The Moral Difference Between Contraception and Natural Family Planning

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

For the last seventeen years I have had to find ways to make the Church's teaching on contraception intelligible and convincing for young people, and I believe that I have done so - at the price, mind you, of a very dry presentation. I have also found that it is much easier to teach adolescents about the immoral nature of contraception than it is adults. For the most part, adolescents (seventeen to nineteen years of age) have not made contraceptive choices in their lives, at least not on the level of a life-style choice. And so they don't feel the need to defend a choice that they made years earlier. This is not always the case for adults. And so adolescents tend to be more open to the truth about this issue - but certainly not so open as to forgo a good fight. And I am not so naive as to think that we can convince most people in this country that contraception is a disordered choice. For we live in a country in which the majority thinks that it is perfectly okay to destroy a developing human life in the womb if such a life proves inconvenient. There is little hope that we can persuade such a people all at once and within the foreseeable future that preventing possible human life from becoming an actuality is morally wrong. Such a task can only be accomplished one person at a time, and I am convinced that the right time to begin this rather laborious task is adolescence.

It has been my experience that students believe, initially at least, that the Church condemns the use of contraception because it is unnatural, while She allows the use of Natural Family Planning because it is natural. But this is not so. The fact that one method is natural and the other isn't, is not morally relevant. There are many things that are unnatural which are not immoral. Rather, the moral nature of an action is determined by the relationship that exists between the will and the basic intelligible human good that the will bears upon - in this case, human life. Contraception is a life issue, primarily. From this angle, there is a very real difference between the legitimate use of Natural Family Planning and contraception. I will illustrate the difference using the example of two couples, both of whom we will assume have a very good reason not to have another child; the one couple having chosen a contraceptive means to realize that end, the other, NFP. But before we go into this, we should recall some general principles.

First, we shape our moral identity by the choices that we make. It is not true that 'you are what you eat'. If that were so, most of us would avoid fruit and nuts. Rather, 'you are what you choose'. We become what we choose. If I choose to steal, I become a thief. If I choose to kill, I am a killer. Now, homicide is primarily in the will. If I murder someone, I will that he or she no longer live. I will, in other words, that he or she be deprived of a good, namely, the fundamental and intelligible good of human life. A dog is not capable of homicide; for a dog has no will. For the will is the rational appetite. The dog is not rational, but merely sentient, and so it pursues sensible goods, such as the smell of cooked meat, but not intelligible goods, such as truth, beauty, friendship, or integrity. Only a sane human being is capable of homicide. But one need not actually kill anybody physically in order to acquire the moral identity of a murderer, that is, to become a killer. I may intend to kill a person, perform an act with that intention, and actually convince myself that I have succeeded without actually having done so (i.e., I could hire a hit man to kill my wife without realizing that he is in fact an undercover police officer). By choosing to conclude a deal with such a person to have my wife eliminated, I take on the moral identity of a killer, even though my wife was not to be killed. For I have made a choice to murder my wife. I am a killer. The action was a murderous action, even though the act did not result in her death. What makes the action an act of killing, morally speaking (as opposed to physically and/or legally), is the relationship that exists between my will and the human life it bears upon (in this case, my wife). That will or intention was contra-life. Morally speaking, there is no difference between that action (concluding a deal with the undercover cop) and actually succeeding in killing my wife. There is only a physical difference.

Now, what does this have to do with contraception and NFP? Contraception is not homicide (unless of course we refer to abortifacients, which are not, strictly speaking, contraception - and the pill, at times, acts as an abortifacient). But what contraception and homicide have in common is a contra-life will. This does not make contraception an act of homicide. But if the contra-life intention makes homicide morally evil, it is precisely this contra-life intention that makes contraception morally wrong.

But if contraception is contra-life (as the word indicates), isn't NFP contra-life as well? Both have as their end the avoidance of a pregnancy.

We return to our couples, both of whom, we will assume, have a good reason not to have another child (at least temporarily). We will call the one couple "Couple C", since they have chosen to avoid another pregnancy by contraceptive means, and the other couple "Couple N" (for NFP). The difference in the methods is a difference in the means, not the end. There is no moral problem, in this case, with the end (the avoidance of a baby); a couple is not required to have all the children that they are physically capable of having. The difference lies in the means chosen to realize that end.

Firstly, the couples consider having sex.

Table 1:
Couple C Couple N
1. Consider having sex 1. Consider having sex

But they realize that they have a good reason to avoid a pregnancy. If they perform the sexual act, they may initiate a new life. So, they project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse.

Table 2:
Couple C Couple N
1. Consider having sex 1. Consider having sex
2. They project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse. 2. They project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse.

It is at this point that the couples choose differently. Couple C chooses to have sex, and at the same time chooses to make a further choice - to contracept. Couple N chooses not to have sex. Consider the table below.

Table 3:
Couple C Couple N
1. Consider the sex act. 1. Consider the sex act.
2. They project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse. 2. They project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse.
3. They decide to have sex, and they choose to prevent that possible baby from becoming an actuality. 3. They choose not to have sex.

Couple N has chosen not to do something. They have a good reason not to have another baby, and since sexual intercourse is a life giving action, they have a good reason not to have sex. And so their decision not to have sex is reasonable.

Couple C chooses to have sex even though they have a good reason not to, and they take further steps to prevent a possible baby (which they have projected) from becoming an actual baby. This is contra-life. For the act is directed against a basic intelligible human good, namely potential human life. A possible baby, even though not an actual baby, is still a basic intelligible human good. In fact, all human goods are possibilities before they are actualities, such as friendship, marriage, religion, etc. That is why the intention to act against possible human life is morally significant. It is not possible for the will to bear upon nothing, and possible human life is not non-being. When a couple decide to have a baby, they are choosing life (even though the life is not yet). When a couple choose marriage, they are choosing in favor of a human good that is initially only a possibility. In the case of couple C, their wills do bear upon something, a real possibility, and not just any possibility, but the possibility of human life. And their wills are directed against (contra), the possible person. This is contra-life; hence, contraception. And if the contra-life intention makes homicide morally evil, by the same token it renders contraception morally evil.

There is a real difference between preventing something from being and choosing not to cause something to be. In the legitimate use (unselfish use) of NFP, the couple chooses not to cause a baby to be. The contracepting couple chooses to prevent a possible person from coming to be. These two relationships, with respect to human life, are morally different.

It is not possible to intend to prevent a possible baby unless a baby is about to emerge as a result of a life-giving action, or one believes one is about to emerge. If a couple simply chooses not to have sex, they are not preventing a possible baby, because choosing not to have sex is not a life giving act. There is no need to contracept an act that is not life-giving. But sexual intercourse is a life giving action, which is why the contracepting couple takes steps to contracept it. A baby is a real possibility if they choose to have sex, and it is against this real possibility that the couple willingly act against.

The argument that choosing not to cause a baby is identical to preventing a possible baby from becoming an actuality is rooted, I believe, in an invalid syllogism, namely, the undistributed middle term.

Choosing not to cause a baby results in a non-pregnancy.
Preventing a possible baby from becoming an actuality results in a non-pregnancy.
Therefore, choosing not to cause a baby is to prevent a possible baby from becoming an actuality.

It is identical in form to the argument that since all chickens are born from eggs, and all turkeys are born from eggs, all chickens are turkeys.

Moreover, it can be argued quite convincingly - and has been so argued - that it is no coincidence that the increase in the production, distribution and use of contraceptives within the last thirty years has been accompanied by an increase in the abortion rate. For both acts have something in common. Both are contra-life acts, even though abortion is more serious than contraception.

Finally, I would argue further that there is more to contraception than its contra-life character. The sex act embraces in itself two intelligible human goods: the unitive and the procreative. These two goods constitute the human good of marriage. Thus, there is a nuptial or conjugal meaning to the sex act. The unitive and procreative goods together form a whole, and the attack on one is an attack on the other, which in the end amounts to an attack on marriage. By intentionally rendering the marriage act sterile, the two actually intend to limit their mutual self-giving (the unitive good); for their self-giving is completed in the conception of new human life. The NFP couple only accepts the limitation of their mutual self-giving; they do not intend it. What effect this has on a marriage relationship has been and continues to be documented.