When Good Catholic Women Take Birth Control
“In most cases it would have been possible to do something better than what an individual person actually did do. And yet it would be wrong to say that one is always duty-bound to do the best possible thing. That is simply not possible.” -Robert Spaemann, Basic Moral Concepts
It’s NFP Awareness week. While I’m not married, I am human, and I am trained in theology; I know married couples, and I’ve even read books on the moral life, sexuality—Catholic and otherwise. From what I can tell with all the blogging and conversing and observing and questioning I’ve done is that in general, short of “do good, avoid evil,” there is no absolutely absolute abstracted categorical imperative by which we can judge this individual’s actions in this circumstance of this life. Killing people is always wrong? Enter the entire spectrum of just war debates, which inform us that while murder is always wrong, sometimes killing a person is not murder. Bring in something like sexuality, and everyone’s passions get so twitterpated that we all find ourselves time and again longing for a standard to which we can point and say “ah, the right thing.”
However, people aren’t abstracted ideals; general principles can at best offer us guidance, not absolute determination. Jesus said be perfect, but we should note Sts. Peter, Paul, John, and Mary Magdalene lived out that out in radically different ways. So in the spirit of reality, I’d like to offer a particular circumstance. Not for us to morally evaluate with categorical checklists, but to ask us to reflect on what it means to do the right thing. Specifically, I’d like us to consider what it means to be open to life in the case of a Catholic woman who is on a birth control pill.
Once upon a time, there was a Catholic woman, who if not perfect, at least wanted to be good. In her early 20s, she began to experience a variety of health problems. After going to a gynecologist, she was advised to get tested for hormonal anomalies with a top endocrinologist. This endocrinologist took all kinds of blood work and lab tests, and a week or so before Christmas, called her to inform her that at 23, her hormone levels were not what they needed to be—she was effectively not producing enough female hormones for her eggs to grow large enough to receive a sperm. This woman, an unmarried Catholic, was being told that without medical treatment, it was not likely that, should she marry, she would ever conceive a child. Talk about a Christmas for the memory books. However, there were courses of treatment that might help her, should she ever be in a position to have a child: she could increase her female hormone production by means of medical intervention over the near future, and that might encourage her body to begin picking up the production of female hormones. Better yet, this treatment wouldn’t even be too costly, as we live in a world where there is readily available tabs of estrogen and progesterone available at a low cost. We call them birth control pills. It was likely such treatment would be effective and increase her hormones sufficiently that should she later get married, she would have much better odds of getting pregnant.
Morally, the case is rather easy—c.f. Humanae Vitae, 15—not being married and practicing chastity, there was no moral issues taking the Pill. Moreover, should it work, it might spare anyone she married the pain that comes when couples must face infertility. So, she began to receive hormone treatment. While this happened, articles entitled Some Compelling Evidence of the Pill’s Harmful Effects, Contraception Isn’t Healthcare; It Isn’t Even Helpful, That Time Cosmo Admitted How Horrible the Pill Really Was began to fill up her Facebook and Twitter feed.
It’s not that it’s wrong to be aware of medical risks. However, when approaching the moral life, the means, in this case artificial hormones, seemed to become conflated with the end they they often served: contraception. And so, everyone stands against the Pill in order to stand against contraception. Meanwhile our heroine began to feel shame beyond the shame she felt because her body apparently had no interest in doing the main thing a female body was supposed to do—she also began to be ashamed of and scared about taking the medicine that was hopefully going to, if she eventually married, allow her to have children, even though she knew it was morally okay and that all medicine comes with risks.
Her determination between difficult calls is not so unlike that many couples face in their marriages about how to be good in their lives. I suppose it would be ideal if all people called to marriage would just get married and experience the reality of the ends of marriage as obtainable through easily determined means. They wouldn’t have thephysical, psychological, economic, or spiritual challenges that characterize the lived reality of the world in which we are called to holiness. Ideals deal in the realm of abstractions, and consequently lack the circumstantial particularity of lived human life. They don’t address the particular choices we all face in real life, through which we attempt to choose the means to get ourselves and the greatest number of others to Heaven, and which often lead us where we would not otherwise go.
Now, I should note that to Catholics, NFP Awareness week should be a matter of serious importance, because the Church does not allow for contraception—the Church explicitly teaches that
To experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source. (Humanae Vitae, 13).
After all, the ends of marriage are the procreation and education of children and the mutual building up of holiness in the spouse. This is a general mark, though the Church recognizes there are many ways to achieve these ends—because matter is indeterminate and the circumstances which those ends are sought vary wildly. A couple like Sts. Elizabeth and Zacharias might be open to life, yet barren for most of their marriage. A couple may never have children biologically due to issues with fertility. A family may send kids to public school, private school, or home school. One couple might become holier by serving in their local soup kitchen, another by praying for the end of abortion, another by reading St. Thomas, another by forgiving each other after a fight that threatens to leave their relationship irreparably injured.
In an ideal world, perhaps our options would be rather limited—every good couple would fit within a few types. But, the reality of things is that human beings rarely look anything like ideals. Nevertheless, human beings with this flesh and these bones are the ones who become saints, precisely because of their efforts to love God in their circumstances. St. Therese couldn’t be a priest, and St. Junipero Serra left his family to head to America as a missionary. And we call both by the title saint.
See, the Pill itself isn’t the problem, for all it creates an effective scapegoat and means of scientifically criticizing the issues surrounding modern sexual practices. The problem of contraception is the problem of all sin—a lack of love. Contraception as a sin ultimately has far less to do with a tiny blue tab and far more to do with our inability to integrate the pleasure and unity of sexual expression with the possibility that such expression might be open to the possibility of another, whose mere possibility ontologically reorients the sexual union beyond its immediate participants towards another human. Contraception is not wrong simply because it renders “women more like men,” contraception is not wrong simply because young people refuse to get married, and contraception is not wrong simply because of its impact on female bodies, though all of those things are consequent effects of the widespread use of female hormones for the sake of preventing pregnancy.
Our sin, however, is not reducible to ingesting a pill—a morally neutral action*, which gains the notes of morality depending upon if it is being used as medical treatment or as contraception. Rather, the problem of contraception as such lies in the disposition which leads us to employ various means to engage in sex free of grounding in reality. Using contraception is wrong because its use is a refusal to understand reality’s revelation of the pedagogy of the body—theologically, philosophically, anthropologically. Contraception is a refusal to see that our actions in the real world draw us beyond ourselves towards the things of this world and the persons of this world, including those persons whom we have the material potency to bring about. It is wrong to use contraception because when contraception is used as such, we fail to trust God and we refuse to allow the possibility that reality might draw us beyond ourselves.
This going beyond ourselves takes many forms. It can take the form of the mother who spends nine months on bed-rest to sustain her child. It can take the form of a parent who turns down a promotion so he can spend more time with his family, or the form of the parent who takes the promotion in order to support his family better. It can take the form of a husband discerning with his wife that now is not the time for having a child because they have three children under four and his wife has postpartum depression. It can take the form of a young single mother who chooses life, despite the judgment and challenges she faces. It can take the form of the young man who grows up and marries his child’s mother. It can take the form of the couple who opens their arms to adoption. It can take the form of the husband who holds his wife when yet another month passes without pregnancy.
It can even take the form of a single Catholic woman who takes a tiny blue tab each night and hopes one day she will hear the magic phrase “your hormones look almost normal” after yet another round of blood tests, so that should she ever get married there would be a greater possibility that the marriage might lead to a child.
So is the Pill intrinsically evil? In absolutely every case? Is the Pill the enemy of the family? Or is that enemy the human heart, turned from love of God and love of neighbor, which is the cause of sin? Was the woman right in attempting to use a medication while unmarried which might allow her to avoid actualized infertility by seeking medical intervention earlier and then following the advice of her doctors? I’ve heard arguments both ways.
Would it make any difference if I told you this story was not simply a thought experiment? Would it make any difference if I told you that this story was mine?
Morality, much like sanctity, cannot be divorced from the particular circumstances of particular lives. Sometimes good Catholic mothers take jobs outside the home. Sometimes good Catholic couples have just causes for employing NFP to avoid pregnancy. Sometimes good Catholic fathers take jobs to provide for their families or forgo promotions in order to have time to spend with their families. And sometimes, strange as it sounds, a Catholic woman who hopes to be good is on the Pill for the sake of being open to life in the future. Perhaps the title of the piece is a misnomer; in all honesty I’m not sure if I’m a good Catholic woman, though I hope to be one eventually. But neither am I dead yet; so long as that’s the case, I can only ask that Heaven might go easy on me. And perhaps, for all those who also hope to be good and are trying their best to love God and neighbor in their living of life, we too ought to go easy on them. After all, philosophy is necessarily abstract, and there truly are more particular things in Heaven and on Earth than any of us could dream of in our philosophy. Sanctity is not about philosophy, moral or otherwise—sanctity is, at heart, about love.
*I want to make clear that using the Pill for hormonal treatment should only be undertaken at the guidance of trained medical professionals, and is not some panacea. Also, it is not always the necessary or best course of treatment, however in some cases it is. Moreover, if you are in the position of taking it for valid medical reasons, it might, depending on your state in life, be worth discussing your particular circumstance with your priest and/or spiritual director to ensure things are morally ok given your particular circumstances.
Photo Credit: Will Fischer