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The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church
By Patricia Miller
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
The Four Wise Women
Years later, when the remembrance of so many other things had faded, the memory still remained crisp in her mind. She saw herself lying in the hospital bed, bleeding, writhing in agony. She remembered clawing at the curtain surrounding the bed, trying get help, certain she was going to die. Finally she managed to cry out, "God dammit, I can't die. I have five children."
Her cries roused her roommate, who summoned a doctor. The doctor managed to staunch the bleeding from the hematoma that had resulted from the birth of her fifth child. It was not an unexpected complication. She had hemorrhaged after giving birth to her fourth child. The doctors had warned her against any more pregnancies, but she was a devout Catholic and the church said that using birth control was a sin. So another pregnancy had followed quickly on the heels of the last, and a little over a year later she was again in danger of dying and leaving her children motherless. As she lay helpless on her bed, Jane Furlong Cahill made a decision. "I decided that the pope can have all the kids he wanted. I was through," she said.
After that she used the Pill, which had only just become available, and eventually she got a tubal ligation to permanently end her childbearing ability. It was a controversial choice for a Catholic woman in 1964, but especially so for Cahill, who was one of the first women formally trained in Roman Catholic theology and knew that the church made no exception to its teaching that Catholics could never use artificial methods of contraception. The only acceptable form of birth control for Catholics, both then and now, is natural family planning, which relies on calculating a woman's infertile period during her menstrual cycle and only having sex on those days. The "rhythm method," as natural family planning was called in the early 1960s, was notoriously unreliable, however, which made it a poor option for women like Cahill who really, really didn't want another child. In 1963, Catholic physician John Rock reported that couples using the rhythm method experienced rates of unplanned pregnancy that were two to three times higher than those using other methods of contraception. According to the church, Cahill's only option if she absolutely, positively wanted to avoid pregnancy, even for life-threatening reasons, was to stop having sex with her husband altogether.
The Catholic Church's absolute ban on modern methods of contraception is inextricably linked to its views on sex and marriage. The church fathers who laid out the founding doctrine of the religion were always squeamish about the idea of sexual intercourse; they considered chastity a holier state. But at the same time, they recognized that it was neither possible nor practical to suggest that most people abstain from sex. Corralling sex within marriage was better than unbridled fornication. Hence, it was "better to marry than to burn with passion," according to the Apostle Paul. But even within marriage, the Christian fathers' acceptance of sex was grudging. Influenced by the Stoics, they looked to nature to determine the purpose and moral limits of bodily functions like sex. Hence, sex within marriage was only moral if it was used for its "natural" purpose of procreation. They taught that Christians were not to have sex for pleasure or when pregnancy was impossible, such as when a woman was already pregnant. The belief that procreation sanctified sex automatically excluded the possibility of using withdrawal, contraceptive potions, or crude devices—all of which were common and widely used in the early Christian world—to frustrate conception.
The first formal theological condemnation of contraception was made by St. Augustine in the early 400s, when he declared that it is "a procreative purpose which makes good an act in which lust is present" and that married people who contracept "are not married." It was a proclamation that would guide Catholic thinking about contraception for the next 1,500 years as the Augustinian doctrine was gradually codified by the church.
In 590, Pope Gregory the Great decreed that married couples who mixed pleasure with procreation in sexual intercourse "transgressed the law." The first church legislation forbidding contraception appeared in the 600s in a canon that specified a penance of ten years for any woman who took "steps so that she may not conceive." The church's reaction to the distinctly non-procreative ethic of courtly love in medieval Europe and Catharism, a Christian sect that rejected the Catholic sacraments, including marriage, further hardened its insistence on the procreative purpose of sex. By 1400, Augustine's doctrine on contraception was the rule within the church.
Despite its longevity, Cahill wasn't the only Catholic woman questioning the teaching on birth control. In 1964, another budding theologian named Rosemary Radford Ruether published an article titled "A Catholic Mother Tells: 'Why I Believe in Birth Control'" in the Saturday Evening Post, bringing the issue straight into the living rooms of Main Street America. Ruether took the church to task for failing to acknowledge that in modern marriages couples didn't have sex just for the purpose of having children. She also revealed what many Catholic couples were saying privately: the rhythm method not only didn't work but put extraordinary strain on otherwise happy marriages. "A man and a wife may follow all the current methods for predicting the time of ovulation, they may be armed with an arsenal of slide rules, thermometers, glucose tests, they may abstain for the proscribed period with dogged perseverance, and they may still find that the method has failed.... The rhythm method keeps couples in a constant state of tension and insecurity," she wrote.
Ruether, who was just embarking on a promising career as a theologian and already had three young children, wrote of her own failure with the method and the desperation of other women who found themselves pregnant when they didn't want to be, including a friend who was in despair after finding herself pregnant for the sixth time in seven years. Like many women of her day, Ruether realized that controlling her fertility with a fairly high degree of certainty was essential to her ability to steer her own life. "I see very clearly that I cannot entrust my destiny just to biological chance. As a woman who is trying to create a happy balance of work and family, I know effective family planning is essential. A woman who cannot control her own fertility, who must remain vulnerable to chance conception, is a woman who cannot hope to be much more than a baby-machine," she wrote.
Her analysis made her the first Catholic woman to publicly critique the church's ban on birth control. But Cahill and Ruether were not alone in concluding that the church's dictum on contraception was an anachronism. By the mid-1960s, more and more Catholic women were using "artificial" methods of contraception. In 1955, just under half of all Catholic women had never used any method of birth control, including rhythm. But ten years later, by 1965, fewer than one-quarter of Catholic women had never attempted to control births. Of the married Catholic women who did attempt family planning in 1955, slightly over half had most recently used the rhythm method, while just over one-quarter used appliance contraceptives like condoms or diaphragms. This was almost exactly opposite the general population of white women, where just over half of all women used appliance contraceptives and fewer than one-quarter used rhythm.
But with the approval of the birth control pill in 1960, Catholic women began abandoning the rhythm method for the certainty of oral contraceptives. By 1965, only 36 percent of Catholic women practicing family planning were using rhythm; 20 percent were using the Pill and another 25 percent were using other modern methods. All total, by the time Ruether wrote her article nearly half of all Catholic women were using contraceptive methods forbidden by the church.
Lay Catholics weren't the only ones concluding that the ban on contraception made little sense in the modern world. Catholic theologians and bishops were also suggesting it was time to revisit the teaching. Two developments spurred their willingness to question the ban. One was a change in how the church viewed the purpose of marital sex. The church had held since Augustine's time that the primary purpose of sex within marriage was procreation. A secondary purpose was expressed in the negative: to prevent fornication. But gradually a more positive view of sex crept in that allowed that pleasure and the expression of conjugal love could be part of the equation. In 1951, Pope Pius XII formally admitted that it was okay for married couples to enjoy sex: "In seeking and enjoying this pleasure, therefore, couples do nothing wrong."
The church's view of marriage was evolving in tandem. Increasingly it viewed marriage as having two ends: procreation and the "ontological completion of the person" within the union of marriage. This meant that many of the old prohibitions against "sterile" sex within marriage, that is, sex that could not produce offspring, such as sex during pregnancy, no longer held. If some limited forms of non-procreative sex within marriage were now considered licit and sex was acknowledged to have more than one purpose in marriage, this raised the question of whether in general each and every act of intercourse within marriage necessarily had to be procreative.
The second reason many theologians believed that the church could approve modern contraceptives was because it had already approved the idea of family planning when it approved the rhythm method. As Ruether noted in her Saturday Evening Post article, the church's distinction between "natural" family planning and contraceptives was "theologically meaningless." If, she said, it was morally acceptable to "divorce sex from impregnation" with the rhythm method, "it would then seem to make little difference whether the egg and sperm are separated by barriers of space or of time, and whether the couple use times of natural sterility or use bodily hormones to create temporary artificial sterility."
The church's incongruence on the issue of family planning dated back to 1930 and the papal encyclical Casti Connubi (On Christian Marriage), which was specifically written to address the growing acceptance of birth control throughout the Western world. The invention of vulcanized rubber in the 1830s had made possible the production of cheap, effective condoms. The first diaphragms were developed in the 1880s. For the first time, fairly reliable methods to prevent conception were widely available. Margaret Sanger's crusade to bring contraceptives to the teeming tenements of the lower East Side made birth control front-page news in the United States and helped publicize its availability. Family planning leagues sprung up to promote the new technology and make it available to the poor. The acceptance of birth control reflected not just its increased availability but the reality that larger families were no longer economically viable, or necessary, in the post-agrarian era. It also reflected the growing acceptance of the idea of companionate marriage—that marriage was more than just an economic arrangement for the production of children, but an emotional partnership.
The tipping point was reached in 1930, when the Anglican Church, which at the time was the most influential Christian church in the West, officially approved the use of birth control by married couples. Other Protestant denominations soon followed, signaling that contraceptives had gained moral and social legitimacy. With birth control gaining widespread acceptance, the Catholic Church had to respond. On the very last day of 1930, Pope Pius XI issued Casti Connubii. In it, he firmly restated the absolute Augustinian prohibition on contraception and denounced the idea that the primary purpose of marriage was anything other than producing and raising children. He condemned contraception as "base and intrinsically indecent" and said that it "violates the law of God and nature, and those who do such a thing are stained by a grave and mortal flaw."
The encyclical was read to ban all known forms of contraception: withdrawal, the use of condoms or diaphragms, douching after intercourse, and folk contraceptive potions. However, the pope appeared to give approval to a birth control method that had been rattling around since the ancient Greeks but had seen a spike in interest since the discovery of female ovulation in the mid-1800s: timing sexual intercourse to coincide with a woman's naturally occurring sterile period. The method had limited practical application at the time because science had yet to figure out exactly when during the menstrual cycle women ovulated, although some couples did try to put it into practice—often with unsatisfactory results.
But all that changed in the early 1930s, right around the time of Casti Connubii, when scientists finally determined when ovulation typically occurred, allowing for the development of the rhythm method. It was far from perfect, but it did offer a way to at least slow the growth of a family without resorting to contraceptives. The Vatican earlier had indicated preliminary acceptance of rhythm, but growing interest in the method elevated the question of whether it was acceptable under Catholic doctrine to a pressing theological concern.
The question was not definitively answered until 1951 by Pope Pius XI's successor, Pius XII. In an address to the Italian Catholic Society of Midwives, he declared that the "observance of the sterile period can be licit" if done for serious reasons. He said, however, that serious indications for limiting births included "medical, eugenic, economic, and social" reasons, which went far beyond the reasons traditionally accepted by even the most liberal of Catholic theologians for refraining from sex to limit family size: extreme poverty or a serious threat to the woman's health. In doing so he gave the Catholic Church's stamp of approval to the idea of couples purposely manipulating the size of their family for the sake of the family's overall well-being. In case there should be any doubt as to what he meant, a month later he confirmed, "We have affirmed the lawfulness and at the same time the limits—in truth quite broad—of a regulation of offspring."
So by 1960 the church had made three key admissions: that sexual intercourse within marriage played a role that was not limited to procreation; that it was acceptable to limit family size for a number of reasons; and that it was licit to use the naturally occurring sterile period to do so. Enter Catholic physician John Rock, who helped to develop the birth control pill. By designing a contraceptive that used hormones already present in a woman's body to mimic the natural infertility of a pregnant woman, he hoped the Vatican would find a theological basis to approve the method. In 1958, when the Pill was already being tested on human populations, Pius XII said its use would be acceptable "as a necessary remedy because of a disease of the uterus or the organism" even if had the secondary effect of causing sterility. This meant women could use the Pill to treat painful periods or excessive bleeding, which became a popular early theological work-around for Catholic women who wanted to use it.
Theologians also speculated that the Pill could be used to regulate irregular menstrual periods to make the rhythm method work more effectively—which led to an extensive theological discussion about what constituted an irregular enough menstrual cycle to qualify. Of course, that raised the question that if the Pill was allowed to make the menstrual cycle regular enough to permit the reliable use of rhythm, why not just permit the use of the Pill?
Pius XII appeared to condemn such use in 1958, but the question only gained steam with the Food and Drug Administration's approval of the Pill in 1960 and evidence that many Catholic women were using it without waiting for instruction from the Vatican. Theologians began cautiously suggesting that the Pill could be lawful under Catholic doctrine as long as it wasn't used for "hedonistic purposes."
Excerpted from Good Catholics by Patricia Miller. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Introduction: The Virgin, the Saint, and the Nun
Part I: The History of an Idea
1. The Four Wise Women
2. The Dread Secret
3. Pope Patricia
4. Coming of Age
5. The Cardinal of Choice
Part II: The Bishops’ Lobby
6. The Bishops’ Lobby
7. Showdown at Cairo
8. Matters of Conscience
9. Playing Politics
10. Health Care and Politics Redux
Epilogue: The Philippines
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Helpful recent history on how some religious extremists dominated Catholic teachings and distorted the theology of reproductive justice. A spirited but sound account of recent church history.
I can't believe Barnes & Nobles would carry this book which is so full of religious bigotry. They demand that you accept their premise that life does not begin at conception. But they do not State when life begins exactly. Therefore, how do you know when it's morally okay to perform an abortion? You don't. End of discussion