Last week, at the London Summit on Family Planning, Melinda Gates announced $560 million for contraception from the Gates Foundation. Her hope is that by providing contraception to very poor women, deaths from complications relating to pregnancy and hunger will decline. Gates asserts that because pregnancy complications are the leading cause of death for teenage girls in the developing world (800 women die every day), and because so many children die in their first year of life due to malnutrition, funding for contraception is necessary and moral.
According to contemporary Catholic teaching, contraception is immoral because it separates the two meanings of the sexual act (the unitive and the procreative) and makes impossible a total self gift of persons (Familiaris Consortio no. 11). A large majority of Catholics believe that if a marriage is both unitive and procreative, loving sexual acts need not always be open to procreation, but the official teaching makes room only for natural family planning, not chemical or physical means of contraception.
Does the potential for saving lives change anything? Not necessarily. In the Catholic tradition (see Gaudium et spes no 27), some actions are judged to be incompatible with human dignity and thus never justifiable, even if one could, by engaging in them, secure good ends. So, for instance, torture cannot be used in warfare, and contraception cannot be used to prevent the births of children to poor families. The usual Catholic response to arguments about the need for family planning in the developing world is an insistence on the dignity of all human life:
But the Church firmly believes that human life, even if weak and suffering, is always a splendid gift of God’s goodness. Against the pessimism and selfishness which cast a shadow over the world, the Church stands for life: in each human life she sees the splendor of that “Yes,” that “Amen,” who is Christ Himself. (84) To the “No” which assails and afflicts the world, she replies with this living “Yes,” thus defending the human person and the world from all who plot against and harm life. (Familiaris Consortio no. 30)
Yet, Gates counters, women in Africa and Asia are telling her that they cannot feed their children:
Over and over again women have told me that all they want is to be able to put time between one child and another child. It’s a universal thing to want to feed your children and to educate your children, and women know that the only way they can do that is not have so many. And this campaign could give them the tools to make sure they can do that.
Critics of Gates assert that: (1) sufficient funds for family planning already exist and are not effective in limiting family size, (2) the potential for coercion is real, (3) what women really need is better nutrition, clean water, and good facilities for birthing.
This issue is enormously complicated. It is not yet clear if the Gates foundation can avoid the mistakes of earlier family planning programs and succeed where they have failed. At this point, it seems important to ask the following questions:
1. If many women and girls in the developing world lack control over their sexual lives, become pregnant against their will, and suffer death due to pregnancy complications, should that change the way we morally evaluate their potential use of contraception? Could contraception in these cases be seen similarly to the case of the prostitute with AIDS, raised by Pope Benedict in 2010?
2. Are other means of preventing unwanted pregnancy more effective and, if so, how might they be promoted?
3. What can we do to increase contributions to organizations like Catholic Relief Services that pursue holistic development?
Melinda Gates suggests one way to save the lives of women and children. Those who disagree must at least have an alternative in hand.
Thanks for this Julie. I think your questions are spot on. Cntraception is not a silver bullet for a complex problem…but as Gates and you note – 800 teenage girls ap a day is something we should all be concerned aboutl I would like to see Melinda Gates highlight the importance and role of education for women and the crucial role that plays in putting off the starting age of child birth and family size (although as I understand it education for girls is priority of gates foundation, but I’m not positive there…). I also think you are right to bring in the role of power and how that must be taken into account when talking about the sexual lives of women and girls around the world.
I think it will be important to separate this into two moral questions: 1. What is the morality of a poor young woman using contraception to avoid pregnancy? and 2. What is the morality of the richest woman in the world promoting and distributing synthetic hormones produced by Western pharmaceutical megacorporations to millions of the poorest women in the world who also happen to be of a different race and living in a land ravaged by hundreds of years of colonialism? I find the second question a lot thornier than the first.
The discussion is complicated by the various and potentially quite relevant contingent factors. I suggest employing a few idealizations to help focus on the underlying moral principles. For example:
Suppose that the wider availability of condoms and information about condoms would, for the implied reasons, both reduce pregnancy related deaths and the instances in which parents cannot provide for the basic needs of their children. Regardless of the size of these reductions, and the absence of other negative repercussions, is condom distribution (or the advocacy of their usage) necessarily still immoral?
I am not a moral theologian but am a life long Catholic. Why don’t you professionals address the real issue here- the teaching about artificial contraception has been rejected by the vast majority of Catholics. What of the sense of the faithful?
TGODARD51 – regarding the “sense of the faithful” question – that’s one that I’ve often been asked, and often pondered. I have yet to be convinced by this way of arguing though. On my reading, the “sense of the faithful” is typically grounded by other arguments, and should not be used as a standalone. This is because it is all too uncomfortably close to “Everyone does it, so that must make it okay” kind of reasoning, which doesn’t strike me as helpful when we’re talking (after all) about how to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, who called us to be in the world but not of it.
I’m thinking about lying here: I’d venture to say that close to 100% of us lie or have lied at some point in our lives. I’d venture to say, too, that a great many people find some forms of lying to be morally acceptable. But I’d find it very, very troublesome to make the case that on the basis of even “everyone” saying that lying is okay, that we should therefore do it.
Lying and contracepting both need much further discussion grounded in what it means to be humans created in the image of God, and what it means that Jesus died and rose again for us.
The issue supposedly being addressed by Mrs. Gates may be considered as requiring a re-evaluation of what it is to be human. Being human ships with certain states – such as; that the human sexual act, as mentioned in the article, is both unitive and procreative. I would think that the use of contraceptives tends to violate this perception of the sexual act and by extension, human dignity.
TGODARD51’s concern as raised above, and addressed immediately above, seems to yearn for a pragmatic approach to a host of problems that have been identified as related to human sexuality. Are we to momentarily relax our conception of human dignity while addressing these problems or are we to maintain fidelity to what we have hitherto conceptualized as human dignity? The temptation to do the former is highly persuasive. Living in Africa, one gets to witness the agony of the receipients of policies such as Mrs. Gates’. One thing is certain though, if such mechanisms were progressively viable and capable of sustaining human life then we should have had eradicated the problem by now. This is because they have been presented as solutions before. Clearly, insofar as they were to solve problems arising out of contemporary sexual practices, they have failed. One may think ‘solutions’ such as these being offered by Mrs. Gates could be having a different agenda.
It remains, therefore, for us to continue finding both pragmatic and humane ways of communicating prophet Micah’s message: to act justly, love tenderly and walk in the ways of the Lord. It is my opinion that one way of not doing this involves disregarding human dignity.
Just wanted to say briefly in response to Julie’s second question: the Billings method seems like the obvious alternative to propose. It’s cheap, and it’s very effective in studies of actual usage in developing countries. I myself am convinced that the U.S. should not make artificial birth control one of the many technologies that we “helpfully” export to developing countries.