The Teaching of the Catholic Church on Sexual Sterilization.

Brian Clowes
Book: Facts of Life
Chapter 21 - Contraception: The Teaching of the
Catholic Church on Sexual Sterilization
Reproduced with Permission

Introduction. Sexual sterilization is sometimes referred to as "Catholic birth control" or "permanent contraception." These terms, and the misguided assertions of a number of well-known dissenters, have led to confusion regarding the Catholic Church's teaching on sterilization.

For the simple reason that it closes off the marital act to the transmission of human life, sterilization is condemned on the same grounds as other methods of contraception.

The Authentic Teachings of the Catholic Church.

In his address to the Congress of Urology on October 8, 1953, Pope Pius XII outlined the specific conditions under which sterilization (or any amputation, for that matter) may be performed:

Three things condition the moral permission of a surgical operation requiring an anatomical or functional mutilation:

[As far as sterilization is concerned], the conditions which would justify disposing of a part in favor of the whole in virtue of the principle of totality are lacking. It is not therefore morally permissible to operate on healthy oviducts if the life or [physical] health of the mother is not threatened by their continued existence.

Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae [¶14] held sterilization and abortion to be equally condemned: "... the direct interruption of the generative process already begun, and, above all, directly willed and procured abortion, even if for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as licit means of regulating birth. Equally to be excluded, as the teaching authority of the Church has frequently declared, is direct sterilization, whether perpetual or temporary, whether of the man or of the woman."

In response to a query on sterilization by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's statement of March 13, 1975 replied:

Any sterilization which of itself, that is, of its own nature and condition, has the sole immediate effect of rendering the generative faculty incapable of procreation, is to be considered direct sterilization, as the term is understood in the declarations of the pontifical magisterium, especially of Pius XII. Therefore, notwithstanding any subjectively right intention of those whose actions are prompted by the care or prevention of physical or mental illness which is foreseen or feared as a result of pregnancy, such sterilization remains absolutely forbidden by the doctrine of the church.

The Catholic Church also recognizes that sterilization is not only evil when done to individual persons, but that it is a vital part of the "conspiracy against life" waged by a "culture of death" when used for population control. Evangelium Vitae [¶91] states that "It is therefore morally unacceptable to encourage, let alone impose, the use of methods such as contraception, sterilization and abortion in order to regulate births. The ways of solving the population problem are quite different."

The Catholic Church has consistently condemned sexual sterilization for any reason whatever except to save the life of the man or woman. In such cases, the principle of the "double effect" may apply, as described in the next section.

In addition to the documents quoted above, some of the Church's other pronouncements against sexual sterilization are listed below.

--United States Catholic Conference Administrative Board, Statement on Sterilization Procedures in Catholic Hospitals, November 22, 1977.

--United States Catholic Conference of Bishops: Statement on Tubal Ligation, July 9, 1980.

The Principle of the "Double Effect" and Sexual Sterilization.

As described in Chapter 9, "Catholic Church Teachings on Abortion," the Catholic Church allows abortion for no reason whatever, not even to save the life of the mother.

However, a fine distinction must be made in the extremely rare case where a pregnant mother's life is directly and immediately threatened by a condition such as an ectopic pregnancy, carcinoma of the uterine cervix, or cancer of the ovary or uterus.

In such cases, under the principle of the "double effect," attending physicians may attempt to save the life of the mother by correcting the condition. They must also do everything in their power, however, to save both the mother and the child. If the physicians decide that, in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, the mother's life can only be saved by the removal of the Fallopian tube (and with it, the unborn baby), or by removal of some other tissue essential for the preborn baby's life, the baby will, of course, die. But this would not be categorized as an abortion; it would be categorized as a tubectomy. The critical difference between deliberate killing (abortion) and unintentional natural death is that the intention is not to kill the child but to save the mother.

This principle of the "double effect" also applies to sterilization. If a woman must have a hysterectomy to remove a dangerously cancerous uterus, this will result in her sterilization. Because the intent was not to sterilize, the operation is not sinful. But if the primary purpose is merely to sterilize, then the act is intrinsically evil and is always a mortal sin.[58]

Some dissenters may claim that all sterilizations can be justified by the principle of the "double effect," since, as they say, all "unwanted" pregnancies threaten the mother's life in some way. This is obviously an abuse of the principle and is an illicit statement.