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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Contraception, Part VII: Response to an Essay by Alicia Mosier

Many thanks to Steve at Imago Dei for assisting me in my search for writings by contemporary Christian thinkers on the topic of contraception. Steve referred me to the First Things website, where I found a marvelous symposium of essays on the topic.

Alicia Mosier’s essay contains arguments which are essentially the same as those presented by Elena during our extensive discussion (links to which can be found in this post). By responding to Mosier's essay here, I hope to present my own viewpoint in more concise and gathered form than was possible in the discussion with Elena.

The primary charge I would like to illuminate is that the Catholic position has a blind spot when it comes to promotion of natural family planning while maintaining disapproval of what is known as artificial birth control (ABC), or, as I prefer, artificial contraception (AC). For example, Mosier states the following:

“What is wrong is contraception itself: the deliberate will, the choice, to subvert the life-giving order and meaning of the conjugal act.”

What is not discussed is the fact that NFP is a deliberate choice to subvert the life-giving order and meaning of the conjugal relationship. Mosier goes on to say:

“Paul VI addresses this objection directly. Conjugal acts, he states, "must remain open to the transmission of life" to serve the good of procreation. But he goes on to say that without that openness, sex doesn't advance the unitive good of marriage either. A sexual union in which contraception takes place and thus in which the procreative good is actively thwarted, he implies, is not a one flesh union at all. Husband and wife are not fully giving themselves to each other; there is a barrier between them, and it is as much spiritual as physical. The acts of intercourse performed by married people in such a context may be sexual, but they are not marital.”

If conjugal acts must remain open to the transmission of life, as Paul VI is quoted as having said in his encyclical, Humanae vitae* of 1968, then it should behoove the married couple to learn about their fertility and participate in the conjugal act only during their period of fertility. Otherwise, as is done during practice of NFP, the conjugal act is participated in during the infertile portions of the wife’s menstrual cycle. Coitus during these periods is clearly not “open to transmission of life.” Indeed, the cervical mucous present at this time (G mucous) blocks sperm from entering the uterus and destroys the sperm in less than two hours. This is as much God’s design as the S-mucous which sustains and conveys the sperm to the egg during the wife’s fertile period.

Therefore, use of a barrier method during an infertile period is redundant, and does not entail husband and wife not fully giving themselves to one another unless the fact that retaining sperm which would otherwise be rendered impotent within an hour or two constitutes such (as with use of a diaphragm or cervical cap), or, use of a condom interferes with sensation or causes irritation. Likewise, for the couple relying on the Pill, the full physical giving is only reduced by the period of 4-9 days per cycle** that a woman would be fertile were she ovulating.

Which means that, in order to be consistent, the Catholic position should amend itself and forbid artificial contraception only during those 4-9 days of mutual fertility per cycle that each healthy couple has, if the issue is prevention of conception alone.

Indeed, a marital relationship in which NFP is practiced is one "in which the procreative good is actively thwarted."

“Some argue that as long as a marriage is open to life "in principle," contraception is acceptable and licit. They make the point precisely: the only way contraceptive intercourse can possibly be morally justifiable is if the good of procreation is thought of as a "principle" rather than as something to be worked toward in the reality of our physical world. By definition, not excluding procreation in principle implies not excluding it in reality.”

What Mosier doesn’t say is that, by definition, NFP itself excludes procreation in reality during the cycles it is practiced. What she does say is,
“When Paul VI states that every act of intercourse "must remain open to the transmission of life," he is reasoning from the principle that everything is ordered by God to an end, and that to perform an action that willfully changes the course of something that is moving toward its given end is to act in contradiction to God's design. It is to commandeer what God has inscribed in His universe, rerouting it toward an end one prefers; it is not to be responsible to God in tending His gifts.”

Therefore, if the conjugal relationship established by God for and in marriage is ordered by God to the end that Mosier is implying, i.e., procreation, then NFP is an action that willfully changes the course of something that is moving toward its given end, and therefore it must also be an act that is in contradiction to God’s design, according to the logic of the “principle that everything is ordered by God to an end,” if that end is procreation.

Now here’s the puzzler:
“But conjugal acts are meant for more than having children. As Paul VI himself states, there is another end-unity-to which they are ordained. If a couple decides they ought not procreate for a time, the need remains for them to seek union with each other; the most obvious way to do so is through sexual intercourse. But how, in such a circumstance, can both divinely given ends of intercourse be preserved? According to Catholic teaching, they can-if the couple does not contracept.

Paul VI writes that "every action [is illicit] . . . which proposes, either as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible."

Now, if what Paul VI says above is true, then certainly NFP is as illicit as artificial contraception, because, as a means, it renders procreation impossible via abstinence during the fertile period.

If artificial contraception involves “willing directly against the order of intercourse and consequently against new life,” then NFP wills directly against the order of marital conjugal unity by requiring a period of denial of that unity -- for the sole purpose of rendering procreation impossible.

“Contraception is an act that can only express the will that any baby that might result from this sexual encounter not be conceived.”

The above statement is the reason I believe NFP to be a method of contraception. For, by conjugating only during periods of known infertility (periods of presence of non-fertile cervical mucous before and after three days post-cessation of the presence of fertile cervical mucous), the NFP couple is expressing the will that no baby be conceived.

The NFP couple at this point may argue that by practicing NFP they are acting to postpone conception until a time that they, before God, gravely deem more prudent to allow it, yet at the same time are open to the possibility that conception could still occur. In this way they contrast themselves to the artificially-contracepting couple.

To this I answer that the failure rate for most methods of artificial contraception used correctly is nearly the same as for NFP practiced accurately (reported effectiveness rates vary slightly according to source).

The NFP couple may then answer by saying that in the face of contraceptive failure, many women choose to abort. This is a fact I do not dispute. However, what is the significance of this fact in relation to practice of NFP vsersus use of AC? Does it mean that NFP couples are more open to the possibility of conception because they practice NFP, or because they are less likely than users of AC to accept abortion as an option?

It certainly is not true that all AC couples are less open to the possibility of conception than NFP couples. I think it is safe to say that roughly half of all Americans oppose abortion. Of this percentage, certainly a sizable number do not or have not practiced NFP, the rhythm method, or no method of family-size-control at all. Therefore, there must be a sizable percentage of non-aborting users of AC in the population of the U.S, since it's probably safe to say that the vast majority of Protestants use AC, as well as many Catholics. Which means that it’s possible that there is an even greater percentage of American married couples who remain open to the possibility of conception (i.e., would not abort in the face of contraceptive failure) while using AC than of American couples who practice NFP. All of which is to say that use of AC does not automatically carry with it the view that abortion is a licit option.

“The method of NFP is never contraceptive; it never renders procreation impossible.”

This is self-evidently false, which is why I believe the Pope’s reasoning to be in error and feel that NFP users are mistaken if they believe they are not contracepting. Abstinence during the fertile period most certainly does render procreation impossible, though limitations of fertility detection methods as well as human error may render it, in actual practice, not impossible, but highly unlikely. Yet AC itself never renders procreation impossible. Highly unlikely, yes, but not impossible, which is no different as far as prevention of conception goes than abstinence during the fertile period, as far as beginning and end of this period can be determined.

Mosier does admit possibility of illicit use of NFP, though for different reasons:

“Nonetheless, there can be uses of NFP that are not consonant with the natural law and the moral principles enjoined on parents. A husband and wife may leave open the possibility of procreation by using NFP, but if what they really and directly will is that it not be possible for a baby to be conceived, that a new life not come to be, their action cannot be adjudged morally good.”
She gives example of a young married couple that uses NFP to delay conception so that they can travel to Europe one year later. Mosier continues:
“Paul VI states that if a decision to space births using NFP is to fall under the category of "responsible parenthood," it must be "made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law." Discerning the seriousness of one's motives is precisely the task of a well-formed conscience, without which we are apt to confuse our personal preferences with moral goods. A well-formed conscience ought to tell us that, at least in ordinary circumstances, inconvenience on a vacation (or whether one takes a vacation at all) is not a morally serious reason for preventing the conception of a child.

NFP practiced in this way is just as contrary to God's design as contraception, but for a different reason: in this case the husband and wife do not use a wrongful means but refuse to cling to the right end. They might still want to have a baby "in principle," but for selfish reasons-reasons untutored by conscience-they reject having one in fact. NFP is never contraceptive, but the will can be.” (emphasis added)

I agree with Mosier’s reasons as stated for licit delay of conception. But they are no more applicable to NFP than to AC; indeed, the bolded statement above is a delusion. NFP is contraceptive, whether for warranted or unwarranted reasons. Warranted reasons being:
“as Paul VI notes, "physical, economic, psychological, and social conditions" can all play a role in the decision to space births.”

If AC is a wrongful means, and NFP a right means, what makes them so if the complaint against AC is that it denies a certain end, when NFP denies that same end? What makes them so if that certain end is denied as means to the "right end," which is prudent spacing or limiting of numbers of children?

There simply is no grounds for using conception-prevention as an argument against AC yet not against NFP. Therefore, one would need to find other grounds, such as the purely artificial aspect of AC, or its body-altering characteristics, upon which to condemn AC.

Indeed, it is as useful to debate whether or not abstinence is a legitimate form of contraception as it is to debate whether or not use of artificial contraception is legitimate. It is also useful to debate whether use of any form of contraception at all is legitimate, as I did in Parts I-V of this series. But it is erroneous for Mosier or anyone else to use arguments selectively, i.e., against artificial contraception, yet not against natural family planning.

*I appreciate the language of the actual encyclical and prefer it to others’ attempts to interpret it, including Mosier’s. It is more nuanced and therefore more compelling. Yet I still disagree with some of its arguments, and perhaps down the road will address these.

**more information on the observation (of cervical mucous) method of natural family planning (known as the Billings Method) can be found here.

Next installment, I will respond to Janet E. Smith's essay on contraception, NFP, and natural law.


  • You wrote:There simply is no grounds for using conception-prevention as an argument against AC yet not against NFP."

    How about this? AC is an industry whereby someone profits from the sacrifice (ie:prevention) of children. NFP is no industry and noone else is involved other than God, hubby, and wife.
    Compare the sacrifice of our children (whether through abortion or AC) to the molok sacrifices in baal worship. There is a direct link as most contraception these days is for financial considerations; ie: prosperity.
    In baal worship, #1 son was sacrificed so that later numbers would prosper. In our society today (as a general whole), later numbers are sacrificed so that the first two can “prosper”. (Tho I would argue how one prospers by being denied siblings but that is another discussion.)

    By Blogger jo, at 5:56 AM  

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