Prescribing Birth Control

Grace MacKinnon
Reproduced with Permission

Dear Grace: Can a Catholic medical doctor or provider prescribe artificial birth control and be free of mortal sin?

Well, in order to address your question, we must begin by making some assumptions. We will assume, first of all, that you are referring to the use of artificial birth control as a means of "contraception" -- to prevent the conception of a child. And let us be clear too that here we are not speaking about the prescribing of oral contraceptives for other purposes, which some physicians claim may be appropriate. In addition, one has to realize also that, in certain instances, the circumstances surrounding the situation may change the "degree" of culpability.

Stating all of that, we can say this, however: a Catholic doctor or provider, who prescribes artificial birth control with the intention of assisting a woman, married or unmarried, to prevent pregnancy, is -- under normal circumstances doing something gravely immoral. And, if he or she does so with sufficient reflection, knowledge, and freedom -- and we presume, for the sake of discussion, that he is doing so then the physician is guilty of objective mortal sin.

The Catholic Church's teaching regarding artificial contraception has not changed. It is not in the plan of God that a woman's body should be altered merely for the purpose of having sex without its consequences. If we look at the physiology of a woman, we see that, normally speaking, every month her body prepares itself for the possibility of conceiving a child. How truly amazing are God's ways -- so profound and yet simple. Is it that difficult to see how contraception goes directly against what He intended for man and woman, and marriage?

This is what makes artificial contraception immoral. It offends God and it offends marriage. Therefore, anyone directly involved in it commits mortal sin when that person does so knowingly and freely. As Pope Pius XI wrote in his encyclical Casti Connubi (On Christian Marriage), "Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the [marital] act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin" (n. 56).

It would be wonderful if we could assume that every Catholic doctor or provider knows his or her faith well enough to understand and accept unreservedly the Church's teaching on artificial contraception, but we know that is not the case. However, while sin and responsibility imply the use of intellect and will, the lack of knowledge on the part of these professionals may somewhat lessen moral responsibility, but it does not totally eliminate it. Some doctors would like to take the "lesser of two evils" approach in prescribing birth control for promiscuous women, but "it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8) -- even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general" (Veritatis Splendor, nos. 71-83).

As human persons made in the image and likeness of God, we are each bound by the natural law to pursue what is good and true. We are called to direct and regulate our life and actions towards our ultimate end, which is God (Donum Vitae, n. 3). It would seem that those Catholics, and all Christians for that matter, in the medical profession have a special moral obligation to take extra steps and means to know and comprehend moral truths. In other words, we will be held accountable even for that which we did not know, if we had the means to know but did nothing about it. For they, like each of us, as St. Paul writes, "must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body" (2 Corinthians 5:10).

It is tragic that we are living in a time when the dispensing of artificial birth control has become the "norm" and those speaking against it are made to feel as if they are the ones who are regarded as living in some archaic, medieval world. But there is hope. In a recent interview, the new archbishop of Milwaukee, Timothy Dolan, stated that, "people are horrified by the scandal [in the Church today] yet don't often make the connection, as has the Holy Father, with the need for the Church to commit to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality. This [scandal] all flows from a kind of cheapening of sexual love, from the whole idea that the whole purpose of sex is simply for momentary enjoyment, that we use other people instead of respect them as partners in procreative love. It's just at odds with everything the Church teaches" (National Catholic Register, June 2002).

A Catholic friend recently expressed his views on the subject of contraception in the following way, and I thought them worth quoting here: "To use artificial contraception is to alter one's own body so that it functions in a way that is contrary to its Creator's design. In its sheer presumptuousness it is profoundly immoral. To control one's desires is difficult, but the need and the capacity to do so are part of the dignity of being human. God has created us to love, and love is not possible without sacrifice."

If only the whole world thought like this. As Scripture makes it clear, it is an honor characteristic of Christians to obey God rather than men (cf. Acts 4:19; 5:29).

Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. Readers are welcome to submit questions about the Catholic faith to: Grace MacKinnon, 1234 Russell Drive #103, Brownsville, Texas 78520. Questions also may be sent by e-mail to: You may visit Grace online at