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A liberal Christian’s view on contraception and solidarity

19 May 2013

James Chastek of Just Thomism has recently posted a personal reflection, from a Roman Catholic perspective, on contraception: A Catholic’s view on contraception and solidarity. Chastek raised a couple of points that I think bear responding to. I encourage to follow the link above to Chastek’s post as I will be responding to individual points, rather than the reflection as a whole, so you may get a biased or prejudiced view of it if you only see the elements that I highlight.

All human happiness and solidarity will ultimately be in the Church, and contraception separates one from the Church.

As I see it, there are two meaningful ways in which this could be the case, either (a) contraception separates one from the institutional church through one’s disobedience to its dictates or (b) contraception separates from one from the mystical body of Christ, presumably because it constitutes some sort of peculiarly acute sin (I’m fairly certain that Chastek and I do not agree on the definition of ‘sin’ for my part I will be thinking of it in terms of action or thought that harms ones relationship with God). If a, then I think that Chastek is flatly incorrect. There is no reasonable model of institutional church membership that excludes every baptised member who violates a single ethical prescription. At worst, this could place the person in a state of needing reconciliation with the church. Even if that is the case, however, once must ask: why this ethical prescription? It seems a fairly arbitrary choice of sin over which to exclude, fully or partially, Christians from the life of the church. I would posit that the answer is simply that sexual ethics are a hot issue in Christian ethics and we have become strongly inclined to exaggerate their importance. If b, the matter is more nuanced but still, I fail to see why this putative sin is singled out for special treatment.

One who contracepts differs from those who abstain* and/or are infertile in that he actively cripples and frustrates the source of continued human existence… But even though contraception is in some sense a control of ones fertility, it is not a control of desire – contraception, in fact, is an obstacle or impediment to learning to control desire and so an obstacle to the virtue that alone makes for human happiness.

In the words skipped over in my elipsis Chastek draws a distinction between abstinence as a practice of control over desire and contraception as an obviation of the need for control. While I would hardly disagree that abstinence and contraception are different in kind I disagree strongly with that normative moral judgement which underlays Chastek’s valuation of that difference. Chastek is treating human sexuality as a base urge to be controlled (as made clear by his treatment of spaying and neutering “…pets because we take it as given that they don’t have the power to control their desires, still less that, like human beings, they can come to take pleasure in controlling them…”). This is, I think, a degrading assessment of humanity’s created nature. Sexuality is neither base nor wild and in need of breaking. It is a positive constituent element of our being, to be incorporated in a healthy and positive way into our lives. What form that incorporation means will vary with each person but it will never include the attitude that our sexuality needs ‘controlling’ in a manner analogous to spaying or neutering a pet.

Contraception frustrates and cripples sexual unity between spouses. All solidarity is a sort of unity, but sex only unifies by joining two persons into a single reproductive entity.

I would prefer not to get into queer issues in this post. Sufficed to say that I find this point fundamentally heteronormative and, thus, erroneous.

The contraceptors I know tend to betray a horror and disgust with children… Do you really think that if you could meet and live with the children that you are passing up that you would be so emphatic about making sure they could never exist?

This is a form of an argument commonly deployed in debates over abortions as well as contraception (though it takes a different form in abortion debates which I won’t address here). I don’t know if is generally considered to have a name but I tend to think of it as ‘the argument from moral responsibility to counter-factual persons,’ which is itself a species of what I think of as ‘the fallacy of responsibility to counter-factuals.’ Simply put, this fallacy asserts that actual agents are bound by moral responsibilities to individual agents who may or may not exist in the future, depending upon the actions which we may take in the future. As it applies to contraception (where it is at its most fallacious), this argument holds that we bear some responsibility to children we do not create because we prevented conception through non-natural means. Why this is not considered an issue with regards to natural conception (which the Roman Catholic Church wholeheartedly endorses within the context of a monogamous heterosexual/heteronormative marriage) is less than clear (other than that no one feels the need to raise logical objections to their own views, I suppose). I am not suggesting that Chastek has committed this particular error, as he does not once draw a distinction between natural and non-natural contraception in his post. I merely wish to address what I think is a problem in the reasoning behind his actual argument. Since that issue is fairly obvious prima facie, and since I don’t feel like addressing the contrived distinction between natural and non-natural contraception, I would only address the counter-factual element of the argument.

In the most concise terms I can muster, actual moral agents cannot bear moral responsibility to the potential moral agents of counter-factual worlds whose truth is uncertain. These potential children may come into existence if a couple has sex without using contraception or they may not. Contraception does not introduce uncertainty. It also does not remove it, since it is not always effective, but that is beside the point. Contraception does not prevent from coming into a being an agent who would have existed had the contraception not been used. Therefore the ‘contraceptor,’ to use Chastek’s oddly accusatory-sounding term, is not acting against a moral agent who is in any way real enough to be the object of moral responsibilities.

Nota benae: I am aware that my objections to this argument from moral responsibility to counter-factual persons can be deployed as an objection to my own environmentalism. I have chosen not to stray so far from the point as to address that topic here but will be doing so in an up-coming post. That word I used, uncertainty, will be important.

To be perfectly frank, I do not grasp the relevance of ‘solidarity’ to the question. I tend to think that solidarity and it’s cohort, the now-popular category of ‘the unitary end of human sexuality,’ are post-hoc auto-justifications which conservative, sex-negative theorists use to express their unmoving dislike for human sexuality in the language of contemporary Christian and/or sexual ethics: a candy coating on a bitter pill. I do not think, to address the intent of Chastek’s post, that contraception is sinful. I think that it is a prudent and responsible practice of a healthy sexuality. Now is not always the time for children but that doesn’t mean that now can’t be the time for sex.

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