More on Natural Family Planning versus artificial birth control

[Warning: This post contains what some might consider to be graphic descriptions of a sexual nature. I’m not being risque, it’s just the nature of the subject.]

Previously I posted on whether Natural Family Planning (NFP) and artificial birth control (ABC) are morally the same; and whether NFP can logically be called “contraception”.  I’ve continued to ruminate on the subject and came up with the following.

1.  The argument that NFP is no better than ABC sometimes runs like this: The objective of both NFP and ABC is to have sex without conceiving children. Therefore they’re essentially the same thing. How can you allow one without allowing the other?

The unspoken major premise is that actions having the same objective are, essentially, morally the same. But isn’t that rather a shaky premise?

In fact, it follows the same reasoning as “the end justifies the means”, since the argument is basically: If the end of having sex without conceiving children is justified, then any and all means to achieve that end are equally justified. Thus if you allow NFP, you must also allow ABC. This line of argument seems clearly fallacious.

2.  Something I mentioned in the comments, but which I would like to highlight here as well:

NFP consists of abstaining from sex during fertile periods, and having sex during infertile periods. The part of NFP that people consider questionable, or similar to ABC, is not so much abstaining — which is obviously not birth control — but choosing specifically to have sex during infertile periods. In this, they say, people manifest the same attitude and intention as they would in using ABC.  But I think this is a matter of perspective.

Consider that before the discovery of NFP, married couples would have sex whenever. But if they wanted to avoid having additional children, they would have two choices: Either (1) abstain from sex entirely, or (2) use ABC. To a faithful Catholic, of course, number 2 was not an option, so there was only abstention.

NFP gave such persons an additional choice: Rather than abstaining from sex entirely, they could abstain only at certain times. They would still rely on abstinence to avoid conception, the same as before. Only they would have to abstain less often.

By no stretch can this be considered contraception, or anything like the same thing, essentially, as ABC. ABC relies not on abstinence, but on artificial physical barriers or chemicals designed to thwart bodily processes. These are precisely what have always been condemned by the Church from the time of the Fathers.

3.  Christian tradition is unanimous in condemning ABC, throughout Christian history. And I don’t mean merely suggesting that it might not be totally copacetic, I mean repeated, clear and resounding condemnations.

Those condemnations, however, don’t apply to NFP, since the existence of fertile and infertile cycles was not discovered and scientifically verified (and then not very accurately) until around the turn of the 20th Century. Rather, they refer to the use of such things as “evil appliances”, “poisons” or drugs, and the withdrawal method: Things which either block the natural result of intercourse, or else involve conducting it in an unnatural manner, i.e. by interrupting it.

St. Thomas Aquinas writes the following:

[5] It is evident from this that every emission of semen, in such a way that generation cannot follow, is contrary to the good for man. And if this be done deliberately, it must be a sin. Now, I am speaking of a way from which, in itself, generation could not result: such would be any emission of semen apart from the natural union of male and female. For which reason, sins of this type are called contrary to nature. But, if by accident generation cannot result from the emission of semen, then this is not a reason for it being against nature, or a sin; as for instance, if the woman happens to be sterile.

Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, Chapter 122

Here we have St. Thomas saying outright, that there is no sin in a man and wife having intercourse while the woman is sterile. Note that “by accident” doesn’t refer to an unintentional occurrence. He means rather that the woman being sterile is an accidental trait of hers, as opposed to an essential trait. It’s of the essence of a woman to be capable of reproducing, but the accidents of time and age can affect whether she is actually fertile in a given instance. There is nothing inherently unnatural or sinful in having intercourse with a woman when she happens to be infertile due to the natural processes of her body.

Pope Pius XI concurs when he writes,

Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.

Pope Pius XI, Casti connubii (1930)

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2 thoughts on “More on Natural Family Planning versus artificial birth control

  1. Hi Agellius,

    Nice blog. FYI, I posted an answer to your question to me a few days ago and hope it’s satisfactory.

    I have a couple of questions and observations about this post for you:

    1. You write, “If the end of having sex without conceiving children is justified, then any and all means to achieve that end are equally justified. Thus if you allow NFP, you must also allow ABC. This line of argument seems clearly fallacious.” How so? Why is this fallacious?

    2. You write, “These (barriers and chemicals) are precisely what have always been condemned by the Church from the time of the Fathers.”

    One of the great discoveries – and one I hope you will make – is the reason why this is so. It is not – as the modern Catholic church would have you believe – that contraception has anything to do with the ontological nature of the fetus.. But rather, the prohibition against “potions” was because those were believed to be “magic”. In other words, the ECF’s did not object to contracpetion because it killed anything, but just because it was magic and therefore not Christian. Likewise, you call attention to the “interruption of the process” and you are quite right. Just be aware that that says nothing about the ontological nature of the fetus.

    3. You will be interested to find that the real reason the Catholic church is against contraception is that in the Canon Law, any intent not to have children is considerd grounds for an anulment. The Church simply can’t be in a position to condone something that undoes a “sacrament”.

    4. I think you will also be interested – as I was – to find that St. Thomas taught that life does NOT begin at conception. It’s hard to square that with today’s teaching don’t you think?

    At any rate, nice blog and best wishes for your continued study1

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  2. Paul:

    Thanks for your kind words.

    1. You write, “How so? Why is this fallacious?”

    Don’t you see the fallacy in arguing that if the end is justified, then any and all means of achieving that end are equally justified? If the end is winning a war, does it not matter whether we win by bombing military installations or civilian neighborhoods? The point is that ABC could be wrong for reasons that don’t apply to NFP, just as attacking civilians could be wrong for reasons that don’t apply to attacking military personnel. An allowable end does not justify any and all means of achieving the end.

    2. You write, “It is not – as the modern Catholic church would have you believe – that contraception has anything to do with the ontological nature of the fetus.”

    I agree that the Church’s prohibition of contraception has nothing to do with the nature of the fetus, since in contraception no fetus has been conceived yet.

    You write, “But rather, the prohibition against “potions” was because those were believed to be “magic”. In other words, the ECF’s did not object to contracpetion because it killed anything, but just because it was magic and therefore not Christian.”

    In our previous discussion (on your blog) I cited Augustine’s “Marriage and Concupiscence”, Chapter 17, which states as follows:

    “It is, however, one thing for married persons to have intercourse only for the wish to beget children, which is not sinful: it is another thing for them to desire carnal pleasure in cohabitation, but with the spouse only, which involves venial sin [as opposed to mortal sin – Ag.]. For although propagation of offspring is not the motive of the intercourse, there is still **no attempt to prevent** such propagation, either by wrong desire or **evil appliance**. They who resort to **these** [evil appliances], although called by the name of spouses, are really not such; they retain no vestige of true matrimony, but pretend the honourable designation as a cloak for criminal conduct. … Sometimes, indeed, this lustful cruelty, or, if you please, cruel lust, resorts to such extravagant methods as to use **poisonous drugs to secure barrenness**; or else, if unsuccessful in this, to destroy the conceived seed by some means previous to birth, preferring that its offspring should rather perish than receive vitality; or if it was advancing to life within the womb, should be slain before it was born. Well, if both parties alike are so flagitious, they are not husband and wife; and if such were their character from the beginning, they have not come together by wedlock but by debauchery.”

    Clearly what Augustine condemns is having intercourse while using “appliances” to prevent conception or “poisonous drugs to secure barrenness” (as well as abortion, obviously). I see nothing in the context connecting these things to magic. They are condemned specifically because they attempt to thwart the natural outcome of sexual intercourse, which, in his view, makes the husband and wife no better than adulterer and harlot.

    I don’t doubt that some contraceptive methods were condemned by the ECFs as well, on the ground of their purporting to be “magic”, but it doesn’t follow that every condemnation of contraception must have this as its basis.

    3. You write, “You will be interested to find that the real reason the Catholic church is against contraception is that in the Canon Law, any intent not to have children is considerd grounds for an anulment. The Church simply can’t be in a position to condone something that undoes a ‘sacrament’.”

    It is not news to me that entering into marriage with the intention of never having children is grounds for an annulment. There is no requirement as to how many children a couple must have or how often they must be conceived. It is just that a marriage is null if entered into with the intention of remaining childless.

    4. You write, “I think you will also be interested – as I was – to find that St. Thomas taught that life does NOT begin at conception. It’s hard to square that with today’s teaching don’t you think?”

    Yes, but it was a mistake of fact and not of revelation or doctrine. St. Thomas’s conclusions were the result of inferences that he drew based on the science of his day, which obviously was incomplete. They had no understanding of the specific mechanism of conception, that is, the joining of a sperm cell from the father with the egg from the mother. Nor did they know about DNA. The Church’s current teaching on this issue is based on what we know from the science of our day. St. Thomas, of course, opposed abortion regardless, so his mistake had no effect on the Church’s perennial teaching on abortion, which has been a mortal sin from the time of Augustine to our own. (See http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/was-st-thomas-aquinas-wrong-about-when-human-life-begins )

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