Abortifacient contraception for a Medical Purpose

Can a Catholic married couple morally use abortifacient contraception (the birth control pill) for a medical purpose, while remaining sexually active.

No, certainly not.

And when we apply the principle of double effect to the question of using abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose, the immorality of such an act becomes clear.

The principle of double effect can be stated in a number of different ways. Here is one clear, concise, and correct summary of that ethical principle:

1. The object of the act must not be intrinsically contradictory to one’s fundamental commitment to God and neighbor (including oneself), that is, it must be a good action judged by its moral object (in other words, the action must not be intrinsically evil);

2. The direct intention of the agent must be to achieve the beneficial effects and to avoid the foreseen harmful effects as far as possible;

3. No other means of achieving those beneficial effects except this act are available;

4. The foreseen beneficial effects must not be achieved by the means of the foreseen harmful effect;

5. The foreseen beneficial effects must be equal to or greater than the foreseen harmful effects (the proportionate judgment);

6. The beneficial effects must follow from the action at least as immediately as do the harmful effects.

[Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis; Commission on Biomedical Ethics]

1. The act must not be intrinsically evil.

Is abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose intrinsically evil? Yes. For the purpose or intention of an act does not make the act no longer intrinsically evil. The moral object of the act determines its moral nature, which is its inherent moral meaning before the eyes of God. The purpose or intention of the act is the first font of morality. The moral object is the second font. The circumstances are the third font.

No. Abortifacient contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Intrinsically evil acts are never justified by any purpose or circumstance. The intention or purpose of an act, even a medical purpose, does not transform the act from an intrinsically evil act to an act that is moral or justifiable.

“No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” [Evangelium Vitae 62]

“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.” [Veritatis Splendor 81]

“Contraception is to be judged objectively so profoundly illicit that it can never, for any reason, be justified. To think, or to say, anything to the contrary is tantamount to saying that in human life there can be situations where it is legitimate not to recognize God as God. Users of contraception attribute to themselves a power that belongs only to God, the power to decide in the final instance the coming into existence of a human being.” [Pope Saint John Paul II, Address on Responsible Procreation, 17 Sept, 1983]

The use of abortifacient contraception while sexually active is intrinsically evil due to two evil objects, the deprivation of the procreative meaning from sexual acts, and the deprivation of life from an innocent prenatal.

So already, based on the first criterion of the principle of double effect, this choice is condemned as gravely immoral. And when we examine the other criteria, we see additional reasons to condemn this type of choice.

However, if the couple refrains from marital relations, while using abortifacient contraception, then the act no longer has contraceptive or abortive ends. No sexual acts are deprived of the procreative meaning, and no prenatals are deprived of life — if they refrain from all sexual activity while using abortifacient contraception.

2. The direct intention of the agent must be to achieve the beneficial effects and to avoid the foreseen harmful effects as far as possible;

If a Catholic married couple use abortifacient contraception with the intention of treating a medical disorder, the intention is good. However, if they then choose to have marital relations, while taking an abortifacient, they do not have the intention of avoiding the foreseen harmful effects as much as possible. So this criterion also condemns the act of using abortifacient contraception, for a medical purpose, while remaining sexually active.

Only if they refrain from marital relations do they “avoid the foreseen harmful effects” of the deaths of their own prenatal children, as far as possible.

3. No other means of achieving those beneficial effects except this act are available;

There is another means of obtaining the beneficial medical effects — take the pill while refraining from sexual relations. But if the couple choose to have marital relations, they sin gravely because they choose an act that will result in the deaths of their own prenatal children. So this criterion also condemns the act.

4. The foreseen beneficial effects must not be achieved by the means of the foreseen harmful effect;

The foreseen beneficial (medical) effects are not achieved by means of the deaths of the prenatals. But this one criterion is not sufficient to justify the act. For the principle of double effect to justify any act, all of the criteria must justify that choice, not merely one or a few.

5. The foreseen beneficial effects must be equal to or greater than the foreseen harmful effects (the proportionate judgment);

The beneficial effects are the treatment of a medical disorder, such as painful and irregular periods, and the continued enjoyment of marital relations. The harmful effects are the deaths of one or more of the couple’s own children in the womb. So the beneficial effects are far outweighed by the harmful effects.

6. The beneficial effects must follow from the action at least as immediately as do the harmful effects.

The beneficial effects do follow at least as immediately from the act as the harmful effects.

According to the above analysis, the principle of double effect condemns this act — using abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose while sexually active — under the first, second, third, and fifth criteria. And it is especially important to note that the use of abortifacient contraception while sexually active is intrinsically evil and results in the deaths of the couple’s own prenatal children. These deaths are entirely avoidable, while still obtaining the medical benefit, if only the couple would abstain from sex.

Dear fellow Catholics, if it were true that a medical purpose justified the use of abortifacient contraception and the consequent deaths of prenatal children, then the medical purpose of saving the mother’s life would justify direct abortion, and the medical purpose of relieving severe suffering in a terminally ill patient would justify euthanasia. But it is not true. Sometimes the way of Christ is not the easiest way.

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

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1 Response to Abortifacient contraception for a Medical Purpose

  1. Mark P. says:

    It would be great if parishes communicated these teachings to their flocks. And the priest wouldn’t necessarily even have to mention these things in the homily (although it would be great if he did, if even just once in a great while). A simple communication in the weekly bulletin with references to the Catechism and pertinent Papal teachings would suffice. Or even the announcements at the end of Mass: “the parish is providing brochures on the teachings of _xyz_, please be sure to take one and read it.” There seems to be little passion for teaching the hard truths. Everyone can agree that feeding the poor, praying for the sick, and working for peace are good things. Those messages are rarely controversial. By not even mentioning some of these issues, it is like a doctor having the test results of a patient with a deadly but curable disease, and instead of informing the patient he keeps it a secret for fear of delivering bad news. But he is forgetting the “good news” amidst his fright – that the disease is curable! Same for the Church – although some things are hard to teach, there should be a joy in communicating the mercy and love of God which should override the stumbling blocks of the harder truths.

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