Questions and Answers on Contraception and Abortion

* When does human life begin?

At the moment of conception (i.e. fertilization), a new human life begins. The human person, from conception, is comprised of a body, which begins as a single cell, and a soul, which is directly created by God. From the very beginning, body and soul are united as one human person. Human life is sacred throughout the entire lifespan of the human person, from conception to death.

* Why is direct abortion always gravely immoral?

A prenatal is a human being from conception to birth. The prenatal is truly a human person who is loved by God and who ought to be loved by other human persons. Whosoever kills innocent life, including those most innocent and most vulnerable little ones in the womb, breaks the commandment, “You shall not murder”, and offends God gravely, and also offends against the commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Direct abortion is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, regardless of intention and circumstances. Even when the intended end is to save the life of the mother, the knowing and intentional (deliberate) choice of any act ordered by its very nature to deprive the innocent prenatal of life is the intrinsically evil act of direct abortion. No intention, purpose, law, or circumstance can ever justify any intrinsically evil act.

* Why is abortifacient contraception always gravely immoral?

Abortifacient contraception is intrinsically evil because it is the knowing deliberate choice of an act ordered by its very nature toward two moral objects: the deprivation of life from an innocent prenatal, and the deprivation of the procreative meaning from sexual acts. Regardless of which end is attained at any point in time, the knowing deliberate choice of such a morally disordered act is always gravely immoral. The choice to use abortifacient contraception is the choice of two grave evils: abortion and contraception.

* Why is contraception immoral?

Sexual acts are naturally ordered toward conception, that is, toward the procreation of children. God has gifted human persons, and the human race as a whole, with gender and the procreative faculty, so that men and women may marry, produce children, and raise those children in a just and holy family. God did not create sexuality to be used as a mere source of pleasure, but first and foremost for the purpose of procreation.

Pope Pius XII: “If nature had aimed exclusively, or at least in the first place, at a reciprocal gift and possession of the married couple in joy and delight, and if it had ordered that act only to make happy in the highest possible degree their personal experience, and not to stimulate them to the service of life, then the Creator would have adopted another plan in forming and constituting the natural act. Now instead, all this is subordinated and ordered to that unique great law of the ‘generatio et educatio prolis,’ [the generation and education of offspring] namely the accomplishment of the primary end of matrimony as the origin and source of life.” [Address to Midwives, 66]

Contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral because it is the knowing and deliberate choice of an act ordered by its very nature to deprive sexual acts of their procreative meaning, which is fundamental to the nature and purpose of sexuality. The choice of any act inherently ordered to deprive sexual acts of this fundamental good is the choice to do evil, and it is always a grave sin.

* Does the teaching of the Magisterium on the immorality of contraception apply to sexual acts outside of marriage as well as within marriage?

Yes, it certainly does. Contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, regardless of marital state. The only moral sexual act is natural marital relations open to life. All sexual acts outside of marriage are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. But the greater the disorder, the greater the sin. A contracepted act of marital relations is a grave sin because of the deprivation of the procreative meaning. A contracepted sexual act outside of marriage is an even graver sin because the act is deprived of both the marital and procreative meanings. Sex outside of marriage is more sinful when contracepted, but it is still a grave sin without contraception.

To be moral, each and every sexual act must be marital, unitive, and procreative. Contraception separates the unitive and procreative meanings, by making the unitive sexual act no longer open to procreation. And this separation occurs just as much with sex outside of marriage as with sex within marriage.

* Does the use of the term “conjugal”, and its equivalent in Latin and other languages, imply that the magisterial teaching on contraception is restricted to marital intercourse only?

No, certainly not. See my lengthy explanation here: Contraception and Heresy part 3: the Latin text of Humanae Vitae

* Is it true that any of the various means used for contraception would no longer truly be a type of contraception, if used for a legitimate intention, without any contraceptive intent?

That claim is utterly false. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).” [CCC 2399] Moreover, many magisterial sources teach that contraception is intrinsically evil. But no intrinsically evil act can be justified by intention or circumstances, as Pope Saint John Paul II teaches in Veritatis Splendor:

“If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain irremediably evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person….” [Veritatis Splendor 81]

The Magisterium definitively teaches that contraception is intrinsically evil, and that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of the intended end (or purpose) and regardless of circumstances. Contraception, abortifacient contraception, and abortion are each intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral due to a gravely immoral object of the act. The moral object of any act is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is intrinsically ordered. Every act with an evil object is inherently immoral, because the act is ordered toward an evil end. Neither a good intention, nor a dire circumstance, can make any intrinsically evil act good, or moral, or justifiable as a deliberate and knowing choice because intentions and circumstances do not change an evil moral object into a good moral object.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act subjectively good or defensible as a choice.”

* Why, then, do many magisterial documents use words such as intentional, deliberate, or voluntary with reference to intrinsically evil acts?

The reason is that every intrinsically evil act is knowingly (intentionally, deliberately, voluntarily) chosen. One cannot accidentally commit an intrinsically evil act. But in choosing any concrete act (the act in a particular case), the person necessarily also chooses, at least implicitly, its moral nature and moral object. These three components of the deliberate choice — act, nature, object — are inseparable. Regardless of the intended end (the reason or purpose for choosing the act), the intentional choice of an inherently disordered act is always immoral.

* Can abortifacient contraception be used for a medical purpose?

No purpose, however good and noble, justifies the direct killing of innocent human life in the womb. The abortifacient nature of this type of medication means that its use is always immoral. However, a single woman, who is not sexually active, or a married woman who refrains from sexual activity, may use this type of medication. Absent sexual acts, the medication has neither a contraceptive, nor an abortive end (object). In such a case, there are no sexual acts to be deprived of their procreative meaning, and no prenatal is conceived to be deprived of life. Thus, a married Catholic woman, while using abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose, must refrain from marital relations in order to prevent the deaths of any prenatals who may be conceived.

Pope Pius XI: “As to the ‘medical and therapeutic indication’ to which, using their own words, we have made reference, Venerable Brethren, however much we may pity the mother whose health and even life is gravely imperiled in the performance of the duty allotted to her by nature, nevertheless what could ever be a sufficient reason for excusing in any way the direct murder of the innocent? This is precisely what we are dealing with here. Whether inflicted upon the mother or upon the child, it is against the precept of God and the law of nature: ‘Thou shalt not kill’ ” [Casti Connubii 64].

A medical or therapeutic purpose does not justify the direct murder of innocent prenatals in the womb. The use of abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose, while the woman is sexually active, has the evil moral object of abortion along with the good moral object of treating a medical problem. An act can have more than one moral object. But if there is any evil in the moral object, the act is always intrinsically evil. Only when an act is ordered toward only good can the act be morally chosen.

Moreover, since the good of treating the disorder can be obtained wholly without any risk to innocent life, by refraining from sexual relations while taking the (abortifacient) medication, the decision to have sexual relations while taking the abortifacient makes the deaths of any prenatal the result of a knowing deliberate choice, not an “unintended side effect”.

To be moral, an act must have only good in the intention, only good in the object, and any reasonably anticipated bad consequences must be equaled or outweighed by the reasonably anticipated good consequences of the act. The “unintended bad effects” argument entirely ignores the font of the moral object, and speaks as if morality were solely determined by intention and circumstances.

* Is it moral for a man and woman to use a barrier method (e.g. condoms) during sexual relations in order to prevent disease transmission, if they are otherwise unable to conceive (e.g. due to pregnancy, illness, injury, or old age)?

No, it is not moral. The knowing deliberate choice of any act ordered by its nature to deprived sexual acts of their procreative meaning is always gravely immoral. It is not the attainment of the moral object of an act that makes the act good or evil by its nature. Rather, the knowing deliberate choice of the disordered act is the sin.

If a married couple choose to use contraception, they sin gravely, even if they accidentally conceive a child because the contraceptive method fails. For they have chosen an act ordered to deprive sexual acts of their procreative meaning.

If a married couple have natural marital relations open to life, but they are unable to conceive (e.g. due to pregnancy, illness, injury, or old age), they are choosing an inherently good act. Their chosen act is ordered toward the three good moral objects of sexual relations: the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings. Even though the procreative meaning cannot be attained, the couple are still morally obligated to choose only those sexual acts that are ordered toward that end (i.e. which are open to life by the nature of the act). Choosing a sexual act that is inherently closed to life is immoral.

The moral object determines whether a knowingly chosen act is good or evil by its very nature. And the moral nature of any act is found solely in its ordering toward its moral object. The choice of the disordered act is sinful, even if the evil end is not attained in a particular case, because it is an act intrinsically ordered toward an evil end.

* Is the deliberate knowing choice of an act ordered, by its very nature, to deprive the sexual act of its procreative meaning necessarily always the intrinsically evil act of contraception, regardless of intention and circumstances?

Yes, it is. Intrinsically evil acts are defined, as to their intrinsic morality, solely by the ordering of the knowingly chosen act toward its moral object.

* Is contraception moral to use in cases of rape?

Yes, it is moral to use contraception in cases of rape because the moral object of the act is to defend against the rape. The reason that contraception is immoral is that sexual acts are naturally ordered toward conception. For this same reason, the prevention of conception in cases of rape is morally an interruption of the rape. Thus the deprivation of the procreative meaning is not in the object of the act, but only in the circumstances.

Direct abortion is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. The type of act called indirect abortion is not intrinsically evil. An example is a woman who has cancer of the uterus and is in the early stages of pregnancy. If the child cannot be saved by waiting until the child is viable, the cancer can be treated (directly) by the removal of the cancerous uterus, despite the indirect death of the prenatal. In cases of indirect abortion, the death of the prenatal is not in the object of the act, but only in the circumstances. Similarly, contraception is indirect in cases of rape.

* Is abortifacient contraception moral to use in cases of rape?

No, it is not moral. While contraception is moral in cases of rape, abortion is not. The direct killing of an innocent unborn child in no way defends against the evil crime of rape. Deadly force can sometimes be used against the guilty rapist, but never against the innocent prenatal. Abortion is never moral in cases of rape, and abortifacient contraception is a type of abortion, not merely a type of contraception.

* Is the intrinsically evil act of contraception correctly defined as: “the use of contraceptive methods by married couples to prevent pregnancy”?

No, that is not correct. Contraception is immoral regardless of marital state, so the provision “by married couples” wrongly seeks to narrow the Church’s teaching against a grave evil. Contraception is also immoral regardless of intention and circumstances, so the provision “to prevent pregnancy” (or any similar phrasing) wrongly seeks to define an intrinsically evil act by intention, rather than by its moral object.

See my 5-part series of articles, Contraception and Heresy: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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