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Monday, July 25, 2011

Thoughts on male contraception

I like the Second Hand Smoke blog on the First things website, and there's an interesting discussion going on over there about the prospects of new kinds of hormonal male contraception. These products (I refrain from calling them medicines) will use hormones to prevent sperm production or at least result in damaged sperm that cannot cause fertilization or result in a viable embryo.

Wesley Smith rightly points out that male contraception will not suffer from the same pitfalls as female non-barrier methods. I quote Smith:
  • There would be no arguments about whether the technique was an abortifacient, since the medication prevents sperm from forming or maturing sufficiently to fertilize an egg.
  • There would be no argument about whether the contraception prevented ovulation or implantation, as with the female birth control pill.
  • There would be no arguments, as often now rage about female birth control that prevent implantation, as to whether creating an inhospitable uterine environment takes the life of an early embryo.
  • There would be no arguments about whether a woman carrying an embryo in her fallopian tube is yet actually pregnant.
  • Finally, I think a male contraceptive would promote greater societal comity since fewer pharmacists would presumably object to dispensing the male contraception, than female forms such as the “morning after pill,” since by doing so they would not possibly be complicit in the taking of a nascent human life.
These things being true, will male contraception therefore be ethical? Saying so presumes that the reason other forms of contraception are unethical are because of the outcomes affecting fertilized ova. Four of Smith's points above pertain directly to such outcomes.

Smith wonders if male contraception might be acceptable to the Catholic Church. The position of the Catholic Church is that contraception is immoral because of what contraception is within the sexual act, and not what it does downstream after the act. Barrier methods also avoid the pitfalls that Smith lists above, but they are still contraception.

Contraception alters the sexual act by depriving it of its intrinsic power to result in new life. The act itself still means procreation; it is the reproductive act -- the act by which humans reproduce -- and remains so even with contraception. But contraception robs it of one of its intrinsic purposes, and the purpose that actually defines its nature. It reduces it to a source of pleasure only. It is like turning a blind eye to the full truth of a political candidate and focusing only on the qualities one likes. One can do that, but it would be at least dishonest and it makes the candidate not to be who he (or she) really is, but who one wants him to be. Contraception does that to sex. And, sex is a special case because new human life hangs in the balance, so it is not like other human pastimes or actions.

That does not rely on any religious opinions on beliefs. So it applies to everyone, not just Catholics.

Contraception also impedes God's providence through the sex act, and sets up one's own desires pertinent to having contracepted sex as the rule that judges whether or not it is a good thing. Now, sin requires the knowledge that a particular act is a sin, so it may be that some people truly do not sin in using contraception. But for a believer, contraception has at the very least a subconscious determination that "I" know best what is a good outcome of the sex act. Knowing a thing to be a sin includes whether we rationalize and convince ourselves that what we want to do is okay by God.

So it is not likely that male contraception will be "approved" by the Catholic Church. Because it is not a pronouncement by the Church that "contraception is wrong" that makes contraception wrong. Rather, it is the intrinsic nature of contraception that is wrong and upon which the Church has made its pronouncement.