Contraception is for rape victims, not spouses

One of the most controversial topics in the field of medical ethics involves the morality of “emergency contraception” in the context of rape cases. We will be addressing this topic in future postings, and we will also provide links to insightful articles from the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC).

When we consider contraception and abortion in the context of a married couple, we don’t have to make difficult distinctions between the two evils, which Pope John Paul II called “fruits of the same tree” (The Gospel of Life, no. 13). Contraception (as opposed to morally licit natural family planning) is wrong, and abortion is wrong.

Now, some contraceptives have abortifacient, or abortion-producing, qualities. There are some people who recognize that abortion is gravely immoral, but aren’t convinced when it comes to contraception. For them, the fact that a certain contraceptive works, at least in some instances, by killing a very small human person is enough to make them reexamine the issue.

But for Catholics who are faithful to the teaching authority of the Church, it doesn’t matter at the end of the day whether the contraceptive is abortifacient or not, because “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2370, quoting Humanae Vitae, no. 14, emphasis added).

Rape involves quite a different analysis. The starting point for any such discussion should be Ethical and Religious Directive, no. 36 (2001), issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It provides in pertinent part:

“If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, [the rape victim] may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.”

In this context, not only is the use of contraceptives morally permissible, but it is understood as a woman’s right to ward off an unjust aggressor.

But that’s just part of the picture. Once fertilization occurs a new life is created, and it’s not this new human person’s fault that his father is a rapist, such that his or her claim to life carries any less weight than anyone else’s.

So one can easily see that it matters greatly whether the treatment given to the rape victim is abortifacient or contraceptive (typically a drug that suppresses ovulation, called an anovulant). The line isn’t always that clear, and it will take a separate posting to lay out the relevant moral principles and considerations.

I want to make a different point here, one which I think is especially fitting for NFP week, which might help us to see more clearly how dishonest contraception is.

When a married couple has relations, there is mutual consent as the couple renews their marital covenant. In other words, with their bodies, with their sexuality, with their very personhood they give themselves fully to the other.

But if the wife were to take a “morning after” pill—”emergency” or planned–the husband is being treated as an unjust aggressor–indeed, just like the rapist. The only difference is that in the case of rape, the lack of consent is obvious and explicit, while the lack of consent in the case of marital contraception is subtle and implicit, because the parties do consent to the self-gratifying act, but not the consequences.

I don’t mean to sound flippant here. I’m horrified even to compare marital relations with an act of rape. But that’s exactly my point. In my estimation, in marital contraception the husband’s fertility is treated as an unjust aggressor, as the spouses conspire to do the very things that hospitals do for rape victims.

In marriage the two become one, and the marital act signifies this reality. Given this sublime truth, it seems to me that the whole idea of treating this act as one involving, at least on some level, “unjust aggression” is utterly abhorent and exposes contraception for the attack on true marital love that it is.

In light of this discussion, we turn once more to natural family planning (NFP) as a means for couples to live their marital covenant in a way that is truly life-giving and love-giving, thereby imaging the “great mystery” of Christ’s marriage to His one, true Church (Eph. 5:25-32). Tomorrow we will once again turn to John Kippley for a further reflection on the great gift of NFP to married couples.

For more information on the Church’s teaching in the area of sexual morality, contact