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Contraception and Abortion: A Love Story

In a prior post we looked at reasons why Church teaching on contraception not only belongs in any  “seamless garment” approach to life issues, but in fact must serve as its keystone. As Archbishop Gerhard Müller, prefect of the CDF, put it, only when sex is properly regarded as a cooperation with God’s life-giving goodness can we build a truly coherent and comprehensive life ethic. Without Humanae Vitae, he warned, the seamless garment “begins to unravel.”

And yet, we are accustomed to excluding contraception from the seamless garment—sometimes not even treating it as a “life issue” at all—and we contend with the widespread conventional wisdom that contraception is a pro-lifer’s friend. How many of us have found ourselves in a dinner conversation, a water-cooler debate, or a Facebook thread in which someone claims that every pregnancy prevented by condoms or a pill is an abortion that didn’t happen?

“If everybody obeyed your pope and stopped using birth control,” continues the claim, “abortion rates would skyrocket.” According to this line of thinking, Humanae Vitae isn’t the keystone of anything; at best it reflects Catholic stupidity, and at worst, hypocrisy.

Accordingly, we find studies from public health institutions and “reproductive rights” advocates like Planned Parenthood—whose objectivity, unlike that of Catholic scientists and sociologists who owe their unthinking allegiance to a Roman prince, cannot be questioned—that trumpet small abortion declines in cities that run free-Pill pilot programs, or make simplistic connections between low abortion rates and high contraception use in cherry-picked Western European countries. And there’s always a Protestant preacher or dissenting Catholic theologian at the ready to apply a veneer of Christian, pro-life justification to contraception use. It’s not enough for Catholics to be wrong on this question: We have to be ironically wrong.

So this is not a tangential question. Whereas openness to conception is utterly foundational to a consistent Catholic life ethic, and whereas Catholics get jabbed on this point from fellow pro-life Christians and high priests of the Culture of Death, it’s important for us to recognize the links between contraception and abortion and be able to communicate them to others. Let me offer three:

1. The legal/historical link

That legal contraception begat legal abortion in the United States is beyond dispute. In the 1965 ruling Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court found that in the Constitution there exists a “right to privacy” (albeit an implicit one—culled from the “penumbras” and “emanations” of actual, er, other constitutional rights), and this right extends to what married couples do in their bedrooms. This new right to privacy proved elastic, and eight years later Roe v. Wade stretched it to establish a constitutional right to abortion. Pro-lifers who decry Roe must face the reality that Griswold—and the practice of contraception it enshrined it as a right—blazed a trail for it.

2. The medical link

Whether and how often the birth control pill (in its various forms), along with the IUD and certain other hormonal contraceptives and “morning after” pills, acts as an abortifacient, is a matter of no small dispute. But the science seems clear enough: When these fail to prevent ovulation (their primary purpose) and conception occurs, secondary effects leave the woman’s body inhospitable to the new life, and may prevent its implantation in her uterine lining. Since life begins at conception, this is what we call abortion.

Whether through shrewd foresight, pure chance, or some unseen diabolical coordination, in 1965 (that year again!) the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) changed the medical definition of the beginning of pregnancy from conception to implantation. Perhaps it seemed an innocent technicality at the time, but it proved to be critically important: shifting the emphasis in pregnancy from the unborn child to the mother and, more to our point, making it possible to say that hormonal contraceptives and morning-after pills aren’t “abortifacients” when they prevent implantation. Since abortion “terminates pregnancy” and pregnancy begins at implantation, how could you have an abortion before a woman is even pregnant?

Skeptics of hormonal contraception’s abortifacient potential hide in this semantic fog, and make hay out of the difficulty of proving it experimentally. But, regardless of how we define pregnancy, we know that life begins at conception, and the theoretical science regarding the abortifacient potential of hormonal contraception is sound.

3.  The cultural link

Here we loop back to Archbishop Müller’s point. If contraception and abortion are shoots of the same legal vine, they’re also progressive stages of the same cultural movement: to sever sex from procreation. The great project of the Sexual Revolution was to liberate genital activity from the chains that bound it to marriage and committed love, and from the mewling, puking creatures to which it inevitably leads. When this movement found its life partner—the contemporaneous quantum leap in contraceptive technology and availability—a new and normative sexual ethic was born: Sex is for pleasure, and children are an impediment to that pleasure.

But since not every act of intercourse that’s contraceptive in spirit is also contraceptive in practice (or because contraception sometimes doesn’t do its job), the ethic of pleasure demands abortion as a fail-safe. And since contraception taught us to love pleasure first and to view babies as unwelcome intruders on the fun, it was and remains no great leap from preventing babies to killing them. Be it in a courthouse, in a woman’s womb, or in our national conscience.

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