In this whole morass of complaint and denunciation about sex, it seems that conflation is the game afoot.
Conflation is "unity in confusion" -- that is, bringing two terms together in a union where meaning is diminished, if not completely effaced.
Here is one example. One well-known ecclesial community insists on conflating contraception and abortion under the single term "birth control."
They also conflate the morality for which a Christian is responsible with the ethics that any citizen must follow. In turn, they conflate ethical behavior with public policy, and wrap that conflation in the flag of the "public square."
Abortion is the destruction of a pre-born human. Contraception is the prevention of fertilization -- the obstruction of the sperm from penetrating the egg.
An abortion can be accomplished by dilation and curettage (as most of us in the old anti-abortion movement know pictorially). It can also be accomplished by the introduction of certain abortifacient drugs, like RU486.
In either case a human is destroyed, whether in fetal or zygote form.
However, this destruction does not happen when a condom is used (in the best of circumstances). A membrane stands in the way of fertilization and mechanically frustrates the sperm from its appointed task. A spermicide accomplishes the same objective, with the destruction of sperm before fertilization (but not the embryo or a zygote). A birth control pill prevents the release of an egg from the ovary into the fallopian tube.
This is an important distinction, because it should be plain that the two terms, “abortion” and “contraception,” should not be nested in the same category.
Such a category that contains both terms is bound to cause trouble, and some of that trouble is unnecessary.
It is interesting that contraception is accomplished, also, when non-mechanical means are employed. Like coitus interruptis. Like other acts of non-intercourse sexual activity (this must be said in an age when adolescents and former Presidents engage in so much linguistic perversity about this topic).
And – here’s the main point – like the deliberate scheduling of sexual relations while consulting fertility cycles.
Yes, "natural family planning" is just as contraceptive as the use of condoms or birth control pills.
Saying otherwise requires a casuistic intellectual program that evades the simplicity of moral demand with Pharisaical panache.
Conflating contraception with abortion unnecessarily weakens the fight against abortion.
I have heard, in the last few weeks, a Republican primary candidate reflect on the issue of contraception, especially since Roman Catholic bishops were threatened, seemingly, with being forced to furnish contraceptives to employees of Catholic hospitals and other institutions.
I should say here that I oppose any coercion that would force someone to act against their moral practice. I say this not because I am a libertarian, because I am certainly not that. And I am not consistent either -- at least, not in a superficial manner. I would support the forcing of Jehovah's Witness parents to give proper medical treatment to their dying children. I support the government's interest in taking the side of Terry Schiavo's parents (who wanted to prolong her life) against her legal husband (who was already co-habitating with another woman).
Neither the Jehovah's Witness nor Ms. Schiavo's husband represented a motive to protect life. The preservation of life -- the true "pro-life" position -- should have been preferred (it wasn't).
Thus, no Roman Catholic should be forced to pay for any abortion. Nor should they be forced to pay for any contraception (even though I disagree with some of their scruples against contraception).
Santorum (who is the Republican mentioned above) opined recently that the historic opposition to contraception was due to the possibility that contraception leads to promiscuity.
This, I think, is one of the main reasons why contraception is conflated with abortion, and why it is so consistently opposed. There are a raft of articles (both in print and on the web) and books that bewail contraception for contributing to the fall of civilization and the decline of morals.
I do not disagree. Indeed, contraception probably does “help” promiscuity. If fertilization and pregnancy exist as mere deterrents to sex (much like capital punishment may be said to be a deterrent to crime), then the modern wide availability of contraception certainly opens the way to deterrent-free sex.
It is true that such sexual behavior is a hallmark of modernity. Sex is unnaturally removed from its natural setting in marriage and is isolated within a frame of temporal eros (at best) and (more probably) simultaneous lust and/or masturbation.
One of the tragic difficulties of this entire melancholy conversation about “birth control” is that it must be done in the grievous context of sex ripped out of the home, and thrust out into the front yard. Sex is whole, and its meaning is intact, only when it persists under the veil of mystery and play, and within the order of marriage.
But now, sex has become a clinicalized hybrid of sport and therapy. Even Christians have gotten into the pseudo-science game of technique and orgasmic quest, with “Christian sex therapy” as a possible choice in the “helping industry.” More children are born to young mothers outside of wedlock (if that is a meaningful word). More couples engage in cohabitation. More one-night stands are part of the first-date curriculum. More transgressive behaviors are attempted for the cause of experiencing greater intensities. Sexual orientation is hypothetized and objectively defined (in isolated extrapolation), but only exists as a predictable disordered intensification on anyone’s continuum.
Theos-free eros has displaced agape, and has produced only a myriad of idiosyncratic sexual dervishes, whirling down ever-constricted vortices toward a zero-point of goetic philautia.
I am not disgusted here. I am worried by this state of things. There is a difference, so predicate your response on that important distinction.
(But enough of that sermonic excursus – suffice to say that the intensity of such disorder and transgression should always incite some sort of prophecy.)
Prior to the wide availability of contraception (especially the pill), women were obliged to risk pregnancy at every fertile intercourse. If a pregnancy was not wanted, one of two things happened. The first was mandated by a Church: sex was simply avoided.
But this avoidance -- called "natural family planning" -- seems, too, to violate the Scriptural maxim of St. Paul, who directed married couples to fast from intercourse only upon mutual agreement, and only for the ascetical purposes of prayer. While it remains to be seen what St. Paul actually thought of "procreation-only" sex, it must be said that St. Paul does not, in this Scriptural discussion, encourage the cessation of sex for purposes of birth control.
Frankly, I do not think that sex is reserved only for procreation. I know that many voices in Tradition say so, and I do not complain about anyone who takes this strict position. I do say that sex belongs in marriage: it is debatable whether sexual arousal has any place outside of marriage. It certainly plays a part in all romance: it should be, in a nicer world, rooted in the romance of courtship.
But it cannot be denied that the deprivation of contraception lays a disproportionate burden on women. This is a sad historic fact that bothers everyone of good will. Some, unfortunately, repress the reality of the fact.
In an age of bad medicine and little contraception, the frequency of women dying in childbirth was much higher than it is today. There have been no males who have died either from childbirth or pregnancy. I know that in the prayers of the Church we pay attention to that differential: but there ought to be some acknowledgment of this fact in conversations about public policty.
And in any age (and probably moreso before widely-available contraception), transgressive husbands avoided childbirth by taking their wares elsewhere: so I suppose that male adultery, too, is a form of contraception (or "un-natural family planning").
Let us consider, now, an unlikely possibility. Let us suppose that contraceptives were not available at all. The first noticeable difference in this hypothetical world is that the number of abortions would have sky-rocketed. To say otherwise is a near absurdity. There are two reasons for this increase of infanticide. One is that most human beings live outside the contours of the Christian community, whether Orthodox, Roman, evangelical or mainline protestant. Thus, most human beings give no consent to the old interdictions of the church against certain transgressions. There may be some yet who harbor very latent notions about Natural Law, but these notions are becoming more latent under the hegemony of consumerist globalization.
And, let us be honest here about the second reason: the Christian community has not been all that effective in inculcating the interdictions of Holy Tradition. Thus, there will be more “Christian” abortions (as have happened indeed).
But it is the second noticeable difference that I want to consider mainly. Christian families who are more obedient to traditional dogmas will be larger. “More than two” will become more the rule than the exception. The “quivers” will be fuller. Certain less noble agenda will have been accomplished: some demographic objectives – that is, the preservation of a certain dominant status – will have been realized merely by the presence of more preferred children (if only the native Americans, four centuries ago, would have had their own Buchanan sounding the alarm, as in “The End of Red America”).
But this dream, as nice as it might be, neglects some cultural realities. A Christian “quiver-full” society is impossible in an industrialized consumerist society.
Give me a distributist, home-guild economy and a justice-based culture (free of race-based bigotry), and I’ll join you in a contraceptive-free agenda. Give me a welfare program that protects marriage and fatherhood, too. Give me, too, a respect for labor that recognizes the possibility that the working poor work a lot harder than the rich.
Why does this have anything to do with sex?
Because sex is meaningful only in marriage – a marriage that is free to grow into eternity … a marriage that is sustained by feasting, sacrament, prayer and fasting and forgiveness … a marriage painted, over time, into an icon of Christ and His Church.
Such a marriage is more likely in a true Christian culture -- a culture that has not been found wanting: rather, in GK's words, it has not been tried. In such a culture, conceptions need little rationalistic planning (to coin an Oakshottian phrase). And before you accuse me of being irresponsibly eschatological, bear in mind my sort of Orthodox eschatology has nothing to do with LaHaye (and neither does my regard for sexual technology).
Marriage is not made meaningful by sex – which seems to be the idiotic notion of the time.
Rather, sex is made meaningful by marriage. And marriage is being attacked not by politics (another idiotic notion) – but by the more profound movements of a stupefied culture and bestial economy.
If Christian marriage were free of the caustic environment of this advertising age – an age so given to soliloquy, hyper-comfort and rebellion against the Apostles – then fertility would need no artificial controls.
But as it is, fertility needs prayed on, and obeyed on.
Sex that is understood within the design of prayer and fasting, childlike wonder, duty and devotion, eternal chastity, play and nuptial celebration, a shy winsomeness and freedom and kenosis -- that sort of sex needs no legislation against contraception.
Faithful obedience and contraception are not mutually exclusive.
It would be better if the Roman Catholic (and Orthodox and evangelical) public position would be simply "anti-abortion." Not advertised or identified as "pro-life," because that term has been confused almost hopelessly. The "pro-life" term is weakened (in the bombast of many) by a simultaneous rejection of other liberal, anti-libertarian motions: like universal healthcare, racial justice and equality, environmental protection and safety nets for the poor.
The anti-abortion agenda is inherently “liberal” in that it asks the state to curtail individual choice: just as the state is asked by liberals to demand offerings for universal safety nets and national parks.
It is also “conservative” in that it asks individuals to respect the vestiges of Holy Tradition. They can call these vestiges “Natural Law” if they want to.
What I ask of people who call themselves conservative in this hot mess of sexualized political so-called “debate” is that they first stop being right-wing (or left wing) in their outlook, and simply embrace a disciplined and Christian rule of conversation …
… a conversation that will be, simultaneously, conservative and liberal.