Swimming the Tiber 37: Pass Interference

I’m going to go ahead and apologize for the title of this post. It’s mostly a sports pun on what I’m going to talk about this week, but it’s probably also my subconscious asserting itself a mere 4.5 weeks before the first kickoff of the college football season this year. So if you’re not a sports person, you probably don’t appreciate it, and if you are a sports person, you’re probably annoyed to be reminded about football when there still isn’t any to watch. Sorry.

Last time, I talked about how Scripture and faithful philosophy teach that you can’t break apart a marriage (not just shouldn’t, but literally can’t). About four months before that, I talked about the sacrament of marriage and, later in that long post, I talked about contraception in brief. Today, I want to summarize those points again, and then go on to talk about some of the other implications here.

From before, let’s recall:

  • Sex must only occur in the context of marriage (otherwise, it’s called “fornication”).
  • Sex in marriage must be unitive and procreative.
  • Pleasure is part of being unitive and is therefore not forbidden.
  • To be procreative does not mean to procreate with every marital act, but to be open to conception (not intentionally striving to abolish God’s design or thwart his intentions).
  • Because we are whole and equal persons before God, we should treat each other as whole persons in sex, too, not as objects to be used for particular purposes.

So we know that contraception is wrong. Any barrier method (e.g., condoms) literally interferes with the marital embrace, physically withholding one spouse’s fertility from the other; this controverts the procreative and the unitive purposes of sex and compels both spouses to use each other as objects instead of treating each other as people. Spermicides provide a chemical barrier (rather than a physical one). Hormonal contraceptives (and all other “medical” contraceptives) take properly functioning organs and inhibit that function;1 that behavior alone should give us pause because medicine is supposed to restore healthy functions, not take them away. There is also, of course, onanism (which I talked about in my first post on marriage), which is both sinful and completely ineffective as a contraception.

“Why is NFP different?” I may hear you asking. At first blush, NFP and contraception seem to work the same way: By working to avoid pregnancy, you’re still contracepting, but you’re just putting lipstick on a pig. It’s not like that, but it can be. Here’s what I mean: Suppose you’re using NFP only to avoid pregnancy without serious reasons to do so, and, when you discover that you have conceived anyway, you’re annoyed by the discovery. Under those circumstances, you’re probably just contracepting with abstinence instead of drugs or barriers.

But that’s not the way it should be. The validity of NFP takes its cues, in part, from 1 Corinthians 7:5 (my translation):

Do not withhold from each other, except out of harmony for a time in order that [you] may devote [yourselves] to prayer and [that you] may be togetherlit. to the same again, in order that Satan may not tempt you on account of your lack of power.

So when we are abstinent (avoiding sex), we should be doing so in a spirit of prayer. Basically, then, this abstinence isn’t contraception, but fasting. When you fast, you pray when you would normally eat and you give what you would normally consume to charity. In the same way, when you abstain, pray with your spouse, do works of charity to show your love for all, and devote yourselves to God and to your family. In this way, abstinence will help your marriage grow and strengthen, instead of fall apart (which is what a contraceptive mentality does because you’re constantly using each other).

Maybe you’re not having this trouble, though. Maybe you and your spouse want children more than just about anything, and you haven’t used contraception once, but you have not been blessed with offspring. When in this difficult position, where you want to follow God’s will for your lives, but it seems like he isn’t holding up his end, there is a great temptation to circumvent the proper marital act in the opposite way. Contraception separates the purposes of marriage (unity and procreation) by seeking to eliminate procreation, but in vitro fertilization (IVF) separates the purposes of marriage by causing procreation without unity.

IVF is immoral in no small part because of “selective reduction”; the artificial implantation process often results in more than one successful pregnancy at the same time, and rather than become an “octo-mom,” many women and doctors choose to “selectively reduce” the number of pregnancies. Another term for this process is abortion.

But even if you use IVF without aborting the “extra” pregnancies, it’s still not okay for the same reason that contraception is not okay: it breaks apart the purposes of marital union. The man is used for his sperm, the woman for her egg, and no one is treated as a whole person.

There are alternatives to IVF, of course, just as there are alternatives to using the Pill as a panacea for “women’s troubles.” NFP, besides being useful for avoiding pregnancy, is also useful for achieving pregnancy. Sometimes it’s as simple as timing things correctly; sometimes, there’s a real medical problem, and NFP-trained doctors familiar with NaProTechnology (especially those at the Pope Paul VI Institute) can provide guidance in correcting hormone imbalances, or they can do surgery to solve endometriosis, for example. Each NFP method can address this, whether with specialized charting, adjusted diets, or medical interventions.

Perhaps one of the most important alternatives to IVF, of course, is adoption. I know, you’ve always wanted babies of your own–but sometimes, the greatest challenge is that making babies wasn’t a vocation you were given. But there are orphans in need of help from loving parents, whether those orphans are infants or not. Sooner or later, we are all called to heroic virtue; discerning God’s call is crucial to living the life he wants for us. Don’t sail to Tarshish when God sends you to Nineveh, and don’t use your spouse as an object in order to acquire children. You may end up treating your children as objects, too, thinking that you deserve them or have earned them because of the hardships in your life, but they are also whole persons.

Treating people as persons is difficult. It’s much easier to view the world through the lens of our own life, our own needs and wants. But God calls us to treat every person in our lives, from our spouse to our children to our parents to complete strangers on the street, as whole persons, not as objects or things with qualities we want to use. In marriage, this means we don’t let anything come between us or divide us, and we don’t use each other for pleasure or for procreation. Visit us again next week when I talk about the most basic of human rights: the right to exist.

Next Post:
The Human Right

1 “But wait! What about women who take the Pill for medical purposes, such as regulating their periods?” Well, here is a randomly chosen secular guide to what birth control pills do. Note a few highlights: It “regulates her cycle,” “combats acne,” and–not mentioned on that site–reduces the risk of cervical cancer. It is also often prescribed for endometriosis and other serious women’s health problems, like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). But the Pill doesn’t help as much as it might seem.

Note in the link that 21 pills are hormonal and 7 are placebos (“to help you remember to keep taking the pill”). Unsurprisingly, those 7 placebos are when you have your period–every month. Which means that you could skip those seven, go straight to the next pack, take the hormone pills, and never have another period ever again (with significantly increased side effects, but still). Because the Pill is designed to circumvent the natural hormone cycle and prevent the release of an egg, you’re basically not cycling when on the Pill. Which is why it “regulates your cycle”–none of the problems you normally have are showing up because they don’t get the chance. It doesn’t actually fix anything, and as soon as you come off the Pill, your cycles will return to what they were before (probably haywire).

The Pill “combats acne” because acne is caused by testosterone (an “androgen”, or “man-hormone” in the Greek) and birth control pills are often packed with estrogen (a “woman-hormone”); these do battle, and the superior numbers of the estrogen win, reducing androgens and reducing acne. (Of course, women need testosterone to give to little boy babies in the womb, and those numbers don’t snap back to normal right after coming off the Pill. FYI.) So this is correct, but it’s kind of like seeing one fly in your house and deciding to fumigate.

The reduction in cervical cancer risk is real. But so is the increase in breast cancer risk; the WHO lists oral contraceptives as Group 1 carcinogens, meaning they really have no doubt about that.

Endometriosis and PCOS, like irregular cycles, are covered up by hormonal contraceptives, but rarely (if ever) fixed by it.

Having said that, these diagnoses are very difficult to deal with, and the Catholic Church does allow contraceptives to be taken under the principle of double effect (the purpose and primary effect being medical care, with the secondary and unintended effect being contraception). Even so, because of the poor fit oral contraceptives make for these issues, it is better to treat what ails you than to cover it up.

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