The Birth Control Problem

I am trying to be a sincere Catholic, but I balk at being told what is right without any discussion. Therefore, I hope to provide some discussion here about the Catholic Church’s stand on birth control. This is an important topic because control of human fecundity is essential to sustain our beautiful world. (Witness recent devastating news about the destruction of the Amazon Rain Forrest that has resulted from too many people burning the forest in vain hope of gaining arable land.)

In the 4th century, St. Augustine declared that the purpose of marriage was to produce and raise children. It seems to me that the Catholic church has promulgated this idea ever since, saying something like this: “the use of any devise that would obfuscate God’s intent to create a child during the sexual act is sinful.”

Birth control, although practiced from time immemorial, became more practical when modern methods (pill etc.) became available. These means are used by a majority of married people today, at least in industrialized countries. I don’t think there is any conclusive evidence that their use promotes extramarital sex. (Concubines are common even in biblical texts and prostitution has been called “the oldest profession”.) A commission was set up by pope St. John XXIII in 1963, which included high-level clerics and theologians as well as married lay people to study this issue. They concluded that a reconsideration of the Church’s stand on this topic was needed. However, this suggestion was ignored by Pope Paul VI and by all his successors ever since.

The only relaxation in the church’s teaching on birth control, has been its approval of he rhythm method (1), which relies on monitoring female hormonal cycles to determine a time when ovulation and therefore fertility is present. This method is about 80% effective and can be used only when menstrual cycles are regular. (I understand that the church acknowledges that the use of oral hormones is permitted to regulate menstrual cycles, if deemed medically necessary.) It is noteworthy that even the 1963 commission (cited above) stated that the use of the rhythm method can strain a marriage because it requires cumbersome measurements. However, I acknowledge, that discussing the wife’s needs, such as is necessitated to monitor her cycles, can enhance love between couples.

Some people assert that “artificial birth control” may harm women’s health. A risk of potential harm is there with most medical interventions and contraceptives are no exception: hormones in “the pill” may increase the risk of cancer; intrauterine devices may damage the uterus; barrier methods (condoms or diaphragms) may destroy the spontaneity and joy of sex, and severing the narrow ducts, through which gametes must pass, are surgical procedures with inherent risks. Constant research is improving the safety of the so called artificial contraceptive methods, and health problems resulting from pregnancy are more common than those resulting form artificial contraception. I maintain that it is a moral obligation to limit the number of our offsprings. Some may say: “If you can support a large number why not have many children?” Even disregarding the fact that childbearing is a possible health burden for women, and that women and men have needs to engage in activities other than bearing and raising children, the undeniable fact is that no matter how much you support your children’s well being, including their education, each added person uses nutrients and oxygen, produces carbon dioxide, sewage and waste and takes up space. The world would become an uncomfortable slum if human population grows unchecked. Do we want to wait until human numbers are drastically checked by disease?

Even really good people can completely ignore this reality: A priest friend of mine once told me how his sister, a missionary nun in Africa, wrote to him about elephants trampling their vegetable garden.

“At least that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about here,” he said smiling.

“Well”, I said, “that vegetable garden probably diminished those elephants’ territory.” The point is that the world has limited space, and too much of any one species is a road to disaster (A most graphic, historic example of this is the Irish potato famine , 2).

Preserving our natural world, with its marvelous fauna and flora, is to me second in importance only to believing in God. I think evidence plainly shows that human beings have been changing the natural environment for the worse in many ways. We are in the midst of an ongoing extinction of plant and animal species that is vastly above documented rates for past mass major extinctions (3). This present extinction is not due to an asteroid, to massive volcano eruptions, or to any “natural” cause, but it is happening because of human activity, including manufacture of polluting gasses, changing green areas into deserts and people arrogantly wasting natural resources.

But is the use of artificial contraceptives the only solution? It is clear that the size of families is diminishing in countries with “high standard of living”. The very poor need their children’s help and labor, and for such poor, children may be the only positive gift they can obtain. Can the standard of living for all people be raised throughout the world? Our own future and welfare depends on this.

1. D. Gorringer How far did they go? Challenging assumptions about Catholic women and the pill The Tablet, 11/7/2019

2. S. C. Bartoletti Black Potatoes, the Story of the Great Irish Famine. (2005)

3. A. D. Barnosky; Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money and the future of Life on Earth, (2014)

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