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christian.jpgThink of it.  A country on the verge of a Depression; its most powerful financial institutions crumbling; the whole world in the grip of uncertainty; millions unemployed; foreclosures too numerous to count; … and the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives defends spending enormous taxpayer sums on contraception: ‘it will save millions;’ ‘help rescue states from bankruptcy;’ ‘protect women;’ ‘reduce the number of pesky children.’

-STEPHANOPOULOS: Hundreds of millions of dollars to expand family planning services. How is that stimulus?

-PELOSI: Well, the family planning services reduce cost. They reduce cost. The states are in terrible fiscal budget crises now and part of what we do for children’s health, education and some of those elements are to help the states meet their financial needs. One of those – one of the initiatives you mentioned, the contraception, will reduce costs to the states and to the federal government.

-STEPHANOPOULOS: So no apologies for that?

-PELOSI: No apologies. No. We have to deal with the consequences of the downturn in our economy.

Sunday Jan. 23, 2009, ABC’s THIS WEEK

“For every dollar spent on family planning services, it is estimated that almost four dollars is saved in public health spending. This comprehensive approach to protecting women’s reproductive health will not only decrease the spread of STDs and reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, but save money.”

Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY) on introducing the “Prevention First Act” (Jan. 13, 2009)

Think of it.  A country on the verge of a Depression; its most powerful financial institutions crumbling; the whole world in the grip of uncertainty; millions unemployed; foreclosures too numerous to count; … and the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives defends spending enormous taxpayer sums on contraception: ‘it will save millions;’ ‘help rescue states from bankruptcy;’ ‘protect women;’ ‘reduce the number of pesky children.’

I’m reminded of a full two page, centerfold picture from a 1918 edition of Margaret Sanger’s influential journal “The Birth Control Review.”  A noble youthful figure reminiscent of Lady Liberty is standing erect in the foreground with her right hand outstretched to a vast multitude of faceless people; and written above her hand, as if sprinkled in pixy dust, are the words: “Birth Control Means Health, Happiness, Perfect Children.”  In the background is a withered frowning old man with a pointed nose, glaring at the lady, holding aloft a menacing club aimed at the noble figure; his necklace reads: “Purity Sleuth,” and behind him, as if emerging from his buttocks, are the words: “Self-appointed Guardian of the Public Morals”.  The centerfold is entitled “The Public Sneak.”

At the risk of sounding sleuthish and sneaky, I’d like to criticize this cultural panacea.  It’s a difficult topic to address in a forum like this.  Contraception doesn’t garner the opposition in the pro-life community that other issues do.  In fact, among some of the most dedicated pro-lifers in the country, opinions split down party lines: Catholics contra; most Protestants pro, although significant numbers of Protestants oppose contraception.[1]  This leads many to believe that the Catholic position is founded on religious obedience and not on reasoned argument, which is understandable.  I venture to say, however, that the Church teaches what it does because of the nature of the subject matter.  Some may fear that I’m now going to launch into the familiar “All-the-errors-of-modernity-follow-from-contraception” argument.  I’m not.  I am however going to try to draw an intelligible and defensible line, using insights from moral psychology, from our cultural love-affair with contracepted intercourse to widespread anti-life attitudes and ultimately to our cultural toleration of killing the unborn.

Let’s look at the psychology of contraceptive choices.  By necessity every couple who contracepts reasons that some action they are about to perform is liable to cause a new human life to come into the world.  They may love children and even have children of their own.  But in regard to the actions they are contemplating at that time, they want to assure that no new human life comes into being.  They judge that a particular kind of contraceptive device is adequate to assure that no baby is conceived.  They then choose the baby-making behavior; and they supervene upon it a second choice—the contraceptive act—to assure no baby comes into being.

It’s important to see here that by contemplating potentially fertile intercourse in the first place—they must at least believe it’s potentially fertile or they would not also contemplate using contraception—they psychologically envisage a baby.  The baby is not an abstraction.  He or she is a clear and present possibility; and to them at that time, a threatening and unwanted possibility.  We might call the orientation of their cognitions toward that baby contra-life: they don’t want a live baby.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not implying they feel any malice toward the potential life.  Nor do I doubt that some contracepting couples resolve in advance to accept lovingly a child should their contraception fail.  I am referring rather to an objective cognitive structure.  They judge that the life of a child should be prevented from coming into being because of the serious problems this could cause.

As soon as they adopt this cognitive structure as a directive for action—that is, as soon as their reasoned judgment directs their volition through a choice to contracept—that structure now becomes an orientation of their wills.  The contra-life cognition directs a contra-life volition.  Having raised the prospect of a baby’s life by freely choosing a baby-making type of behavior, each consenting partner now wills against the life of the baby that might have come into existence.  Again, let’s not muddy the picture by implying that such partners necessarily experience a felt animus to new life.  I am simply asserting a fact about their cognitions and willing: they bring about a self-determination against the good of new life.

What more can be said about the nature of this contra-life mind and will?  I’d like to suggest that it is not morally neutral.  Orientations of intellect and will, especially when reinforced by repeated activity of similar kinds, are called habits.  And habits are the subject matter of character.  Character is a difficult term to define.  I define it as the cumulative orientation of mind, will and affect toward what is authentically good as a result of one’s free choices.  It’s important to emphasize the element of free choice here.  Not all of one’s salient personality traits are the result of free choices.  Temperament, for example, is more or less a given, arising from heredity and environmental impact in our earliest years.  Temperament is not a part of character, although the two interact.  Character, on the other hand, signifies the kind of person we are (honest, generous, bad tempered, unjust, courageous).  And we become these kinds of people through our self-agency, although dispositions of temperament do make certain habits (also called virtues and vices) easier to develop.

Those whose intellects and wills are characterized by habits of this kind dispose themselves to further choices of a wide but regular kind, shaped precisely by the habituated disposition.  In other words, the dispositions are qualities of the self signifying the integration of one’s powers and faculties around (or, as it were, in the ‘shape’ of) morally determinative choices and commitments.  Unless we reject in the future the judgment and choice that instantiated the disposition—Christianity calls this repentance—our cognitive rule and measure in future deliberations, in relation to the same goods that moved us to make the choice in the past (in the case at hand, the good of new life), will line up with our enduring disposition.  Similarly, our wills, called by Aristotle and Aquinas “cognitive appetites,” will grow, as it were, familiar to the taste of the goods sought in our choices and the goods rejected in our choices.  The contra-life will grows comfortable with and inclines to excluding children from further acts of intercourse.  The disposition, of course, is not wholly determining.  A couple can act against the orientations of their minds and wills.  But when they do they will feel the inertia of their own habits resisting their choice.  It will be harder to open up to new life in their intercourse.  This is why couples who contracept rarely have more than two or three children, while couples who practice NFP often have many more.  Some might reply mischievously, “That’s because NFP doesn’t work!”  The joke is well taken.  But the conclusion is false.  Couples who conscientiously practice NFP are able to have equal precision in family planning to contracepting couples. [2]

The difference is that NFP couples do not instantiate into their characters orientations inclining them against openness to new life.  And so, the goodness of new life remains habitually fresh to them.  The ‘taste,’ as it were, of babies remains delightful, even if they judge that for good reasons they should refrain for a time from having more.  How many times have pregnant mothers of large families heard it said to them: “surely this is your last one!”, as if having more children were repugnant to the person who speaks the words?

More could be said, but I’d like to finish by asking how this relates to abortion.  Contraception and abortion indeed differ in a very significant way.  The contraceptor wills against the life of a baby who doesn’t yet exist.  The abortionist wills against a living baby.  Contraceptors do not kill human beings (unless by way of using abortifacient methods), and so the contraceptive act, unlike an abortive act, is not necessarily an injustice.  This of course is a monumental difference.  But the two also share a similarity overlooked by many, subtle but assuredly morally relevant.  Both are chosen to eliminate the problem of unwanted children.  Both are acts—and acts are determinations of the self—against the good of life, in the one case a life that threatens to be, in the other a life that has come to be.  Both also correspond to a mindset widely shared in our culture that procreation beyond a socially acceptable minimum is irresponsible; that many children are burdensome.  Some even act as if young children were environmental pollutants.  The mindset was named insightfully by John Paul II as a “contraceptive mentality;” and he linked it to support for abortion.

Now for couples who are resolutely pro-life and who contracept, the connection to abortion might not be transparent.  But the connection hasn’t escaped our wider culture.  Abortion is the fallback position for many today in the event that their contraception should fail.  It’s perfectly logical.  The baby’s potential life that I willed against is now actual.  What now are my alternatives?  The two are so closely connected psychologically (and thus socially and economically) that the Supreme Court acknowledged it as if it were a truism.  Commenting on those who would turn back the clock on Roe, the Court said that such citizens

simply … refuse to face the fact that for two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail.


Abortion is customarily chosen as an unplanned response to … the failure of conventional birth control. [3]


The connection is not inevitable, but it is predictable.  Both contraception and abortion share the concern about minimizing the problem of unwanted children.

A point should be made on behalf of brother and sister Evangelical Protestants who have been at the vanguard of defending the unborn and opposing from the start the swiftly expanding liberties enjoined by Roe.  In good faith many have practiced contraception as their means to fulfilling family planning goals.  And they’ve gone on to be among the most courageous defenders of the unborn.  This stands in stark contrast to the example of many Catholics who after rejecting the Church’s teaching on conjugal chastity, go on benignly (and even actively) to support pro-abortion political politicians who vow to solidify and expand Roe’s legacy.  Two things can be said.  First, this is a salutary illustration of the godlike dignity of human freedom: that despite the dispositions of our minds and wills, we are capable of acting upon what we judge to be good and right.  Second, that these Christians have a powerful inner principle resisting the logic of their contraceptive dispositions: their lively faith in Christ, the Word of God, whom they rightly believe to be adamantly opposed to killing unborn children.

Anyone who awakens to the evil of abortion—be he Catholic, Protestant, Jew or atheist—comes to see it as the defining moral issue of our time.  But many are morally half-asleep.  Contraception I suggest is among the most powerful moral soporifics inclining consciences against awakening to that terrible reality.

[1] See for example Charles D. Provan, The Bible and Birth Control (Monongahela, PA: Zimmer Printing, 1989).

[2] For an illuminatiing study on the effectivity of NFP, see R.E.J. Ryder, “Natural Family Planning”: Effective Birth Control Supported by the Catholic Church,” British Medical Journal, vol. 307, n. 6906 (1993), p. 723(4).

[3] Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey (91-744), 505 U.S. 833 (1992), emphasis added.


(c) Culture of Life Foundation, 2009.  Reproduction granted with attribution required.