Many of you will recall that last winter there was a flurry of controversy over the opposition in some quarters to Obamacare's contraception mandate, which required employers to provide contraceptive coverage to employees, specifically, birth control pills.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was opposed on principle, since it has a religious objection to almost all forms of contraception (an objection, by the way, which is not in any way related to abortion, more on that anon). But many conservative protestant churches also registered opposition for reasons that were, frankly, quite perplexing. Specifically, they objected to it because they believed (wrong, by the way) that birth control pills were abortifacients, that is to say, they function by causing abortion.
Why bring this up now? Well, as it turns out, my Twitter feed saw a bit of activity last night in the form of a Catholic pro-life activist who was under the impression that 1) birth control pills do function by causing abortion and 2) that this is (at least one of) the reasons that the Catholic Bishops were opposed to it.* As you can imagine, there's only so much you can communicate in 140 characters, but I did my best to point out to him that neither of these things is true. Again, being Twitter, it was hard to do more than reenact Monty Python's argument sketch.
That being the case, I thought it would be worthwhile to spell out, in a brief way, the reason why my correspondent was wrong about these points. Obviously, I'm not intending to be comprehensive here, but simply to point out the argument in its basic form.**
So, to the first issue: Is the Pill an abortifacient? No. Though apparently there has developed a cottege industry on the Christian right trying to demonstrate that it is. The argument goes like this: Because the means by which the pill prevents pregnancy is to prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg in a woman's uterine wall, it therefore functions by causing abortion.***
However, the best research on the subject establishes quite well that this is not actually how the pill (as well as other forms of hormonal birth control like Plan B) functions. Rather, the pill prevents pregnancy by preventing ovulation not by preventing implantation. To cite the conclusion of a study from the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynocology:
Modern hormonal contraceptives and intrauterine contraceptive devices have multiple biologic effects. Some of them may be the primary mechanism of contraceptive action, whereas others are secondary. For combined oral contraceptives and progestin-only methods, the main mechanisms are ovulation inhibition and changes in the cervical mucus that inhibit sperm penetration. The hormonal methods, particularly the low-dose progestin-only products and emergency contraceptive pills, have effects on the endometrium that, theoretically, could affect implantation. However, no scientific evidence indicates that prevention of implantation actually results from the use of these methods. Once pregnancy begins, none of these methods has an abortifacient action. The precise mechanism of intrauterine contraceptive devices is unclear. Current evidence indicates they exert their primary effect before fertilization, reducing the opportunity of sperm to fertilize an ovum.
That seems pretty definitive. Of course these studies are always subject to revision and later research could conclude something different, but at least on the basis of the best research currently available, these contraceptives do not work by preventing implantation.
This point was recognized by the National Catholic Reporter, which published a report in February, n the midst of the controversey, stating:
The reality is that there is overwhelming scientific evidence that the IUD and Plan B work only as contraceptives. Since Ella is new to the market, it has not been studied as extensively. But as of now, there is no scientific proof that Ella acts as an abortifacient, either.
This, of course hasn't prevented many abortion opponants from expanding their field of battle to the subject of contraception. Again, in the case of Catholic conservatives, this is rooted in Catholic opposition to contraception (I'm coming to that), but what's up with the Protestants?
It seems to me as though the protestant opposition to contraception can't be understood without a greater understanding of the way in which a particular conception of patriarchal authority has more and more deeply embedded itself within conservative evangelicalism over the past forty years. Once upon a time, even the Southern Baptist Convention was both pro-choice and pro-contraception. That begin to change in eh 1970s with the rise of the Religious Right. In the ensuing decades, this has transformed from an argument about protecting unborn life to an argument about the whole nature of male and female sexuality, male family headship, and the proper role of a woman as, first and foremost, a machine for making babies.
This can be seen most clearly in movements like the so-called "quiverfull" movement, which advocates the idea that couples should produce as many children as they can (so-named on the basis of Psalm 127). These movements are not simply anti-abortion, they are pro-pregnancy. Theoretically they are pro-perpetual pregnancy. Ideally they imagine that adult married women should, from the time they are married to the time they are incapable of bearing further children, should either be pregnant, recovering from pregnancy, or actively trying to get pregnant again. Failure to produce a "quiverfull" of children is seen to be both a moral and a spiritual failure.
From this perspective, of course, contraception is a horrible abomination, allowing women to evade their God-given responsibility for producing as many children as possible. Of course, many conservative protestant opponents of contraception are not necessarily overtly affiliated with this movement, but they are often strongly associated with positions regarding family and birth which are strongly patriarchal, deeply anti-feminist, and heavily supportive of the basic idea that a womans first responsibility is for the family -- both in giving birth and in the nurturing of children.
This whole approach is, honestly, pretty vulgar. The Catholic doctrine on contraception is much more sophisticated (though, it might be argued, it boils down to the same thing). The position of the Catholic magisterium is summarized in the Papal Encyclical Humanae Vitae thusly:
Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one's partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife. If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will. But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source.
Therefore, the Encyclical continues (after a proforma condemnation of abortion "even for therapeutic purposes"): "Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means."
In other words, any form of contraception (except for what has come to be know, laughably, as "natural family planning") is in principle excluded. This would include all forms of hormonal contraception, including the ones we've been discussing, as well as any use of condoms, IUDs, vasectomy or tubal ligation. Notice that the grounds are, quite explicitly, that it interferes with the natural procreative process, not that it causes abortion.
The Vatican expanded on this in its "Instruction on Respect for Life In Its Origin and On the Dignity of Procreation," which stated:
Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life. This doctrinal reminder provides the fundamental criterion for the solution of the various problems posed by the development of the biomedical sciences in this field: since the embryo must be treated as a person, it must also be defended in its integrity, tended and cared for, to the extent possible, in the same way as any other human being as far as medical assistance is concerned.
Note the shift in emphasis between the two documents. The first emphasizes procreation as the fruit of human sexuality, and the need to affirm the integrity of the natural sexual act. The second focuses on the status of the embryo "from the first instant of its existence" as a being of full human dignity. Nevertheless, the document goes on to restate: "Contraception deliberately deprives the conjugal act of its openness to procreation and in this way brings about a voluntary dissociation of the ends of marriage."
As these are the two foundational documents of Catholic magisterial teaching on the subject of contraception, and its worth noting that, for my Twitter disputant, neither of them is dependant on the idea that contraception equals abortion. Yet, it appears that many Catholics, like my Twitter foe, are committed to the idea, unsupported by either science or magisterial teaching, that the Pill equals abortion. Why would this be?
If one wanted to be ungenerous, one might conclude that, since even practicing Catholics are far less opposed to contraception than to abortion, in order to win adherents over to an anti-contraception perspective, they are purposely misrepresenting the data.
A more generous interpretation would be that they are actually stuck using outdated research (about thirty years out of date), and refuse to accept the latest and best findings on the issue. This may be for the best of reasons, or out of genuine ignorance or perplexity about what current scientific research shows.
But whichever of these is the case, what's clear is that, if you're a Catholic and want to be opposed to contraception, you don't need to believe it's abortion (and, as it turns out, it's not). For conservative protestants, on the other hand, there is, I think a much more deeply seated set of contradictions at play, since they don't have the rather impressive theological edifice of Catholic theology to rely on, and are usually in the position of having to come up with justifications for moral stances on an ad hoc basis with no firm theological foundation, they tend to be blown by whatever prevailing cultural wind happens to catch them. So, having been blown by the trade winds into the anti-abortion camp, they took on a whole raft of other, related positions, without much sense of whether they could be justified by more than a random passage of scripture (no exegesis please!).
In a sense, the DNA of Protestantism tends to be more easily mutable than Catholicism, because it lacks the firm architectural structure that keeps Catholicism together. That's not to say that Protestants don't have traditions, or that Catholicism doesn't change, but their relative cultural strengths can also be massive weaknesses, which is displayed in the way in which the contraception debate has played out in the U.S. over the past several months.
Both from a theological and bioethical perspective, of course, neither Catholic nor Protestant opposition to contraception on the grounds that it's equivalent to abortion holds any water.
*Which is not to say that you can't find individual Catholics, and even Catholic Bishops, who are opposed to contraception on this ground, but that's not the same thing as it being Catholic teaching. Unfortunately, being especially clever is not a necessary prerequisite to being a Bishop.
**Also, for the sake of keeping the argument to the subject at hand, I'm not going to address the obvious related question: Namely the morality of abortion, though as I've argued in other places and at other times, I have no in principle opposition to abortion and think that the core moral questions are best addressed between a woman, her doctor, and her family (in that order of importance).
***This of course raises another dimension of the issue, namely whether "conception" should be understood to refere to the moment that sperm meets and fertilizes egg, or to when it implants in the uterine wall. Given the extraordinarily large percentage of fertilized eggs that never successfully implant, I am strongly inclined to define "conception" as the latter, but however it is defined, what is clear is that it is not a moment, but is rather best understood as a process.