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Reverend Walter J. Schu, L.C.
Does Contraception Prevent Abortion?
In the 1950s a revolutionary development occurred, affecting the most intimate relations between men and women: the pill. Its repercussions were felt by couples, families, society, and the Catholic Church itself.
In the face of moral objections, proponents of the pill hailed its many potential benefits. Chiefamong them was the expectation that it would reduce the number of nonmarital births, then andstill today a significant predictor for poverty. Who could doubt that widespread use ofcontraception would eliminate unwanted pregnancies? And aren’t abortions mainly the result ofunwanted pregnancies? Many concluded that by increasing the use of contraception, one coulddrastically reduce the number of nonmarital births. Even after abortion became legal in theUnited States and the number of abortions quickly soared, more contraception was touted as thekey to reducing abortion rates.
A tremendous fallacy lurks behind this argument. Now that contraceptive use has been widespread for more than forty years, the facts clearly belie the claim that such use leads to a decrease in abortions. Since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, abortions continue unabated at nearly 1.3 million per year. In fact, new research suggests that heightened access to contraception makes the problem worse. A study published in the August 18, 2000 British Medical Journal shows that teens who consult with medical professionals about contraception actually have a higher rate of pregnancy than those who don’t.i As to contraception reducing the number of abortions, other studies show that “over 80 percent of young women who have had abortions are contraceptively experienced.”ii In fact, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, over half of women having abortions say they were using a contraceptive in the month they became pregnant.
Dr. Janet Smith, professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit), reverses the pro-contraception syllogism with unassailable logic:
Most abortions are the result of unwanted pregnancies, most unwanted pregnancies are the result of sexual relationships outside of marriage, and most sexual relationships outside of marriage are facilitated by the availability of contraception. To turn this ‘progression’ around: contraception leads to more extra-marital sexual intercourse, more extra-marital sexual intercourse leads to more unwanted pregnancies; more unwanted pregnancies lead to more abortions.iii
There is another reason why contraception actually leads to more abortions. There is an underlying link, or mentality, between the two. This mentality views human life as something that is not always welcome and, when unwelcome, can be disposed of. As a result, “People often use abortion as a backup after trying but failing to prevent conception.”iv Catholic theologian Germain Grisez provides a concise account of the two ways contraception may encourage abortion:
In the first place, promoting contraception, especially among the young, condones and even encourages immoral sexual activity. Even if contraceptives are provided and used, this activity will lead to many pregnancies, since all methods of contraception have a failure rate. Moreover, the children who come to be as unwanted are likely to be aborted, or neglected and abused, because, unlike children who are unplanned by people open to new life, they were rejected in advance.v
The Anthropological Link
At the root of this mentality lies a fundamental anthropological error, one that strikes at the heart of who we are as human persons. This can be combated only by turning to the alternative to contraception — natural family planning.vi As John Paul II resoundingly affirmed, contraception and recourse to the naturally recurring periods of fertility and infertility in the woman’s cycle rest on “two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.”vii Behind the contraceptive mentality looms a materialistic concept of the human body as an object that can be manipulated. When we live out such a view of the person and human sexuality, it is no surprise that where contraception fails abortion often follows. Sexual intercourse tends to be reduced from an act of personal self-giving to one of mutual sensual gratification freed from any tie to responsibility to new life.
The Physiological Link
The link between contraception and abortion is sometimes subtle and even insidious. This is true on the physiological level, where some contraceptives may prevent the implantation of a newly conceived embryo in the womb. This is especially a concern in the case of the “morning-after pill.”viii But it is thought that other contraceptives, such as intrauterine devices and hormonal forms of contraception, may also act as abortifacients some of the time, not only as contraceptives.ix A woman using birth control pills does not even know if such an early abortion is occurring within her own body.
The Sociological Link
In the field of sociology, recent studies from unexpected sources confirm the link between “the contraceptive revolution” and an increase in abortions. One study was conducted by George Akerlof, a Nobel prize-winning economist, professor at Berkeley, and a former fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is not a social conservative. In two articles in leading economic journals, Akerlof details findings and advances arguments that vindicate Pope Paul VI’s prophetic warnings about the social consequences of contraception.x According to Akerlof, the sexual revolution left traditional and moderate women (who did not accept premarital sex and contraception) unable to compete with women who had no serious objection to premarital sex. If a woman did get pregnant, she could no longer elicit a promise of marriage. Boyfriends simply could say that pregnancy was their girlfriends’ choice. Men were less likely to agree to a “shotgun wedding” in the event of a pregnancy than they had been before the arrival of the pill and abortion.
Akerlof’s findings point out the direct sociological link between contraception and abortion:
Thus, many traditional women ended up having sex and having children out of wedlock, while many of the permissive women ended up having sex and contracepting or aborting so as to avoid childbearing. This explains in large part why the contraceptive revolution was associated with an increase in both abortion and illegitimacy.xi
The Immorality of Contraception
Contraception is morally wrong not simply because of its direct link to abortion; it is wrong in itself. In his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI gives an authoritative definition of contraception as “every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.”xii Paul VI goes on to reaffirm the Church’s constant teaching that such actions are intrinsically evil (intrinsice inhonestum),xiii explaining that contraception violates “the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.”xiv
The culture of death wages a silent war against the culture of life. In the balance hang not only the lives of millions of unborn children, but the future of the family. John Paul II affirmed that “the family is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love.”xv Which side holds the advantage at present? One figure is very sobering. Today less than one percent of all married couples of child-bearing age in the U.S. use natural family planning.xvi
A Compelling Response: John Paul II’s Theology of the Body
We can bring about a change in the contraceptive mentality and help build a culture of life through what John Paul II has left as a legacy: a compelling defense of the truth of natural family planning. In his theology of the body, John Paul has situated the Church’s teaching in the context of a total vision of the human person.
In three broad strokes the late Holy Father presented a total vision of the human person. Everything begins with original man before sin. Alone in the midst of God’s creation, Adam experiences original solitude. Though master of all creatures, Adam feels utterly alone because only he is a person, a conscious subject called to make a gift of himself in love and receive another’s self-gift. When God creates Eve, Adam exclaims: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gn 2:18). Through Eve’s body, Adam recognizes her as a person, with whom he is called to form a communion of persons (communio personarum) in the image of the self-giving love of the Blessed Trinity.xvii
There follows one of the most beautiful lines in the Book of Genesis. “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Gn 2:25). Why were they not ashamed? Before sin, Adam and Eve recognize fully the nuptial meaning of the body. God created them male and female in order to make a gift of themselves in love. They see in the other’s body a person to be loved. “They see and know each other with all the peace of the interior gaze, which creates precisely the fullness of the intimacy of persons.”xviii
The freedom of the gift which Adam and Eve experience is soon destroyed by one mysterious act: they sin. With sin historical man emerges upon the scene. Sin brings with it the capacity to use the other person as an object rather than loving him or her as a person. The nuptial meaning of the body is now in great peril. Fallen man is no longer capable of making the free gift of himself envisioned by his Creator.
In his unfathomable love and mercy, Christ rescues mankind through the suffering of the cross and the glory of his resurrection. By redeeming man, Christ also brings about the redemption of the body. He makes it possible for men and women to recapture the freedom of the gift by walking the narrow yet joyful path of life in the Holy Spirit.
The total vision of the human person is completed by pondering mankind’s future destiny. Eschatological man represents the fulfillment of our destiny with God, after the resurrection of our bodies. Paradoxically, the nuptial meaning of the body is fulfilled in heaven, where “they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Mt 22:30). How can this be?
In heaven the only adequate response to God’s outpouring of love will be to give ourselves entirely to him in all that we are as personal subjects. That is why the exclusive self-giving between husband and wife in marriage, even though it is done for love of God, no longer exists in heaven. As we give ourselves to Christ, the bridegroom, we will also be giving ourselves to all others in him — the communion of saints. The perspective of eternal life reveals the beauty of the call to celibacy, to consecrated life, as another way to fulfill the nuptial meaning of the body. Those consecrated to Christ through poverty, chastity, and obedience make present on earth, in anticipation, that virginal, yet spousal, union with God that each person will live for all eternity in heaven.
The vast panorama of a total vision of the human person opened by John Paul II makes it possible to understand in all their depth and beauty the Church’s teachings on marital love and procreation. Every act of conjugal union is an expression of the spouses’ complete self-giving to one another and acceptance of each other in their fullness as persons. This self-giving love is fruitful, both in the union of the couple in “one flesh” and in its openness to new life. It images the fruitful love of the Trinity.
Here is also revealed the evil of the contraceptive act. Contraception violates the truth of the language of the body. It means telling a lie with the body. On the one hand, the husband says to the wife, in the innate language of the conjugal act, “I give myself completely to you with everything that I am, and I accept you completely as a person.” Yet on the other hand, he fails to give himself in his capacity to be a father, and he fails to accept her capacity to be a mother. Contraception therefore keeps the conjugal union from being an act of true, self-giving, personal love as it was designed to be.
A Culture of Life at Its Most Intimate
Where will the battle for the culture of life be lost or won? Not in any courtroom, but in the quiet conviction of innumerable homilies and articles and talks on the Church’s teaching on marriage and Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body.
Then, a day will come when the culture of life is fostered, not merely in our legal system, but in the very heart of the most intimate relations between man and woman.