Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy that the "essence of every picture is the frame." In recent weeks, the religious right has attempted to frame their opposition to birth control access in the language of religious freedom. If “this struggle for religious freedom” seems like a "plan B" argument, it is.
This focus on the frame seeks to draw our eye from the real painting on the canvass, as the anti-birth control argument has flimsy theological underpinnings and lacks moral high ground. Since an organization's tax exempt status does not exempt it from arguments outside of the organization’s preferred frame of reference, let's explore the scientific basis for opposition to modern birth control techniques. We first need to discuss what happens without contraceptives.
Every day in wombs across the globe, countless fertilized embryos are discarded by the body without the knowledge of the would-be mother. As Harvard’s Steven Pinker aptly summarizes in The Blank Slate, somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of embryos “never implant in the uterus and are spontaneously aborted.” Each of us is a beautiful aberration amongst many more unlucky or unhealthy concepti that were winnowed out by this natural process. Although this process is technically called "spontaneous" abortion, it is hardly spontaneous. Instead, it occurs due to genetic abnormalities, harmful mutations, or congenital flaws of the growing embryo. This happens well after conception, and frequently before a woman even knows she’s pregnant.
Perhaps some could find solace that the birth control pill intervenes well before this. It prevents ovulation, which means sperm and egg do not meet. This removes the chance of natural or spontaneous abortions. The nice thing about the hormonal birth control pill, unlike the intrauterine device (IUD) for example, is that no embryo is created, no egg is fertilized, and no soul finds its home (if such is your belief). Certainly, there is a legitimate discussion to be had about the moment that “ensoulment” or “personhood” occurs. Yet the birth control pill is not part of that discussion because, when it comes to the egg and an enterprising sperm, never the twain shall meet.
Further, on a biochemical level, the pill is effectively indistinguishable from the original “Natural Family Planning” in that the birth control pill causes anovulation. Similarly, when a mother breastfeeds exclusively after giving birth, she drastically minimizes the chance of ovulation and for the most part won’t get pregnant. This is an evolved adaptation. Resources were precious in the Late Pleistocene, so wasting them on ovulation when you already have one toddler reliant on your milk doesn’t make sense from the gene’s eye view. It also doesn’t make sense to have more children than you can carry across vast daily distances while attempting to keep them safe from all of the risks we faced as hunter-gatherers. The genes for this mechanism (which uses the hormone prolactin to cause “lactational amenorrhea” or “postpartum anovulation”) likely conferred an adaptive advantage on their carriers, so their frequency increased in the gene pool. This evolutionary strategy was not designed, rather it emerged over time to help us survive and thrive on the plains of Africa for hundreds of thousands of years.
So how is this natural prevention of ovulation any different than the birth control pill if used in the service of other goals besides raw Darwinian survival? Now that we have crawled out of the rugged conditions of the state of nature through reason, science, and economic development, it ought to be completely legitimate for a woman to say “law, medical, or business school is my baby right now: I need to nurse that goal.” How is it moral to stop ovulation if a woman is nursing a baby, but not moral if she is nursing a career or other personal or societal goals? Who are we, especially we men, to determine where the “mother’s milk” of a woman’s life efforts ought to be directed? If birth control pills simply mimic what a woman’s body can do naturally through “the blind watchmaker” of evolution, why does Catholic opposition pin itself upon the criticism that it is immoral or against God’s natural order of things, especially since Church doctrine no longer disavows the process of evolution?
There are many legitimate goals and life situations that merit the use of the birth control pill, allowing a woman to delay motherhood until life circumstances are more conducive to raising a child. (Isn’t it sad that this argument still has to be made?) There can be other goals, ideas, or plans more important than milk production: perhaps she doesn’t ever want children, or perhaps she’d rather adopt from any of the third-world orphanages that are bursting at the seams with need. Perhaps she is trying to make it to (or through) a competitive graduate school. Perhaps she is in an abusive marriage and doesn’t think a child will help things. Perhaps she lives in abject poverty in rural Appalachia or the American inner-city and was just laid off. Perhaps she is a single mother with three children and a fourth would be one too many to support on her job that is below a living wage. Perhaps she just had a traumatic pregnancy and can’t bear to think of a repeat of that experience. Perhaps she just found out she has terminal cancer that would make pregnancy a dangerous proposition for both mother and fetus, yet still wants to enjoy coitus with her lover, husband, partner, or boyfriend during her last precious months on earth. Who are we to judge?
Although many of these legitimate personal reasons or career goals may not produce children, they certainly do produce a better world in which children can not only live but also thrive. Clearly, the world is much better off with empowered women. Just look at countries with more women at the helm of corporations, in the halls of power, and in the front of the university classroom. Then look at the countries where women are denied access to contraceptives. Ironically, the people who rail against contraceptives tend to hail from societies where their use is widespread and their access is taken for granted.
The central question stands: why is it morally acceptable to prevent ovulation with the production of milk, but not acceptable to prevent ovulation for other legitimate goals? Because it comes in a pill form? By that standard we would reject the entire cornucopia of modern medical wonders since so many of them are based upon the same idea of using mechanisms and functions we already possess in our organs and cells. Whether anticoagulation, psychiatric, steroidal, anti-inflammatory, or cardiac drugs, they simply amplify, counter, or mimic pathways already there. It takes a lapse of logic to see how covering birth control pills would be any different from covering Viagra or Cialis, or any other number of drugs that increase the quantity or quality of our days on earth.
If this Catholic doctrine against contraceptives and condoms seems to be against women, it is. It implies an organization of “celibate” men can make a distinction about when it is moral or ethical for a woman to prevent ovulation. If she is a producer of milk, that is moral. But if she delays ovulation for other humanitarian, personal, or professional reasons, it is considered immoral. When I hear women say “my body, my choice,” I agree, but would like to take it one step further. This is about goals and objectives and ideals and dreams that are above and beyond the functions for which our bodies evolved. This is about living in an age where we are less defined by our biology and more defined by what we produce, create, invent and perform in this life. It is no longer just about surviving, it is about thriving.
The Holy See is wholly wrong in its position. Let us divert our public gaze from their desired frame of religious freedom and refocus on the canvass of a flawed doctrine. These insights derive from a time when we had no conception of conception. This was before cell theory, embryology, genetics, anthropology, evolutionary thinking, the microscope, and apparently common sense. The Church may be exempt from taxation, but their flawed positions are not exempt from deserved public criticism.
*Image credited to imagerymajestic at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=3849
This article builds upon last week's "A Hard Pill to Swallow: Catholic Contraception Policy"