I’ve considered doing so for quite some time — years, really. Of late, I’ve grown more concerned: “I should, but what might the reaction be?” Upon listening to a BreakPoint commentary yesterday (from the previous day), I was struck by the title: “The Epidemic of not Looking” [sic].
Please note well:
- I am not (nor have I ever claimed to be) a medical/scientific professional.
- I wrote this paper over six years ago, so I concede that some of the research could probably use some updating.
- I haven’t read it since the night I submitted it for grading.
My overall concern is that most of us would generally just prefer not to know the details of matters which might call for serious change in behavior or priorities — especially those of us who call ourselves Christians. With that concern in mind, here’s a paper I wrote a few years back. Conjuring C. S. Lewis, let me simply say, “They asked for a paper.” Conjuring Headmaster Dumbledore, let me simply add, “Let the feast begin.”
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AN ETHICAL LOOK AT BIRTH CONTROL
It is quite plainly obvious that a larger bulk of American society generally accepts birth control as a viable option for females – typically of all applicable ages – who wish to avoid pregnancy. This rather widespread acceptance is unquestionably evident in society in general, but it is likewise quite present in the minds and practice of those who openly consider themselves to be part of the Church in America. In fact, when the issue of birth control is brought into question within ethical debate, passionate reactions are rarely found to be lacking. Correspondingly, such responses are far from uncommon within the context of Christian thought and debate. Such an observation certainly could often be made of quite a few – if not most – ethical issues, for ethical debate seems to spark and ignite something deep within the human heart, something that is often found in the garb of passionate expression. Ethical issues are deeply personal and, when coupled with the evident and not so evident consequences of thought, trigger deeply passionate responses.
But even still, matters regarding the bringing of human life into the world undoubtedly ought to be appropriately welcomed within the thought life of the thinking Church, and, therefore, ethical debate should always find a home for serious reflection and discourse especially amongst Christians. In fact, it should be rather unarguably understood that the Church has even a moral responsibility to think seriously about all matters, especially those that are evidently quite serious in nature and consequentially carry with themselves rather serious implications.
That being said, the present writer is under the conviction that birth control is, in fact, such a matter – not only one that is quite serious in and of itself but also one that is accompanied by rather serious implications. Such being the case, the facts surrounding birth control and its consequential implications should be fairly and adequately considered when one – particularly here, a thinking Christian – seeks to raise and offer a reflective response to the question of whether or not birth control should be seen as an ethically viable option in the avoidance of pregnancy. Therefore, the purpose of the present paper is to offer a synopsis of how birth control is designed to work, give an observation of both the possible benefits and detriments of its use, look at some of its apparent and assumed implications, note the possibilities in play when it is used, hear from what the Church has had to say about the matter, and finally offer some brief personally reflective conclusions concerning the issue at hand.
The Methods of Effectiveness
Though there are admittedly several different kinds of what might be understood to be birth control per se, the present concern is directed to what is most often considered by the general public to be such – i.e., that which is commonly known in the medical field as “hormonal contraceptives” or, more specifically, “oral contraceptives” and commonly known outside the medical field simply as “the pill”. Oral contraceptives find their effectiveness in the hormones1 they distribute to the female body, which in turn are expected to provide a defense against pregnancy or its advancement by producing several resulting mechanisms, the first being openly acknowledged as the most directly intended. It should be noted, however, that these mechanisms are only logically ordered, for they necessarily occur neither prior to nor subsequent to one another.
By Hindering Ovulation
The first – and again, most purposed – line of defense against pregnancy or its advancement built into the effects of oral contraception is established by attempting to stop ovulation, or the process by which the female’s ovaries discharge an ovum – or egg – into the uterus – or womb – so that it might then be potentially fertilized by a male’s sperm. Ovulation, which is often said to mark the beginning of the menstrual cycle, typically occurs fourteen days before the period of bleeding and is naturally consequential to the maturity of follicles, which is intended by oral contraception to be inhibited by an increase in hormone levels, therefore, expecting to prevent the release of ova altogether.
By Hindering Conception
If, however, ovulation goes unavoided, the effects of oral contraception present a second line of defense. Due to the increased hormone levels, the female’s cervical mucus is thickened, which in turn makes it more difficult for the sperm to reach the egg. This thickened mucus also presents less suitable conditions for the sperm, having hypothetically reached the egg, to actually penetrate, which would, of course, result in conception were it to occur.
By Hindering Implantation
There are, still, admittedly rare cases in which these first two lines of defense inhibit neither ovulation nor conception. At this point, though, oral contraception provides yet a third line of defense. The natural mechanisms of the menstrual cycle cause the mucous membrane lining of the uterus – or endometrium – to mature and, hence, thicken, providing the opportune circumstances for adequate and proper implantation of the egg. The raised hormone levels caused by oral contraception, however, prevent the maturity of the endometrium, therefore, making the womb inhospitable for a hypothetically fertilized egg, even if both ovulation and conception were to occur.
The Potential Goods
There are, unquestionably, certain “goods” related to the argument in the defense of birth control as a viable means of avoiding pregnancy, and such benefits should certainly have a fair hearing by anyone wishing to take seriously the subject at hand. Two such benefits are most obvious to all and are commonly expressed by advocates of preventative birth control.
The Convenience of Timing
One such benefit to birth control is related to timing. Though many things in life are clearly out of the personal control of those affected by them, some things undoubtedly lie within the reach of human control. The timing of when one has or avoids having children is in many cases one of those things within the grasping distance of modern Man. Further, timing is unarguably an issue related to convenience. There are some things that a person might not mind happening just so long as they occur at the right – or, at least, a somewhat bearable – time. Today, the convenience of timing when having or not having children is considered by many to be a convenience offering adequate justification for the use of birth control.
The Convenience of Limiting
Another matter considered by many to be a benefit to birth control is that of limiting the amount of children born to a couple. It seems that even most married couples in America see limiting the number of children born into their household as a potential good and would, therefore, see birth control as a viable option in bringing about such ends. The popular assumption is that one child is enough and two are plenty. If one happens to be a boy and the other happens to be a girl, it is often considered that a family is just what it ought to be and that the only thing lacking is a nice house and a cuddly pet. The rhetorical question must be raised, however: Are all assumptions necessarily true? And, likewise, are conveniences always – or even ever – the best determining factors in moral decision-making?
The Potential Bads
Though birth control certainly offers a share of “goods” to its advocates, it also often carries with itself a share of undeniable and consequential “bads”. At least three such unquestionable detriments should be considered if one wishes to take seriously the possible results of birth control.
Even today, it is a common assumption among the general public that people can typically have children whenever they want. However, the passing of time and the advancement of medical understanding is progressively challenging such an assumption. The fact is that having children is not quite as simple as it is often thought to be.
Not only are there natural conditions related to the human body – both male and female – which prevent pregnancy and childbirth even when the timing is seemingly right, but there are also other conditions which have a negative effect on pregnancy and childbirth. Simply based upon the numbers, conception is not the rule but, rather, the rule’s exception; even more so is uninhibited delivery. Quite frankly, it is usually the case that people have sex much more than they get pregnant and much, much more than they are actually able to carry a baby to realized viability. In fact, it is beyond dispute that, as time passes, a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant begin to quickly diminish as she steadily approaches her time of infertility.
Birth control, however, causes still more hindrances to pregnancy, even beyond its immediate use. Even after the discontinued use of birth control, its consequences can be sustained for some time. Certainly, there are many cases in which the effects of birth control quickly – almost immediately – subside and the potential for pregnancy is immediately resumed, but there are also many cases in which its effects remain long after its use. In such cases, the female is often hindered from conception for several months – if not years. In a few of these cases, based on the duration of use and the consequential effects of birth control, the female finds that she will never again have the opportunity to conceive and bear children.
Though infertility may not be the most consciously understood or feared result of the use – especially the prolonged use – of birth control, there is yet another result that is often more sobering. It is considerably common for a female to discontinue the use of birth control and later conceive – sometimes relatively soon, sometimes relatively not so soon – only to miscarriage shortly into the pregnancy.
Such miscarriages are often caused by the lingering effects of the birth control she previously used. In many cases, though conception occurred without fault, proper implantation was yet hindered, later causing dire complications and inevitable death to the once living and growing embryo. When such occurs, the mother is often devastated by the miscarriage, which often goes unacknowledged as the result of the birth control previously taken.
There are still yet other detriments related to the use of birth control, one in particular that is directly connected to its simultaneous and continued use. Though they are certainly rare in occurrence, there are indeed times as noted above, when both ovulation and conception occurs but the fertilized egg is hindered from implantation, an occurrence referred to by some as a “chemical abortion”. Due to its nature, chemical abortion could also be seen as including those miscarriages which occur consequential to the use of birth control even after its use is discontinued.2
The Seeming Implications
Having seen some of the goods as well as some of the bads related to the use of birth control, another less direct avenue of thinking ought to be explored. One wishing to think seriously about the viability of its use should take into consideration what seems to be some implications inherent in the use of birth control to avoid pregnancy.
The Inconvenience of Children
The first – and, personally, the most easily inferred – implication is the idea that children are really an inconvenience. Such thinking seems to be increasingly common in the general public. Oftentimes and among other things, children are seen as a barrier to freedom – i.e., personal freedom, financial freedom, marital freedom, etc. This is seen very clearly in the common assumption that people should travel or “live a little” before they even consider having children. Even within the context of family, children are sometimes spoken of as being mistakes, plainly indicating the presence of the idea that they are often seen as inconveniences, or results that must be borne.
The Assumption of Promiscuity
Another – though probably not as easily inferred – implication seems to be an assumption of promiscuity. Often, parents are encouraged to get their daughters birth control under what is mindlessly considered to be the inevitability of promiscuity. This is especially encouraged as teenage girls approach their advancement into their college years. In many cases, seemingly birth control becomes viewed as simply one of the necessities of living a “normal” life in “the real world”.
The Possible Ramifications
Putting aside – even if just for a moment – the potential benefits and detriments of birth control in avoiding pregnancy, one should weigh the possibilities of birth control’s results when its methods of prevention are indeed effective. Might its potential ramifications play a significant role in judging the ethical viability of its use?
If there exists – which there indisputably does – the known possibility that conception might occur, and at times does occur and is then aborted by various factors knowingly caused by birth control, the question then becomes inevitability linked to whether or not conception marks the beginning of human life for a person. Once this question is answered, it would seem that the most logical step would then be toward addressing the question of moral acceptability in regards to knowingly ending such life which would most certainly be innocent and, likewise, indefensible.
A Skeptical Approach
Simply looking at what might be considered a skeptical approach3 to the possibility of human life at conception, some significant light could be shed on the subject at hand.4 There are logically only two definitive positions one might take in regards to whether human life is formed at conception: either that it is or that it isn’t. Likewise, there are only two possibilities regarding the relationship of one’s position to the reality of the matter: either one is right or one is wrong. Consequently, there are really only four possible alternatives in the whole matter: one believes that a human person is formed at conception and is right, one believes that it is and is wrong, one believes that it isn’t and is right, or finally one believes that it isn’t and is wrong. In either case, when one intelligibly and deliberately5 decides to use birth control, understanding its methods of preventing conception or the advancement of pregnancy, one is running the risk of falling into line with all four of these possible alternatives.
The Consequential Risks
In the case of the first alternative, one such person would run the risk of what might be considered by some to be murder – the deliberate killing of innocent and indefensible human life. Even supposing this risk were not directly intended, if it were intelligible and deliberate, it would nevertheless be liable. In the case of the second alternative, the risk would be more related to negligence, based upon one’s belief that harm might have been done coupled with one’s neglectful indifference to avoid such harm. In the case of the third alternative, there is no real risk, and so “no harm, no foul”. However, in the case of the fourth alternative, the risk is closely connected to what could be considered manslaughter – for though one would have quite honestly thought there to be no harm involved, one’s carelessness would have been the cause of great harm and could consequently be seen as quite liable.
The Voice of the Church
Before drawing some personal conclusions, it might be wise to hear and consider what the Church has had to say in connection to the use of birth control. Undeniably, many – if not most – who readily acknowledge themselves to be Christians in America unabashedly believe birth control to be a viable option in the prevention of pregnancy. In fact, many openly consider birth control to be a wise and responsible option, often believing “nay-sayers” to be either far too closed-minded, far too radical, or far too unrealistic. However, authoritative voices within the Church have at times offered very clear and direct judgments concerning the use of contraception.
Even in 1930 – clearly prior to the most modern advancements in the area of pregnancy and childbirth – the Anglican Church offered a stance on contraception through the collaborative voice of Its bishops. Though it made allowance for the responsible use of contraception, it was quite clear that it must only be used when there is “a clearly felt moral obligation” and never for the sake of “selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience”. Even upon setting such standards, the Anglican Church still saw the need to demand that – even in such seemingly rare cases – contraception should only be used “in the light of… Christian principles”, standing hard against all forms of abortion and promiscuity and further calling for “definite restrictions” regarding both the advertisement and sale of contraception even within the context of marriage.6
The voice of Roman Catholicism has been plain and steady throughout the history of medical contraception. In the same year that the Anglican Church offered Its parameters for the allowance of contraception, Rome offered a counter response, pronouncing no allowance whatsoever for any intentional form of contraception. This judgment was later reaffirmed in 1968 even amidst a rapidly growing population throughout the world and ever increasing sexual promiscuity, declaring “all direct interruption” to procreation as a natural result of sexual intercourse to be “absolutely excluded as lawful means of controlling the birth of children”, including any and all acts “specifically intended to prevent procreation”.7 Though many throughout the years have considered this judgment to be too hard, and have either outright rejected it or rather ignored it, the fact remains that Rome has spoken clearly and unabashedly.
And so, the question: Considering all that is known about birth control, does it stand as an ethically viable option for the prevention of pregnancy and childbirth? Please, let it be known that the present writer’s opinion is in no way meant to cast condemnation upon those who have chosen to use birth control; nor is it meant to stand as either unchallengeable or even uncorrectable. Nevertheless, it seems most reasonably appropriate to deny hormonal birth control herein described as being ethically acceptable.
Though many certainly see there to be nothing inherently wrong with birth control and still many honestly have no known reason to believe otherwise, it seems quite obvious that, when the facts and the possibilities are known, there can be no escaping the reasonable conclusion that birth control is not a morally neutral option. Rather, it seems quite plain that it should never be intelligibly and deliberately pursued as a means to avoid pregnancy.
But what, one might ask, about the goods offered by birth control? First, it should be noted that conveniences should never be simply assumed as justifications in and of themselves. In fact, conveniences often end up serving as snares to freedom. It is often the case that in Man’s attempts to control his circumstances, he finds himself, consequently, being controlled by his circumstances.8 Second, it should be noted that love often calls for inconvenience. Undoubtedly, love often brings its share of intrusions, for love is always directed toward the other, making the lover vulnerable even to the inconveniences of the beloved. Love always imposes to some extent, and so convenience at any cost is never an ethical option.9 And, third, it seems to be quite plain that in connection to birth control, the “bads” far exceed the “goods” and, further, the potential ramifications certainly shed a poor light on any possible “goods” related to the matter at hand.
On another note, it should be mentioned that there are at least three natural ends in relationship to sexual intercourse: pleasure, intimacy, and procreation. Even when real pleasure is lacking and true intimacy could be considered suspect, procreation is an undeniably natural end to sexual relations.10 When all circumstances are right, procreation generally happens, and so it seems that the Roman Catholic Church should at least be given a fair hearing when It calls for no intentional interruption of the natural consequences of sexual intercourse.
There still are, however, other alternatives in avoiding pregnancy. The possibility that the easiest option might not be an ethically appropriate option does not deny that there still remain others – i.e., abstinence, natural family planning, etc. In the end, the fact remains that if one wishes to take seriously the call to ethical living and decision-making, one must be honest, fair, and consistent in one’s approach to and reflection on the issues as they present themselves, and it is the present writer’s hope that he has done just that.
Bettenson, Henry and Chris Maunder, ed. Documents of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Boulton, Wayne G. et al., ed. From Christ to the World. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.
“Christian Ethics.” Wesley Biblical Seminary – PM 712. (class notes)
“Harms of Contraception, The.” http://www.omsoul.com/contraception-problems.php
Kreeft, Peter. “Pro-Life Logic”. http://www.peterkreeft.com
_____. “Pro-Life Philosophy”. http://www.peterkreeft.com
Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. San Francisco: HarperCollins Pushlishers, 2001.
Lowdermilk, Deitra Leonard et al., ed. Maternity & Women’s Health Care. St. Louis: Mosby, Inc., 2000.
Neuhaus, Richard John. The Eternal Pity. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000.
“Pill – How It Works and Fails, The.” http://www.pfli.org/faq_oc.html
“Some Church Teachings about Natural Family Planning.” http://ccli.org/nfp/morality/churchteaching.php
FOOTNOTES OF THE ORIGINAL TEXT
1either a combination of estrogen and progestin (more common) or progestin only (less common)
2NOTE: Miscarriages in general are also termed “spontaneous abortions”.
3Such an approach is illustrative of the Roe v. Wade court ruling (i.e., “the mystery of human life”).
4It should be noted that most biologists today no longer argue that human life does not begin at conception and that most advocates for the “pro-choice” position today argue simply from the perspective that it remains a woman’s right to choose, whether or not human life has, in fact, been conceived.
5Intelligibility and deliberateness are here key.
8See especially the basis of Lewis’s argument in The Abolition of Man.
9Neuhaus, 116-120. (“I Want to Burden My Loved Ones” by Gilbert Meilaender)
10“Christian Ethics”, class notes.