerimo writes:

      // those who see themselves as, “in but not of the world”, are free to include God in their marital social contract if they wish //

      Oh, good! :o)

    • milliganp says:

      Galerimo, I gave up trying to understand what point you were trying to make as, amongst other tings, I do not understand your use of the word phenomena. Nevertheless it’s a very “woke” interpretation of scripture.
      I’ll just comment on 2 points. Firstly in Romans 5, Paul attributes the first sin to Adam, not Eve. Secondly, to describe the adultery between David and Bathsheba as “power rape” is not in any way borne out by the story. Bathsheba eventually marries David and becomes the mother of Solomon.
      Yes, the story challenges us as to how we see the role of women but, for me, the fact the Bathsheba co-operates makes her a far more powerful woman than if she had merely been a victim.

      • galerimo says:

        Thank you for your comment, and your perseverance, milliganp.

        I am drawing on the work of Trevor Dennis in “Sarah Laughed: Women’s voices in the Old Testament”. A good read.

        When Quentin asks about conception (cleverly in terms of contraception!) and leads off by looking at controlling birth purely as a phenomenon, distinct from its treatment, either in Natural Law or Church teaching, I see this as an invitation to do the same.

        What the Bible says about the power dynamics of birthing by contrast with its interpretations – so deeply ingrained in our religions and culture.

        Phenomenon, I also understand as taking things as they are, and drawing meaning from their commonality rather than how they might be interpreted.

        So for me the phenomenon of Bathsheba’s rape as rape is validly described as power rape – since the person who violated Bathsheba was the King. Common in such cases is that fact there is no parity of standing between the two when the rape occurs.

        The subsequent history does not legitimize the crime, nor can the victim. People who assert (and this is not my understanding of your comment) that the victim is to blame are just as guilty of chauvinism however the subsequent events may unfold.

        (“Bombshell”, the recent movie is a great portrayal of this phenomenon in the contemporary, corporate world).

        Paul’s statement of the truth does not, in my opinion, cancel the phenomenon of how our patriarchal culture has nevertheless portrayed Eve as the manipulator, temptress, evil woman about whom Adam complains to God when he whines “the woman you gave me to be here with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree”(Gen 3:12).

      • milliganp says:

        Thank you Galerimo, I have been long struggling with understanding what phenomenology was about (having been told it was St. JP II’s favoured area of philosophy). One of the problems of a non expert approaching philosophy and theology is that it is often worded in terms only other philosophers or theologians understand. As an example, a search of the web with the question “give an example of a categorical imperative (Kant)” will lead to almost certain madness!
        I accept the validity of your other arguments. As a man, I can’t help but be tainted with a male point of view. I’ll add “Sarah Laughed:….” to my “books I ought to read” list.

  6. Quentin says:

    It is some while since I have reminded contributors that a contribution must not exceed 600 words. Galerimo has cleverly just got within the maximum! Olive Duddy’s comment above is over the maximum. I have not removed this because of her professional standing and because of the value of her information.
    In my, now, long experience of this Blog, I know that readers are likely to omit, or just glance, at lengthy contributions. What we do achieve on this Blog is serious conversation, generally of high value. It is best done with contributions from 10 words to, say, 300 words.

  7. ignatius says:

    RE Olive Duddy’s post.
    That was very informative and helpful confirming as it does ones overall impression of the direction travelled by the last 2-3 generations. I was born in 1953 and grew up in a strongly atheistic and sexually amoral environment with the usual foreseeable results. I came to my senses in my early thirties after christian conversion.
    When , at fourty, I married I found myself in agreement with several my long term male friends who had travelled a similar path (but not become church goers). We all agreed that we wished we had met and married our partners 15 years before and thus saved the heartache and general disarray we had either caused or been subjected to.

    The point I would like to make though is that it took me to the age of 50 before I was in a sufficiently ‘woke’ state as a catholic man to see that NFP might have been a good line to take…so there’s a pretty uphill struggle ahead for those who try to affect the morality of culture. Having said that I do think the tide is turning a little. I was surprised and pleased to see Donald Trump’s support of the right to life movement .

  8. FZM says:

    I’m reminded of the old adage “O what a tangled web we weave…”. At it’s worst, we have destroyed the very foundation structure of human society. I wonder if even Pope St Paul VI foresaw the long term effect of contraception. At the time many of us thought contraception a possible good to help married couples to space their children.

    Another societal effect of contraception is that children are now seen as an optional choice rather than a natural part of life. I’ve said it before but in Europe we have a real existential problem with not creating future generations.

    I remember a couple of news reports over Christmas indicating that Japan may be the first developed country to run into the ‘demographic winter’, when the base of workers contributing to the tax system is too small to support the old and the repayments on the national debt simultaneously. Many Western European countries are aiming to avoid this by increasing immigration from cultures in which abortion is more taboo and larger families are the norm. I saw last year that what seems to be the first significant mainstream book about the long term impact of this has been published; Prof. Eric Kaufman’s ‘Whiteshift’. This may in the longer term correct the change, by the relatively rapid demographic replacement of the ethnic and cultural groups most invested in it.

    I’ve also noticed that the book ‘Sex and Culture’ first published by the British anthropologist J.D. Unwin 1930s has been getting talked about recently, Unwin studied several dozen cultures and noticed that sexual liberalisation seemed to be correlated with social and cultural decline, usually within 3 generations. This blog has an interesting summary: https://www.kirkdurston.com/blog/unwin

    • David Smith says:

      Thanks, FZM, for the blog and book references.

      Interesting, and, of course, discouraging. One reason why it may be different this time is that modern societies are no longer homogeneous but rather, mobile and fluid. On the other hand, modern mass media seem to have the power to create a sort of de facto homogeneity.

      • milliganp says:

        The recent election win by the Conservatives may also be down to the working classes being less morally liberal than metropolitan elites. All the Democratic party contenders for selection for the next US presidential election are on the moral far left, I would not be surprised if this becomes their undoing

  9. Iona says:

    Long though Olive Duddy’s post is, I read every word of it.
    And should like to ask her:
    “Recent research into the transgenerational epigenetic effect of the hormonal contraception points to gender dysphoria and autism”.
    Could you give us the reference, Olive? I was aware of the link – or apparent link – between a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder (at least in girls) and gender dysphoria, but knew nothing of the possibility of a transgenerational epigenetic effect.

    • Olive Duddy says:

      Sorry for the delay in replying Iona. and this is another long one.
      Genetics first was put in the public arena by Gregor Mendel who noted transmission of characteristics through the generations. F0 the first generation, F1, F2 F3 subsequent generations..
      Darwin said that small spontaneous genetic alterations in the genes in the finches on different Pacific Island to explain evolution.
      Lamark proposed that the genetic changes could be result of environmental factors.
      This is now fact. Chemicals such as the pill chemicals can influence the ovary and testes, also polyphenols and many others.
      If a woman F1 takes such a chemical it can change the ova that she already carries in her ovaries. When she becomes pregnant with a female child F2 these genetic changes will be passed on to her ova.
      The sexual behaviour of F2, F3 and subsequent generations of both girl and boy children can be affected.

      Epigenetic changes in estrogen receptor a gene promoter implications in sociosexual behaviours
      frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2014.00344/full

      Effects of diethystilboestrol exposure during gestation on both naternal and offspring behaviour.
      frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2015.00079/full

      Matthew D. Anway, Michael K. Skinner Epigenetic Transgenerational Actions of Endocrine Disruptors
      https://doi.org/10.1210/en2005-1058

  10. milliganp says:

    I’ve been listening to C S Lewis “The Abolition of Man”, he is capable of amazing clarity and in discussing “man’s power over nature” he restates it as man’s use of nature to exercise power over other men and, in this context contraception is an exercise of power over those yet unborn.

    “ And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative
    sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a
    power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied
    existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are,
    without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own
    reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power
    over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with
    Nature as its instrument. ”

  11. Iona says:

    The above quotation suggests that C.S. Lewis thought people have some sort of shadowy existence before they are even conceived, and even if they do not in fact proceed to being conceived. It’s a bit mind-boggling.

    • milliganp says:

      I think there is an element of rhetoric in the statement. Otherwise we’d have to condemn those who do not marry, and brand celibates as child deniers.

      • David Smith says:

        filler filler filler filler filler

        Does a soul not exist until the moment of physical conception?

        There seems to be a fair amount of guessing here. What has the Church guessed? That is, what is its teaching?

  12. Olive Duddy says:

    I am away for a few days and will send the references to Gender Dysphoria and Autism when I return.
    Olive

    • John Candido says:

      Olive, are all of the studies you reference have control groups, an independent or testable variable or factor, including a placebo?

      Are any of your referenced studies ‘observational’ in the sense that they do not have control groups etc., as above?

  13. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    // While contraception and abortion are very different things, I wonder whether the assumption that we can, and perhaps, should, control fertility by modern methods, contributes to the acceptance of abortion when everything else has failed. //

    When everything else has failed in doing what? Putting the brakes on increasing and multiplying and taking up, instead, decreasing and dividing? Replacing optimism with pessimism? Replacing dominion over the earth with repression of the individual? Replacing a divine God with a materialist ecology? Replacing a desire for bounty with a grim commitment to scarcity and suffering? Very scientific, perhaps, but hardly human.

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