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Msgr. David Q. Liptak
Q. How is it that although contraception is viewed as an evil by the Church – intrinsically evil and never justifiable – it is apparently allowed in certain situations, such as rape? Doesn’t the Church accept it as a moral option in rape – a fact mentioned in the recent “Plan B” debate?
A. No; contraception per se is never justifiable. But contraception is defined by the Church in terms of an act performed freely. In rape, consent is lacking, and a woman has the right to do everything morally possible to prevent a conception in defense against unjust aggression. Moral theologian William E. May writes:
“The woman has absolutely no obligation to permit the rapist’s sperm to penetrate and fertilize her ovum because she has not consented to a genital act but has rather refused such consent and has been sexually violated by the rapist.” (Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life. OSV, 2000)
Hence, means taken to protect a rape victim from pregnancy by a rapist’s sperm are legitimate, precisely because they are not acts of contraception, but rather acts preventing conception resulting from a rapist’s unjust act of violence. In classical Catholic moral theology, the action taken in this instance is generally referred to as “prevention of pregnancy” instead of “contraception.” The latter term, “contraception” suggests a freely chosen action.
Thus Directive 36 of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Facilities (as issued in the 1994 guidelines of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States) reads:
“A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.”
A fertilized ovum is a human being – unique, precious and unrepeatable. Catholic doctrine reveres human life from the moment of conception.
Contraception, on the other hand, involves the deliberate and free choice to enter into sexual union while impeding one of its two innate meanings; i.e., the procreative or life-giving meaning. Pope John Paul II marvelously brought this message home to a confused and erring world, insisting that the human being has no right to convert conjugal communion into something that the Creator never intended it to be. Ethically, one cannot deliberately separate the life-giving (i.e., procreative) meaning of sexual union from the love-giving (unitive) meaning.
Incidentally, as I completed this response, I noticed an obituary in The New York Times on the famed Australian physician, John Billings. The headline read “John Billings, 89, Creator of Contraceptive Method.” For the record, John Billings’s contributions were offered in direct opposition to any form of artificial contraception as Catholic doctrine defines contraception. Drs. John and Lynn Billings have provided couples with a form of natural family planning known as the Ovulation Method. This method has been popularized all over the world and is known as “World Organization, Ovulation Method – Billings” (WOOM-B). In Catholic usage, WOOM-B is not a disallowed form of contraception.