Perhaps the most unfortunate outcome of Humanae Vitae is that it polarized the debate concerning the use of contraceptives to the extent that there have been fundamentally only two types of responses. One response has been to reject it completely as if it had no value and was unworthy of consideration. The other response has been to defend it uncritically as if papal encyclicals were infallible documents which could not be modified and clarified through further reflection and discussion. In this dialogue we would like to look at both sides of the debate in order to gain a deeper understanding of what is at stake in the decision to use or not to use contraceptives.
Lamont: One of the most important contributions of Pope Paul VI to the ethics of contraception was to point out that this issue is of the greatest importance to personal integrity, the integrity of the marital relationship, and the social consciousness of the meaning and value of sexuality. The person who rejects his or her fertility and the proper and normal functioning of the human body is left in a position of seeing the body as nothing more than a vehicle for attaining pleasurable experiences. This often leads to sexual behaviors that are self-destructive, harmful to others, and damaging to society in general.
Berit: If using contraception is a way of rejecting one’s own fertility and devaluing the normal functioning of the human body, then one could make an analogous argument that using aspirin (or taking an antidote to an allergic reaction) is a way of rejecting one’s own neurological system (or immune system) and devaluing the normal functioning of the human body. Using aspirin then is treating the body as nothing more than a vehicle for attaining pleasurable or non-painful experiences. But obviously, it is absurd to think that using aspirin is a violation of one’s personal integrity. So similarly, it is not at all clear that using contraception is a violation of personal integrity or will lead to the problems you mentioned.
Lamont: I agree that if contraceptives were just like other medicines and therapeutic devices it would be perfectly moral to use them. The difference is that the use of contraceptives produce a profound shift in a person’s attitude towards life that has numerous harmful consequences.
Berit: It follows that Catholics should accept that women use birth control pills for the purpose of lessening menstrual cramps, or treating skin problems. If birth control pills are not used to prevent pregnancy, but are used primarily as therapeutic devices, then there are like other medicines, and it is perfectly moral to use them. Moreover, there are plenty of people who use contraceptives who have a high regard towards life. And it is all but clear that the aforementioned harmful consequences are necessary. The claim that the use of contraceptives leads to harmful consequences is merely stated but not proven.
Lamont: You might be surprised to know that Paul IV (Humanae Vitae 15) acknowledged that there could be a legitimate therapeutic use of medications that had contraceptive side effects. In these cases, the person is not willing his or her infertility. Hence, there is no disorder present in the person that would violate the integrity of the marital union. The situation is much different when a person adopts a contraceptive mentality. Within the context of marriage, contraception leads to a separation of the unitive from the procreative aspects of sexual intercourse. Even when using contraceptives in the best of situations, spouses seek to communicate their love while acting against the possibility of love attaining its natural end of bringing a new life into the world. What this does is to exclude God from the marital relationship and leads to the justification of abortion as a backup means of birth control such that the birth of a child becomes a strictly human decision in which God has no part. Those who do not think that they need God as a partner in their marriage will not be impressed by this argument. However, there is another common situation in which contraception plays a crucial role in that when there is an incomplete giving of oneself to one’s spouse, the other person can be more easily viewed as a sexual object whose only function is to meet one's needs and fulfill one's desires. This kind of selfishness cannot help but lead to resentment and a breakdown in the marital relationship that greatly increases the likelihood of divorce.
Berit: In certain circumstances it is allowed by the Catholic church that a couple make love without the intent to procreate. For instance, during pregnancy it is not considered wrong to have sex. And it is considered permissible to utilize the “temperature method”, which is the method of taking the woman’s temperature in order to determine whether she is ovulating. The point of course is to actively determine whether the woman is physically capable of becoming pregnant, so as intentionally to avoid bringing a new life into the world. If your reasoning were correct, then it would appear that in the above circumstances the participants (1) do not think that they need God as a partner in their marriage, (2) can more easily view the other person as a sexual object whose function is to meet one’s hedonistic needs and desires. Moreover, it would seem, such selfishness cannot help but lead to resentment and a breakdown in the relationship, etc. In other words, this reason against contraception is no less of a reason against having sex in some circumstances which are currently permitted by the Catholic church.
Lamont: You have raised an important point, for even natural methods of family planning can be abused such that they are utilized with a contraceptive attitude that leads to the same kinds of problems as artificial means of contraception. It is the contraceptive mentality which is the primary source of harm to the human person, rather than the particular method employed to prevent a pregnancy.
Berit: If contraception is immoral only when it is combined with a “contraceptive mentality”, then why doesn’t the Catholic church teach people to avoid the contraceptive mentality when they have intercourse, no matter which method of family planning they decide to use?
Lamont: The Catholic church in fact does teach that people should exercise responsible parenthood and avoid the selfishness of the contraceptive mentality even in using natural methods of family planning (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2368).
Berit: Yes, but the Catholic church does not teach people to avoid the contraceptive mentality, no matter which method of family planning they decide to use. Some people might be able to use birthcontrol pills without a contraceptive mentality and with the sole purpose of exercising responsible parenthood, and yet the church would not accept this method of family planning. So my question still stands, if contraception is immoral only when combined with a “contraceptive mentality”, then why not use birthcontrol pills without this mentality?
Lamont: The short answer is that neither Paul IV nor John Paul II thought it was possible to do that. They argue that the use of contraceptives is the kind of act that necessarily involves a contraceptive mentality. In formal philosophical language, the object chosen determines the fundamental moral quality of the act. A person’s intentions and the circumstances under which the act takes place can make an otherwise good act evil, but they cannot change something that is intrinsically evil into a morally good act.
Berit: But why should we think that the use of contraceptives is intrinsically evil?
Lamont: An intrinsically evil act is one that necessarily creates a disorder in the person who chooses it. When a person chooses to use a contraceptive to prevent a new life from coming into existence, the good of life is treated as an evil to be avoided. In this case, the irrational and immoral disorder within the person is called a "contraceptive mentality". The contraceptive mentality is not just an internal disorder, however. It is also a primary source of marital difficulties and of many other evils in society in general. A society that accepts contraception as a normal part of life creates a situation in which infidelity, promiscuity, pornography, abortion, divorce, and prostitution can all be seen as necessary for the pursuit of happiness defined in terms of maximizing pleasure. In such a society, these activities become legalized, commercialized, and legitimized to the point where many people are no longer willing to acknowledge that these things are harmful to human life and morally evil. Since the acceptance of all these is dependent upon the acceptance of a contraceptive mentality which seeks absolute control over sexuality and the origins of life, it is little wonder that Paul VI and all his successors have steadfastly declared that deliberate contraceptive acts are intrinsically evil.
Berit: The objection here is that when a society accepts forms of birth control, it becomes necessary for the pursuit of happiness that we engage in infidelity, promiscuity, pornography, divorce, etc. This claim presupposes, but does not show, that contraception is harmful to human life and is morally evil. In other words, it is only if we think in advance that contraception is evil that we would think that contraception inevitably leads to aforementioned activities. But no independent reason has been given for thinking that contraception is harmful to human life and so will lead society down the slippery slope to destruction.
Lamont: It is important to note that I have not claimed that there is any direct causal connection between the contraceptive attitude and all of these other evils. Instead of thinking of contraception as a cause of other evils, think of it as being a door, which leads to other immoral activities. Some people walk through the door but others see the danger and avoid the more obvious forms of immorality. My claim is that opening the door of contraception creates disorder in a person’s life which some people cope with better than others, but it is still a disorder which ought to be avoided. One of the great danger of contraception is that while it appears relatively harmless, it is the first step leading to all of these other evils.
Berit: Ok, so contraception is not the direct cause of evil, but perhaps is a gateway evil. What evidence could there be for this claim? It must be that many of those who do travel down the darkest paths of evil, have gotten their start with the use of contraceptives. This appears to be your reasoning. But let us grant for the sake of argument that everyone who engages in the said evils (infidelity, promiscuity, pornography, divorce, etc.) first used contraceptives. This would not prove that contraceptive use is a gateway evil. After all, 100% of all people who engage in those evils drank water. Are we to believe that drinking water is a gateway evil?
Lamont: I think you would agree that there is probably a closer connection between sexual immorality and the use of contraceptives, than there is with the drinking of water. It is not that difficult to locate motivational precursors of subsequent choices and acts. The person who uses contraceptives frequently does so precisely with the intention of trying to avoid the unpleasant consequences of immoral behavior.
Berit: It is not all that clear that everyone who uses contraceptives does so with the intention of trying to avoid the unpleasant consequences of immoral behavior. I agree that the use of contraceptives with the so-called contraceptive mentality can have unfortunate consequences, if by “a contraceptive mentality” we mean something like “a view of the other person as a sexual object whose only function is to meet one’s needs and fulfill one’s desires”. But it is certainly not true that all cases of contraceptive use are immoral, and it is not clear that the use of contraceptives creates disorder in a person’s life. On the contrary, not using contraceptives often directly causes disorder in a person’s life. There are many low income loving couples who cannot even afford to feed all of the kids they have already brought into life. For such couples, another child might cause a lot of disorder, which could have been avoided had they used contraceptives.
Lamont: Since I have been so careful to avoid the mistake of claiming that contraceptives are the direct cause of other associated moral evils, you too should avoid claiming that the failure to use contraceptives is the “direct cause” of the disorder of irresponsible parenthood, especially since there are effective natural methods for regulating family size.
Berit: Granted, all I need to say is that the disorder of irresponsible parenthood can be effectively avoided with the use of contraceptives, of course, including natural methods. But why think you can use natural methods differently from artificial methods? When natural methods for regulating family size work, then it is because the people using them are using them with a clear contraceptive intention; that is, for the temperature method to be effective the couple will have to actively measure the woman’s temperature for months. The idea is to detect changes that will indicate when the woman is ovulating, and then after doing this for months the couple will have to avoid having sex on the days the woman is ovulating. So, this method, like all other forms of birthcontrol used to regulate family size, is used with a contraceptive intention. But then why is the use of birth control pills or a condom deemed morally worse by the Pope than the use of the temperature method given that either could be utilized without a contraceptive mentality?
Lamont: Your question gets right at the heart of the issue because the Catholic church has consistently taught that any action that renders procreation impossible is intrinsically evil (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2370). This has been interpreted as applying to every artificial means of contraception for the reason that they violate the essential unity of the marital act by separating the procreative from the unitive aspect of human sexuality.
Berit: You refer only to artificial means of contraception, and you say that artificial means of contraception lead to a separation of the procreative from the unitive aspect of sexual intercourse. But this does not answer my question of why the use of artificial means of contraception are morally worse than the use of natural means of contraception given that both can be used with the intent of actively regulating family size and given that either could be used respectfully by one and the same responsible, loving and caring family who do not treat each other as mere sexual objects.
Lamont: It is clear that you think that married couples can use contraceptives without a contraceptive mentality, but you have not explained how this is possible. Whenever a couple seeks a 100% certainty that sexual relations will not produce a child they clearly have acted with a contraceptive mentality. In contrast, a couple can use natural family planning without a contraceptive mentality because they simply abstain from sexual relations during those times when conception would be likely to occur. It is not necessary for them to act to prevent conception so they can avoid violating the unity of the marital act. Hence, the couple can always remain open to the possibility of new life even while acting rationally and responsibly to regulate the size of their family.
Berit: Either the couple seeks to use natural family planning to prevent pregnancy, or they do not. If they do not, then what is the purpose of natural family planning? And if they do use it to prevent pregnancy, then why is it morally better than other means of contraception? Recall that you characterized contraceptive mentality as the act of seeing the other person “as a sexual object whose function is to meet one’s needs and fulfill one’s desires”. There is no reason to believe that a mentality so described will ever accompany the sexual act between two people who love and respect each other, and who have perhaps even built a family together. Sex can be a bad thing when it ends up destroying the lives of one or both of the parties engaging in it; and sex is certainly a bad thing when it happens between two people who do not both consent to it, or when it is used as an expression of power or as a tool to obtain personal gain. But it is all but clear that the use of contraceptives plays a role in initiating such activities. In fact, it is probably more likely that not that contraception will not be used under those circumstances.
Lamont: The moral difference between natural methods and artificial contraception is that in one case the couple seeks to avoid a pregnancy through the virtue of chastity by which they exercise rational control over their sexuality. In contrast, when artificial contraceptives are used to prevent conception, the good of human life is treated as an evil which one acts against.
Berit: If it were true that artificial contraceptives were always used in such a way that the good of human life is treated as an evil, then obviously there would be a moral difference between natural and artificial means of contraception. But you have not yet given an argument for the assumption that artificial means of contraception are always used that way.
Lamont: The difference in terms of the orientation of the will or attitude of the couples is that periodic abstinence does not require that they act against life. This means that they can remain open to the possibility of new life and avoid adopting a contraceptive mentality. When one uses contraceptives to act against the good of life itself it necessarily means that the person is seeking to separate the communication of life from the communication of love. This split or disintegration within the person so often leads to the further disorder of treating one’s spouse as a sexual object that I associated it with the contraceptive mentality even though it is a distinct disorder. I agree that a couple using contraceptives may avoid treating each other as sexual objects through mutual love and respect. The difficulty is that people fail to see the harm in separating the procreative from the unitive aspects of human sexuality because the external consequences of natural methods and artificial contraception may appear to be the same. Nevertheless, the decision to treat a new life as an evil to be avoided remains a selfish and disordered orientation that it is irrational and immoral even if no other negative consequences result from it. Immorality begins within the person when they choose to do something wrong even if no physical evil occurs. The situation is similar to one in which a person decides to commit murder but, for some reason never follows through. The decision to commit murder is evil even if no murder occurs. So too, the decision to prevent a new life coming into existence is always wrong no matter what the consequences of that choice.
Berit: Even if it were correct that the life of a human being begins at the time of conception, using birthcontrol pills would not involve a killing of a human being, since birthcontrol pills merely prevent an egg-cell from being released from the ovaries. They don’t even destroy the egg-cells. So no life of any form is destroyed. You say that birthcontrol pills prevent potential life from coming into existence. But you also prevent potential life from coming into existence when you avoid having sex. So if it is either the destruction of life or the prevention of potential life that makes the use of artificial contraceptives evil, then it would also be evil to avoid having sex.
Lamont: Your comments show why the Vatican has had such difficulty in convincing people that contraception is morally evil. Moral norms are much easier to understand when they directly correlate with some physical evil such as the destruction of life. Since contraception is not necessarily the direct cause of any physical harm, most people simply do not understand why it is intrinsically evil. The kinds of evils that are disorders within a person are still very real, however. Evil arises when one separates the communication of life from the communication of love in such a way that the good of a new human life is treated as an evil to be prevented. The situation is similar to the different ways in which a person who is trying to lose weight may respond to an extra piece of pie. One person recognizes the pie as good in itself, but does not eat the pie, because under the circumstances it would be unwise to do so. A second person, who is also on a diet, treats the pie as though it was bad or evil and throws it in the garbage. What is morally significant in this case is not what happened to the pie, but the irrational attitude of the person who treats some perfectly good food as though it were bad just because she did not want it. The point of this analogy is that the person who avoids sexual relations because it would be unwise to have a child acts rationally and treats the good of human life as a good to be respected. In contrast, people who use contraceptives act irrationally by assuming that just because they do not want a child they can do whatever they have to do in order to prevent a new life coming into existence. It is this contraceptive mentality that is irrational and immoral because it views life from a subjectivist perspective in which good things become evil just because they are unwanted and evil things become good simply because they are desired.
Berit: The problem with this analogy is that where the pie is already in existence, the child is not. Obviously, it would be wrong to throw your existing child in the garbage or otherwise treat it as a bad thing. But it is less clear how it could be wrong to take measures to prevent a non-existing entity from coming into existence. If it were wrong to prevent a life from coming into existence when you don’t have a good reason for doing so, then it would also be wrong not to have sex if you don’t have a good reason for not having it. For not having sex prevents a child from coming into existence (and as a method of birth control it gives you a 100% certainty).
Lamont: If a person were to absolutely refuse to have sexual relations simply because she did not want a child, it is clear that this person had a contraceptive mentality and treated a new human life as an evil even though the human life in question is only a potential human life. If she is consistent in her view of life, she must also view her own life as worthless which is disordered, irrational, and ultimately self-destructive. If she views her own life as good, she then holds a contradictory view of the value of life such that her life has value but the lives of at least some others does not. What is immoral about all this is the disorder within the person, and this disorder can arise with respect to potential life just has easily as it can with respect to an existing person. In fact, she is more likely to rationalize the disorder when there is only the potential for life in question. Nevertheless, the disorder within the person is still very real and should not be dismissed as unimportant simply because it is an internal disorder which does not necessarily involve the destruction of any existing person. It is precisely from such inconsistent and irrational thinking that all of the other evils mentioned earlier originate.
Berit: Not acting is sometimes wrong. For example, it is wrong not to prevent your child from dying if you can. But how can it be wrong not to bring a human being into existence? You need not treat potential life as an evil just because you don’t bring a new life into existence.
Lamont: That is true, however, the couple who is using contraceptives is not just refraining from bringing a new life into existence, they are in fact acting to prevent a new life from coming into existence. It is the contraceptive act which treats life as an evil. In life, we may avoid choosing certain goods when the circumstances warrant. But just because circumstances make something undesirable at a particular time does not justify acting against that good and treating it as an evil. The person who does not recognize the intrinsic value of life and respect it in all situations, but judges life to be good or evil depending upon the circumstances and feelings of the moment, leaves himself wide open to the possibility of doing anything no matter how evil, if there is sufficient circumstantial and psychological motivation for doing so. Subjectivism and relativism in ethics usually begins with seemingly harmless choices, but it is in fact deadly because it undermines a person's ability to clearly distinguish between good and evil.
Berit: I do not think people treat life as an evil just because they use contraceptives. But let me grant for the moment that the use of natural methods is morally acceptable because the use of natural methods holds open the possibility of new life. If this is the reasoning, then it should also be morally acceptable to use a condom, and it should be morally acceptable to prevent conception by controlling when and where the man ejaculates. Perhaps it should even be morally acceptable to use birthcontrol pills. For these methods are not 100% certain, and so the couple can remain open to the possibility of new life. Sex can be a bad thing when it ends up destroying the lives of one or both of the parties engaging in it. But I still don’t see how the use of contraceptives could ever (let alone always) lead to this kind of destruction. When sex ends up destroying the lives of the people engaging in it, the reason is not the use of contraceptives but the mentality which one or both parties already possess. If one or both of the parties having sex are evil people prior to their use of contraceptives, then the potential destructive consequences of the sexual act are consequences, not of their use of contraceptives, but of their lack of moral character. And if the potential evil consequences of certain forms of sex are caused by a lack of moral character rather than by the use of artificial contraceptives, then the issue is not really whether or not to use artificial means of contraception, but whether or not to engage in sex in a responsible way. Compare this to the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol is abused when it is used excessively, and/or when a person cannot control his alcohol consumption because he has developed a physical or psychological addiction. But many people succeed in enjoying alcohol in moderate amounts, and they enjoy alcohol without developing a physical or psychological addiction. Similarly, sex can be abused in the aforementioned ways, but it can also be engaged in responsibly. Responsible sex requires respect for the other person and a genuine interest in the other person’s well-being, but it also requires that the parties involved are willing to take responsibility for the consequences of their act.
Lamont: You raise an interesting point, because contraception has almost always been referred to as an act by which one seeks to prevent conception, or to make it impossible. When one chooses an act such as surgical sterilization, there is no doubt that they are in fact separating the communication of life from the communication of love; and, therefore are acting out of a contraceptive mentality. However, if a couple chooses methods that are not 100% effective in preventing conception and remain open to the possibility of a new life coming into being, then the decision to use a contraceptive does not require them to adopt a contraceptive mentality. In such a case, the couple could be simply seeking to bring some rational order to the number of children they have and when they have them. Although there might be other reasons for objecting to some of the methods you mentioned, it seems that the claim that all methods of artificial contraception are intrinsically evil fails because it does not take into account the differences in the various methods used.
Berit: So it appears that the Catholic church could allow the use of contraceptive methods other than the temperature method as long as they are utilized in a responsible way.
Lamont: If by "responsible" you mean that a person could exercise some rational control over the number and timing of the children they have without adopting a contraceptive mentality, then it would seem to be a distinct possibility. What the Catholic church has never addressed in any of its official documents is whether or not a contraceptive which only reduces the probability of conception actually creates a separation between the procreative and unitive aspects of human sexuality. A reduced probability is simply not a definitive act which prevents a cause from producing its effect. If contraception is defined as "an act which is intended to prevent conception;" then acts which only reduce the probability of conception occurring would not require that a person act with a contraceptive mentality. If the method chosen does not require one to adopt a contraceptive mentality, then it is not intrinsically evil and could be morally chosen. So although I agree with the church's teaching in principle, perhaps the teaching against contraception has been applied too broadly and has been incorrectly interpreted as applying to some methods of regulating conception that are morally acceptable.