A Tough Pill To Swallow

Recently the Catholic Bishop's Conference of Germany released a document that would allow for the use of emergency contraception at Catholic Hospitals for victims of rape. According to the instruction, contraception is only to be administered if it can be determined that conception hasn't occurred. The question of accurately determining when conception has occurred isn't my concern in this matter. That judgment is left to medical science. Those of us responsible for helping people make good moral choices should not reach beyond our expertise. We, however (as the German Bishops have done), must concern ourselves with the application of sound moral principles to help guide human actions according to right reason.

Nonetheless, there have been a number of reactions to this instruction. My own initial reaction was that the German Bishops made a bad decision. However, it turns out that the ethical principles they're employing are sound. Indeed, the policy as I understand it accords with the best of Catholic moral thinking. Hopefully, I'll be able to shed light on why.

The reaction against the Bishops' policy is predicated on good moral instincts. On face value the instruction seems to violate one of the clearest principles of moral action. It seems to go against the principle that one cannot do an evil to bring about a good. Also, it seems to imply that contraception is not an intrinsic evil. Those who criticize the Bishops' policy have a line of thinking that goes something like this

One cannot do evil to bring about a good.
But, contraception is intrinsically evil.
Therefore, contraception cannot be used to bring about a good.

This is certainly sound reasoning. However, as with most moral analysis, the matter isn't as clear-cut as it seems. Allow me to try and explain how the Bishops' policy doesn't fall into the error of consequentialist reasoning nor violate objective Catholic moral teaching on contraception.

To understand the Bishops' policy we need to look at the nature of human actions. First, when we evaluate an action we are looking at a specific sort of action. Human persons are capable of two types of action. The first type are human actions. These actions have a moral character and involve the active use of the human intellect and will. The second type are acts of man. These are involuntary actions. They don't involve the active use of the human intellect and will. The former are proper matter for moral evaluation, the latter are not. This is an essential component to moral evaluation. In evaluating a moral act, it's necessary to always consider the actions from the perspective of the acting person(s) involved. It can never remain simply a third person perspective. If we were to do the contrary we would easily fall into the error of physicalism. This issue is one of the central topics of the encyclical Veritatis splendor.

Also, if we are to understand the Bishops' policy we must look at the nature of the human sex act. Contrary to what some may think, questions about the unitive and procreative aspects of sex are not what is important when evaluating this case. What is important is evaluating whether rape is properly defined as a human sex act.

For sex to be a human act, as opposed to simply an act of man, it must involve the willing participation of both parties. It is not simply the biological process of sexual penetration that defines sex as a human act. This is because we are rational animals, not brute animals. Hence, regardless of the perpetrator's disposition it's always the case that a victim of rape is an unwilling participant. She doesn't will the act of rape. Because she doesn't will the act she is free to not will the object of the act, i.e., procreation resulting from the rape. When the acting person is considered in the moral evaluation of this situation it's clear that rape doesn't fit the definition of sex as a human act. It lacks the consent of both parties that's necessary for the act to be properly defined as a human sex act.

Now, a further concern might arise. In Veritatis splendor, John Paul II defines contraception as an intrinsic evil. This means that contraception, regardless of the circumstances, is never a licit means of birth control. So, while one may be tempted to argue that even though rape cannot be properly considered a human sex act, it would still not permissible to use contraceptives to arrest the unwilled end of conception. But, the problem with this line of thinking is that it confuses contraceptives with contraception. It's only when contraceptives are used for contraception that they take on the moral character of contraception. Likewise, if a contraceptive is used for abortion it takes on the moral character of abortion, not contraception. This is why we properly refer to such a drug or treatment as an abortifacient. Contraceptives, however, are not always used for contraception (or abortion). When contraceptives are used in some other licit therapeutic way they don't necessarily take on the moral evil of contraception.

So: What is contraception? Simply put, contraception can be defined as the intentional and unnatural frustration of conception in the human sex act. This definition seems to contain all the essential parts needed to adequately describe contraception. It should now become clear why the use of a contraceptive to prevent possible conception resulting from a rape is morally licit. Yes, the use of a contraceptive in this case is intentional, it's unnatural, and it frustrates conception. But, rape isn't properly a human sex act because the victim of the rape isn't a willing participant in the act. Because she doesn't will the act she is free to not will the end of the act, i.e., procreation resulting from the rape. Thus, the use of a contraceptive to prevent conception in such a case doesn't constitute a moral evil. In fact, one could go so far as to say that it could be an injustice to not permit a rape victim from from using contraception in such a case. If we didn't permit the use of a contraceptive in the case of rape, we would be forcing the victim to suffer the end of the act that she has a legitimate right to not will. Such coercion is itself an unjust act of violence against her.

It may be a temptation to suggest that this moral evaluation could lead to a “slippery slope.” If the victim of the rape is free not to will the possible conception resulting from that rape then wouldn't she be free to have an abortion? The short answer is no. Again, if we return to the question of the acting person we can see how procuring an abortion after conception has occurred as a result of rape is morally illicit. In the case of the prevention of conception there are two acting persons involved in the situation. However, once conception occurs there is a third person involved. That newly conceived person now possesses his own dignity. He has a right to life from the moment his life begins.

This is why it's important to make moral evaluations with the acting persons in mind. Remember, it's always persons who act, persons, who have dignity,persons who have rights and obligations. Moral actions cannot be properly understood apart from the intrinsic dignity of the human person.

This may be difficult to understand. It took me quite a while. I had to reread parts of Veritatis splendor and have numerous conversations with knowledgeable brothers to get at the heart of the matter (living among a lot of brilliant Dominicans is awesome). So, if you have further questions, remember, you're always free to contact me using the contact form on this site. But also, don't neglect to read Veritatis splendor. It's a difficult read. But, it's essential for a correct understanding of moral analysis so we don't fall into any of the many errors of our day, whether proportionalism, utiitrianism (or it's derivatives), or physicalism. It's essential that we hold to the moral evaluation provided to us in the Natural Moral Law and Divine Law. If we waver we will fall into the relativism that's so prevalent in our time.