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An essay donated by Bjorn Philip Beer

A hard pill to swallow: Catholic contraception policy

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While I laud Georgetown University President John DeGioia’s recent call to civility in light of right-wing attacks on a Georgetown law student, we must not forget how uncivil the Catholic anti-contraception position is. In some parts of the world, it continues to cause more human suffering than any words Rush Limbaugh could utter.  As someone who deeply values Jesus' moral message, I believe this anti-contraception belief has no foundation in scripture. It is not moral. It is not civil.

As we are swept up in the echo-chamber theater of the American news cycle, it is easy to forget that this anti-contraception position perpetuates the vicious cycle of starvation and suffering in lives across the globe.  If, according to one CDC study, 98% of Catholic women in the United States have used birth control, this policy must also be seen through the lens of its effect on developing countries where people in need of birth control methods have trouble obtaining them.

Dogmatic opposition to birth control is much easier to maintain if one is callously quarantined from exposure to the plight of so many around the globe who don’t have access to contraceptives.  I have accompanied physicians to religiously-based clinics in Africa where mothers receive HIV retrovirals, but not birth control pills.   In that chauvinistic society, she couldn’t say no to sex, nor could she say yes to condoms.  She thereby couldn’t say no to passing HIV on to her children.  These children – if they receive retrovirals – will either end up in an orphanage or in some slum where otherwise banal diseases like diarrhea and malnutrition run rampant.  If contraceptives are against God’s will, it implies this human suffering related in part to the lack of contraceptives is also God’s will.  It implies that the quantity of life on this planet is more important than the quality of life. 

Here we come to the crux of the matter. This Catholic stance on birth control is abominable not because it is Christian; rather, it is unconscionable because it is not very Christ-like.  Although the Nazarene said nothing about birth control (or any of the other modern Culture War issues), he did pal around with prostitutes and displayed compassion to those deemed by his society as unclean, immoral, or unchaste.   If there had been a drug to prevent a prostitute from getting an STD or from having an unwanted pregnancy, I most certainly think this healer would have provided prophylaxis to those in need.   I doubt he would have made a bureaucratic distinction between the birth control pill for polycystic ovarian syndrome versus the birth control pill to prevent conception.  Such a distinction is a luxury only enjoyed by someone living comfortably out of touch with the reality of human suffering in this world today, suffering which is preventable for the first time in human history.

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Further, when Jesus said “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth,” I don’t think he was referring to the dystopian reality of poverty, disease, and despair which is directly related to overpopulation and inversely related to women’s empowerment, education, and health.   At a time when only 200 million people lived on the planet, Jesus most certainly was not referring to the projected 9 billion by year 2050. It is simply magical thinking to believe the earth – with its ecosystems currently in peril – can support that many people, especially if they have the environmental impact of a resource hog like me and most of my compatriots.  Sustainable prosperity for everyone on the planet necessitates we find a birthrate more in line with the finite capacities of this planet. 

If Jesus were here today, he wouldn’t be in a Catholic Church preaching about an American woman’s access to contraceptives.  Rather, he would be providing birth control pills to mothers in forgotten villages and slums throughout the developing world. He would be giving men condoms so they wouldn’t pass on HIV to their wives, lovers, girlfriends, prostitutes, and the children they’d have without birth control.  Although these efforts may moderate the quantity of life, they drastically increase the quality of life when women can invest more resources in their current children, their businesses, and their educations.  In contrast, Pope Benedict XVI informs us that the distribution of condoms “aggravates the problems.”

In contrast to the Church’s focus on female chastity, Jesus interacted positively, compassionately, and constructively with women who had more believable and realistic sex lives.  I doubt he would have pinned his hopes for public health on a na´ve and unrealistic abstinence-only policy, nor on impractical Natural Family Planning techniques.  Not even all priests today seem capable of holding to this high standard of celibacy. In light of recent child abuse scandals, Catholic pontificating on sexual mores and sexual health is a sure sign of something weaker underlying.  As Jesus said, “let he who is without sin...”

The Catholic position is at odds with the spirit of care and radical compassion taught by the first Christian, Jesus.  Due to my respect for the moral vision of Jesus Christ, who espoused what Richard Dawkins calls the meme of “super niceness,” I cannot respect this anti-contraceptive position, nor am I required to respect it just because it is faith-based.   A policy that hurts our fellow human is not worthy of our respect, only our well-deserved public condemnation and informed criticism.  In a civil society, we are called to point out the uncivil ideas in our midst, however politically incorrect it may seem.  This is civility.

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Webmaster's note:

A foundational belief that determines the Catholic Church's stance on many moral and ethical issues is that one must not commit a sinful act, no matter how minor, in order to produce a beneficial outcome, no matter how major. For example, in a Catholic hospital in Phoenix, AZ during 2009, a woman in early pregnancy was critically ill with pulmonary hypertension, and expected to die quickly. Her fetus would be certain to die shortly after her death. The only way to save her life was to perform an abortion. The hospital medical and ethical staff, with the woman's consent, performed an abortion which killed the fetus as an unavoidable consequence, and saved the woman's life. Catholic moral teachings called for no abortion and the death of both the woman and the fetus.

In the cases cited above by Bjorn Beer, Catholic teaching prohibits the use of condoms and birth control pills because their use is considered to be sinful, even though the benefits -- including the saving of many lives -- would be very beneficial.

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Originally posted to Bjorn Philip Beer's Blog: 2012-MAR-09
Latest update 2012-MAR-13
Author: Bjorn Philip Beer
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