Commentary Contraception

The Pontifical Commission and How Birth Control Became Known as Intrinsically Evil


When I think of the phrase, "intrinsically evil," certain images come to mind, like Adolph Hitler systematically exterminating millions of people. I think of terrorist plots to blow up innocent civilians. I think of clergy victimizing their flock. I don’t think of my wife heading down to CVS to pick up a pack of Ortho Tri-Cyclen.

Anonymous is a practicing Catholic who writes for Rewire on the church and contraception.

Half a century ago, the pope appointed a commission to study the morality of birth control. Multiple choice: What do you think their findings were?

A) Birth control is not “intrinsically evil.”

B) Married couples should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to use birth control.

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C) Artificial birth control is an extension of methods of natural family planning already accepted by the Catholic Church.

D) All of the above.

You may be as astonished as I was to learn that the answer is “D.”

After I wrote my essay, “Why I Skipped Mass Today”, I decided to investigate my church’s historical attitudes toward contraception a little further. Let me start at the beginning, shortly after “The Beginning,” with a story from Genesis.

Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother. But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord; so He took his life also. (Genesis 38:8-10, New American Standard Bible).

Onan: the first recorded coitus interrupter. I kind of feel bad for him; I am not sure I would want any of my sexual acts recorded for posterity. And can you imagine his Facebook page, if they had such things in those days? “Dude—heard you pulled out! WTF?”

Here is a fuller context of the story of Onan. Judah had another son named Er. God found Er to be, er, evil, and so God took his life. Judah turned to his other son, Onan, and commissioned him with the task of impregnating Er’s widow (Onan’s sister-in-law), thus continuing the family line. And it seems that although Onan enjoyed the act, he didn’t actually complete the job.

Many theologians point to this passage as evidence for God’s displeasure with contraception, specifically the phrase “wasted his seed,” because seed is not to be wasted. Every sperm is sacred! Indeed, Catholic theologians in the middle ages even examined whether or not sperm cells had souls! Their concerns about the sanctity of human life in sperm cells was fueled by some of the earliest illustrations of spermatazoa, which included fully formed humans, just waiting to be fertilized. Had they known that the average ejaculate contains about 300 million sperm cells, they might have really freaked out!

While Catholicism interpreted God’s displeasure with Onan as a story about forbidding deliberate pregnancy prevention, other theologians have interpreted this passage differently. Some view the matter as more about Onan’s selfishness—or disobedience—with respect to his intentional failure to produce a child for his brother, as was his traditional obligation at the time. If we want to take the analysis to another level, if the inherent wickedness is truly in seed-loss, then why does the Catholic Church prohibit masturbation in both men and women? No seed is lost for women! What about infertile men, can they masturbate? But I digress…

Let’s fast-forward to the 20th Century, and the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control. I have to admit that I was rather astonished to learn that there even was such a thing, and I was simply dumbfounded by its findings. After the advent of the pill, Pope John XXIII appointed six lay people, referred to as the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, to study the morality of birth control and population issues. The pope died that same year, and his successor, Pope Paul VI, expanded the Commission, adding a substantial number of clergy, including Cardinals, bishops, and priests, and appointed an executive committee of 15 bishops to construct the final report. The commission voted overwhelmingly to encourage the Church to rescind its ban on contraception and declared it not “intrinsically evil.” The final votes included “yeas” from 30 of 35 laypeople, 15 of 19 theologians, and 9 of 12 bishops (3 bishops abstained).

Pope Paul VI, however, ignored the recommendation of his own pontifical commission, and released his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which took the polar opposite position.  I guess you get to do that when you’re pope.

So now the official position of the Church states that birth control is, in fact, “intrinsically evil.”  When I think of that phrase, certain images come to mind, like Adolph Hitler systematically exterminating millions of people. I think of terrorist plots to blow up innocent civilians. I think of clergy victimizing their flock. I don’t think of my wife heading down to CVS to pick up a pack of Ortho Tri-Cyclen.

Maybe it is time for a new pontifical commission to study what is truly “intrinsically evil.” Personally, I wonder if holding up access to health care meets this standard.

Commentary Abortion

Eleven Inane and Insulting Anti-Abortion Arguments (and How I Shed the Shamers)

Valerie Tarico

Here are eleven shaming themes I've encountered, along with my responses, to help other pro-choice advocates prepare for the muck that's likely to get slung our way as the right wing continues its crusade against reproductive health-care providers.

Cross-posted with the author’s permission.

If recent right-wing insanity has driven you over the edge and you’ve decided to tell the world that you think Planned Parenthood is a good place or abortion care is a good thing (or even decided to share a personal story), you will need to get prepared for the muck that’s likely to get slung your way.

Fortunately, once you move beyond your inner circle of people who matter, much of what flies through the air will be ignorant comments and insults from people who don’t. As someone who is public about why I am pro-abortion, and about my own story, here are eleven shaming themes I’ve encountered, along with my responses.

1. You should be against abortion because you exist.

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How would you feel if your mother aborted you? 

How would I feel? I wouldn’t. Try this exercise: How would you feel if your mother had partnered up with someone other than your dad? How would you feel if she had a headache the night you would have been conceived? How would you feel if she had rolled over in the opposite direction after sex on that key night in history and a different sperm got to the egg first? Hint: People who don’t exist don’t have feelings.

2. It’s a baaaby.

It is a tragedy that Tarico killed her first-born because she wanted a “better baby.” (LifeNews)

These babies, and we all KNOW these are babies, have committed no crimes, yet you and yours sentence them to a horrible, painful death.

“Firstborn”? Uh, no. That was the whole point. My firstborn (who exists only because of my abortion) is now a junior in college and, although I’ve had my moments, I’ve never once tried to kill her. But the LifeNews writer’s slip perfectly reflects the anti-abortion movement’s inability to tell a fetus from a child. Zygote, blastocyst, embryo, fetus: To anti-choice advocates they’re all babies or pre-born children. They use these words over and over, as if repeating them often enough will somehow make us all decide that an acorn is actually an oak tree and having a carton of eggs in the fridge is the same as owning a dozen chickens.

3. If it’s human, it’s a person.

The fetus is alive and has human parents and human DNA so we know they are human. [After this people will come up with conflicting arbitrary definitions of what makes a human a person.]

The only definition that makes sense is that someone becomes a human at conception because that is the only meaningful change in someone’s life. (BennyW)

How could a human individual not be a human person? (Pope John Paul)

At one point, anti-choice activists co-opted the Dr. Seuss phrase, “A person’s a person no matter how small,” from the book, Horton Hears a Who. Seuss’ widow Audrey Geisel, a long-time supporter of Planned Parenthood, was not pleased. In the book, the phrase refers to tiny people who sing and shout and live in community with each other and who value their own lives and world. That’s what makes them people—not sharing Horton the elephant’s species. Even children recognize that human and person are two different concepts. That is why we are able to imagine a Seuss character or fictional extra-terrestrial like Wall-E, or even an intelligent animal like a dolphin as a sort of person with moral standing. What makes personhood is the ability to feel; to have preferences, desires, and intentions; to be aware and even self-aware; to live in relation to others; and to value our own existence. Fetal “personhood” trivializes each of these.

4. If you’re capable of abortion, you’re capable of killing anyone.

Not sure why we need to put time limits on these things? 3 months … 3 years … judging by all the arguments listed above, we should be able to snuff out the kid whenever it becomes convenient.

If somebody is making things inconvenient for you just slaughter them. Kind of like ISIS. 

To quote Mother TeresaIf a mother can kill her own child, what is left for me to kill you and you to kill me? There is nothing between.

Look around you. Almost a third of the women you know over age 40 have had an abortion—and many of them have had several. How many of them do you think have killed an infant? Infanticide was practiced regularly on every continent by our ancestors who had no other means to control their fertility, but where people have access to modern contraceptives and abortion, infanticide becomes exceedingly rare. Most people have little trouble differentiating abortion from murder and they instinctively choose abortion over infanticide just as they choose contraception over abortion when both are freely available.

5. You must be a bad mom, and your kids would think differently of you if they knew about your abortion.

How does your daughter feel knowing that you killed her sibling?

One of my daughters wouldn’t exist without my abortion and the other one adores her. How do they feel about my abortion? Grateful. The Christian right constantly slurs women who have ended pregnancies by suggesting that we love our children less—or are incapable of loving children at all. In reality, the vast majority of women who have abortions either already are or go on to be devoted moms. Six in ten women who have an abortion already have a child. In fact, our commitment to mothering is why many of us choose to end an unsought or unhealthy pregnancy.

6. God loves each and every precious “snowflake.”

God doesn’t make mistakes. God makes miracles happen.

The Magisterium of the church has constantly proclaimed the sacred and inviolable character of every human life, from its conception to its natural end. (Pope John Paul)

If God doesn’t make mistakes, the existence of babies with no brain or no limbs or a teeny, slow-suffocation quantity of lung would suggest that He’s a rather big jerk. In these situations, prayers for healing fall on deaf ears. Miracles are on the rise, but only because compassionate doctors fix God’s mistakes by repairing defective infant hearts and palates and other incapacitating deformities. If every snowflake is precious in His sight, God has a peculiar way of showing it, because spontaneous abortion is a critical part of reproduction—one of the key mechanisms for producing healthy babies. Most fertilized eggs self-abort at some point before maturing into babies—billions to date. Why? Spontaneous abortion stacks the odds in favor of healthy babies being born to healthy moms who will be able to nurse them. Therapeutic abortion supplements spontaneous abortion when the natural “abortion mill” in a woman’s uterus fails to identify and expel an ill-conceived pregnancy.

7. If you abort a defective fetus, you can’t respect or value people with disabilities.

You aborted a baby that *might* have been blind? All the blind people in the world, and Helen Keller, spit at your selfishness. Shame on you. What on earth will you do if your child ever becomes disabled? Kill her? 

Valerie, I hope that someday you will know the kind of joy that my “bundle of risks” has brought to my life. Veronica will be 26 tomorrow. She will never walk, talk, see normally, feed herself, be toilet trained, etc. She has the mental ability of a nine-month-old. It is my privilege to care for her each day.

Anti-choice activists forget that to many of us, a fetus is a potential child like the countless potential children we have said “no” to by abstaining from sex or using birth control. For me and my husband, who see it this way, it would have violated our moral values to carry forward a fetus infested with parasites, as in our first pregnancy, or one with knowable genetic defects, which we ruled out in the second. Would we have loved and cared for a baby born blind or a child who got injured along the way? Of course! What a bizarre and insulting question! Fencing my yard and teaching my kid not to play in traffic doesn’t mean I would abandon her if she were to get hit by a car.

8. Women like you are naïve victims who need protection from your own ignorance.

[O]nce a father or a mother who are seeking an abortion see an ultrasound, it’s true that upwards of 90 percent of them decide not to have an abortion. (Rachel Campos-Duffy)

If abortion were not legal, I never would have chosen to have one. (Anti-abortion activist Hannah Rose Allen)

Forced ultrasounds, scripted warnings of (false) abortion risks, legally mandated descriptions of fetal development… According to the latest anti-abortion strategy, the only way to protect hapless females from physical and psychological harm is to take the choice out of our hands. How inconvenient that abortion is far, far safer than childbearing, which kills 800 American women each year. In other disappointing news for anti-choice individuals, women who have abortions don’t suffer increased rates of anxiety and depression. Also, in contrast with Campos-Duffy’s fabricated statistic, 98 percent of women who see the images from a mandatory ultrasound go through with their abortion, meaning they know their own minds. It’s true that deciding to end or carry forward a budding life is a big deal. And like any big decision, some women or men will regret their choice. But 90 percent of women report that the primary emotion after their abortion was relief and, even among those with mixed feelings, 80 percent still say that the choice was right for them.

9. Abortion is selfish.

There is no better example of selfishness leading to an even greater evil act; the destruction of an innocent human life. This selfishness is so obvious and disgusting that abortion proponents manufacture and inflate all sorts of ridiculous situations to make their case as though the only option is to kill.

Set aside the fact that on a planet denuded by human need, one on which almost 20,000 children starve to death each day, it can feel selfish to have a baby… Yes, choosing, instead, to finish high school is selfish. Choosing to save for a reliable car or first month’s rent is selfish. Choosing to join the military is selfish. Choosing to become a teacher or doctor or engineer or artist is selfish. Choosing to prioritize time with your husband is selfish. Choosing bubble baths and bedtime stories with the kids you already have is selfish. But choosing not to do these things can also be selfish! I could go on the offense here: Choosing to spend your time and money pursuing the (dubious) bliss of heaven is selfish. So is “letting go and letting God” manage decisions (like parenthood) that are your responsibility. So is trying to impose what seems best for you on everyone else. Everything we do is selfish to some degree. That doesn’t mean our decisions can’t also be wise, prudent, loving, brave, generous, or altruistic.

10. A child is the punishment you get for slutting around.

You should keep your legs together. 

Your lack of control over your own hormones, stupidity, carelessness, laziness, and inconsiderateness created another life within you.

[Better birth control would] turn our girls into whores [like you] who are as well versed in preventing pregnancy as any working girl.

She should have to deal with the consequences.

I confess, I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around this one. On the one hand we are told that every child is a blessing, no matter how ill-conceived. On the other, we are told that a child is what slutty sluts deserve for having sex outside of marriage. Even more twisted: If you got raped, the baby is a blessing. If you had sex of your own free will, it’s what you had coming. Can we at least pick one or the other?

11. God hates abortion even more than He hates fags.

God HATES those who shed innocent blood! (J. Melton)

Given that women have been ending ill-timed pregnancies for millennia, the Bible is remarkably quiet about abortion, with a few vague references that together can be interpreted in either direction. One writer even prescribes a rather nasty abortion potion. Mercifully, a growing percent of people, including many Christians, don’t think the Bible is the perfect word of God. More and more see human handprints all over it, especially in its demeaning passages about women.

Someday unintended pregnancy may be a thing of the past, and abortion may be largely obsolete. Until then, millions of us will be guided by our own moral values and life goals to end pregnancies we believe are ill-conceived, so that we can devote our lives to the people and dreams that we hold most dear. If God’s self-appointed messengers insist on arguing and insulting and shaming uswell, that’s their choice to make, just as we make ours.

Commentary Religion

How the Duggars’ Conservative Christianity Can Enable Abuse and Cover-Ups

Dianna Anderson

It is doubly important that we carefully examine the sociopolitical and theological environment that allowed such abuses—and their apparent cover-up—in the first place. And we must think about the impact that this hyper-conservative Christian theology can have on survivors of this kind of abuse.

Last week, the news surfaced that Josh Duggar, the oldest son of the TLC reality-show Duggar family, molested several girls younger than him between March 2002 and March 2003. The Duggar family, according to the tabloid In Touch, elected to handle the crimes in-house for several months, by sending Josh to work manual labor for a summer with a family friend, and asking him to have a conversation with a state trooper, also a family friend. This same trooper was later convicted of child pornography and is currently in prison after re-offending. No official investigation was opened until December 2006, after the statute of limitations in Arkansas had passed.

This is the timeline of events as we know them. The story exploded onto everyone’s feeds late Thursday, resulting in TLC pulling the show on Friday. Many feminist writers are wondering whether the network proceeded with the television series in 2008, with the full knowledge of Duggar’s crimes, or if they simply accepted a sanitized narrative from the family. These are all good questions, and I’m sure we’ll get the answers to them in due time.

But it is doubly important that we carefully examine the sociopolitical and theological environment that allowed such abuses—and their apparent cover-up—in the first place. And we must think about the impact that this hyper-conservative Christian theology can have on survivors of this kind of abuse.

The Duggars are part of a theological movement called “Quiverfull,” a deeply conservative sector of Protestant theology whose most salient characteristic is a disregard for birth control—including the rhythm method. Such families also tend to be politically conservative, believing white Christianity in America to be under threat. Producing godly Christian children to carry on the gospel, both politically and socially, is vital to the continuation of the faith: You must have lots of “arrows”—children—in your “quiver.” More children means more demographic power, according to this philosophy, and the ability to control societal and governmental outcomes by maintaining hold of majority power.

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And typically attendant with this theology is a whole host of conservatively minded elements. Women are to stay in the home; men are to be breadwinners. Women are to be conservatively and modestly dressed, and sexual purity is prized above all things when entering into a marriage contract. Generally, men and women marry young and start producing children quickly.

On the blog No Longer Quivering, women who grew up in Quiverfull families tell their stories of escaping the movement and discuss the strict patriarchy that underlays the movement. One contributor, Sarah Henderson, writes that power and status are built into the structure of the family. “In patriarchal families, children are often authority-tiered in birth order, although the preference in the ranking is sometimes given to boys,” she writes.

As a woman named Libby Anne writes of her experience within the Quiverfull movement:

My parents believed in more than just a wife’s submission to her husband. They also believed that children are under their father’s authority. … For boys, this lasted until age eighteen. … For girls, this lasted until marriage. … This meant that while my brothers would be out from under my father’s authority when they turned eighteen, I would not. My parents also believed that if my father died, I would be under the authority of my nearest male relative, which in practice meant my younger brother.

The theology is not shy about making sure that men are the heads of households and women are subservient. Frequently, families are so large that older female siblings are enlisted in helping to care for the younger, allowing the mother to focus on newborns. Such a practice not only places minors in charge of each other; it frequently places the work of educating the family members in the hands of people who are still learning things themselves. This combination of factors creates a vortex of little to no education and a lack of skills transferrable to the outside world. In other words, the theological sect perpetuates itself by keeping women dependent upon the family structure until they are married off into a family approved by their patriarch—which is usually another family within their denomination. Women are functionally without power or voice within this movement; leaving it often means leaving behind every social structure you have ever known.

Additionally, the conservative values of modesty and purity create an environment where talking about sex is verboten. As those formerly involved in the movement write, women cover themselves to prevent lust on the part of men, and women are trained from an early age to prioritize the needs and wants of the men around them—including their siblings. A woman who is sexually impure outside of marriage, no matter how it happened, is not marriage material.

The families within this tradition form a close-knit network of groups, depending on each other for education, monetary support, and marriage. The groups are at once paranoid about outsiders while also prizing conversion to their very particular way of life. This desire for evangelism of others explains why the Duggars saw getting a TV show as a good move in the first place.

These elements combine to produce a conservative Christian culture in which victims can be silenced and sexual abuse may be excused as part of an abuser’s redemption story. The prioritization of forgiveness means that having a neat, clean story of Jesus’ power is often more important than actually stopping harm from being done.

So Josh Duggar’s victims likely had a number of things working against them. In addition to the typical problems facing victims of childhood sexual abuse, these young girls existed (and continue to exist) in an environment that prioritizes the redemption of men over the pain of the women they hurt. Coming forward for any one of the victims meant going against a very powerful patriarch in their sect, and it meant an “admission” of sexual impurity on their part.

In the Duggars’ narrative of events, Josh admitted his crimes to his now-wife, Anna, during their courtship, and Anna forgave him. The police report from 2006 also notes that the young victims of the Duggars had been spoken to about the events and that they all had “chosen” to forgive Josh for his transgression. But in a world as theologically, socially, and politically constrained as the Duggars’, is it really possible for these girls—some younger than ten years old—to really understand a concept as weighty as forgiving the man who abused you?

Any forgiveness in such a situation is a Band-Aid over a bullet wound at best. These women may genuinely feel that the abuse they experienced has no real impact on their lives now. But it is undeniable that the environment in which they were raised and the heavily moralistic and gendered purity culture in which they exist contributed both to their abuse and to the subsequent cover-up and minimization of such acts.

This problem of sexual abuse in conservative Christian environments is not just a Duggar problem. This is not an anomaly. This kind of cover-up, this kind of abuse and minimization is all too common for such theologies. It’s just that not every story will involve a national television star.


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