While some view the use of contraceptive practices as being directed against right to life, its real significance lies in the fact that it undermines the dignity of the sexual act, and hence of marriage.
This is not easily understood, and indeed negated, by many – especially by those who argue that the purpose of such practices is not to facilitate sexual promiscuity, but to allow married couples (only them?) to have a joyful and unrestricted sex life while at the same time keeping under control the number of their children.
Such reasoning seems somewhat naïve to us. It has been amply demonstrated by social research that there is a direct link between the availability of contraceptive practices and the increasing social acceptance of extramarital sexual relations. Contraception creates the illusion that the fertility of the human body could at will be “switched off”, and then “switched on” again. This, however, is a mere illusion: no contraceptive method is 100% certain, wherefrom it follows that the use of contraceptive means does not help to avoid, but in actual fact increases, the risk of unwanted pregnancies (and, indirectly, of abortions).
But if the illusion were true, i.e., if contraception were 100% efficient, then the detrimental effect of contraceptive practices on interpersonal relationships would be even more apparent. For if the fertility of the human body could indeed be “switched off”, then there would be hardly any argument left to restrict sexual relationships to marriage. Indeed, the significance of the sexual act would be completely changed: from the expression of an unconditional love that is oriented towards a common life and shared responsibility as parents of a family, it would be transformed into, at best, a rather banal sign of affection (one might then have sex with any person one feels a vague sympathy for), or, at worst, into a leisure activity for people who, rather than expressing through this act their mutual love, merely want physical pleasure. In this way, the use of contraceptive means generally undermines the dignity of the sexual act and, indeed, human dignity as a whole: the other person involved is no more the person to whom one freely dedicates one’s entire present and future life, but it is turned into an object that is needed to fulfil one’s own sexual desires.
The use of artificial contraceptive techniques is therefore by nature an inherently immoral act, and a source of grave social evils.
By contraception we understand practices that envisage the prevention of conception during or after sexual intercourse. By “artificial” contraception we understand contraceptive practices that rely either on technical devices (such as condoms or diaphragms) or on the use of hormons (such as the anti-baby-pill).
Besides this, there are “natural” contraceptive methods, that rely on the observation of the natural cycle of fertility of a women and imply that she abstain from sexual activity during her fertile days.
Some practices and devices that are described as “contraceptive” do not prevent conception, but the implantation of the embryo into the uterine lining. Such practices and devices (for example the ‘morning-after-pill’, or the spiral) are in fact not contraception, but must be seen as a form of abortion.
While abortion means to kill a human being, the same is not true of contraceptive practices, which merely prevent that a new human being may come into existence. In order to make an appropriate moral judgment, it is therefore necessary to carefully distinguish between abortion and contraceptive practices.
This, however, does not mean that artificial contraceptive practices were not highly objectionable from a moral point of view. While they do not imply killing a human person, they deprive the sexual act of its inherent dignity, transforming it from an act of procreation through which both partners express their willingness to have children and share a common destiny as a family into a commodity that has no other purpose than the procurement of physical pleasure. The use of artificial contraception means that the sexual act is assimilated to an act of mutual masturbation, in which each partner is not more than an object to be used for sexual purposes. In this way, the partners turn each other into “objects” of their lust, and the sexual act is deprived of its true meaning as an act of mutual love and responsibility.
It was not abortion, but artificial contraception that stood at the origin of the cultural revolution of our time. With the easy availability of hormonal contraception, it suddenly seemed plausible that the link between the sexual act and marriage should be given up, and that sexual intercourse should be viewed as a trivial leisure activity in which every man could engage with any woman at any time. It seemed plausible that adolescents should engage in sexual activity as soon as they felt a desire for it, as long as they “acted responsibly”, i.e., avoided undesired pregnancies. It seemed plausible that they should be taught in school how to make use of contraceptive methods; by contrast, it seemed no longer plausible that they should be taught the virtue of chastity and self-control.
Ultimately, if the purpose of sex is not procreation but the mutual procurement of physical pleasure, then it also becomes perfectly plausible to accept (consensual) homosexual and lesbian sex, and to view it as morally equivalent to a heterosexual relationship. Indeed, even paedophilia might be viewed as an acceptable variant of sexuality, the only possible objection being that children might lack the “maturity” to engage in sex. But what kind of maturity is needed if we do not anymore believe that the sexual act should be embedded in a lasting emotional relationship in which both partners are committed to each other for a lifetime? What kind of maturity is needed if pregnancy can be avoided either through using contraception or abortion?
The acceptance of homosexual, lesbian, and (ultimately) paedophile relationships seems thus a logical and nearly unavoidable consequence of accepting artificial contraception.
Given that artificial means of contraception are never 100% effective, “sex without responsibility” turns out to be a false promise. It comes as no surprise, then, that artificial contraception has triggered a huge demand for abortion. It is the exactly same ideological background, namely the idea of turning the sexual act into a commodity available for all at any time, that creates a demand for both contraception and abortion. Where the first does not work out, the second will be used. The idea that the number of abortions could be reduced by making contraceptive means more easily available seems implausible from the outset, and has been disproven many times. On the contrary, widespread use of artificial contraception leads to widespread abortion.
“Natural” contraceptive practices are contraceptive methods that do not use any technical devices or medication, relying solely on the observation of the natural cycle of fertility of women. These practices are not immoral, given that they do not include any attempt to manipulate the female body by “switching off” its natural fertility. The sexual act thus remains in principle open for procreation, even if that probability is reduced.
The use of contraceptives (such as the morning-after-pill or the spiral) that are, in actual fact, abortifacients, is never morally acceptable.
The use of hormonal contraception may be morally acceptable in exceptional cases where the intention is not to undermine the dignity of the sexual act. For example, for a woman living in a war zone who must fear rape or sexual assaults there is nothing objectionable in taking the pill in order to minimize the risk that such rape or assault might lead to an unwanted pregnancy.
In the case of a (male or female) prostitute, it is the fact of prostitution that is morally objectionable. But prostitution is in itself a violation of the dignity of the sexual act, and does not become more objectionable if contraceptive practices are used, or less objectionable if no contraception is used. In this specific circumstance, therefore, the use of contraceptives does not alter the morality of the act, and may even (e.g. when a condom is used) have the beneficial effect of reducing the risk of contagion with sexually transmissible diseases.
Some people argue that the use of condoms should be promoted as a means of preventing the spread of sexually transmissible diseases (in particular HIV/AIDS). Such proposals, if their purpose is not merely to open the door for a general acceptance of condoms and other contraceptive means, seem highly problematic, as they appear to be based on very unrealistic assumptions regarding the effectiveness of condoms as a means to prevent the transmission of HIV. Even under the best of conditions condom use can only reduce, but never totally eliminate, the risk of contagion, so that the promise of “safe sex” remains dangerously misleading. Realistically, however, it must be assumed that those ideal conditions are hardly ever met: the quality of condoms rapidly deteriorates if they are not stored under adequate conditions, and there is no guarantee that they will be correctly used.
The promotion of a false assumption of security (“safe sex”) can instead lead to the spread of irresponsible sexual behaviour, notably to sexual promiscuity. And even if the use of a condom may reduce the risk of contagion for each single sexual act, this increase in “safety” is more than outweighed by the increased contagion risk entailed by the spread of promiscuous sexual behaviour. Empirical research has amply demonstrated that the distribution of condoms does not prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, whereas awareness raising campaigns that advocate sexual abstinence for unmarried people and conjugal fidelity for the married have led to impressive results.
In contemporary society, most people believe that the choice whether or not to use artificial contraception pertains exclusively to their private lives, and that therefore the state should not be allowed to regulate this matter. This assumption underpinned the 1969 US Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut, which declared unconstitutional a State Law that banned the sale of contraceptives. That decision, which was the first one in the US to be based on a newly discovered “right to privacy”, has not only paved the way for the wide acceptance of artificial contraceptive practices in the US and worldwide, but it also set an important precedent for Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that, based on an identical argumentative pattern, legalized abortion.
Upon closer examination, however, one finds that the use of artificial contraception is not merely a matter of private life, but that it severely affects societal interests:
- it undermines not only the dignity of the sexual act, but, by transforming persons into objects, is detrimental to the concept of human dignity as a whole;
- it leads to a distorted understanding of human sexuality that, being included in school curricula, is turned into a compulsory part of education, and imposed even on those who do not agree to it;
- it opens the door for the acceptance of homosexuality, paedophilia, and all other forms of sexual activity that presuppose a dissociation between the sexual act and its procreative purpose;
- it leads to an increased frequency of abortion;
- it encourages conjugal infidelity and leads to a destabilization of the institution of marriage (hence to higher divorce rates with all their negative impact on the social tissue);
- it encourages sexual promiscuity and thus contributes to the spread of sexually transmissible diseases;
- some contraceptive methods pose severe (if often denied) health risks for those using them.
The above list is by no means exhaustive, but it provides ample reasons why the use of contraceptives is not merely a private decision. Indeed, it appears perfectly legitimate for a State to adopt legislation that restricts or prohibits the use of artificial contraceptives.
Another practice used by certain persons who want to have an intensive sex life without having to assume the risk of a pregnancy is voluntary sterilization. This is done through a surgical intervention, and usually leads to permanent and irreversible sterility.
Sterilization means to mutilate a healthy body, and to voluntarily destroy its procreative faculty. The underlying motivation is the same as for contraception, i.e. to dissociate the sexual act from its reproductive purpose, and to transform it from an expression of love into an expression of egoism.
Both the motivation and the act itself are therefore morally unacceptable.
On the practical side, it should be noted that failed sterilization surgery and failed contraception have often led to frivolous civil action (“wrongful conception”), with the objective of holding the surgeon who provided the unsuccessful sterilization, or the pharmacist who sold the inefficient contraceptive, liable for the fulfilment of their contractual obligations. Various times this has led to judgments where an unplanned child was described as a “tort”, for which compensation (usually the full cost of its rearing and education) had to be paid.
This type of litigation implies thus the somewhat cynical assumption that the existence of a child could be a tort, and that contracts that have the purpose of preventing the coming into existence of a child be legally valid. Such assumptions obviously stand in clear contradiction to human dignity. The correct solution would therefore be to consider as null and void all such contracts, and to reject any compensation claims based upon them.
Given the wide array of different (artificial) contraceptive practices, and given that in most countries some of those practices are subject to restrictive legal provisions whereas others are not, any attempt to provide a full picture of the current legal situation regarding the access to artificial contraceptive methods seems nearly impossible and would most certainly exceed the scope of this website. Instead, we limit ourselves to a brief examination of the issue under international law.
Two important points must be made:
- international law does recognize the right of persons to decide whether they want to have children and, if so, how many;
- at the same time, it does not recognize a right to have recourse to any specific technique of artificial contraception.
In this context, it seems commendable to take a close look at the definition of the term “sexual and reproductive health”, as defined in the ICPD Programme for Action, which, albeit not a legally binding document, must be considered the only document of international stature to comprehensively deal with the matter.
In this definition (which is contained in its Chapter 7.2), the Programme for Action states the following:
“Reproductive health therefore implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so. Implicit in this last condition are the right of men and women to be informed and to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning of their choice, as well as other methods of their choice for regulation of fertility which are not against the law, and the right of access to appropriate health-care services that will enable women to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth and provide couples with the best chance of having a healthy infant.”
As can be clearly seen from this text, the right to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning is recognized in this text, but this does not imply the right to have access to any particular family planning method. As there is no definition of “acceptable”, it is left to legislators to decide whether any particular method of contraceptive is acceptable or not. It is even possible for a country to decide that none are acceptable. The main direction this text gives is that it excludes discrimination (in the sense that using a given method of contraception should not be permitted to some while being prohibited for others).
Most certainly, the text does not create any entitlement for family planning methods that are against the law. In principle, therefore, States may prohibit the use of certain contraceptive devices, if they can demonstrate that the use of those devices is unsafe or for other reasons inacceptable. The reasons set out above appear to provide ample justification for such decisions, which legitimately may go as far as prohibiting all artificial contraceptive methods.
 cf. Edward C. Green, Broken Promises: How the AIDS Establishment Has Betrayed the Developing World, (2011)