Friday, February 10, 2006

Catholics and Abortion: Family Planning and Contraception

Catholics and Abortion: Family Planning and Contraception
(Number 5 and last in a series)

The term Family Planning is often used synonymously with the term Birth Control. Both terms mean that a man and/or woman are taking steps to either prevent pregnancy or to enhance becoming pregnant. (I put "and/or" there because sometimes it is a one sided effort.)

There are many methods used for family planning or birth control.

Clearly the most effective way and only 100% effective way of preventing pregnancy is sexual abstinence. But ongoing abstinence in a committed marriage relationship is difficult and sometimes blamed for causing marriage breakups when a couple does not get to experience the intimacy of a sexual relationship between each other. However for unmarried people abstinence is the only method approved by the Catholic Church.

The oldest method of birth control is probably coitus interruptus which is a Latin phrase meaning interrupting intercourse whereby the man removes his penis from the woman's vagina just before he reaches orgasm. That method is considered unreliable since it can be very difficult for a man to maintain the necessary self-control.

The Catholic Church fully supports sexual activity and intimacy between a married couple as "noble and worthy" (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, no. 49 and Humanae Vitae no. 11). The Church also teaches that each and every marital act of intercourse must be open to the possibility of the creation of human life as a fact of natural law.

Thus the Catholic church also teaches that many methods of contraception would be a violation of natural law and therefore morally evil because they interfere with the natural processes such as condoms, diaphragms, other barrier methods, spermicides, intrauterine devices, chemical methods such as pills, patches, injections, and implants. Likewise the Catholic Church views surgical sterilization methods as being opposed to natural law because they prevent the possibility of conception.

Certainly abortion, as we have already discussed, or any post-conception method the Catholic Church sees as a violation of moral law.

The Catholic Church does, however, accept certain methods of family planning or birth control that use what are called natural methods. The Catholic Church recognizes that God created human life functions such that not every act of intercourse will produce conception due to ovarian cycles. Because that is a natural cycle the Church believes that taking advantage of that cycle is not an unnatural act.

An early method of birth control that used information about women's' menstrual cycles was the Rhythm Method. Unfortunately the calculation method used allowed for many errors and thus the method was considered quite unreliable. The Catholic Church no longer encourages the Rhythm Method.

A newer method commonly called Natural Family Planning (NFP) uses more precise techniques for each woman to determine when during a woman's cycle she is most likely to be fertile. The approved Catholic method would be to avoid intercourse (abstinence) during that time of fertility. Natural Family Planning does require some training for couples but it can be a very effective method of birth control. Likewise, since the method identifies times of fertility the method can be used as a technique to maximize becoming pregnant. Though the Catholic Church does not approve of artificial contraception using condoms, some couples use Natural Family Planning to identify times during a woman's cycle during which to use condoms versus not using them at "safe" times. (My wife and I used Natural Family Planning very successfully.)

There are some people who claim that since Natural Family Planning uses a thermometer to aid in tracking a woman's cycle that it is not truly natural. However the Catholic Church accepts and promotes the use of Natural Family Planning. In many Catholic dioceses rules require that all couples preparing for marriage take training classes in the method. (My diocese here in Phoenix, Arizona has that requirement.)

The history of the Catholic position about contraceptives had been a bit shakey. Officially, the Catholic Church has never really varied in its objection to contraceptives. However in the 1960's many Catholic theologians responding to questions in civil legislation about contraceptives insisted that it was a private matter to be left to each persons' decision of conscience. Though that argument has great weight in relation to civil law, in relation the Catholic Church view of moral and natural law the Church rejects that reasoning.

During the mid-1960's the Catholic Church decided to reexamine the whole subject of birth control. A commission was established. There were a lot of meetings and inputs from many theologians. Many of those theologians concluded that the commission would eventually recommend allowing certain contraceptive methods including the pill. Many of those theologians encouraged Catholics to consider that option and to use their consciences to decide against official Church teachings. The commission eventually did make recommendations to the pope which included relaxing some prohibitions. However Pope Paul VI released his encyclical Humanae Vitae (Latin for "Human Life") where he did not make any changes and specifically restated the Catholic beliefs.

After the pope issued that encyclical many of the theologians who had essentially staked their reputations on the fact that they expected the Church to change its rules found themselves with problems. Some of them went on to promote the use of contraceptives and encouraging people to make decisions of their own consciences which might oppose the official Catholic teachings. Much confusion was caused among Catholics. To this day their is still much confusion as evidenced by the number of Catholics who studies have shown continue to use contraceptives.

Let me take a moment to discuss the idea of conscience. The Catholic Church believes in the primacy of conscience. That is, a person must always act following their own conscience. Each person has a responsibility to have well formed conscience. However the Church insists that people need to pay attention to the Church's teachings when forming their consciences as a moral obligation.


I have enjoyed writing this series about the Catholic church`s stance on abortion. I am glad that "I was asked" to do it. Though at times I have had to pause and reflect and even stop to catch my breath as I've read comments and e-mails from my readers whose lives and the lives of people dear to them have been touched by this serious issue. I have taken time to pause and pray.

I want to quote here one my reader's comments because she stated it so well. Mary P. wrote:
"This is a fascinating discussion in the abstract. It is tremendously painful in the reality. I ache for those frightened woman; I cry for their unborn children; I rage at those who deny the tragedy of this event, even though I believe there are times when it is necessary - essential even. Even then, it's such a sad, sad thing."


References and more information:

Wikipedia article on Birth Control:

Pope Paul VI encyclical HUMANAE VITAE:

Planned Parenthood's history of birth control. Not just a history of the organization but also a good history of developments of birth control methods and legislation.

What is Natural Family Planning by Phoenix Natural Family Planning Center:

Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Pastoral Constitution: On The Church in the Modern World:

Your comments and questions are welcome.
If more issues are raised I will continue this series or begin a new series.


At Friday, February 10, 2006 10:32:00 PM, Blogger L. said...

Hmmmm. I can understand why the church would ban forms of contraception like the pill or IUD, since it`s possible an egg will get fertilized and a soul would be created and then die. But I guess I have problems with the distinction that it`s okay to use NFP, but condoms and other barrier methods are evil.

I would never have used NFP, because it would have meant that I would have had to abstain from sex when I was most fertile -- those were the only days of the month when I was really interested in it!

At Friday, February 10, 2006 11:24:00 PM, Blogger jw said...

Regarding contraceptive methods, it looks like I may not have made the Church's position clear. Their belief is that the "natural" act of intercourse should not be interfered with. Thus condoms, other barriers, or coitus interruptus interfere with nature. (Of course that is what most users intend, but the Church considers that a violation of natural law.) HUMANAE VITAE section #14 describes it as a "direct interruption of the generative process."

That is why NFP is allowed since it does not interfere with anything natural. (But a case might be made that interfering with the sex drive would be intefering with something natural. That was the argument of the theologians who I mentioned who got into trouble. They believed that married couples have a "right" to sexual intimacy.)

And the reason you would be more interested when fertile fits the design of nature to enhance procreation.

But again, if a couple is trying to get pregnant NFP can help pinpoint the best times to try.

I also pointed out that some people use NFP not to abstain but to find out when to use condoms.

At Saturday, February 11, 2006 12:10:00 AM, Blogger Granny said...

You were perfectly clear. I would call it hair splitting and I agree with the theologians who tried to change the church teaching.

It's been an interesting series of posts and thanks for all the thought that went into it.

At Saturday, February 11, 2006 5:55:00 AM, Blogger Andrea said...

Very interesting and I thank you so much for this series. I have learned tons.
I do have one question though.

Based on the churches stance regarding condoms how does this interfere with the now all to often sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS?

At Saturday, February 11, 2006 12:23:00 PM, Blogger jw said...


The Catholic Church's stance is that intercourse is only permitted between a married woman and man. Thus there is no possibility of sexually transmitted disease (STD) or AIDS, right?

The Church's rules don't really allow for use of condoms after misdeeds. If one of the couple has sex outside of the marriage and contracts an STD, the Church's position would be to abstain from intercourse until the disease is treated. Use of condoms would never be permitted. (You may not like their approach, but at least they are consistent.)

Moral theologians have sometimes stated that when choosing acts sometimes it is permissible to choose a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater evil. In this case the example would be to use a condom (lesser evil) in order to avoid bringing home an STD to one's spouse (greater evil). However Pope Paul VI in the HUMANAE VITAE encyclical specifically stated (section #14):
"...excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.
Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one..."

So, he took a preemptive strike at that theological argument.

Lots of objections have been made to the Catholic stance. Particularly in Africa were AIDS is rampant. The Church strongly opposes the use of condoms. The Church believes that in Africa the efforts should go toward convincing the people not to have sex outside of marriage.

At Saturday, February 11, 2006 4:11:00 PM, Blogger L. said...

I remember reading the sad story of a young woman in Africa, a devout Catholic orphan who had contracted HIV from her mother (who died of AIDS), who dreamed of getting married someday, but was upset the church would never condone her use of a condom to protect her future spouse from her disease.
Whenever yo try to apply black and white rules to a gray world, there will be cases like hers.

At Saturday, February 11, 2006 6:00:00 PM, Blogger jw said...

L., thank you for that example. That contradicts my statement in the first paragraph of my previous comment to Andrea, where I assumed that without sexual contact AIDS could not be contracted. I forgot about being born with it, or blood borne transfers, etc.

The problem is, as you stated, the Church still disapproves of condom use.

At Sunday, February 12, 2006 3:32:00 AM, Blogger Granny said...

You also didn't talk about the innocent partner of an unfaithful spouse. As I understand it, it's rampant in Africa and women have very few choices, Submit or be beaten? Some choice.

A good case could be made for the use of condoms in disease prevention; the prevention of pregnancy would be a side effect. Again it's hair splitting but it would save lives.

At Sunday, February 12, 2006 10:56:00 AM, Blogger jw said...


In my comment to Andrea above I did address the innocent partner of an unfaithful spouse. "If one of the couple has sex outside of the marriage and contracts an STD, the Church's position would be to abstain from intercourse until the disease is treated. Use of condoms would never be permitted."

Disease prevention. The Catholic Church's view is that if intercourse only takes place between married couples then there is no need to prevent disease between partners. Thus condoms are not necessary. (Now that does not address if one of the married couple already has a disease, in which case the Church's answer is for abstinence.)

Again, the Church's view is rather simple and consistent. No sex outside of marriage. Within marriage don't interfere with the natural process of intercourse and possible conception.

The Church does now recognize that sex between a married couple may be for pleasure and not just procreation. For that the Church recommends Natural Family Planning (NFP).

At Wednesday, April 05, 2006 4:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I know this is a touchy subject. But just for facts, I want to throw in what I know.

Oral contraceptives are used to prevent pregnancy from occuring, but in some cases pregnancy still occurs. If it does, the birth control does not harm the baby, and does not terminate the pregnancy.

Another point is that the morning after pill does the same thing. It prevents pregnancy- ONLY if pregnancy has not occured. It is NOT an abortion. If you have already concieved when you take the pill, it will have no effect, and the baby will not be harmed.

At Wednesday, April 05, 2006 10:01:00 PM, Blogger jw said...

Hello, Anonymous. Welcome to the discussion.

The Catholic Church's view is that nothing is allowed that will interfere with the natural processes.

Because contraceptive pills and morning after pills interfere with the normal process of implantation they are not permitted by the Catholic viewpoint.

Your definition of pregnancy appears to describe when a fertilized egg implants in the uterus. The Catholic position is that a new human life has already begun when the egg and sperm united even prior to implantation. Thus anything that prevents implantation in the uterus would be considered immoral.

You are welcome to e-mail me for a more direct discussion.

At Wednesday, December 19, 2007 1:51:00 AM, Anonymous floundering said...

I will admit upfront that I'm a floundering Catholic, trying to get back into the loop. I don't want to offend anyone, but..

I don't really feel that the Pope can have any clue as to what we feel and suffer from this. As a married woman, I need intimacy with my husband, I don't need more children. My choices are abstinence or risk of pregnancy, since as we all know NFP isn't 100%. How can the Pope have a clue what this delema is like? Does he understand the effects it has on a marrage? I know he has vows to God and experiences a different type of intimacy with Him, but get real. The church doesn't pay child support when NFP fails!

At Saturday, October 18, 2008 5:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your article about NFP. My husband and I have practiced NFP for 8 years and have been very happy with it. It is nice to have a birth control method that allows him to be a part of it and better understand my cycles. It also has worked extremely well for us. We have 2 kids and both were conceived on the first try since we knew exactly when I was ovulating. I know that it is a controversial issue, so thought it might be helpful to hear from another person who has been happy with using it.


Post a Comment

<< Home