Contraception, Abortion, and the Not So Holy Alliance

I’m looking at a large and stately oak tree. It has hundreds of branches and thousands of acorns. Each acorn has the capacity, the blueprint, for becoming another stately tree.  But right now it’s not — it’s an acorn. So when does it become recognized as tree? — Surely not when it first falls to the ground. Probably not yet either, when it’s covered with soil. When the first anchoring root is sent into the soil, is it now a tree? Maybe not — it does have a skinny little tendril, but it still looks like an acorn.  How about when the spring rains come and moisture swells the paired halves? The outer shell splits and something begins to poke through; it’s alive and growing, but is it a tree? When the sprout bends upward, just barely poking through the soil, and into free air — now is it finely a tree? Perhaps, but it might still rest on opinion or a scholarly learned definition. Change continues, two leaves appear, and the shoot grows taller. It sure looks like a little tree, and at some point recognition is undeniable: It really is an oak tree, no matter what frame of reference.

OK, it’s outrageous to compare the process of becoming a tree to that of a human being. There’s no moral based  equivalency, but a mutual creative unfolding does take place. Irrefutably, when egg and sperm unite, the blueprint is put in place to guide that first cell into the process of becoming a fully recognized human being. But where in the process does that recognition become undeniable? Is it at conception? At birth? Or somewhere in between? In that first cell, with the blueprint just completed, is it already a human being?  Or at five months, is it really just an assemblage of cells? Answering “no” to both questions precipitates a period of moral uncertainty and the necessity to entertain arguable ethical considerations.  Answering “yes” to either removes uncertainty and the need for further thought.  Catholic and Evangelical voices have become united in answering “yes” to the first question.  To their dishonor, both rather deceitfully claim God’s behest in support of their answer.  The maneuver intractably stifles exploratory dialogue, and has repercussions far beyond procreation argument.  It began long ago.

Some Historical Perspective

Europe was in turmoil.  The Church was under siege.  By 1870, revolution in France and Italy had erased much of its political/cultural control and had reduced its geographical footprint to the Vatican — hardly more than 100 acres in the city of Rome.  Pius IX and the Catholic Church were in survival mode.  Facing unrest from within, and destruction from without, Pope Pius IX began formal implementation of “Papal Infallibility.”  It was a centuries old concept that had been rejected as demonic in 1324 by Pope John XXII, but now seen as savior in the face of possible extinction.  Approved on July 18, 1870, the doctrine is two-fold: “Papal Infallibility” gives indisputable authority to the pope’s ex cathedra decisions on matters of faith and morals.  The second part, “Papal Primacy,” grants unbridled control over Church governance.

Of the two, “Papal Infallibility” receives most attention because it sounds even more presumptuous than it is. By simple definition, it would seem to broadly imply divine attributes to papal opinion, but in reality is confined to special papal decrees — thus far with minor impact.  It’s been implemented only twice, each time for nothing more than matters of saintly recognition.  “Papal Primacy” sounds less presumptuous and authoritative, but really does hold broad application and delivers ominous power to papal opinion.  It’s comparable to granting dictatorial power to an elected president and leaving Congress and courts with only advisory influence. The overriding papal judgment elaborated in one such decree, by Pope Paul VI, is prominent in current Church procreation thought.

Fast-forward 100 years: It’s 1968 and unrest seems everywhere. Civil rights marches, anti-war protests, political rallies and disruptions dominate the news. Music too, is in the air (and marijuana).  The Beatles, Airplane, The Doors, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and so many others — all part of a clarion call to change and new freedom. That one word seemed to be the age’s key refrain: Freedom! It had many apostles and when used, inferred validation of purpose.  For the Church, the word held another inference: loss of influence. In effect, the Church was again under siege, not by violent mobs or armies, but by something more insidious. It faced a growing apathy and the prospect of irrelevance. The 60s era of freedom also came with a dawning concern for world population limits, promotion of contraceptive options, and the ensuing “sexual revolution” — all anathema to historical papal position on reproductive morality. The Vatican voice was losing its prominence as the world’s moral authority.

The ship almost changed course prior to the storm. In 1963, Pope John XXIII assembled his Commission on Population and Birth to study questions of birth and population control.  The group was inherited by Pope Paul VI and expanded to nearly 75 members, including an executive committee of about 15 cardinals and bishops. With an overwhelmingly one-sided vote, in 1966, the commission proposed that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil, and thus an allowable practice for married Catholics. It seemed Church policy was about to change, but in 1968, utilizing “Papal Primacy”, Paul VI disregarded the body’s recommendations and instead, issued his own statement, Humanae Vitae. The encyclical pushed aside argument for artificial means of contraception and reinforced abstinence and timing as the sole means of birth control that observed “Natural Law.” It may not have halted the Cultural Revolution, but did provide visage of the approaching clash and a clear moral bulwark from which to defend the onslaught.

Condemnation of birth control would seemingly infer condemnation of abortion.  Church position follows that course, but did have an early rewrite. Until the 17th century, prevalent Catholic thought was that the moment of ensoulment happened long after conception. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) maintained Aristotle’s “calculation” that ensoulment occurred around the 40th day for males, and the 90th for females. All abortive procedures were thought sinful, but didn’t rise to being murderous until after the human soul was present. Centuries later, with microscopic observation of reproductive cells possible (but likely not souls), opinions somehow shifted, and by 1875 conception and ensoulment were widely surmised to occur simultaneously.

Current Position and Alignments

Vatican position now holds abortion (to avoid childbearing) as sinful and murderous. All artificial means of birth control are seen as counter to God’s natural law, and may in themselves be abortive. Accordingly, the gift of procreation should be limited to married couples, with each sexual act being unitive and lending at least a small chance to the possibility of conception.  Exception is given to married couples who are naturally infertile. Reasserted by Pope Paul VI in 1968, this long-held Vatican position could have another modern day rewrite. Current Pope Francis seems to hold relatively liberal views with Church doctrine and has not displayed enthusiastic initiative in support of Humanae Vitae. In fact, he’s stepped away from some of the encyclical’s rigidity. Pope Francis has indicated some sympathy with regards to contraception’s possible role in fighting disease (AIDS, Zika). A reappraisal of Humanae Vitae is not completely unthinkable under his tenure.

Protestant Christian groups are many, and historically have shown little alignment with Catholic thoughts on contraception and abortion.  Most have had less stringent views, particularly with contraception.  In 1968, a gathering of evangelical leaders hosted by Christianity Today and the Christian Medical Society, issued “A Protestant Affirmation on the Control of Human Reproduction.” The statement noted that not all participants were in agreement as to whether induced abortion was sinful, but did have accord in deeming it necessary and permissible under certain circumstances. The same publication advised Christians that human population control efforts should be aimed towards the prevention of conception rather than towards the prevention of birth. In contrast to stringent Catholic articulation, contraceptive constraint was clearly of less concern in Protestant camps.

Evangelical views began to shift with the passage of Roe vs. Wade in 1973. Early on, it was not so much the abortive and contraceptive procedures themselves, but the perceived loosening of conservative Christian values that seemed to energize Protestant voices. Just a quiet murmur through much of the 70s, concern (first with abortion and then contraception) found profound amplification and range in the next decade. Jerry Falwell championed renewed focus on the issue, his message being heard throughout the 80’s in an explosion of network evangelism. “The Bible clearly states that life begins at conception” was delivered to an expanding audience that soon began to espouse abortive characteristics to artificial contraception. For different reasons, Catholic and Protestant churches were coalescing into a unified front opposing the availability of both abortion and artificial contraception, and now, even those differences are beginning to merge. Originally articulated in Catholic precept as the obvious and natural relationship between God and man, Natural Law is increasingly finding Evangelical acceptance in support of opposition to artificial contraception. In lieu of current controversy with defining contraceptives as abortive, Natural Law provides an oppositional fall-back position from Biblical based argument.

For Catholics and Protestants alike, Natural Law and/or Biblical text, provide foundation for Christian opposition to abortion and contraception. For both groups, the Bible is deemed to be God’s word, while Natural Law is seen as God’s intent or order evident in the natural world. It may be adequate to juxtapose the two stances this way: The Bible is God’s word, as received and recorded by man, while Natural Law is God’s will, as perceived and elucidated by man.

Clerical Overreach

There’s an inescapable problem with citing either source as evidence towards divine censure of contraception (or even abortion): It’s not substantiated. Each requires human invention (Natural Law) or creative interpretation (of Bible) to reach that conclusion and becomes nothing more than arguable opinion. Claims to divine corroboration, then, have no validity. The following are several Biblical verses widely offered as testament in contraceptive debate:

Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth. (Genesis 1:28)

And Judah said onto Onan, Go into thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also. (Genesis 38: 8-10)

Lo, children are the heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.  As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.  Happy is the man that has his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies at the gate. (Psalms 127: 3-5)

Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations. (Jeremiah 1: 5)

He telleth the number of the stars: he calleth them all by their names.  Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite. (Psalms 147: 4-5)

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, as according the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life. (Exodus 21: 22-23)

Nearly twenty-five English versions of the Bible (and counting) are in existence, which in itself is problematic to divining God’s precise will. The English translations are descendant from prior languages, muddying clarity even further. Still, it’s the passages above (from the “King James Version”) that persist and are most often cited for argument in English speaking lands. While not exhaustive of Biblical allusion to pregnancy and birth, there’s little else to offer more detail or less need for supposition.

It’s at least plain from given Scripture that an omniscient God considers pregnancy and birth to be seen as blessings (or sometimes, as with Onan, a familial responsibility). Procreation is cited as God’s gift to man; that theme is clear, but not much else. Genesis 38: 8-10, is frequently cited as testament against contraception, but can just as easily be seen as rebuke for avoiding customary heritable obligations.  The text most often provided for condemnation of abortion is Jeremiah 1: 5. It’s used to allege that because one is already known by God while in the womb, any abortive means should be considered murderous.  The premise for that conclusion appears to be contradicted in Exodus 21: 22-23, which infers the mother’s life, is more valued than that of the unborn child. Verse by verse, there’s no clear consistent rebuke of contraception or abortion to be found in Biblical text without recourse to interpretive expansion and opinion.

Injecting the term “Papal Infallibility” prompts for unequivocal acceptance of opinion. “Natural Law” attempts the same response. The concept stems from the time of Aristotle and has been refined and incorporated in Catholic dialogue. Natural Law addresses scriptural vagueness and limitation of scope, enabling a convenient expansion of clerical authority while avoiding the appearance of Biblical adulteration. It’s under the banner of Natural Law that much of the Church’s opposition to contraception and abortion are found.  That it’s cited in Catholic (and now Evangelical) doctrine admits hierarchical dissatisfaction with Biblical content as single provider of God’s message.  The creation of Natural Law bridges the gap between scriptural evidence and human proposition, loftily lending an air of spiritual authority.  Pope  Paul VI’s reference to Natural Law in Humanae Vitae should be viewed accordingly:

The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”….”Hence to use  this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and his holy will.

Natural Law and creative interpretation of scripture are each utilized to inveigh against contraception and abortion. It’s paradoxical that either veil is used for argument in expressing the will of a god considered to be omniscient. The digression from given scripture suggests either suspicion of a negligent god, or clerical desire for an expanded role exceeding Biblical script.

Beyond the confines of religious certainty, the recognition of embryonic and fetal life as human is enigmatic. A process is visibly taking place, and it’s clear that life is unfolding — but how to define and codify it? Certitude is evasive, leaving ample room for speculation and vigorous opinion.  It’s the prospect of terminating the process, of aborting, that really sharpens opinion. Is it ever ethical? Can there be extenuating considerations? If considerations are admissible, what are the boundaries and who defines them?

Catholic and Protestant voices readily answer and provide certainty, but not without defiling the wellspring of their authority. When clerics creatively manipulate or append Biblical testament, their appeal to providence is discredited. The ploy extends breadth to moral authority, but with consequence to actual integrity. The damage is not confined to just that — it extends past procreation argument and into the social and political fabric beyond church dominion.

Cultivation of Implacable Thought

Nothing is more polarizing than proclaiming “God’s will” to advance a controversial opinion. It begets a spiritual obligation to rigidity of thought and action, leaving no room for compromise or accommodation.  It’s not surprising that religious leaders would play the God card in valid representation of scripture — they’re expected and entrusted to do so. It’s disturbing though, and dangerous when clerics counterfeit scripture to play that card.  It’s not done through ignorance — there’s been centuries of scriptural study, with tomes of elucidation on every nuance of Biblical testimony. It’s likely not done in pursuit of a better good; Pope Paul VI even warns against that type of transgression in Humanae Vitae:

It is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family, or of society in general.

The lingering consideration is that religious leaders have willingly misrepresented scriptural authority to bolster their own. Prostituting “God’s will” for authoritative gratification has pushed the contraceptive/abortion issue to an ascendant posture beyond reconciliation. Single-topic intransigence provides fertile ground for political exploitation. Little is required beyond declaration. It delivers the goods, and because it’s a preeminent position, often provides cover for action (or inaction) that would otherwise merit condemnation.

Collateral Damage

Traditionally, Republican politicians wave the pro-life banner. Since at least 2000, white Catholics and Evangelicals (especially), have tended to support Republican candidates. While Blacks and Hispanics have a large presence in Catholic and Evangelical groups, they’re often marginalized in GOP policy and face more imminent threats than posed by procreation policy. White Christians are less marginalized, and in the last four elections their vote has gone to the Republican candidate by significant margins. 2016 exemplifies the trend: 60% of white Catholics voted pro-life and Trump, while 81% of white Evangelicals did the same. It’s reflective of the previous three elections. For white Christian voters it was not a mandate for change, but simply business as usual.

American politics and the Republican Party aren’t singularly dominated by white Christians, but the impact is significant, and in close elections can be crucial — as evidenced in 2016. The campaign and election results for that year provide vivid example of pro-life’s ascendant position and its determining influence.  Throughout the presidential campaign, Donald Trump showed little in the way of holding traditional Christian or humanistic values. The opposite was more visibly true, but he did wave the pro-life banner.

The president’s first year has been reflective of the campaign’s conspicuous display. There’s an abundance of loud talk and activity running counter to Christian and humanistic concerns. Some administrative action (or lack of) can easily be seen as life threatening (gun policy, environmental degradation, immigration stricture, bombastic international diplomacy, healthcare constriction, etc.). Peril to the living is real and clearly visible.  That the pro-life banner was sufficient enticement for so many Christian voters conveys two possibilities: It’s deemed more important than all other considerations combined; or it’s a hypocritical affectation for self image and display. In either case, Catholic and Evangelical dissimulation provides the ladder to this ascendant position. In posing human opinion as God’s expressed will, Christian clerics bear prominent responsibility for the formidable voting bloc made available to political use — and abuse.

Politically it’s great strategy, sewing up a faithful block of voters. Whether intentional or not, Catholic and Evangelical leaders are partner to the manipulation. It may not have seemed like much, centuries ago, to have enhanced authority and Biblical reach with Natural Law. It may not seem like much today when proclaiming “The Bible clearly states this or that”, when it doesn’t quite do so. It is just a stretch after all. But it’s more than the simple stretch for a bit of self enhancement. It’s religious, and proclaims God as author to declarations never made. A spiritual deception is presented, and has multiple consequences: The faithful are shackled to an intractable position, dissemblers are given veil, and manipulators are given prey. In view of present reality, is it exaggeration to say the world suffers for it?

Vern Loomis lives in the Detroit area and occasionally likes to comment on news and events that interest him in whatever capacity available. Read other articles by Vern.