Contraceptives, Abortion, and Western Liberalism

Last Sundary afternoon, Amy and I relaxed with a few other couples from our church by grilling wings, frying our own Red Robin-style steak fries, drinking beer, and mixing Rita's water ice with liquor (my personal favorite was chocolate water ice with Kahlua). In the midst of the fun, us men had a conversation about the politics and philosophy behind the death penalty, contraceptives, and abortion. The last two, in particular, were close to home, since birth control is used by all the couples we know, at the church and elsewhere. As I told them, philosophically, I am against birth control for the same reason I am against abortion: it places the individual human person in a position of control as the arbiter over life and death, over our own bodies, as a kind of god within our sphere of activity. The consequence of Enlightenment individuality is that people in the industrial West now view this as a natural right given by their Maker (whoever that is).

All of this was beautifully and sadly reinforced with the publication of the NY Times Magazine article on "Contra-Contraception" concerning the new wave of social conservatives who are out to take on contraceptives as much as abortion. The article clearly connects the two issues (as the author should), but also clearly portrays these people as nut-jobs who are out to destroy the basic fabric of life. As Russell Shorto puts it, "they want to change the way Americans have sex." God forbid! Now, to be sure, most of the people talked about in the article are people I wish to have no association with, politically or religiously. Focus on the Family simply elicits from me the statement on a great bumper-sticker: Focus on your own damn family. And my reasons for being against contraceptives (in principle, at least) are far different from theirs: "Contraception, by [their] logic, encourages sexual promiscuity, sexual deviance (like homosexuality) and a preoccupation with sex that is unhealthful even within marriage." I simply do not care about those concerns, and quite frankly, they are not concerns for me. What is a concern is what the following quote brings out nicely:
It may be news to many people that contraception as a matter of right and public health is no longer a given, but politicians and those in the public health profession know it well. "The linking of abortion and contraception is indicative of a larger agenda, which is putting sex back into the box, as something that happens only within marriage," says William Smith, vice president for public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
"As a matter of right." I cannot help but read this and think, what an arrogant thing to say. The whole project of modern liberalism (used in the classical sense, not in the modern conservative-liberal framework) has taught us to expect rights for ourselves. As much as the values fought for in the French Revolution -- fraternity, equality, liberty -- are indeed quite Christian in nature and origin, the corresponding stress on individual rights is a modern invention that simply does not square with a gospel that tells us to die to ourselves and expect nothing but a cross. It's no wonder that the The Prayer of Jabez was so popular: it reinforced the western mindset that we each, as individuals, have a right to an expansion and increase of our wealth and property (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). Had you replaced Jabez's prayer with almost any from Jesus, I can guarantee Bruce Wilkinson's book would never have sold millions of copies.

All of this is to say, I do not view the use of contraceptives as a right, but at the very least as a gift from God -- even though I know that my very use of them requires that I ask forgiveness. And so I do. To act otherwise would be to assert myself over God, and that I will not do.

Comments

Shane said…
When Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod in the 1740's, he pissed off a lot of religious people, who viewed it as a way of usurping God's prerogative and altering the natural course of things. Franklin's response, according to the Wikipedia article (caveat lector) was that lightning rods were no more a usurping of God's power to control nature than building roofs to stop the rain was.

I think this is instructive in our thinking about technology and especially the technology of reproductive control. I agree that technology is not a pure good. I agree that the technologization of society creates large scale social problems. I agree that the body is not a machine at our disposal which we can take apart and reconfigure arbitrarily without moral consequences. However, I cannot agree that there is something intrinsically wrong with preventative birth control as such.

I think the moral case you are making against birth control is something like this:

(1) God alone has the prerogative to control [nature, presumably?] and to decide whether to create or destroy life.
(2) Anything which tries to usurp God's prerogatives is sinful.
(3) Contraception "places the individual human person in a position of control as the arbiter over life and death, over our own bodies, as a kind of god within our own sphere of activity."
(4) Ergo, contraception is wrong.

The problem with your argument here is that it simply makes too many things immoral. Let's consider another argument of the same form closer to the domain of biomedical ethic simply by substituting 'organ transplantation' for 'contraception':

(1) God alone has the prerogative to control [nature, presumably?] and to decide whether to create or destroy life.
(2) Anything which tries to usurp God's prerogatives is sinful.
(3) Organ transplantation "places the individual human person in a position of control as the arbiter over life and death, over our own bodies, as a kind of god within our own sphere of activity."
(4) Ergo, organ transplantation is wrong.

This argument is false because it is too strong. Not only would abortion, birth control and organ transplantation be immoral according to this line of thinking, but also lightning rods, electric drills and airconditioning (after all, if God wanted you to be cool in the summertime, he wouldn't have made it so hot outside). I agree that there are many ethically perilous issues with technologization of the body, but we ought not to slip back into a rejection of science or technology.

I don't see any way to save the argument, because it implies a competitive account of human and divine action. If God is sovereign over the reproductive cycle, then human beings ought not try to compete with him.

I think it is good that a man and wife realize that their bodies are not entirely their own, but Christ's. Nevertheless, I don't imagine Christ feels like you are impinging on his 'turf' if you wait a couple years to have kids, just like I don't think he was upset when the churches in New England built lightning rods.
Shane said…
Another way to look at this:

If God really was pissed off at Franklin for putting a lightning rod on his roof, he could still have struck the old pervert down when he went out for a morning stroll.

Likewise, if God really wants you to have a baby, he can probably still find a way to impregnate your wife, condoms and birth control pills notwithstanding. After all, he's done it before.

shane
Shane said…
Well, he hasn't impregnated your wife before (to my knowledge). But he has impregnated at least one guy's wife in an unconventional fashion. You know what I mean. Wink Wink Nudge Nudge Say No More Say No More.

sw
D.W. Congdon said…
Shane, I appreciate your comments, and I also agree with them. I think the force of my post was not that I think contraceptives are a usurping of God's power -- because my issue is not the conflict between divine and human power -- but that when contraceptives are viewed as a right, and when human "rights" are viewed as absolute, then what modern liberal societies have done is elevated the human into a divine position. In short, I am not so much concerned with the divine-human conflict as I am with the human exaltation that has taken place in modernity. Hence, my comment near the end of my post: that contraceptives should and must be viewed as a gift from God, and not as our human right.

I recognize and validate your argumentation, but I already agreed with you on that point for the same reason that I do not think taking medicine is a usurping of God's sovereign power. Churches which take this position are quite mistaken. But I think you missed the angle I was trying to take which is anthropological rather than strictly theological, concerned with the understanding of the human rather than our understanding of God. I should have made that more clear.

While I understand that you were simply using organ transplantation as an example, I think Catholics and social conservatives have a fairly easy rebuttal to make. Organ transplantation and medicine are methods of saving life, while abortion and contraceptives are methods of preventing life. An argument could be made that the former welcomes a divine-human cooperation, while the latter steps outside the boundaries of human activity.
timcoe said…
David,

I'm troubled by your assertion near the end of your original post that you 'ask forgiveness' as required by your use of contraceptives.

If using contraceptives is something that requires the asking of forgiveness, why do you think of such use as a gift from God? Why would God disapprove of your using his gifts? And if you must be forgiven for using contraceptives, why use them?
Will Reaves said…
Blame Shane, for linking to this discussion with "Pay Heed Catholic Friends!" That's a good way of attracting the nutjobs.

However, I think the discussion so far has not quite done justice to the Catholic position (no jokes, please)--which is odd because Shorto actually doesn't botch it that badly in his article, although he does abbreviate it into two or three sentences.

David: [Contraception] places the individual human person in a position of control as the arbiter over life and death, over our own bodies, as a kind of god within our sphere of activity.

This is true, and a decent reason to be cautious of contraception. Likewise, contraception does very likely encourage "sexual promiscuity" and other social ills which do not but very much should concern David, and all others interested in preserving (or at least, not further destroying) the moral fabric of our culture.

(David, your endorsement of the statement "Focus on your damn family" indicates that you are far more beholden to Enlightenment ideas of autonomy and individual rights than you might care to admit. While one can question the prudential value of particular laws designed to protect society--and despite what I am about to say, I don't believe contraception should be banned outright--your stance seems to be far more libertarian than is healthy.)

Neither point, whatever validity each might have, properly captures the Catholic position on the issue of contraception. In the Catholic view, the conjugal act has both a unitive and procreative aspect. It was designed by God with both those aspects in mind. Therefore, to separate these two aspects is to violate the divine purpose of sexuality.

Note that this goes both ways: the Catholic Church is just as opposed to methods of procreation that separate it from sex (artificial insemination, etc.) as she is to forms of sex forcibly--that is, by human artifice--separated from procreation. Either act, the Church teaches, is ultimately dehumanizing.

I should also note that both sorts of acts employ a certain type of morally dubious reasoning. Contraception seeks to avoid creating "unwanted children"; artificial insemination seeks to create "wanted children" but both buy into the idea that the worth of a children is dependent on whether they are wanted. About a year ago I mentioned to a friend that I though the most damnable phrase in the English today (and I was not speaking metaphorically) was "unwanted child", but "wanted child" works from the same logic. In either case, children become commodities, products. They cease to have any value but what we choose to grant them.

This is just a summary of the position, and I honestly don't know if I'll have the time to answer questions and objections. My apologies for the rhetorical hit and run. But I thought I should at least state what the Church actually teaches on the matter, since the discussion so far seems to be missing her primary concern. This isn't about the right of humans to employ technology in general; it's not (just) a turf war between Divine and human prerogatives. This is about what sex is and what it says about human personhood. We need to start with that first.
timcoe said…
I have always wondered what the Church's stance on sex means to infertile couples.
Shane said…
David,

Thank you for the clarifications. I agree that the language about 'rights' is particularly unhelpful in theological discourse. But, it really might be helpful in political discourse. Perhaps we need to separate the two cases a bit more clearly.

It seems to me that in your conclusion you are speaking mostly theologically--we don't have 'rights' before God. But the first of your article is, as you put it, more 'anthropological', noting that there are deleterious societal effects* of birth control as well. The problem that I see for both you and Will is this: If you don't think birth control as such should be illegal, then you are tacitly endorsing a woman's right to have it--at least in the political sphere. Don't forget that women's liberation is fundamentally based on a woman's ability to control when and if she has children--this is a good social consequence of birth control, in my opinion.

Finally, not to nitpick, but I still want to defend my organ transplantation example. I don't think the distinction between saving and preventing life matters because it is God's will for some people to die. If we use artificial means to interrupt the natural process of death, we are thwarting the original design plan he put into creation and arrogating to ourselves the control of life over death by means of our technological mastery. I was under the impression that this is wrong as such, regardless of the end in sight. If the end (saving someone's life) can justify the means, then we are led to all sorts of views that would make a good conservative catholic uncomfortable.

[Close your eyes Will.]**

Does it justify an abortion to save the life of the mother? Does she have a right to have an abortion to save her life? If you were her pastor and she asked for your moral guidance, what would you tell her? We could adduce more examples: e.g. human stem cell research, etc.

It is true that we are not really discussing the catholic position on birth control here--though it is somewhat similar. I have my own problems with the catholic position, [oral sex] but I'll save those for another time, perhaps on my own blog.


*(I'm not sure that birth control increases promiscuity, by the way. Perhaps it does, but I'd like to see some good statistics to support the empirical claim. . . . I say this for two reasons. First, lots of teenagers in the US have sex w/out birth control. Second, i conjecture that european teenagers start having sex at roughly the same age as american teenagers, even though they recieve thorough condom indoctrination in school (starting when they are 13).

**Also, there were unwanted children before the enlightenment.
D.W. Congdon said…
Tim, thanks for pointing that out. I meant to say that I ask for forgiveness for all the times that I view this gift not as a gift but as my human right.
Will Reaves said…
A few brief clarifications:

If you don't think birth control as such should be illegal, then you are tacitly endorsing a woman's right to have it

Yes, and the same could be said of my disinclination to ban fornication and racist remarks. But there is a difference between seeing the political necessity of keeping an action legal, and approving of it (not to mention leaving the prevailing culture which approves and encourages it unchallenged).

If the end (saving someone's life) can justify the means, then we are led to all sorts of views that would make a good conservative catholic uncomfortable.

Catholic moral theory, as you know, is extremely leery of utilitarian-style arguments for anything. The closest the Church has come to endorsing that is the "double-effect" rule, along with some admission that having a good motive for a bad action can mitigate the wrong somewhat. But no amount of good intention will ever make an intrinsitcally evil act good, or even neutral. There might be a plausible reason why the slaughter of innocent people is the lesser of two evils--but it's still bloody well evil.

I have always wondered what the Church's stance on sex means to infertile couples.

Basically, nothing. Quoting Humanae Vitae:

The sexual activity, in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, "noble and worthy." It does not, moreover, cease to be legitimate even when, for reasons independent of their will, it is foreseen to be infertile.

Likewise, St. Francis de Sales, writing around 1600, freely admitted that it was morally licit for a married couple to have intercourse even when the wife is pregnant; that is, when she is infertile. Since the couple does not actively will the infertility of the particular sexual act, that act is still lauditory.

Now, the Church has no problem with couples who are infertile seeking medical help to conceive. This is part of why I think the "technological mastery" argument isn't quite appropriate. She only objects whenever technology would seperate the unitative from the procreative: trying to make a womb more hospitible to conception is fine; having a test-tube baby is not.

In the same way, using modern medical techniques to better determine the woman's period of infertility is also fine. The Church is not opposed to all technology. She is not even opposed to any and all technology that someone, somewhere has decided represents an intolerable intrusion of man into the perogatives of nature and nature's God. She is opposed to technology which degrades the human person.

Now, if you don't believe that sex has both a unitative and procreative aspect and that for we as human beings to separate the two is essentially dehumanizing, then this argument carries absolutely no weight. We need to have agreement on what it is and means to be human before we can determine what is "dehumanizing".

Since I don't believe anyone here save me does accept it (I came to accept it before I became Catholic, btw), I honestly don't expect to convince anyone to get off the pill. But I do think that if you do accept that premise, the rest of the argument flows naturally.

At the moment, I'm hijacking this conversation, since neither Dave nor Shane agrees with it and they're the people arguing right now. So from now on I'll avoid commenting on any points which aren't directed to me.
Douglas_Coombs said…
The reason I thought the Times article missed the boat with this is that in most descriptions the reporter lumped people who oppose hormonal contraception pretty much into same camp as those who oppose all forms of contraception. The fact is that the pill works in basically three ways: 1) it prevents ovulation 2) it thickens the cervical mucous to impede sperm movement and 3) it thins the lining of the uterous to prevent implantation. The last method is by most pro-lifer's definitions abortifacient. Most pro-life protestants who oppose the pill do so for the last reason and not because they have a problem with contraception per se.

Another of the novel creations of modern medecine is the redefinition of pregnancy in most (but not all) medical textbooks. Pregnancy is now defined by most doctors as beginning at implantation and not fertelization. This is a major redefinition of the problem that ensures that the birth control pill is not considered an abortifacient, even though it sometimes acts as such.

In addition, I would like to clarify a comment that David made. "Organ transplantation and medicine are methods of saving life, while abortion and contraceptives are methods of preventing life"
While it is true the contraception has historically been defined as a sin against life, there is a necessary distinction. Contraception (when it acts as such) prevents life, but abortion ends life.

Regarding Shane's incredulity that abortion increases promiscuity, it not only increases promiscuity, it increases abortion. I forget the exact number, but among married women who obtain abortions, a very large percentage of the fetuses are not fathered by the husband. I don't have time to look up the exact statistics right now, but I encourage you to think about it and keep it in mind.

Finally...
When are heterosexuals most like homosexuals? When engaging in contraceptive sex. Both are unnatural acts that thwart God's design. Honestly, I think that debating the morality of contraception with folks who think homosexual acts are fine is pretty much a waste of time. There are other more basic issues to be tackled first.
Kevin said…
Dave,
I actually haven't throught through this issue very much. As a non-married person, It doesn't enter my consciousness. I will think it through.
I do share your disdain for Focus on The Family.
Focus on The Family has become nothing more than a powerful lobbyist group in my opinion.
rachelhampton said…
it seems that at least the root of the catholic argument against using birth control has to do with proper spheres of human and divine agency; i.e. that god ought to have control over life and death. my first response to the notion that we ought not to use birth control because "it places the individual human person in a position of control as the arbiter over life and death, over our own bodies, as a kind of god within our sphere of activity" is ask a simple question: don't we choose when and where to have sex? and isn't this essentially being in a position of control over our own bodies? it seems that the stronger catholic argument should stem from basic artistolianism: that use of birth control negates part of the essence of the act, and thus perverts the act. of course this argument requires that one buys into catholic metaphysics and ontology, which is doubtful if one takes postmodernity seriously.

the argument against birth control based on the notion that it places humans in a position of control over things (namely life and death) that they ought not to control.....sounds almost like a christian scientist position. why take any medicine? I think shane's organ transplantation example is a natural extension of this agrument. the fact that
"Organ transplantation and medicine are methods of saving life, while abortion and contraceptives are methods of preventing life. An argument could be made that the former welcomes a divine-human cooperation, while the latter steps outside the boundaries of human activity." seems to negate the original statement that the problem was humans asserting power/agency where they ought not to, and instead says that using birth control is not the appropriate way to engage in this area of life --- very similar, although without the aristolian language, to the other catholic agrument.

it seems to me the best question isn't whether birth control asserts too much human agency/power/enlightenment individuality; but how are we supposed to engage with each other and with life and death. the fact is we make decisions about life and death all the time regardless of technology, and choosing life is not always the right answer.
D.W. Congdon said…
My latest post explains my position better. I would be happy to continue this conversation there if anyone is interested.