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The Moral Difference Between Contraception and Natural Family Planning




Doug McManaman

I have always told my students that it was the Church's teaching on Contraception that finally convinced me that the Catholic Church has the charism of infallibility (the organ of which is the Magisterium). I was always fascinated with the issue of contraceptive birth control while a university student. Early on in my studies I just couldn't see what was wrong with using contraceptives. But thank God I had professors who were faithful to the teachings of the Church on this issue. I recall walking home one day and suddenly realizing that a couple simply had no right contracepting their act of intercourse. This insight came over me all at once, and from that day onward I began to research the philosophical basis for such an insight. When I discovered, after years of research, that the Church's teaching on contraceptive birth control was in accordance with the fundamental principle of ethics, I became convinced that the voice of the Church on this issue (which resounded against it for two thousand years) was more than merely the voice of a group of celibates in Rome. It was the voice of Christ, who promised to speak through the Apostles until the end of time (Lk 10, 16), not to mention his promise that the Holy Spirit would lead the Church to the complete truth (Jn 16, 13).

For the last twelve years I have had to find ways to make the Church's teaching on contraception intelligible and convincing for young people, and I believe that I have done so - at the price, mind you, of a very dry presentation. And I have found that it is much easier to teach adolescents about the immoral nature of contraception than it is adults. For the most part, adolescents (seventeen to nineteen years of age) have not made contraceptive choices in their lives, at least not on the level of a life-style choice, and so they tend not to be fixed into certain modes of behavior, such as contraceptive behavior. This is not the case for most adults. Consequently, adolescents tend to be more open to truth about this issue - but certainly not so open as to forgo a good fight. Moreover, I am not so naive as to think that we can convince most people in this country that contraception is a disordered choice. For we live in a country in which the majority thinks that it is perfectly okay to destroy a developing human life in the womb if such a life proves inconvenient. There is little hope that we can persuade such a people all at once and within the foreseeable future that preventing possible human life from becoming an actuality is morally wrong. Such a task can only be accomplished one person at a time, and I am convinced that the right time to begin this rather laborious task is adolescence.

It has been my experience that students believe, initially at least, that the Church condemns the use of contraception because it is unnatural, while She allows the use of Natural Family Planning because it is natural. But this is not so. The fact that one method is natural and the other is not morally relevant. There are many things that are unnatural, which are not immoral. Rather, the moral nature of an action is determined by the relationship that exists between the will and the basic intelligible human good that the will bears upon - in this case, human life. Contraception is a life issue, primarily. From this angle alone will we be able to see that there is a very real difference between the legitimate use of Natural Family Planning and Contraception. We will illustrate the difference using the example of two couples, both of whom we will assume have a very good reason not to have another child; the one couple having chosen a contraceptive means to realize that end, the other, Natural Family Planning. But before we go into this, we should recall some general principles relating to the life issues.

First, we shape our moral identity by the choices that we make. It is not true that 'you are what you eat'. If that were so, most of us would avoid fruit and nuts, as Garfield once said. Rather, 'you are what you choose'. We become what we choose. If I choose to steal, I become a thief. If I choose to kill, I am a killer. Now, homicide is primarily in the will. If I murder someone, I will that he or she no longer live. I will that he or she be deprived of the basic intelligible good of human life. My will is directed against human life. A dog is not capable of homicide; for a dog has no will. For the will is the rational appetite. The dog is not rational, but merely sentient. The dog has sense appetites, but no intellectual appetite (or will power). The dog pursues sensible goods, such as the smell of cooked meat, but not intelligible goods, such as truth, beauty, friendship, or integrity. Only a sane human being is capable of homicide. But one need not actually kill anybody physically in order to acquire the moral identity of a murderer, that is, to become a killer. I may intend to kill a person, perform an act with that intention, and actually convince myself that I have succeeded without actually having done so (i.e., I could hire a hit man to kill my wife without realizing that he is in fact an undercover police officer). By choosing to conclude a deal with such a person to have my wife eliminated, I take on the moral identity of a killer, even though my wife was not to be killed. For I have made a choice to murder my wife. I am a killer. The action was a murderous action, even though the act did not result in her death. What makes the action an act of killing, morally speaking (as opposed to physically and/or legally), is the relationship that exists between my will and the human life it bears upon (in this case, my wife). That will or intention was contra-life. Morally speaking, there is no difference between that action (concluding a deal with the undercover cop) and actually succeeding in killing my wife. There is only a physical difference.

Now, what does this have to do with contraception and NFP? Contraception is not homicide (unless of course we are talking about abortifacients, which are not, strictly speaking, contraception - and the pill, at times, acts as an abortifacient). But what contraception and homicide have in common is a contra-life will. This does not make contraception an act of homicide. But if the contra-life intention makes homicide morally evil, it is precisely this contra-life intention that makes contraception morally wrong.

But if contraception is contra-life (as the word indicates), isn't NFP contra-life as well? Both have as their end the avoidance of a pregnancy.

We return to our couples, both of whom, we will assume, have a good reason not to have another child (at least temporarily). We will call the one couple "Couple C", since they have chosen to avoid another pregnancy by contraceptive means, and the other couple "Couple N" (for NFP). The difference in the methods is a difference in the means, not the end. There is no moral problem, in this case, with the end (the avoidance of a baby); a couple is not required to have all the children that they are physically capable of having. The difference lies in the means chosen to realize that end.

Firstly, the couples consider having sex.

Couple C

1. Consider having sex

Couple N

1. Consider having sex

But they realize that they have a good reason to avoid a pregnancy. If they perform the sexual act, they may initiate a new life. So, they project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse.

Couple C

1. Consider having sex
2. They project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse.

Couple N

1. Consider having sex
2. They project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse.

It is at this point that the couples choose differently. Couple C chooses to have sex, and at the same time chooses to make a further choice - to contracept. Couple N chooses not to have sex. Consider the table below.

Couple C

1. Consider the sex act.
2. They project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse.
3. They decide to have sex, and they choose to prevent that possible baby from becoming an actuality.

Couple N

1. Consider the sex act.
2. They project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse.
3. They choose not to have sex.

Couple N has chosen not to do something. They have a good reason not to have another baby, and since sexual intercourse is a life giving action, they have a good reason not to have sex. And so their decision not to have sex is reasonable.

Couple C chooses to have sex even though they have a good reason not to. So even at this point, it is enough to know that their decision to have sex is unreasonable. But they choose to have sex anyway, and they take further steps to prevent a possible baby (which they have projected) from becoming an actual baby. This is contra-life. For this is an action that is directed against the basic intelligible good of human life. For a possible baby, even though not an actual baby is still a basic intelligible human good.

It is true that there is no actual human life there. So how can the action be contra-life? If there were an actual human life there, the action would be one of homicide. But the intention to act against possible human life is still morally significant. Possible human life is not non-being or nothing. All intelligible human goods, in fact, are possibilities before they are actualities. When a couple decide to have a baby, they are choosing life (even though the life is not yet). When a couple choose marriage, they are choosing in favor of a human good that is only a possibility at first. In the case of couple C, their wills do bear upon something, a real possibility, and not just any possibility, but the possibility of human life. And their wills are directed contra, that is, against the possible person. This is contra-life (hence, contraception), and it is the contra-life intention that makes homicide morally evil. That is why contraception is morally disordered. It involves willing that a possible person not be.

A former professor of mine, Dr. Donald Demarco, came up with a very clever analogy that illustrates the moral difference between contraception and NFP. This may help if the above has not. In his book, How to Survive as a Catholic in a Parochial World, he writes:

Let us say you and your fiancé are making up a wedding invitation list. There are certain acquaintances of yours that you are not going to invite (obviously, you cannot invite everyone you know). There are two things you can do. The first is the traditional approach; simply do not send these people invitations. The second approach is not at all conventional but would nonetheless achieve the same effect; send out notices telling them not to come, that their presence at the wedding is undesired.

Now put yourself in the shoes of an acquaintance who receives a note telling her not to come to the wedding: "Dear Jane Doe: Tom and I are getting married next month and we want you to know that you are not invited to the wedding. We don't want you. So please don't come." Would you feel differently receiving such a note as opposed to simply not receiving an invitation?

My student acknowledged that apart from its unusualness, she would indeed feel differently in getting a "disinvitation." In fact, as she admitted, she would feel insulted, whereas not getting an invitation would leave her, at the most, only disappointed. In addition, the first approach would probably cause he to feel anger toward the engaged couple, while the latter would not. She also agreed that one would have to be pretty dense not to see an important moral and psychological difference between these two techniques for achieving the same end. In sending out notices not to come, the couple was acting in a manner that may be characterized as insensitive and possibly even abusive.

To tie the analogy in with NFP and contraception, I suggested that the NFP couple that does not want a child just then simply does not send out an invitation for a child. That is, they refrain from sexual intercourse, which is an act whose very nature is ordinated to the invitation or invocation of new life. The contracepting couple, on the other hand, by using a contraceptive is sending the message that new life is undesired....

Now, enlisting the power of your imagination, put yourself in the position of the Creator. The abstaining couple that is practicing NFP is acting in such a way that they are not calling upon God's creative act at that time. We cannot imagine God being insulted or dishonored here. The couple is simply not performing an action whose nature is ordained to elicit God's creative act. God is still present, still respected, but no invitation is sent to Him that would invoke His presence in the specific form of His being a Creator of new life.

Contra-wise, the contracepting couple, by using contraception, is sending an explicit message to God that His creative presence is not desired. Because He receives a "disinvitation" in the form of a contraceptive signal, we might easily imagine that He would be insulted.

G.K. Chesterton once made the remark that the proper form of thanks for a gift is some form of humility and restraint: "we should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them." Sex is, of course, a great gift. It would be in keeping with humility and restraint that are the appropriate expressions of gratitude for this gift that whenever we engage in sexual intercourse we do not insult God but respect and honor His creative role.

There is a real difference between preventing something from being and choosing not to cause something to be. In the legitimate use (unselfish use) of NFP the couple chooses not to cause a baby to be. The contracepting couple chooses to prevent a possible person from coming to be. These two relationships, with respect to human life, are morally different.

It is not possible to prevent a possible baby unless a baby is about to emerge as a result of a life-giving action. If a couple simply chooses not to have sex, they are not preventing a possible baby, for human life is not about to emerge, for choosing not to have sex is not a life giving action. But in having sex, one is performing a life giving action. Human life is about to emerge, and that is why the contracepting couple takes steps to contracept their act of intercourse. A baby is a real possibility if they are having sex, and it is against this real possibility that the couple willingly act against.

Using Natural Family Planning to control birth is (when used legitimately) non-procreative. But contraception (even when used for a good end) is anti-procreative.

Moreover, it can be argued quite convincingly - and has been so argued - that it is no coincidence that the increase in the production, distribution and use of contraceptives within the last thirty years has been accompanied by an increase in the abortion rate. For both acts have something in common. Both are contra-life acts, even though abortion is more serious than contraception.

There is also more to this than simply the contra-life character of contraception. The sex act embraces in itself two intelligible goods: the unitive and the procreative. These two goods constitute the human good of marriage. There is a nuptial or conjugal meaning to the sex act. The unitive and procreative goods together form a whole, and the attack on one is an attack on the other, which amounts to an attack on the human good of marriage as a whole. By intentionally rendering the marriage act sterile, the two actually intend to limit their mutual self-giving (the unitive good); for their self-giving is completed in the conception of new human life. The NFP couple only accepts the limitation of their mutual self-giving; they do not intend it. What effect this has on a marriage relationship has been and continues to be documented. But this is something we have neither the space nor the time to go into at this point.

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