This Changes Nothing (Contraception and Abortion) [Updated]

[Update: An enlightening look at the viability of the study mentioned in this post.]

A recent study supports the popular opinion (used to justify the HHS birth control mandate, among other things) that providing free contraceptives to women reduces the rate of abortion:

Free birth control led to greatly lower rates of abortions and births to teenagers, a large study concludes, offering strong evidence for how a bitterly contested Obama administration policy could benefit women’s health. The two-year project tracked more than 9,000 women in St. Louis, many of them poor or uninsured, who were given their choice of a range of free contraceptives.

– Quote from NYT, based on findings in this study.

People infer that the Catholic Church is 'wrong about contraception' and should accept contraception because free contraceptives are proven to reduce abortions and unwanted pregnancies.

But this view of the Church is wrong. Oh so wrong.

Reality Hits

This may come as a surprise, but Catholics don't actually care whether free contraceptives reduce abortion rates and unwanted pregnancies. Sure, it's interesting to know this fact, but this has no bearing on whether or not we belive artificial contraceptives are morally acceptable.

Catholics believe humans are sexual beings—male and female. We belive that God made us to be united to one another, in loving and sexual relationships. These relationships have two essential characteristics: they must be unitive, and they must be procreative.

"They are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate." (Matthew 19:6)

For every sexual act in a loving, sexual relationship, both characteristics must be present. If one is not, the sexual act is the opposite of love—it is devoid of love. The sin of rape is when someone forces another into a sexual act. The sin of adultery is when a sexual act is committed outside of a loving relationship (marriage), or is committed in a way that divides the love of the couple (as in masturbation). These are sins against the unitive aspect of a sexual relationship.

But the other aspect, that of procreation, is quite simple: don't mess with nature (basically).

When you place a barrier between the male and the female, or make one or the other infertile intentionally, you are destroying the procreative characteristic of sexual love. Therefore, the act is sinful.

Other people can explain this teaching more in depth.

There is no way the Church can ever approve of forms of birth control that destroy human relationships. It is irrational to allow something into a relationship that you know will destroy it.

Family Planning

So, is the Church against family planning? No.

Catholics practice methods of family planning that (a) unite couples, and (b) don't interfere with God's plan for loving sexual relationships. The Catholic Church supports and recommends Natural Family Planning methods (which are more effective, when used correctly, than any form of birth control).

Natural Family Planning uses natural signs of fertility to determine when a couple would likely conceive or not conceive a child as a result of sexual intercourse. Then, the couple chooses whether they will abstain from intercourse (if they wish to not conceive) during times of fertility.

It's an extremely simple method of family planning. It works, it doesn't require any taxpayer funding, or extra materials, or hormone-altering drugs, or possible-side-effect-inducing devices. And it builds character and relationship in two distinct ways:

  1. NFP increases communication. Communication, as Dr. Phil would say, is key to any relationship—especially one so intimate as a married relationship.
  2. Abstinence builds self-control, and makes the relationship more 'we', and less 'me'. Anyone who can't commit to not having sexual intercourse for a week or two is doing no better than a lion in a field. We're not animals on the Discovery Channel.

Most important, and the reason the Church recommends it, is this: NFP is aligned with the Catholic view of wholesome sexual relationships—which are essentially unitive and procreative.

There are other benefits as well, like teaching a woman more about her body, and giving her indications about other potential health and fertility issues, but I'll leave it to the reader to discover them.

So, No Artificial Contraception?

Nope. Not now, not ever. This won't change unless the Church backtracks on its entire understanding of human existence. And that's not gonna happen.

Even if artificial contraception lowers the number of abortions and unwanted pregnancies, it is not allowed in the Catholic worldview. The ends don't justify the means.

Sources and further reading:


"Catholics don't actually care whether free contraceptives reduce abortion rates and unwanted pregnancies"
Right. That is not the issue. Way to focus on the roots.

I was getting tired of hearing silly claims like contraception increases abortion rates because it contributes to a culture of death yadayada. It's nice to see some open-minded, hard-working researchers putting their noses to the ground and chipping away at these lazy, stupid arguments scientifically, one by one.

Your reaction is predictable. I detect a twinge of disappointment in your tone. You neglected to mention just *how big* the result was -- well over 50% drop in abortion rates; 80% reduction in teen pregnancies. If I told you almost any other intervention (free NFP booklets? Extra $ for abstinence-only education?) achieved these results, you would be thrilled and supportive.

You make several medical (and psychosocial) claims re. NFP which simply are not supported by robust scientific evidence, e.g. that NFP is meaningfully effective -- let alone more effective than other contraceptive approaches -- in real-world, at-risk populations (like the women in the StL study). Having strong opinions doesn't make your opinions true!

But ignoring that aspect of yoir argument, the thing that gets me is this: there is nothing -- nothing -- even remotely "natural" about the "FP" part of NFP. There is a "natural" tendency between any mammalian couple for things to happen better and more frequently during the high-E2-high-fertility phase (at mid-cycle). Using scientific information (charting daily temperatures and vaginal mucus changes) and then intentionally shifting things outside this window, and then calling this "natural"... It doesn't follow.

The logic that taking a pill or using an IUD or condom is wrong because it is unatural, yet abstaining during the most natural time for sex isn't just doesn't hold water. And the current opinion of the current Catholic heirarchy has little to do with teachings or beliefs through the ages. It all traces back to one man's opinions (and flawed logic) when he wrote Humane Vitae half a century ago. There was no teaching or belief pertaining to this non-issue for almost two millenia because the science and the technology for contraception (or for effective "N"FP) did not exist.

You are free to believe and feel whatever you like, and the church is free to continue teaching illogical garbage as long as it likes. I'll go on record as predicting that this particular catholic teaching will change within our lifetimes. Brace yourself for a vatican II style backlash when it does, of course. I suppose one nice consequence of this teaching is that it has a chance of repopulating those who leave the church due to silly rules like this with some of the extra babies born with "N"FP.

Your reaction is predictable. I detect a twinge of disappointment in your tone.

I fully expect that, given a group of lower-income women who were effectively rendered sterile (note that most of those who chose to accept birth control chose more expensive (up-front) and permanent (but not forever) methods of birth control like IUDs and injected sterilization), those people will not have babies. Nothing new here. I was disappointed in the way many people are slanting the results of the investigation, but I was not surprised or disappointed by the investigation itself (excepting, of course, that it used what I would consider an immoral means to achieve the worthy end of reduced abortions).

If I told you almost any other intervention (free NFP booklets? Extra $ for abstinence-only education?) achieved these results, you would be thrilled and supportive.

I think you missed my point entirely: the ends don't justify the means. If the means (artificial forms of birth control) are not morally acceptable, then they cannot be used. For those who believe in the Catholic faith, the means are not acceptable. Sure, it'd be great if there was a similar study done with a similar group of women and NFP, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

You make several medical (and psychosocial) claims re. NFP which simply are not supported by robust scientific evidence.

I don't list double-blind peer-reviewed studies to back up every sociological, theological, medical and scientific claim I make (this blog is not written towards an audience that requires such sourcing). If you would like, I will source every claim I've made about NFP. The studies do exist, and they're not hackneyed attempts at scientific statements by simpletons, either.

I don't blindly accept whatever some bishops say is the teaching of the Church. Some things I don't understand fully, but I wouldn't ever believe something that I can't reconcile with reason informed by my experience.

As an aside, I worry when people have stronger faith in a particular method or system (no matter how great) than I have in God.

there is nothing -- nothing -- even remotely "natural" about the "FP" part of NFP.

It is also natural to propogate your species. If you perform a sexual act but intentionally destroy that natural consequence, that is not natural. NFP doesn't say you shouldn't have sexual intercourse during a fertile period—it says you may choose not to if you have reasons for avoiding a pregnancy. Big difference.

It all traces back to one man's opinions (and flawed logic) when he wrote Humane Vitae half a century ago.

This is incorrect. Please educate yourself and don't propogate the lies spread by so many former Catholics with a vengeance against the Church's teaching on sexuality (which has developed organically over more than two thousand years).

I suppose one nice consequence of this teaching is that it has a chance of repopulating those who leave the church due to silly rules like this with some of the extra babies born with "N"FP.

Let's both agree to stop putting things we don't agree with in quotes and using sarcasm to demean them. I did it on Facebook earlier, and you (rightly) pointed out that it's not constructive.


If we are to agree on anything, it should be to stop saying things that aren't known, or aren't even true -- things that are your opinion -- as if they were known or true. No one expects you to cite scientific studies IF you restrict your statements of fact to conclusions based on well-known, high-quality (or at least any) evidence. The fact of the matter is that no one has ever published a favorable result comparing an NFP-style method of avoiding pregnancy, in a real-world setting, in a reasonably large group of women, in comparison with what those of us in science and medicine would consider (based on strong evidence) more effective methods. If you choose to continue spreading lies like this, you are, whether you realize it or not, taking yourself out of the conversation. It's hard to take your opinions seriously, or even to trust your honesty, when you write stuff like that.

And to use the term "sterile" to refer to reversible methods of contraception (IUDs, depot progesterone) is not just crude and pejorative, it's flat-out wrong. Please learn the definition of "sterile" before using strong language like that, referring to techniques you've never used, studied, or prescribed -- espeially techniques that pertain to women's health, and not yours... And I can only imagine what you mean by permanent but not forever.

I know you're very smart; it seems like you are working so, so hard in your mind to reconcile honest & logic & evidence with dogma & belief that you sometimes cannot justify... And statements like permanent but not forever might be the result of that conflict.

Look, I'm operating under the assumption that, by posting this in an internet blog, you hope to pursuade someone to see things your way. If you just enjoy hearing your words echo around in a forum of like-minded people, by all means continue. If, on the other hand, you want to be taken seriously by someone who doesn't already believe as you do, you gotta acknowledge a few things.

First, you are not a woman. So, if you want to take a minority position on a women's health topic, you should state it with with respect lest you be dismissed (fairly) as a chauvanist. Using a pejorative and false term like "sterile" is like shooting your argument in the face.

Second, you are not a physician, and not a physiologist. So, it's hard to see where you get off stating things about women's health issues that are radically different from what the vast majority of physicians and scientists are learning and teaching. Forget your theological or ethical beliefs and argument for a second -- you have very low credibility and therefore a high mountain of evidence to climb with any audience when you make grandiose claims like the one above. I'll 100% in favor of questioning the accepted thinking, but you can't just state controversial opinions as if they are facts.

I respect (& understand), I think your beliefs and perspective. It would be much more interesting to hear about them if they were not conflated with the offensive pseudoscience.

I'm not a woman, you're not a woman, and I doubt that we'll come to an agreement about NFP's real-world effectiveness, especially among lower-income populations.

However, back to the point (ends and means):

  • IF you believe (as Catholic faith teaches) that sexual intercourse is good and holy only when it is both unitive and procreative.
  • And IF you believe that anything that bars any possibility of conception resulting from intercourse in the natural course of a woman's fertility cycle removes the procreative aspect of intercourse.
  • THEN contraceptives like the pill, the condom, IUDs, injected contraceptives, spermacides, etc. cause sexual acts to not be good and holy, by virtue of their interference with the procreative aspect of sexual intercourse.
  • THEREFORE, such contraceptives should never be allowed for use in a sexual relationship. Even if they're perfectly safe (in terms of possible side-effects). Even if they reduce the number of abortions in a segment of the population. Even if the entire world says they're perfectly moral and liberating.

If you believe in these premises, then there are no usable solutions in conventional contraceptives.

If you'd like to argue about whether the premises (like the fact that every act of sexual intercourse must be unitive and procreative) are correct, then we must dive deeper into the Church's understanding of human nature, and get a bit more philosophical.

But if you want to get caught up in women's rights issues, the inadequacy of current NFP research, and the fact that I'm not a tenured medical practitioner or PhD, then I'm not playing.

(On another level, I am interested in knowing if the authors of the study cited in this blog post have also published, or are planning on publishing, statistics of the change in general happiness in life and relationship (especially with regard to self-image and sexual tension), the change in incidence of STDs, and the divorce rate (for married partners), or other measured statistics resulting from access to free contraception. Simply measuring abortion rates is myopic—the greater societal affects are more important than one highly politicized metric).

I am a woman and I see men like Jeff who uphold the dignity of women through the church teaching on contraceptives to be chivalrous and valiant, not in the least chauvinistic.
A contraceptive mindset leads to men using women (I can have sex with her without the natural consequence), not respecting them (I love this person and will lovingly accept any children that we may create together by this act).
Thank you Jeff, for respecting women.

Jeff, I don't believe those things. And contraceptives are "credible" (based on many, many studies like the one in question), whether or not you and the catholic church approve of them.

But I'm glad you returned to the underlying logical inconsistency. If you wanted to believe that anything that reduces the probability of pregnancy is bad, that's fine (not good for society in my world view, but we can agree to disagree), but then you can't logically condone NFP. If you want to accept unnatural methods (like NFP) of spacing out or reducing pregnancies, you can't make artificial moral distinctions between NFP and other, more effective reversible methods and still be taken seriously by anyone with a basic grasp on logic.

The inconsistency arises when you make a false distinction between "N"FP and "artificial" contraception. Calling something "natural" doesn't make it so; nor does "unnatural" mean that something is bad. Both "N"FP and "artificial" contraception involve wholly unnatural methods for reducing the probability of pregnancy. At baseline, there is a greater than 80% chance of pregnancy per yeat in a fertile, sexually active couple. No sane woman would sample and chart her vaginal mucous and temperature rhythm -- and no sane couple would avoid sex during the week or so when the woman is most fertile (i.e. basic NFP) -- UNLESS this process had some efficacy (amazing efficacy, you claim) in reducing the probability of pregnancy. As I said before, there is nothing -- NOTHING -- natural about charting vaginal mucous, charting temperatures, or avoiding sex when it is most "natural" to have it. To put "N"FP on a pedestal as some sort of "natural" alternative is ridiculous. The "natural" voodoo movements for everything from food to clothing blows my mind sometimes. Labeling something "natural" conveys no meaningful information about its real value, but makes a lot of people feel superior for choosing it over the alternatives.