Home > Malta > Contraception and Abortion – William Newton Ph.D.

“Paul VI’s genius proved prophetic: he had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a ‘brake’ on the culture, to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism.” Pope Francis


 William Newton, Ph.D.


 Contraception Changes Our View of Life

In an attempt to lampoon Catholic attitudes toward childrearing, the British comical ensemble Monty Python have a scene in one of their films (The Meaning in which the father of a very large group of ghetto—dwelling children tells us in song precisely why he is the father of so many. The song has the memorable refrain in which the father assures us that “every sperm is sacred, every sperm is great, if one sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate.”

This leans in the direction of suggesting that Catholics oppose contraception because it is a crime analogous to murder—the idea that every sperm (as well as every child) is sacred points in this direction.” It is clear from the quotation above from Evangelium vitae that John Paul II, at least, does not equate contraception with murder, because he says abortion and contraception are different in nature and not just different in degree of seriousness.

Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that contraception is an essential part of a culture that is ambivalent, at best, about the generation of new life—it is antilife in a different way than abortion is antilife but, at the very least, it leads to the general idea of pregnancy as something to be guarded against as a potential disaster.

Now, once this seed of doubt about the goodness of new life is planted and nurtured in the mind of a people, then the doors to abortion have been unbarred (if not opened); and as sure as day follows night, abortion will become law. Contraception turns pregnancy into a disease, opening up the way to drastic “curative” measures.

The antilife atmosphere nurtured by contraception goes a long way toward explaining why when countries permit contraception they very quickly follow up with laws permitting large-scale abortion. Just eight years separate the legalization of contraception and abortion in the United States (1965 and 1973); seven years in Britain (1961 and 1968); eight in France (1967 and 1975). Ireland held out longer, thirty-five years (1978 to 2013). I suspect this is a record but perhaps has something to do with the fact that Irish women could abort their babies in Great Britain. The point is that once contraception is legalized, its antilife inner character begins to do its work—the writing is on the wall. Of course, for many countries liberalized contraception and abortion come as a package under the euphemism of “reproductive health rights”.

The antilife character of contraception is perhaps even more starkly evident in the acceptance of the morning-after pill, which sometimes works not by preventing pregnancy but by destroying a newly conceived human being. So-called emergency contraception is a testimony to how contraception “naturally” extends its inner logic toward abortion. Here is where the antilife essence of contraception spills over most directly into the antilife practice of abortion, since no longer is any effort made to separate these two realities.

Another way that contraception changes attitudes toward human life is that it engenders an exaggerated and ultimately despotic desire for power over the origins of human life. As John Paul II points out, to decide for contraception is to take the stance of an arbiter rather than a minister with regard to one’s power to transmit human life.

In accepting contraception, mankind becomes forgetful that his role in the

transmission of human life is one of partnership with God. After all, the mother and father can only contribute the material part of every new human being; the spiritual element must come directly from God. In Humanae vitae, Paul VI reminds couples about this very point several times by using the word “munus” (meaning “mission” or “office”) to describe the task assigned to spouses. If the task of transmitting human life is understood as an office bestowed upon the parents, the notion of collaboration with God is better preserved.

But contraception fools us into thinking that we are in charge of the whole process of generating human life. This, in turn, leads to the perception that since we alone create a child, we alone can decide when we shall and shall not exercise this power. It gives the impression that we are the gatekeepers of human life. This totalitarian and autocratic notion of our power over the origins of human life easily leads to despotic attitudes with regard to unwanted and unplanned human life, as regards either pregnancies or the destruction of spare embryos resulting from in Vitro fertilization.

Contraception Changes Our Notion of the Human Person

A few years ago, a colleague of mine told me a story about an experience of his own son at school. My colleague’s wife was expecting their sixth child, and their eldest son had announced this happy news to one at his friends at school. This friend, on returning home to his own family, asked his mother why they might not also have a new baby brother. The mother told her son that they would not be having any babies because she, the mother, had had one of those operations “like you give to rabbits” to stop that unfortunate type of thing happening.

To my mind it is significant that this mother explained things in terms of the fact that she had had an operation that had also been given to the pet rabbit in order to stop it from breeding. It strikes me that this explanation has embedded in it yet another powerful effect of the contraceptive culture—namely, the blurring of distinction between humans and animals. It is not too much to say that one of the very distinctive aspects of human beings is that they can control themselves in matters of sexuality—they can harness their sexual desires and integrate them into higher forms of love.

This is, by my reading, the central thesis of Karol Wojtyla in Love and  Responsibility, where the pope-to-be explains that human beings are able to bring reason to bear upon their sexual drive and thereby use it as raw material for self-sacrif1cing love. Contraception is a discouraging phenomenon because it suggests that this is not really possible—in this way it conflates the difference between humans and animals in matters of sex. Something similar goes on in some forms of modern sex education. The View is taken that young women (and young men) are no more capable of developing virtue than are rabbits; so it is better just to give them some pills in order to chemically neuter them.

But this conflation of what is human and what is animal has implications for life issues. When techniques proper to the farm (such as neutering) are deemed suitable for human beings, then destructive forms of artificial fertilization are likewise seen to be acceptable. Here we can also see a logical link to euthanasia, because animals are routinely “put down” either when they are no longer useful or when they are sick and suffering.

In his 1994 Letter to Families, John Paul 11 touches upon a more subtle, but no less significant, shift in the attitude toward the human person that is brought about by contraception. This is closely tied to what the pope calls the reoccurrence of Manicheanism. By this he means an exaggerated dualism in which the body is estranged from the person, being seen more like a mere tool or vehicle.

John Paul II believed that this exaggerated dualistic anthropology is implicit within a contraceptive mentality. His argument is as follows: when a couple engage in sexual intercourse and at the same time intentionally render  themselves sterile (as they do by contraception), they are at one moment  seeking to give themselves to each other for the sake of communion, and at the same time seeking not to give (or receive) something important—namely, their fertility. This only makes sense if the couple believe that the body (of which fertility is an important characteristic) need not be included in the personal communication because it is not really part of the person.

The body is seen as a kind of tool used by the person to achieve union, but not part of the person and part of the personal gift of self that is inherent in sexual intercourse. In short, John Paul II is pointing out that contraceptive sex implicitly operates on the basis of an exaggerated dualistic anthropology.

Hence, the anthropology underlying contraception subtly but profoundly distorts our view of the human person and, thereby, removes a formidable psychological obstacle to abortion. It can translate into a belief that while a human body might well be present in the womb of the mother—by which is meant that matter of a human type is present—a human person is not present because, on account of the underlying contraceptive anthropology, the human body and the human person are radically distinct.

Contraception Contributes to a Change in Our Views of the Purpose of Science

It is instructive to consider two of the candidates for the ten inventions that changed the world, mentioned earlier. Penicillin and hormonal contraception stand side by side historically, because they were created within ten years of each other, in the first half of the twentieth century However, what separates these two is, for our purposes, more interesting than what unites them. While both give to mankind a power over himself (over his body), one, namely,  penicillin, fights against disease and promotes health and hence is clearly ordered to the true good of man, whereas the other, contraception, seeks to frustrate the operation of a healthy faculty, rendering it inoperative. As noted above, contraception treats fertility as though it were a disease.

This difference is very significant. Lauding hormonal contraception as one of the greatest achievements of mankind represents a quintessentially modern view of science. It sees progress as a task unconstrained by the question of what is really good for mankind. It is a manifestation of what Benedict XVI liked to call technocracy—meaning the ideology that what is possible is by that fact good.

The key point is this: contraception embraces a notion of science and progress as the search for power unconstrained by the question of the good. This philosophy of science has obvious and disastrous effects when it is applied to other life issues. It inevitably leads to a totalitarian claim over the origins of life itself, which manifests itself not just in abortion but in illicit forms of artificial procreation, cloning, and embryo experimentation—according to the logic of technocracy, as these technologies become possible, they become good.

Contraception Changes Our Moral Outlook

The final “game-changing” aspect of contraception is the way that it helps shape a culture’s basic moral outlook. In order to understand how contraception shapes the moral culture, it is necessary to focus on what is called the  connection of the cardinal virtues. According to Saint Thomas, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance are so related that there cannot be growth in one without growth in the others, and, likewise, weakness in one is a weakening of all.

It is on account of this that, elsewhere, Aquinas can argue that the thing that more than anything else undermines prudence is intemperance (and especially sexual intemperance, namely, lust). As Josef Pieper notes, the “will-to-pleasure prevents [the unchaste man or woman] from confronting reality with that  selfless detachment which alone makes genuine knowledge possible”.

We need now to factor in an insight of John Paul II concerning contraception—namely, that contraception contributes significantly to the problem of intemperance. This is, in fact, perhaps the major complaint levelled at contraception by John Paul II in the Theology of the Body.

For him, contraception is not so much antilife as antilove, in the sense that it promotes concupiscence understood as sexual intemperance. It does this because it totally removes from sexual relationships the need for self-control, and in a postlapsarian world this is a recipe for lust.

Hence, contraception fuels intemperance in cultures that accept it, and intemperance distorts and obscures our moral vision. The upshot of this is that intemperate persons and cultures see the world differently from temperate persons and cultures. This accounts for the disconcerting fact that unchaste cultures cannot see what is entirely obvious to the chaste—they even fail to see the humanity of the unborn child. It is not even a matter of bad will—intemperate cultures simply cannot see it. because they are blinded by their intemperance.

Or even worse, the unchaste are not able to see beauty. They cannot see it because the appreciation of beauty demands the appreciation of something “for its own sake”. This is not possible for a person or a culture that is fixated on consumption—which is at the heart of intemperance.

Only the pure can see beauty, so only the pure can see the beauty in and value of every life.

And finally, only the pure can see God. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). To have a pro-life view of the world, one cannot do without this purity of heart. The ultimate reason to respect every human life, no matter how small or compromised it might be, is that every human life is stamped through with the image of God; however, only the pure in heart can see this, because only they can see God.

Let us note here that all this points to a wider issue. I am taking contraception as a major contributor to intemperance in our culture, but it is not the only one——there is pornography, lurid music, various forms of immodesty, and consumerism. To the extent that these fuel intemperance, just like contraception they cloud our vision of the truth, and they are, therefore, elements of the culture of death.

A second way that contraception disturbs our moral compass is by way of undermining the notion of moral absolutes. John Finnis makes this point explicitly in his definitive work on moral absolutes. He notes that “the formal attack on the moral absolutes emerges, among Catholics, in response to the problem of contraception“: and that in its wake has come the denial of the moral absolutes of killing innocents (abortion), of telling lies (deceiving the public in matters of state security), of marital intercourse as the only legitimate form (masturbation, homosexual unions), of procreation as the result of marital intercourse (artificial forms of procreation and embryo freezing).

His point is that contraception is the soft underbelly of moral absolutes. It seems a less serious issue than abortion and homosexual acts, for example. People are much more prepared to admit that there might be special cases in which married couples might do a little evil (use contraception) for the sake of the good, such as the good of marital intimacy. But once this is accepted, the horse has bolted.

What I am arguing here is that the widespread acceptance of contraception, especially among Catholics, fatally undermines the opposition that can be mounted against abortion by the only organization that can mount a global challenge to the culture of death. This is because along with the acceptance of contraception comes the implicit acceptance of consequentialism and the denial of moral absolutes.

This fatally undermines effective opposition to abortion, to euthanasia, to embryo experimentation, and so on. After all, the moral analysis that would justify contraception—namely, consequentialism—can certainly also justify these other elements of the culture of death in many cases.

There are, no doubt, other important connections between contraception and abortion (and other antilife activities) that I have not touched upon here. There is, for example, the legal connection, most evident in the case of the United States where the law permitting abortion is built upon a case law permitting contraception. There is also undoubtedly a demographic connection—namely, that contraception contributes to a top-heavy population that stokes the flames of euthanasia.

Here, however, I have chosen to focus more on the psychological effects of contraception and how they have helped to bring about a cultural revolution that has itself ushered in the culture of death. One might say that as a mind-warping phenomenon the contraceptive pill is more powerful than a tablet of LSD. The latter only changes one’s perception for an evening—~the former has changed the minds of a whole culture and a whole generation.

I have been following closely here the teaching of John Paul II. However, on one thing I would humbly beg to differ. The late pontiff says that contraception and abortion are “fruits of the same tree”. I would suggest that another way of articulating this relationship would be to think of contraception not so much as the fruit of this tree but its rotten root—abortion, euthanasia, and embryo experimentation are the rotten fruits.

Historically, contraception has predated these other evils, but this is only  because these other crimes pre-exist in the logic of contraception, which inevitably takes time to unfurl.

In conclusion then, I do not believe that the pro-life movement can be indifferent about the issue of contraception. In some way, it has to address the root of the culture of death. Every gardener knows from bitter experience that if the root of the weed is not entirely destroyed then it grows back and often with a vengeance.

We need to set the axe to the root of the culture of death, and this root is contraception.

Taken from the chapter written by William Newton in the book IS HUMANAE VITAE STILL RIGHT by Janet Smith  2018

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