The Immorality of Contraception

Author: William May


Three noteworthy essays on contraception were published between the fall of 1980 and the spring of 1981. The first, by Lawrence Porter, O.P., was explicitly an effort to challenge the contemporary consensus on the permissibility of contraception.1 Although he did not seek to interpret the teaching of the Church, one can legitimately infer that his article was intended to support this teaching. The other two essays, by John T. Noonan, Jr., and John Wright, S.J.,2 were explicitly concerned with the teaching of the Church as expressed in Pope Paul VI's encyclical "Humanae Vitae;" in the judgment of their authors these essays supported the teaching by providing correct analyses and applications of it.

In my opinion the essays by Noonan and Wright seriously misinterpret and distort the teaching of the Church on this question and do so primarily because the authors fail to understand what contraception is and why the Church teaches that the choice to contracept is morally wrong. Although Porter's essay, unlike Noonan's and Wright's, does not explain the Church's teaching by explaining it away, it too fails to come to terms with the moral issues at stake. In what follows I hope to provide the reasons supporting my assessment of these essays first by taking each essay separately and then by presenting observations concerned with the proper description of contraception and with the moral reasons why the Church judges contraception to be intrinsically disordered, "morally" evil, and hence an act that a human person ought never freely choose to do.


Porter challenges the contemporary consensus that contraception is morally legitimate by arguing that the practice of "artificial contraception" runs the serious risk of depersonalizing sexual intimacy. Porter, in developing his argument, skillfully utilizes perceptive psychological insights of Rollo May that are artistically illumined by Saul Bellow in his novel, "Herzog."

Porter admirably succeeds in showing that the choice to use "artificial" contraceptives "can" result in the dehumanization of sexual intimacy and the trivialization of sex. Still the argument he uses does not show that contraception is necessarily immoral; rather it is an argument that can be used to support rather than challenge the judgment that "artificial" contraception "can be" (although it need not be) a morally good choice. It does so because Porter insists in speaking of the regulation of conception through periodic abstinence as "natural contraception,"3 and because his argument is consequentialistic in nature, drawing its force from the deleterious consequences on sexual intimacy to which "artificial" contraception can and frequently does lead.

Basically Porter argues that it is wrong to use "artificial" contraceptives because they have a tendency to destroy sexual intimacy, whereas "natural contraception" is morally permissible because it does not have a tendency to cause this (presumably, "natural" contraception would be immoral were its use to result in the destruction of sexual intimacy).

A major difficulty with Porter's argument is that it regards contraception as such as morally neutral. It can be morally good, as "natural" contraception is, if it does not result in destroying sexual intimacy; it can be morally wrong, as "artificial" contraception is, because of the risks it poses to sexual intimacy.

I think that those who justify "artificial" contraception will find Porter's analysis akin to their own. One of the major claims made by many who justify "artificial" contraception is that the Church's opposition to their use is simply the result of a "phsyicalistic" notion of the natural law that sees the physical structure of the sexual act as morally determinative.4 They argue that since the Church permits "natural" contraception, i.e., the regulation of conception through periodic continence, there is nothing wrong with contraception. They then argue that the Church unreasonably refuses to admit that "artificial" contraception can also be morally legitimate provided that those who choose to use such means do so within the context of a conjugal life responsibly fruitful and so long as they are careful to avoid the dehumanizing effects that "may" result from such means. Those who defend "artificial" contraception are ready to admit that one ought "not" to use artificial means "if" their use would result in the dehumanization of sexual intimacy.5 It thus seems to me that Porter's "challenge to the consensus on contraception," while provocative and in many ways quite perceptive psychologically, leaves the key moral question of contraception untouched. In particular, his effort is marred by his failure to recognize what contraception is and why it is immoral and by his insistence upon identifying the regulation of conception through periodic abstinence with "natural" contraception. I shall return to these issues in the final part of this paper.


Noonan's essay, which has already been cogently criticized in a detailed analysis by Charles E. Rice,6 begins with the acknowledgment that the teaching of "Humanae vitae" is a "given of Catholic doctrine" and that our task now is to understand properly and apply this teaching.7 Noonan then proceeds to give his interpretation of the "doctrine" at the heart of the encyclical and to offer some applications of it.

"Humanae vitae," Noonan says, offered "a new and distinctive basis for the doctrine forbidding intervention which deliberately deprived 'a naturally fecund marital act of fertility'" (P. 21; emphasis added). Note well how Noonan expresses the "doctrine" set forth in "Humanae vitae;" as Rice has observed, "Noonan is stating the teaching in such a way as to foreshadow his own conclusions."8 Noonan repeatedly stresses that what the encyclical condemns is the "deliberately willed dissassociation between the conjugal act and the 'natural rhythm' of fertility" (P. 35; emphasis added; cf. pp. 30, 32, 33). This is what the encyclical condemns because, Noonan contends, the doctrine of the encyclical is grounded in the "natural rhythm of fecundity and infecundity." It is this natural rhythm that "serves as the basis for the symbolic human significance of conjugal acts in which fecundity accompanies the expression of love" (p. 23). The teaching of the Church "builds on," "is based on," and "rests on" the natural rhythm of fecundity and sterility (pp. 22, 23, 29).

Because this is so, Noonan believes that we must, for the sake of accuracy, speak not of "contraceptive" means but rather of "dissassociative means," not of "contraception" but rather of "disruption of the unity" (p. 30). By this Noonan means that the doctrine of "Humanae vitae" forbids any human intervention (contraception as a "dissassociative means") that would deprive the marital act of its fecundity by "disassociating" the unitive and procreative significance of the marital act during the fertile phase of the woman. One of his key contentions then9 is that means used to prevent or impede procreation in the marital act during the non-fertile phase of the woman would be morally legitimate and would in no way be contrary to the "doctrine" of "Humanae vitae" (pp. 29-37). Noonan seeks to support this claim by arguing that in human beings God intends fertility and the consequent union of the symbolic significance of the unitive and procreative meanings of marriage and of human sexuality to be present only four days of the woman's twenty-eight day cycle. Fertility in the woman at any other time during the cycle is, Noonan asserts, "unnatural" (p. 33), and consequently may be eliminated by sterilizing or "contraceptive" means, and the choice to do so is morally right and in accord with the doctrine of the Church as set forth in "Humane vitae."

There are serious, indeed insurmountable, difficulties with Noonan's "interpretation" of "Humanae vitae." The most obvious is that Noonan is simply wrong in formulating the "doctrine" of the encyclical. Noonan, as we have seen, insists that what the encyclical condemns is any effort to break the "natural nexus" between conjugal intercourse and procreation, and by "natural nexus" he means the bond between the unitive and the procreative meanings of the marital act during the fertile phase of the woman's period, a bond meant to exist in Noonan's judgment only for 96 hours during the woman's twenty-eight day cycle. He likewise insists that the teaching of the encyclical is based on the "natural rhythms" of fertility and infertility and that Pope Paul VI is not to be taken literally in affirming that "each and every marriage act ("quilibet matrimonii usus") must remain open to the transmission of life" ("Humanae vitae," n. 11; cf. Noonan, pp. 33-34).

An examination of the encyclical, however, shows that Pope Paul taught that what the moral law forbids is not simply, as Noonan claims, any "deliberately willed disassociation between the conjugal act and the natural rhythm of fertility" (p. 35), but rather "'every action' which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act or in its accomplishment or in the development of its natural consequences proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" ("Humanae vitae," n. 14; emphasis added).

Noonan completely ignores the moral significance of an important passage in the encyclical where Pope Paul clearly shows that it is immoral to choose to impede or destroy either the unitive or the procreative meanings of the marital act ("Humanae vitae," n. 13). The point that the Pope is making-- one to which we shall return in the concluding part of this paper--is that it is immoral to choose to act against the real goods of human sexuality and of marriage, i.e., the unitive and procreative goods. Noonan's failure to consider this morally significant passage is one reason why he misconceives the "doctrine" of the encyclical and the moral issues involved in contraception.

In addition, the Pope does not claim, as Noonan does, that "the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning" ("Humanae vitae" n. 12) is based on the "natural rhythm of fertility and infertility" (Noonan, p. 30). Rather the Pope teaches that these meanings are inseparably connected, indissolubly joined; and he insists that only "by safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, does the conjugal act preserve in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination toward man's most high calling to parenthood" ("Humanae vitae," n. 12). He teaches ("Humanae vitae," n. 13) that these "essential aspects" are safeguarded by respecting them and that the choice to impede or destroy either is what the moral law forbids.

Since Pope Paul recognizes that "God has wisely disposed natural laws and rhythms of fecundity, which, of themselves, cause a separation in the succession of births" ("Humanae vitae," n. 11), he evidently does not regard this "separation in the succession of births," caused by the "rhythms of fecundity," to entail the dissolution of the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of conjugal intercourse or the "openness" of conjugal acts to the transmission of life. Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., and others have properly explained the intention of the encyclical in speaking of the openness of every conjugal act to the transmission of life, whereas Noonan has misunderstood what this means. De Margerie observes that "every matrimonial act should be 'intrinsically' ordered to life, to the transmission of life, even if in actual fact, owing to an accidental and extrinsic reason, it must remain barren."10 A conjugal act that respects the gift of fertility, of procreativity, is one that is intrinsically open to the transmission of life, even if conception, as a physical event, does not take place or cannot take place because of sterility resulting from "natural rhythms" or age or disease. A conjugal act respectful of what Pope John Paul II calls the "nuptial meaning" of the body and of the willing submissiveness of sexed humanity to the gift of fertility11 is one that is "open" to the transmission of life. There is a significant "moral" difference between a conjugal act that is sterile because of natural rhythms, age, or disease and one that has been deliberately "sterilized" by the free choice of the spouses. Although Noonan recognizes the "physical" difference between a naturally infertile conjugal act and one deliberately made infertile by human choice, he does not recognize the "moral" difference between these acts, a difference made by the sorts of choices involved. As a result he seriously misunderstands what the encyclical means when it speaks of the openness of every true conjugal act to the transmission of life and of the "inseparable connection" willed by God between the unitive and the procreative "meanings" of marriage and human sexuality.

Noonans' essay, far from supporting the teaching of "Humanae vitae" which he acknowledges as "a given of Catholic doctrine," substitutes for this teaching Noonans' own doctrine that the natural moral law requires us to respect the goodness of our sexual procreativity "only" during the 96 hours of the woman's peak fertile phase and permits us to ensure sterility by contraceptive means during the rest of her cycle, when fertility is, in Noonans' judgment, "unnatural." Noonan's position is, in my opinion, one that is definitely physicalistic or biologistic in character, locating the root or basis of the Church's teaching on contraception in the "natural nexus" between the unitive and procreative meanings of marriage and sexuality during the fertile phase of the woman. Noonan ignores the moral significance of choosing to act against the good of procreation; because he does so he, like Porter, fails to understand what contraception really is and why the Church teaches that it is immoral--a point to which we shall return in the conclusion.


At the beginning of his essay Wright raises the following question: "Is there a way to affirm the radical intent and importance of Paul VI's specific teaching and at the same time to recognize an objectively legitimate departure from it in certain concrete circumstances, a departure that does not undermine that teaching and render it trivial?"12

Wright answers this question in the affirmative. Yet he can give this answer only by providing an interpretation of the teaching in Humanae vitae that is, like Noonan's, not an interpretation but rather the substitution of his own doctrine for that of the encyclical. In the course of his essay he also shows that he does not understand what contraception is and why the Church teaches that a contraceptive choice is immoral.

According to Wright the teaching of Paul VI is "an obligatory ideal, a unique embodiment of values that makes a positive and enduring claim upon conscience" (p. 175). The obligatory ideal in question, Wright makes clear several times in the course of his brief article, is "sexual intercourse open to the possibility of conception" (pp. 176, 177). In other words, for Wright the "radical intent and importance of Paul VI's specific teaching" in "Humanae vitae" is to claim that there is an obligatory ideal for married couples to engage in sexual intercourse that is "open to the possibility of conception." Because this is his understanding of the obligatory ideal at the heart of Paul VI's "specific teaching," Wright then contends that one departs from this obligatory ideal "whether by choosing infertile periods or by rendering fertile periods unproductive" (p. 177). In making this claim Wright clearly indicates that he believes that the choice to regulate conception by periodic abstinence and the choice to do so by using "artificial contraceptives" are morally equivalent. That is, he indicates that, with Porter and others, there are two kinds of contraception, "natural" and "artificial." He believes that either of these ways of departing from the "obligatory idea" at the heart of Paul's specific teaching can be morally permissible provided there are "proportionate, objective" reasons for departing from the obligatory ideal (p. 177). The obligatory ideal of having intercourse open to the possibility of conception is, Wright argues, the type of obligatory ideal that lays "a claim upon conscience and . . . viewed in abstraction from the total situation," is "capable of realization both intrinsically and extrinsically, but considered concretely with all attendant circumstances ought 'not to be achieved'" (p. 176).

From what has already been said in commenting on Noonan's essay it should be apparent that Wright has simply substituted his own ideas for the "specific teaching" of Paul VI. His analysis, in particular, (1) misinterprets the meaning of Paul's teaching that every conjugal act is to be open to the transmission of life, (2) fails to distinguish between affirmative duties and negative prohibitions, and (3) shows that he does not understand what contraception is and why it is judged to be intrinsically disordered by the teaching authority of the Church.

Wright obviously believed that by speaking of the openness of the conjugal act to the transmission of life Pope Paul was claiming that every act of marital intercourse must be capable of leading to conception here and now. We have already seen that this is not the meaning of this affirmation in the encyclical. Wright confuses the physical possibility of conception actually occurring (it cannot when a woman is pregnant, beyond menopause, or infertile as a result of "natural rhythms") with the "moral" significance of respect for the procreative meaning of human sexuality and marriage that Paul teaches, a respect that regards this meaning as something good and not to be attacked.

There is indeed an affirmative obligation on the part of married couples to have children, as Paul and Vatican II teach. After all, as Vatican II so strongly insisted, marriage and married love are by their very nature ordered to the generation and education of children and parents are to regard it as their highest mission to collaborate generously with God in raising up new life (cf. "Gaudium et Spes," nn. 48, 50). Yet an affirmative duty differs in its obligatory character from a negative injunction. The scholastics used to put this difference by saying that affirmative duties oblige "semper sed non pro semper," whereas negative injunctions oblige "semper et pro emper." By this they meant we are always obliged to do the good, but that we cannot be doing good all the time, and that at times the pursuit of a given good (such as the procreation of children) might need to be foregone (although never attacked) if its pursuit should entail deliberate or even indeliberate yet disproportionate destruction of other goods. Thus we ought always to tell the truth, but we are not obligated to speak at all times of our lives (and hence to speak truthfully) and there are times when we may rightfully conceal a truth when its revelation would constitute an unjust attack upon a neighbor. In similar fashion, married couples have a positive obligation to have children (as "Gaudium et spes" insists), yet there can be reasons why they can legitimately choose to refrain from pursuing this good, and they are to be the best judges of this. Yet Wright insists that the core teaching of the encyclical is the imposition of a positive affirmative duty to engage in marital intercourse that will positively result in conception, and in doing so totally ignores the long-standing and important moral distinction between affirmative duties, such as the duty to have children, and negative injunctions, such as the injunction, given in the encyclical, to refrain from contraceptive intercourse.

Wright fails to understand what contraception is and why the Church teaches that it is immoral. First of all, he identifies the regulation of conception by periodic abstinence with the choice deliberately to render fertile periods "unproductive" (p. 177). By claiming that the specific teaching of the encyclical is an affirmative obligation to engage in marital intercourse that will actually result in a pregnancy, he shows that he does not realize that its specific teaching included a negative injunction, namely that one ought never to choose to repudiate the goodness of human procreativity--the procreative meaning of human sexuality--just as one ought not ever to choose to repudiate the unitive goodness of sexuality.

The Church has always taught that certain sorts of human choices, such as the choice to kill innocent human beings, to lie, to devastate entire cities along with their populations, and to repudiate the goodness of human procreativity are "intrinsically" disordered and subject to universal negative prohibitions. By claiming that the teaching of "Humanae vitae" is basically the assertion of an affirmative obligation rather than the firm statement of a negative injunction, Wright has simply begged the question, framing it in such a way that his own "resolution" is assured.

It ought also to be noted that Wright presents his view as a "new" breakthrough, a way of affirming the radical intent of Paul VI's specific teaching and of simultaneously asserting an objectively legitimate departure from it in concrete circumstances. Although Wright's own interpretation of Paul's "specific teaching" is novel, his attempt to divine its "deeper" meaning and, in the light of this "deeper" meaning, to justify objectively departures from it in specific cases is surely not, as readers familiar with the abundant literature on the question will easily recognize.

Finally, Wright claims that the encyclical's teaching is true in abstraction from concrete circumstances. Any reader of "Humanae vitae" will see immediately that Paul VI reaffirmed the Church's teaching on the intrinsic evil of contraception precisely as a norm to be observed by married couples in the concrete exigencies of their daily lives.


Contraception is not the same as birth control. In addition to contraception there are many other ways of controlling births, some morally good, others morally wicked. One can control births by abortion--a morally evil way--or by abstaining from coition, either permanently or periodically. Neither of these latter methods of birth control is contraceptive.

Contraception does prevent birth, but does so in a specific way. It does so in a way that entails a twofold choice. There is first the choice to have intercourse, something known to be intimately related to the generation of life. There is secondly the choice to impede procreation, whether in anticipation of the act of intercourse, during it, or while it is having its natural consequences, and to do so precisely because one does not want intercourse to lead to the generation of life and one believes that the intercourse one has freely chosen is the kind of act that may do this. It is thus proper to speak of contraceptive intercourse.

What makes the contraceptive act to be "contraceptive" or "antiprocreative" is the choice, freely made, to get rid of, here and now, the procreativity of a freely chosen act of coition. The contraceptive act is not simply nonprocreative (i.e., one that does not in fact result in pregnancy) but antiprocreative, i.e., an attack on the goodness of the procreativity of marriage and of human sexuality. It is an act in and through which one says that it is not good here and now to be fertile. It is an act in and through which one says that it is "not" good that coition is open to the transmission of life.

It is for this reason that Paul VI and the Church teach firmly that the contraceptive choice is intrinsically disordered. To choose to act in this way is to choose to act against something really good, and good not merely in an instrumental way but personally and humanly good. The procreative meaning of our sexuality and of the marital act is not a good of the biological order, subhuman and subpersonal in character, but is rather a good of the human person, a good participating in the goodness of the human person and of God, the author of our procreativity. The contraceptive choice is a choice to reject this good of the human person, of human sexuality, and of marriage.

Yet, the Church again teaches, we are not to choose to do evil for the sake of good to come. Thus the choice to contracept, as the choice to kill an innocent person, is one that is intrinsically disordered, "morally evil," one that we ought never freely choose to make if we wish to order our lives according to the objective norms of morality.

This is the teaching of "Humanae vitae," a teaching that stresses the "moral" wickedness of the contraceptive, anti-procreative choice. This aspect of the Church's teaching is totally ignored in the essays under consideration, and for this reason all fail to come to terms with the moral issue of contraception.

People can definitely misuse natural family planning and immorally refuse to have children by abstaining from marital coition during the fertile period of the woman. Such people may reflect an "anti-baby" mentality that is worse than the contraceptive mentality reflected, willy-nilly, by those who choose to contracept. Some people may also reflect a contraceptive mentality in their misuse of natural family planning insofar as they prefer it to chemical and barrier methods for hygienic or aesthetic reasons or fear that the latter may inhibit sexual intimacy or result in health problems. But these abuses of natural family planning do not prove that the regulation of conception by periodic abstinence is, as Porter and Wright claim, "natural contraception." This claim rests on the assumption that periodic abstinence is contraceptive because the choice to abstain can be used to avoid a pregnancy when there are serious and legitimate reasons to avoid one and on the assumption that every way of avoiding a pregnancy is contraceptive. The reasoning based on these assumptions is fallacious, as can be shown by formulating explicitly the implicit argument. It can be put as follows: All contraceptive acts are ways of avoiding a pregnancy. But all use of periodic abstinence is a way of avoiding a pregnancy. Therefore all use of periodic abstinence is contraceptive. This is like arguing: All eagles are birds. All pigeons are birds. Therefore all pigeons are eagles.13

Distinctly different kinds of human choices are entailed in contraceptive intercourse and in the use of periodic abstinence to regulate conception. In contraceptive intercourse, as we have seen, the explicit choice is to destroy the procreative potential of the genital embrace that is also freely chosen; it is this choice that makes the act contra-ceptive, anti- procreative. Married couples who practice periodic abstinence make different choices. They choose to abstain from the marital act when they have good reasons to believe that this act may result in a pregnancy and they have legitimate reasons for avoiding a pregnancy. They abstain from the act not because they consider it wrong or repugnant--far from it; they abstain because they realize that to express their love for one another in the marital act here and now would be irresponsible (or would require them to contracept and be morally irresponsible in that way). They recognize that conception and pregnancy are great goods, but they realize that pursuing these goods here and now would be irresponsible. They also realize that it would be irresponsible and morally wicked to repudiate the goodness of their procreativity by contracepting. They then choose to express their love for one another in the marital act when they can reasonably believe that conception will not occur in order to participate in legitimate goods of marriage without setting themselves against the good of their own procreativity or the openness of their expression of marital love to the good of transmitting life. They do not choose to be anti-procreative, contra-ceptive. In short, they refuse to contracept, and refuse for moral reasons.

I hope that these observations may help to clarify some of the issues raised by Porter, Noonan, and Wright. I believe that their analyses, in particular those of Noonan and Wright, are seriously erroneous and trivialize the teaching of "Humanae vitae," a teaching that definitely is, as Noonan rightly observed, "a given of Church doctrine."


1. Lawrence Porter, O.P., "Intimacy and Human Sexuality: A Challenge to the Consensus on Contraception," "Communio" 7.3 (Fall, 1980): 269-277.

2. John T. Noonan, Jr., "Natural Law, the Teaching of the Church, and the Regulation of the Rhythm of Human Fertility," "American Journal of Jurisprudence" 25 (1980): 16-37. John Wright, S.J., "An End to the Birth Control Controversy?" "America" (March 7, 1981): 175-178.

3. Porter, loc, cit., pp. 275-276.

4. Cf., for instance, Charles E. Curran, "Moral Theology in the Light of Reactions to Humanae Vitae," in his "Transinon and Tradition in Moral Theology" (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980), p. 29- 59, esp. pp. 32-37.

5. Cf., for instance, Anthony Kosnik et al., "Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought" (New York: Paulist, 1977), pp. 92- 95, 116-117, in particular p. 127.

6. Charles E. Rice, "Reducing 'Humanae vitae' to a Symbolic Gesture," "The Wanderer" 114.21 (May 21, 1981): 1, 8.

7. Noonan, loc. cit., p. 16. Subsequent references to Noonan's essay will be given in parentheses in the text.

8. Rice, loc. cit. p. 8.

9. Another claim by Noonan is that a woman who engages in loveless sex with her husband has a right to contracept. Noonan here illegitimately extends a teaching implicit in the encyclical, namely that if an act of marital intercourse "is forced" on a spouse (cf. "Humanae vitae," n. 13), in a way that might truthfully be regarded as "quasi-matrimonial rape," the wife could protect herself against unwanted consequences of this forced act by using contraceptives. In such instances she would not be contracepting because she does not consent to the intercourse. But Noonan's "clarification" on this matter is not at all proper. As Rice notes: "The Pope correctly indicates that a forced conjugal act is not an act of true love; but he does not say that every act lacking in true love is therefore forced and justifies defensive contraception." Loc. cit., p. 8.

10. Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., "Reflections on Some Aspects of Humanae vitae To Which Less Consideration Has Been Given," "Osservatore Romano;" English Edition May 25, 1978. See also Elisabeth Anscombe, "Contraception and Chastity" (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1976), pp. 20-23.

11. Cf. Pope John Paul 11, Address of January 9, 1980, "Revelation and Discovery of the Nuptial Meaning of the Body," in "The Original Unity of Man and Woman" (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1981), pp. 106-112.

12. Wright, loc. cit., p. 175. Subsequent references to Wrights' essay will be given in parentheses in the text.

13. I am grateful to Professor Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., of the Center for Thomistic Studies in the University of St. Thomas in Houston for pointing out this fallacy to me.