Bulletin of the Natural Family Council of Victoria, 1998

Contraception and Being a Person

Dr. Donald DeMarco
Philosophy Department
St. Jerome's University
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Contraception is a moral issue. It is also a religious issue. But it is possible, setting religion aside, to analyse and discuss the issue of contraception strictly on a natural level. Moral philosophers are concerned with ordinary and natural experiences of all human beings. They develop their discipline by using reason, a universal human possession, to illuminate why certain acts are good for human beings and why other acts are not. A moral analysis of contraception, then, is equally relevant to Protestants, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, and atheists, as well as Catholics. In order to begin distinguishing between what acts are good and what acts are not good for human beings, it is first necessary to respond to the question, "What does it mean to be a human being?" This question, essentially anthropological in nature, must be dealt with before one is in a position to go on and deal with the more specific issues involving the moral implications that contraceptive acts have for human beings, marriage, and society.

The Human Being as a Person

There is a journal that is published under the title, Conscience, "A News Journal of Prochoice Catholic Opinion" which is devoted to moral issues such as contraception. This journal reflects the popular and commonly held opinion that no authority, other than one's own conscience, has the right to dictate personal moral choices to anyone. Contraception is a matter that should be left to the conscience of the individual.

This popular and commonly held view of conscience is false even to the meaning of the word "conscience". Etymologically, the word "conscience" (in Latin &It; con + scientia) literally means with knowledge. One's conscience cannot be formed in an intellectual void. Conscience, to be properly formed, requires knowledge. Similarly, choice is not truly a choice in the absence of knowledge. A choice without knowledge is more accurately a "stab in the dark" or "a wild guess". The fact that there is no group that declares itself to be "pro-stab-in-the-dark" or "pro-guess" is not without importance. Choice, like conscience, must be enlightened, if it is to have the possibility of functioning in a way that is beneficial to the individual. In other words, conscience and choice are not functional unless they are enlightened by knowledge. This enlightenment is precisely what moral philosophers seek to provide.

Conscience is enfeebled when it is divorced from truth (or knowledge of what is true). At the same time, when conscience possesses truth, freedom is not compromised in the process. Conscience, truth, and freedom all thrive, so to speak, in each other's presence. One freely chooses to act in a certain way because his informed conscience tells him that it is the right way to act. If I know that a medicinal I had intended to give my wife is actually poisonous to her, given her condition, I will freely choose not to give it to her. I will not regard my knowledge as a source of authoritarianism; nor will I conclude that by deciding wholeheartedly to act one way and not the other, I forfeited my freedom. Truth, freedom, and conscience are mutual allies. To isolate conscience from this triad of life is to contradict its essential operation. Conscience alone is most unhelpful.

This triad of truth, freedom, and conscience furnishes us with a most important insight into the nature of the human being. It indicates that a human being is not merely an individual who is free to do as he pleases, but is a communal being who is, from the very core of his being, related to a world around him which he can know, and to other human beings whom he can love. Conscience is his inclination to do good end to avoid evil; knowledge is what enlightens his conscience; love is his free choice to serve the good of others.

It is instructive to recall that Pope Paul VI's Majority Commission, that urged him to approve the use of contraception for Catholic couples in some instances, remained strong in its opposition to the vices of "egocentricity" and "hedonism". Even here we find a sense that the human being is not a mere individual, an island entity, but a person who, by nature and destiny, is called to take his place in the community of other human beings.

It is also instructive to recall that various Catholic bishops responded to Humanae Vitae by placing a disproportionate amount of emphasis on conscience, thereby virtually de-emphasizing the role of knowledge, especially knowledge of the nature of the human being and the nature of sexual union. This, no doubt, left many of the faithful with the impression that conscience may function, somehow, independently of knowledge. A few examples: "Pastors must respect the responsible decisions of conscience made by the faithful" (German bishops); "No one should be considered a bad Catholic because he is of such a dissenting opinion" (Scandinavian bishops); "[There are] many factors which determine one's personal conscience regarding marriage rules, for example, mutual love, the relations in a family, and social circumstances" (Dutch bishops); "[W]hoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience" (Canadian bishops).

Jacques Maritain, one of the foremost personalist philosophers of the twentieth century states that man "superexists" through knowledge and love.1 Accordingly, the human person superexists in knowledge by what he receives through the intellect, and superexists in love by what he gives through the will. Rene Descartes, the 16th century rationalist philosopher, portrayed man in radically different terms. The "Father of Modern Philosophy", whose influence on modern consciousness cannot be underestimated, depicted man as an isolated and disembodied creature. His timeless proclamation, "I think therefore I am", implied that man is not a person, a communal being, but essentially a thinker, and one who, strangely enough, is alienated from his own body.

While the Majority Commission rejected selfish individualism, it did not entirely reject the Cartesian dualism that divorced body from soul. It allowed contraception to negate the body's role in conception so that lovemaking could express "a legitimate communication of persons". But its concept of "person" was more that of a soul that was freed from the generative potential of the body.

It is within the framework of the human person that Pope John Paul II states that "body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act they stand or fall together". 2 The person is an inviolable unity. To denigrate one part or the other is not compatible with affirming his status as a person. To approve the use of contraception on the basis that the spiritual love which husband and wife express to each other in sexual intercourse is superior to their bodily or physical integrity, exemplifies a violation of this personal unity.

We are not souls who have bodies. We are beings, that is persons, who express ourselves through our bodies. The body is not an instrument, but an integral part of our being as human persons. Our dignity is in our wholeness. To strike against our wholeness, which contraception does, is to strike against our dignity.

False Images of the Person

The word "person", as commonly used in contemporary society, does not begin to convey the richness that exists within the actual human person, or the richness of meaning it contains in the literature of personalism. It is commonly employed as a synonym for the individual. In some cases it represents a self-centered individual, in other cases it appears to be a terrible weight from which individuals seek deliverance.

A medical doctor has proposed a "Personal Marriage Contract" for the modern couple, which is presumed to be a breakthrough of sorts, that truly honors the personalities of husband and wife. One does not need to read very far into this contract before it becomes apparent that it was conceived with self-centered individuals in mind. Samplers of its stipulations are as follows: "I accept my ultimate aloneness and responsibility for myself... I will put myself first. By keeping myself full, satisfied and not hungry, I will have an abundance of joy, love and caring to give you. . . Don't expect me to accept you as you are when you fail to maintain physical attractiveness, and fail to take care of your body. .. I will not diminish you by thinking of you as 'the wife' or 'the husband"'. 3

By contrast, novelist Gore Vidal believes that having a personality is rather oppressive. He finds that sex is a convenient way to get away from it, even though only momentarily. For Vidal, sex allows couples to upgrade their personalities to "thinghood". "Sex that makes a thing of the partner is a joy," he writes. "There is nothing more depressing to any of us than our personalities. .. I say, 'The best thing a person can be is a thing'. And two things meeting consensually is what it's all about". 4

Psychologist Paul Vitz has done an extensive study on how the word "person" is used within his own discipline. What psychologists often mean by "person", he contends, is, in reality, the reduced notion of an individual. "This means," he writes, "that when Carl Rogers titles his best known book, 'On Becoming a Person', he is simply wrong. Instead, what Rogers wrote was a book about becoming an individual -- an autonomous, self-actualizing individual who is devoted to the growth of the secular self. But he is not talking about a person". 5

The meaning of "person", in the contemporary world, is also very much tied to capitalism and consumerism. Man is Homo economicus or Homo consumens. Such false notions of the person lend themselves to strong arguments in favor of the use of contraception. It seems coldly impersonal to discourage a married couple that is struggling economically and cannot afford another child from using contraception. But the true personal dimension of the human being is not understood in terms of economic activity. Married couples should make prudent choices about family size, and their financial situation is most relevant to this kind of decision-making. But they must not ignore their reality as persons. They must not ignore the effect that contraception might have on their physical integrity, their capacity for generous love, and the intimacy quality of their marital relationship. Natural family planning is at least as effective a method of regulating family size and the spacing of children. And it does not infringe upon or compromise their integrity as persons.

The many false notions of what it means to be a person that are promulgated by the media, popular psychology, and the market place, make it particularly difficult for people to understand how anyone could find contraception morally objectionable. Contraception, nonetheless, is inconsistent with the high degree of authentic personhood that marriage demands. Marriage is above all else a communion of persons. It cannot abide being anything less than that.

Personhood and Marriage

The Woman without a Shadow (Die Frau ohne Schatten), by Richard Strauss, is probably the only major opera in which the issue of contraception plays an important role. In addition to contraception, the story-line of the opera illustrates, in a manner that is both fanciful and philosophically sound, the nuptial significance of the body and the personal meaning of marriage.

The story begins when the Emperor traps what appears to be a gazelle. His quarry is really the daughter of a spirit-king, a magical fairy who has the power to transform herself into any shape she desires. As the Emperor is about to drive his spear into her, she changes into a woman of such spellbinding beauty that he immediately falls in love with her and demands that she becomes his wife.

As the plot develops, the Empress finds herself in a tragic dilemma. If she fails to conceive a child by her husband before the twelfth moon, the Emperor will be turned to stone. She is unable to conceive because, being spiritual in her essence, she does not have a body. She is, in fact, a "crystal soul". In order to conceive, she must involve herself in a manoeuvre that sets up another dilemma. She must obtain a shadow from a woman who is willing to surrender it, and along with it, her claim to her own future children. The shadow symbolizes the power to conceive, since a child, being cast in the same form as the body from which it came, is in a sense a shadow.

The Empress finds a poor woman who is ready to barter away her future offspring for the comfort and security, riches and earthly glory that her enchanted benefactor can grant her. At the same time, she is conscience-stricken by the impending barter. She listens anxiously and attentively to the mournful sounds of her unborn children who sing to her:

Mother, Mother, let us come home!
The door is bolted, we cannot get in. 6

Her children are, in effect, contracepted by their mother's avarice. Yet, the Empress is also gravely troubled. The realization that she would be robbing this woman and her husband of what would be their greatest treasure, their own children affects her greatly and is instrumental in helping her to acquire compassion and a conscience. She begins to rue her decision to cheat this married couple of their children in order to obtain her shadow. As a result of her self-forgetful concern for others, a disposition that is the essence of love, she is transformed. She is now worthy of becoming a true human being, obtains a body, in effect, and becomes pregnant.

The tragic dilemmas in the opera are resolved through the intervention of a higher power. The Empress appeals to her father, the spirit-king, who grants his daughter a shadow and removes the curse of petrifaction that threatened her husband. The opera closes happily and triumphantly as the chorus of unborn children sing, assuaging their parents' fears while joyfully anticipating their eventual arrival in the world. They are the reward for their parents who were loyal to them to the point of self-denial.

Die Frau is telling us that it is only in the unity of love and life that happiness can be found and disaster avoided. On the one hand, love without life produces petrifaction, an appropriate symbol of the hardness that results from not giving. On the other hand, life without love represents a certain cold-heartedness, a disregard for the welfare of others. As is the case in much of German romanticism, the integration of love and life is achieved through divine intervention. This is equivalent to saying that the synthesis of life and love reflects the mind and heart of God.

Some psychiatric researchers, after studying the effects of contraception on marriage have come to the conclusion that the contraceptive attitude "destroys love, leads to unfaithfulness, and causes disintegration of the marriage". 7 They have also reported that it "destroys the couple's psychic life". 8 These findings should not be surprising inasmuch as contraception represents a divided and therefore inconstant allegiance between the spouses.

If partners can sometimes compromise, by using contraception, the integrity of their sexual relationship within marriage, why should they not be able to make a similar compromise outside of marriage? Why should cheating within marriage not lead to cheating outside of marriage? Is it not unrealistic to expect that sexually active adults should always remain unfaithful to their spouses? The logic of contraception provides marital partners with good reason to be anxious and uncertain about the stability of their marriage. A strong case can be made that there is a direct connection between the use of contraception and contemporary culture's high rate of divorce. 9

We are often far more sensitive to the dark side of our human nature than to its bright side (if we can call it that). We easily forgive moral transgressions on the basis that, after all, "we are only human". "Well, what do you expect," we say with stoic resignation? "It's human nature ". We commonly regard our own nature not only as our worst enemy, but an incorrigible one. It is often easier for us, therefore, to rationalize the use of contraception than to see its dangers. The "bright" side, that is, the uncorrupted side of our human nature, though not as importunate as its darker counterpart, tells us who we are as persons. And as we get in touch with the personal center of our being, we discover that it is a core of generosity.

Personhood and Generosity

Marriage, by nature, is a communion of persons, as we have mentioned. As persons, the spouses honor each other's body/soul unity and also love each other, for love is the most appropriate way of responding to another person. This is what has been referred to as the "intra-conjugal" dimension of marriage. Overriding this horizontal dimension is the "trans-conjugal" that extends to the conception, begetting, care, and education of their children. This is the vertical dimension of their marital relationship. The natural ordering of the two persons in marriage to each other and then, as a married couple to their children (and, possibly, to their children's children), is testimony of the unfolding generosity that originates in the core of their being and characterizes their life as a whole. Paradoxically, in giving to each other, the lives of husband and wife expand into an ever widening community.

Becoming fixated at the level of individuality does not reveal the generous core of one's personhood. When G. K. Chesterton remarked that "Sex is an instinct that produces an institution," he was offering a thumbnail sketch of the social evolution of the human person. 10 The institution to which he refers is marriage and the family. The evolution that takes place is from isolated individualism to a mature human community. Sex is the hanging around the gateway and not bothering to enter the house. Man is a transcendent being. He is called to live generously and move up to higher ground. Too much preoccupation with sex is like spending one's lifetime at the gate and not getting on with one's life. Man is called to transcendence, but his response is often lethargic.

The notion of a hierarchy is not very fashionable in today's world. Equality is in; hierarchy is out. Notions of generosity, growth, personhood, and evolution all imply a hierarchy so that they can advance along their vertical axes. Absolute equality is a flattened, purely horizontal world, one in which personality cannot possibly develop.

Aristotle talked about a natural hierarchy that exists between "the end of the worker" (finis operantis) and "the end of the work" (finis operis). A soldier, according to Aristotle, enjoys a number of remunerations for his work as a soldier. Among these would be salary, respect, and honor. The end of his work would be to contribute to the cause of victory. His end as a soldier, valid as it is, is subordinated to the end of his work. A good soldier, for Aristotle, is one who willingly subordinates his own good as a worker to the end he is working for. One good is higher than the other. To take another example, a medical doctor is involved with two distinct ends, his own and the one he serves as a doctor. It would be unethical for a doctor to place his end as a worker above the end for which he works. lf, for example, he performed unnecessary surgery lor the purpose of enhancing his finances, he would be acting as a bad doctor. As long as he is willing to subordinate his own private interests to the health interests of his patients, he is behaving as he should as a good doctor. He behaves unethically when he inverts the hierarchy and uses his medical skills not to help patients but to gain certain personal satisfactions. Just as the very meaning of a soldier or a doctor is to serve the end of the work they are trained to perform, the meaning of a person is to act in a similarly self-effacing and generous way. The meaning of sex cannot be simply sex itself. Its meaning has a transcendent Implication (or trans-conjugal) and involves a certain openness to new life. Contraception inverts this hierarchy so that married partners do not subordinate sexual intercourse to its higher aspirations7 but subordinate the end of the work (openness or respect for new life) to the end of the workers (the partners themselves). Contracepting couples, therefore, are opposing the natural direction that the generosity of their beings as persons inclines them. They are, so to speak, at odds with themselves.

Mother Teresa, in her speech before President and Mrs. Clinton at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast, summed up the inverted hierarchy of values that contraception represents in the following words:

The way to plan the family is Natural Family Planning, not contraception. In destroying the power of giving life, through contraception, a husband or wife i s doing something to self. This turns the attention to self and so destroys the gift of love in him or her. In loving, the husband and wife must turn the attention to each other. Once that living love is destroyed by contraception, abortion follows very easily.

The Hasidic Jewish personalist, Martin Buber, underscores the importance of a moral hierarchy in his classic work, I-Thou. Opposing the singularity of Descartes, Buber proposed that the two word-combinations: "I-It" and "I-Thou" are primary. And the former must be subordinated to the latter, for, as Buber explains, "without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man". 11

At the heart of the person is a law of superabundance. "Life is to give," as Victor Hugo reminds us in Les Miserables. "Every man and every woman fully realizes himself or herself through the sincere gift of self," adds John Paul II. The most authentic meaning, in life, therefore, is to be a gift which is fully realized in the giving of oneself. In making oneself a gift for others, a person realizes his highest aim and call. Marriage offers an excellent opportunity for two persons -- husband and wife -- to give themselves unreservedly to each other.

Life is short, and it may be sobering to consider that in the last analysis, giving is far more realistic than taking. We cannot take with us what we have taken from life, but we can leave behind what we have given. We may envy people who are wealthy, but we admire those who are generous. We should like to think that in our own lives we were generous rather than possessive.

Because we often think in materialistic terms, however, we tend to think that to give is to become less, and to give generously is to risk becoming impoverished. The maxim that 'lt is better to give than to receive," does not ring true in the minds of chartered accountants.

Greed is the natural enemy of generosity. But it is important to realize that we cannot add anythhing to our own being through acquisition. In fact, the accumulation of things can conceal our true being from us. As many philosophers have pointed out, we must learn that the order of having must be subordinated to that of being if we are to live authentic lives. And if the law of our being is to give, we work against our own good when we fail to heed this truth.

Plato said that because God created out of pure generosity, he was incapable of envy. We waste a lot of time envying others, whereas, in being generous we are imitating God. Another way of expressing this is to say that by being generous, we dispose ourselves to receive the bounty of a generous God who enriches us far beyond what material goods could possibly do. We should not want to contracept ourselves from the life that flows from God's superabundance.


1 Jacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1948), p.89. [Back]

2 Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, sec. 49. [Back]

3 John F. Whitaker, M. D., "Personal Marriage Contract," Woman's Day, Aug. 7, 1978. [Back]

4 Gore Vidal, "Gore Vidal: Beyond Politics and Gender," Viva, Nov. 1973, p.135. [Back]

5 Paul Vilz, "Empirical Science and Personhood," A. Moraczewski et al. (Eds.), Technological Powers and the Person (St. Louis, MO: The Pope John Center, 1983), p.207. [Back]

6 "Mutter, Mutter, lass uns nach Huase!/Die Tur ist verriegelt, wir finden nicht ein." Sherrill Hahn Pantle, Die Frau ohne Schatten by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss (Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 1978), p.48. [Back]

7 Wanda Poltawska, "The Effect of a Contraceptive Attitude on Marriage," International Review of Natural Family Planning, Vol. IV, No.3, Fall 1980, p. 205. [Back]

8 Dr. Anne Terruwe, ibid., p.204. [Back]

9 Ralph Mclnerny, "Children: The Crown of Spousal Love," Social Justice Review, Nov.-Dec. 1986, p.202. [Back]

10 Gilbert Keith Chesterton, C. K's Weekly, Jan. 29, 1927. [Back]

11 Martin Buber, I-Thou (New York, NY: Scribner's Sons, 1958), p.34. [Back]