Contraception in Context

Just in time for the Synod on the Family that is scheduled to take place this fall, I came across a 1964 article in New Blackfriars by the inimitable Herbert McCabe on "Contraceptives and Natural Law." The main target of the piece is certain natural lawyers who would argue that there is a linear relationship between sexual intercourse and the propagation of the species. McCabe agrees that any natural law account must begin with the premise that a particular form of life implies a proper function. For example, the proper function of the linguistic life is to communicate truth and thereby establish relationships between otherwise isolated individuals. On this account, the sexual life of human beings finds its proper function in the production of offspring. For McCabe, though, the production of offspring cannot be as simple as the conception of a child through sexual intercourse. In order to ensure the continuation of human life, McCabe argues, children must not only be conceived and birthed, but they also must be fed and clothed and taught certain skills necessary for being part of our human community—including the proper use of language.

For McCabe, this means that intercourse is but one move in a constellation of activities that make up the "game" that is procreation. This means that the question of contraceptive use must be approached in a broader context than simply its role in interrupting the connection between intercourse and conception. Simply interrupting this connection in one instance would not constitute a disruption of the entire procreative "game." For every such interruption, presumably, there are a number of uninterrupted acts that do produce children, and of those acts, it is conceivable that some may actually fail to reproduce the species such that the children born of them become full members of the human community. McCabe's central point, though, is that it is possible to think of contraception as a move within the game of procreation that might actually contribute to the long term success of advancing the species even while limiting it in the short term. To illustrate this point, he draws an analogy to soccer: In some cases it may be necessary to move the ball in the opposite direction of the goal in order to ultimately be successful in scoring.

If, then, we are to judge the ultimate licitness of contraception in light of natural law, it will not be enough to focus our attention on the relative openness to conceiving children evinced by discrete acts of intercourse. Rather, McCabe says that we will have to take into account the entire "objective context" in which contraceptive sexuality is being deployed. In this connection, McCabe offers one final example. Returning to the notion of language use as a particular form of life that implies a proper function, he says that contraception has in some cases been rightly compared to lying. If the proper function of language is to make true statements, then knowingly using language to make false statements in order to frustrate communication is an unnatural and illicit act. Similarly, if contraception is used to prevent the sexual life of human beings from fulfilling its proper end of furthering the species, then its use must be considered wrong. But, McCabe argues, illicit uses of contraception cannot be reduced to the straightforward interruption of the connection between intercourse and conception anymore than lying can be reduced to making statements that do not correspond to true states of affairs in the world. If the latter were true, then every great work of fiction would be a perversion of language, instead of the apotheosis of it that such works are often thought to be.

The reason why Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is not thought to be a disgusting pack of lies owes to the particular "objective context" in which its technically false statements are being used. In such a context, most of us understand that the standards by which language is to be judged as fulfilling its proper function to communicate truth have shifted. Similarly, McCabe argues, the technically non-procreative intercourse that takes place by means of contraception might, in certain objective contexts, require different standards to be judged proper to furthering the reproductive interests of the species. And just as those who know literature are probably best equipped to tell us the standards by which Jane Austen is to be judged a master of language, it should probably be left to those who know something of the sexual life to decide how it might best bring about those ends that are proper to it. Thus, McCabe says, "We have had enough talk about the theology of sex and marriage by unmarried people. If the topic is to be fruitfully developed, it must be left in the hands of married lay theologians." Here's hoping that the Synod includes a few.

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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