Contraception, Congo Nuns, Choosing the Lesser Evil, and Conflict of Commandments

The Church has never taught that if the harms are serious enough, it is permissible to use contraception.

It is time to review some basic principles that bear upon the question of the morality of contraception.

Meaning of contraception: Thing and act

First, let us note that the word “contraception” is used to describe both a thing and an act. Only the act permits of moral analysis. There are many “things” called contraception, such as the many forms of the pill, the condom, the IUD, and the patch. Contraception as an act permitting of moral analysis is the act of doing something before, during, or after an act of spousal intercourse to prevent the act from achieving the end of procreation.

The Church teaches that acts of contraception are always against the plan of God for human sexuality, since God intended that each and every act of spousal intercourse express both the intention to make a complete, unitive gift of one’s self to one’s spouse and the willingness to be a parent with one’s spouse. These meanings of the spousal act are, as Humanae Vitae stated, inseparable.

Moreover, many forms of contraception work not by preventing ovulation or preventing conception but by either destroying an embryonic human being or rendering the uterus an inhospitable place for an embryonic human being. These “contraceptives” are not truly contraceptives. They cause the death of a new human being and are rightly called abortifacients. Both contraception and abortion are absolute evils, with abortion being a much more serious evil.

Therapeutic use of hormones

It often causes confusion that the Church permits the use of the hormones that are in the contraceptive pill to treat certain physical conditions. For instance, a woman who has ovarian cysts or who suffers from endometriosis may find that taking the hormones that are present in the contraceptive pill relieve her from some of the pain that results from such conditions. Women who use those hormones with the intent of reducing pain and not with the intent of rendering their sexual acts infertile are not engaging in acts of contraception. In the terminology of the principle of double effect, they are using hormones in pursuit of the good effect of reducing pain and, as a secondary effect, they are tolerating the infertility caused by the hormones they are taking.

Nuns in the Congo

It also confuses many that the officials of the Church many decades ago permitted nuns in the Congo who were in danger of being raped to take hormones that prevent ovulation (which is what the “pill” does). In this case the hormones would be taken with the intent of avoiding a pregnancy, but not a pregnancy that would be the result of a spousal act of sexual intercourse. They would not be altering the purpose of a spousal act of sexual intercourse. Rather, they would be defending themselves against the possible consequences of an act of rape. Keep in mind that it is justifiable for a woman to inflict great physical harm, even death, on a man threatening rape. Her act of killing the rapist is not justified as a “lesser evil” because killing is not a lesser evil than enduring rape. Rather, her act is an act of just and moral self-defense.  

Thus, for a woman to do something to prevent a rapist’s sperm from uniting with her ovum is a part of justifiable self-defense. Her act has nothing to do with violating God’s plan for sexuality. She is not choosing to use contraception to prevent a spousal act of sexual intercourse from achieving its natural end. She is not refusing to make a complete gift of herself to her spouse.  She is fending off a rapist and all his physicality. Clearly, her use of ovulation-suppressing hormones is not an act of contraception. (A good source for information about the history/reasoning concerning the nuns in the Congo is Fr. Edward Bayer’s Rape Within Marriage (1985), pp. 82-3)

Principle of choosing the lesser evil

The principle of choosing the lesser evil (PCLE) is often misunderstood. It does not apply to doing a lesser moral evil to avoid a greater moral evil. That is, for instance, one cannot directly kill one innocent human being to save the lives of several other innocent human beings. One cannot cheat one’s customers for money to give to the poor.

We must remember that the word “evil” does not refer only to moral evil. The word “evil” refers to any imperfection of any kind, for instance, to any physical imperfection. Blindness, for instance, or lameness are physical “evils.”

The PCLE applies to the common sense choices to do or undergo some non-moral evil for the sake of some greater good. One can destroy property to save life, such as breaking down a door to save a child trapped behind the door and in danger. It is not a moral evil to destroy the property. Yes “evil” is done—the door is broken and can’t be used—but the evil is a physical evil, not a moral one. Rather, it is morally good to break down the door.

The PCLE does not justify a woman using contraception to prevent a pregnancy because she fears the child may suffer some harm during the pregnancy. Here a woman is choosing to do something immoral to prevent harm. This choice violates the fundamental principle that we must never do moral evil to achieve good. She would be intending to thwart the purpose and meaning of the sexual act in order to protect any child conceived from harm, but she is doing harm—to the marital act and her marital relationship—by using contraception to prevent a pregnancy.

There are all sorts of “harm” that spouses may wish to attempt to avoid by using contraception. In fact, one suspects that there is always some harm spouses are trying to avoid by using contraception—harms such as financial stress, inconvenience, threats to the mother’s health, sexual frustration, etc. The Church has never taught that if the harms are serious enough, it is permissible to use contraception, for that would be choosing to do moral evil to avoid harm.

To suggest that some “emergency” or “special situation” would permit a person in conscience to use contraception does not align with Catholic moral theology. For spouses to use contraception is always wrong. How can any emergency or special situation justify what is always wrong? It is an improper use of conscience to use it to discern that it is moral to do what is intrinsically wrong in special situations. One job of the conscience is precisely to enable a person to honor moral norms in special situations. In emergencies or special situations we are not permitted, for instance, directly to kill innocent human beings even if great good could come from that death. Martyrdom is precisely a result of the refusal to do something that is morally wrong in an “emergency” or “special situation.”

Natural family planning

Couples in difficult situations, however, have options. They may use one of the many very effective forms of natural family planning (NFP). These methods are in accord with God’s plan for sexuality; they permit the spouses to engage in acts of sexual intercourse in which the unitive and procreative meanings are still intact; they have done nothing before, during, or after a sexual act to render it infertile. They act with the knowledge that the conditions of their act, conditions not brought about by their actions, make the conception of a new child near impossible. God permits spouses to have sexual intercourse both when a woman is fertile and when she is infertile, so there is nothing wrong with their having sexual intercourse when infertile. God permits spouses to refrain from sexual intercourse when fertile and thus, when a couple refrains because it would not be beneficial to conceive a child, they are doing something good not something wrong.

Not only is NFP moral, it also brings about many other benefits with moral dimensions. For instance, it costs virtually nothing to use and is completely without bad physical effects. Public health ventures stand to save enormous sums of money if they teach methods of natural family planning rather than buying and distributing contraceptives. Nor need they deal with the bad health consequences for women and the harmful effects on the environment. Methods of NFP are spectacularly “green” both for a woman’s body and for the environment. Monies saved from use of NFP could reasonably be use to kill insects that carry terrible viruses or to discover vaccines that protect against awful diseases.

Conflict between the Fifth and Sixth Commandments

Let us also consider the claim that there might be a conflict between the Fifth (“thou shalt not kill”) and Sixth (“thou shalt not commit adultery”) Commandments that would justify the use of contraception. What is the risk of violating one of those commandments by honoring the other? Is the reasoning here that those who conceive, for instance, a child with microcephaly are responsible for a kind of “killing of the child”? That is, their honoring their marital fidelity by having sexual intercourse open to life puts them in a position of endangering the life of a child conceived (a violation of the Fifth Commandment?). Or, if they refrain from sexual intercourse in order to avoid putting the life of a child at risk, is there the suggestion that that refraining is a violation of some kind of the Sixth Commandment?

This “conflict” seems to imply that to use contraception (which violates the Sixth Commandment) is a lesser evil than violating the Fifth Commandment and that spouses should be permitted to use contraception to avoid conceiving a child with microcephaly—seen as a kind of murder. But this reasoning is not sound for several reasons. First, to conceive a child with microcephaly is not a form of murder; life is always a gift, and even life as a person with microcephaly is a gift. There are undoubtedly serious challenges and difficulties in living with microcephaly and caring for someone with microcephaly, but one has not harmed a person by giving him or her life.

Moreover, spouses are not under an obligation to have sexual intercourse. If they believe their intercourse might lead to a problematic situation for which they are not prepared, they are free to abstain completely from sexual intercourse or abstain periodically. Spouses abstain for all sorts of reasons—because of physical separation, illness, and even such trivial reasons as a desire to watch sports on TV or to do the laundry. To abstain to avoid exposing a child to the danger of microcephaly would seem a respectable reason for abstaining.

These are some of basic principles that need to be kept in mind when assessing proposals to help women who live in areas where children conceived might contract lethal or disfiguring diseases. Contraception is not a moral solution. Use of a method of natural family planning is.

About Janet E. Smith 0 Articles
Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is the author of Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and Right to Privacy, editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader, and coauthor (with Chris Kaczor) of Life Issues, Medical Choices, Questions and Answers for Catholics.