Contraception: A Matter of Concern Not Only For Catholics But For All Human Beings

William E. May
© 2009 Culture of Life Foundation
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation


Contraception is usually considered an issue of sexual ethics rather than one proper to bioethics. But contraception is quite relevant to respect for human life. Contraception is not itself a sexual act but rather accompanies a sexual act. Obviously one can engage in sex and not contracept; copulating couples who contracept engage in two acts: they choose to copulate and they choose to contracept. Here I will argue that contraception is an anti-life kind of act and leads to the "culture of death."

The suggestion that contraception is "anti-life" and has led to the "culture of death" will offend many, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who do not regard contraception as an anti-life kind of act and who can see no connection whatsoever between contraception and the "culture of death." For most people in our society, Catholic and non-Catholic as well, contraception by married persons is regarded as "natural." It is the obvious thing to do if there are good reasons for avoiding a pregnancy; and the suggestion that there is a link between contraception and the "culture of death" is considered outrageous, in particular by married couples who are "pro-life" but nonetheless believe that there is nothing wrong with contraception.

This was illustrated 10 years ago by some of the contributors to the December 1998 symposium on contraception in the journal First Things. Gilbert Meilaender, a Lutheran theologian known widely for his opposition to abortion, and Philip Turner, an Anglican theologian also "on the side of life," in their joint contribution affirmed that "contraceptive intercourse may sometimes be a fitting means by which husband and wife aim to nourish simultaneously the procreative and unitive purposes of their marriage" ("Contraception: A Symposium," First Things, No. 88, December, 1998, 24). Similarly, the editor of First Things, James Nuechterlein, reflecting on the symposium later, observed that he and his wife did not want children immediately because of their circumstances, although, had she become pregnant, "we would not for a moment have considered abortion. But," he continued,

"neither for a moment did we morally hesitate to practice contraception....We no more debated whether we would use contraception than we debated whether we would, in the fullness of time, have children. Of course we would someday, God willing, have children; in the meantime we would practice (non-abortifacient) contraception. This was not, for us, a matter of presuming on God's providence. It seemed rather a right use of reason in fulfilling the various goods of our marriage....We intended both the unitive and the procreative goods of marriage, but not necessarily both in every act of love" ("Catholics, Protestants, and Contraception," First Things, No. 92, April, 1999, 10).

This widely held view is, however, mistaken. For centuries Christian writers regarded contraception an "anti-life" kind of act. In fact, one of the contributors to the First Things symposium, Alicia Mosier, an editorial assistant of the journal, forcefully expressed this view. She began by emphasizing that the issue does not center on the "artificiality" of the means used to prevent conception but with the nature of contraception itself. As she said, "what is wrong is contraception itself: the deliberate will, the choice, to subvert the life-giving order and meaning of the conjugal act" ("Contraception: A Symposium," First Things 88, December, 1998, 26) Commenting on Pope Paul's description of contraception as "every action…which proposes…to render procreation impossible," she wrote: "Proposing to render procreation impossible means, simply put, willing directly against the order of intercourse and consequently against life….Couples who contracept introduce a countermeasure…whose sole purpose is to make it impossible for a new life to come to be. Contraception is an act that can only express the will that any baby that might result from this sexual encounter not be conceived….it manifests a will aimed directly against new life (Ibid, 26-27).

Mosier's way of expressing this view echoes the argument against contraception mounted by Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, and me in 1988 (See Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, and William E. May, "'Every Marital Act Ought To Be Open to New Life': Toward a Clearer Understanding," The Thomist 52, 1988, 365-426). But, as noted already, she articulates a position that was traditional in the Church, both East and West, both Catholic and Protestant, from the early days of Christianity to the mid-twentieth century. It is found in Church Fathers (see, e.g., John Chrysostom, Homily 24 on the Epistle to the Romans, PG 60.626-627), in medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas (see his Summa contra gentes, Bk 3, ch. 122), in the canon law operative in the Roman Catholic Church from the mid-thirteenth century until 1917, namely the "Si aliquis" canon, which was integrated into the canon law of the Church in the Decretum Greg. IX, lib. V, tit., 12, cap. V and clearly likened contraception to murder, in the thought of reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Synod of Dort (a Synod held in Dordrecht 1618/19 by the Dutch Reformed Church and in the teaching of the Roman Catechism, popularly known as the Catechism of the Council of Trent, which, in its treatment of marriage declared: "Whoever in marriage artificially prevents conception, or procures an abortion, commits a most serious sin: the sin of premeditated murder" (Part II, chap. 7, no. 13).. There is thus a long and respected Christian tradition that judges contraception to be anti-life, expressing a will that is indeed at the heart of the "culture of death."

The Reformers and Contraception

How did the Protestant Reformers regard contraception? I give three examples: Calvin, Luther, and Synod of Dordt.

John Calvin, in his commentary on the sin of Onan in Genesis 38, declared: "Onan not only defrauded his brother of the right due him, but also preferred his semen to putrefy on the ground….The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before is born the hoped-for offspring…If any woman ejects a foetus from her womb by drugs, it is reckoned a crime incapable of expiation, and deservedly Onan incurred upon himself the same kind of punishment, infecting the earth by his semen in order that Tamar might not conceive a future human being as an inhabitant of the earth" (Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, ch. 38:9,10, emphasis added). [Quoted in Charles D. Provan, The Bible and Birth Control (Monongahela, PA: Zimmer Printing, 1989), p. 15. Provan points out that the editor of the unabridged series of Calvin's Commentaries, published by Baker Book House, has omitted the commentary on these two verses of Genesis. Also cited by the well known Lutheran social historian with a special interest in the family, Allan Carlson in his essay "Children of the Reformation: A Short and Surprising History of Protestantism & Contraception," in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, May, 2005, accessible at (accessed October 21, 2009). Carlson and Provan represent contemporary Protestants who judge contraception a morally repugnant act, one that is anti-life in character.]

Martin Luther, in his Lectures on Genesis, Genesis 38 declared: "Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomitic sin. For Onan goes into her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed. Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime to produce semen, excite the woman, and to frustrate her at that very moment….He preferred polluting himself with a most disgraceful sin to raising up offspring for his brother" (cited by Carlson; emphasis added because those words indicate that Luther regarded contraception as an anti-life act).

The Synod of Dordt, a national Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church held in Dordrecht 1618-19, which declared that Onan's act "was even as much as if he had, in a manner, pulled forth the fruit out of the mother's womb and destroyed it" (cited by Carlson).

Why Contraception Is an Anti-Life Kind of Act

To see why, we need to examine the "object" of the act, for human acts are specified primarily by the object freely chosen here and now. The "object" is identical to the "proximate" or "immediate end" of the act in order to distinguish it from the "further" or "remote end" for whose sake one chooses to do this here and now. This is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas (see his Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 18, a. 2) and by Pope John Paul II, following St. Thomas, in his Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, where we read: "the morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the �object' rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas." In a very important passage, well summarizing the Catholic tradition as expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas, John Paul II then said: "In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behavior. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally....By the object of a given moral cannot mean a process or an event in the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person" (n. 78).

Here John Paul II is emphasizing that the "object" primarily specifying an act morally is precisely what one "chooses." It is the "object" of one's choice, of what one freely wills to do and, by freely willing to do this specific deed, one makes oneself to be the kind of person willing to do this. Thus, if the object of my choice is knowingly to have intercourse with someone other than my spouse, I freely choose to commit adultery and make myself to be an adulterer. If I freely choose to kill human embryos the object and proximate end of my act is murder or the killing of an innocent human person, whereas my "remote end" may be to develop a cure for some terrible pathology by experimenting with that embryo's stem cells. But note that the "object" is not a mere physical event, a "piece" of behavior in the external world. It is a moral object only because it is the object of an act of the human will, the act of choice. To put matters another way, the pope here is saying that a human act is not a "thing" having a nature of its own independent of any act of the human will. A human act, precisely as human and moral, flows from a person's "heart," from a person's will. This is why human actions have an existential and religious significance and why they are primarily specified by the object chosen.

Note that John Paul II says that in order "to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person." I think that pro-life Protestants such as Meilaender, Turner, and Neuchterlein would probably say, with sincerity, that the object of their act is to "nourish simultaneously the procreative and unitive purposes of their marriage." My problem with their position is that it simply redescribes "what" they are choosing here and now, namely, to contracept, with the goods anticipated by choosing to do so. After all they do speak of using contraception as the "means" to the goods envisioned, and they surely choose, here and now, to contracept, but they in no way identify what kind of act contraception itself is.

Now what is precisely the "object" of one's act if one chooses to contracept? I think that Pope Paul VI put the matter very accurately when he said in Humanae Vitae "every action, which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act [or indeed of any genital act], or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes [intendat], either as end or means, to impede procreation [ut procreatio impediatur]." In other words, one contracepts when one chooses to impede the beginning of new human life. Contraception is intelligible behavior, it has a point or a purpose. A couple does not choose to contracept if they are playing tennis or holding hands or kissing because contracepting then makes no sense. But they choose to contracept when they are also choosing to engage in genital sex, the kind of bodily behavior they reasonably believe is the kind of behavior through which new human life can be given, and for some ulterior reason, perhaps a good one (e.g.., to express their love for one another or perhaps their doctor has told the wife that she better not get pregnant because if she did she could possibly die), they therefore choose, here and now, to contracept, i.e., to impede the beginning of new human life. If, despite their precaution to do so, the wife should get pregnant, the child initially comes to be against their wills: in this sense the child is unwanted, even if the couple does not resort to abortion but rather quickly accepts the child. I am, however, fairly sure that people such as Meilaender, Turner, and Neuchterlein have already committed themselves to accept the child and give it birth should contraceptive efforts fail; still this does not, it seems to, refute the claim that when the child is first conceived it is conceived against their wills precisely because in contracepting they have chosen to impede its procreation, i.e., its beginning to exist. I invite them and others like them to think this over and raise objections to this presentation.

The Example of St. Augustine

St. Augustine offers a dramatic illustration of this. He was for many years a Manichee and lived with a mistress for 15 years. During this time they frequently had intercourse but had one child. Why just one? We can say that in a sense the Manichees were the first Planned Parenthood Association; one could, if one were not among the "perfect" or "elect," have sex but to beget a child was anathema. The "elete" or "elect" of the Manichees abstained from genital sex precisely because it could lead to a pregnancy, and according to Manicheian doctrine the product of her conception was part "spiritual," part material--the work of a good god (the spiritual or psychic) and the work of a bad god (the "material" or bodily). Manicheism, a Gnostic religion that developed after Christ, was an amalgam of myths, pagan religions, and very strange ideas and was presented in different forms in different places, but a key idea was that marriage was bad precisely because it led to the great evil of begetting children and thwarting the plan of the "good god." It should be noted that the Manichees never had a clear understanding of either the "spiritual" or the "material" or of "evil." In fact, Augustine was first led to abandon Manicheism by his study of the philosophy of Neoplatonists to which his inquiring mind led him, whose explanation of good and evil was not a mix of myths and elements borrowed from weird myths and pagan cults but something intelligible.

Augustine described all this is his masterful work, The Morals of the Manichees and also in his writings Against Faustus, whose arrival Augustine had hoped would provide him with answers to his questions regarding Manicheism but whom Augustine found utterly incapable of doing so. Manicheism would not long endure if everyone became an "elect" and repudiated all sex because it led to a new individual inhabited by a bad god. Thus the sect allowed for "Hearers" like Augustine and his concubine, whose major purpose was to serve the elete. They could have sex but were forbidden to allow a woman to become pregnant and have children. And the method they used, as described in Augustine's The Morals of the Manichees, was a primitive form of "rhythm." And no wonder they used this as a way to contracept, for at that time other methods commonly used to prevent conception were smearing the vagina with crocodile dung or olive oil, inserting pebbles into her vagina, Queen Ann's lace, etc., and one can see why neither Augustine or his unnamed mistress might find these methods attractive. But on one occasion the method failed and Augustine's unnamed mistress conceived a child who, after birth, was called "Adeodatus." This led Augustine to write the following in his Confessions, Book 4 chapter 2:

In those years I had a woman who was not joined to me in what is called lawful marriage. I had found her in my state of wandering desire and lack of prudence. Nevertheless, she was the only one joined to me this way, and I was faithful to her. With her I learned by direct experience how different is the partnership of marriage entered into for the sake of having a family and the pact of libidinous love, where the generation of a child is against their wills, although, if the child is born, it forces them to love him.


I hope that I have shown here why contraception is not a "Catholic" but a "human" issue, and why I believe, in company with a long historical tradition, that contraception is an anti-life kind of act. I realize that Pope John Paul II stressed in his teaching that contraception is an act that is anti-love insofar as in it spouses are not in truth "giving themselves" fully to on another; however he in no way denied the long tradition that it is an anti-life kind of act and indeed reaffirmed this tradition in some of his addresses and homilies, for example in his Homily at Mass for Youth, Nairobi, Kenya, August 17, 1985 (L'Osservatore Romano, English ed., August 26, 1985, no. 5). I welcome responses from pro-life Protestants such as Meilaender, Turner, and Neuchterlein and continued dialogue on this critically important issue.