Sex without consequences, a world without commitment

On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI published a document, Humanae Vitae, which said that the Pill was incompatible with Catholic morality. Did this shunt his Church into decades of irrelevance or did it make the Church a beacon of moral clarity? This week MercatorNet publishes three articles about the world after Humanae Vitae. Below, in an interview with MercatorNet, American philosopher Christopher Tollefsen dissects the morality of the contraceptive movement.


MercatorNet: You have written recently about the ethical problems and deeper human implications of in vitro fertilisation and related techniques based on the separation of reproduction from sex. But let's take a step back into that earlier technology that separated sex from procreation -- contraception, especially in the mass produced, effective form of the pill. Are these two technological developments of the 20th century related? Could you say that one led to the other?

Christopher Tollefsen: They are really like two sides of the same coin. Sexuality and procreation, when linked in marriage, are dual facets of that great and fulfilling good, and both perfect the lives of married persons. At the same time, they come with significant responsibilities, as all goods do: the virtue of chastity, marital and extra-marital, and openness to the gift of new life as a natural fruit of marital love, don’t always come easily to us.

The pill makes things easier on us by allowing us to jettison the connection of sexuality with both marriage and children. Children will now be had on our own terms – perhaps in a marriage, but perhaps not. It’s a logical extension from this to the idea that IVF allows us even more, and better, control over procreation. In some cases, this is an understandable, although I think mistaken, response to a genuine tragedy, the inability of some married couples to conceive. But increasingly, IVF is being promoted as a way to ensure that we get the kinds of children we want, free from disease, for example, or blessed with certain attributes over others.

Unfortunately, both contraception and assisted reproduction are increasingly thought of not just as OK, but even as moral entitlements. Ultimately, I think what is at issue has to do with our unwillingness to be anything less than in complete control of our lives – the ideas of the gift of human life, or the gift of human sexuality, are unappealing because they reveal we are not the complete authors of our own existence. And, in a sad way, our response to suffering, including the suffering of the infertile, replicates this pattern. Suffering is entirely bad and to be rejected precisely because it is out of our control, a threat to our Godliness (our description of suffering as “gratuitous” brings out its similarity to what is given to us, and not of our choosing). But Christianity has always offered a redemptive response to our sufferings that links them to the sufferings of one who, although he was indeed in the form of God, took the form of a slave.

MercatorNet: When Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical on human life, Humanae Vitae, explaining why contraception (as distinct from periodic abstinence) was unacceptable theologically and even from a merely human point of view, there was a widespread negative reaction, including amongst Catholics. This seems surprising, given that the pill had only been available for about a decade. Obviously attitudes had been changing for some time. What were the philosophical antecedents of that particular "1968" revolt?

Dr Tollefsen: Certainly the widespread acceptance of a utilitarian, or consequentialist mentality, both in philosophy, and as a matter of political culture, contributed to the reaction. The view that good consequences could make right, even obligatory, any kind of action provided cover for theologians who wanted to argue that there were no moral absolutes, and that sexual and reproductive morality needed to consider the overall good of married, or even unmarried couples. This gets things the wrong way round, however. As Pope John Paul II argued in Veritatis Splendor, the commandments in fact protect human goods and human flourishing, and this is true of the Church’s teaching on contraception.

MercatorNet: Pre-marital sex, cohabitation in place of marriage, marital infidelity, increased divorce rates -- these and other ills besetting marriage and the family have been traced to contraception. Is that too simplistic? Is the so-called contraceptive mentality really that pivotal to trends in society today?

Dr Tollefsen: It is difficult to overstate how deeply contraception has affected our social world. It is not simply that there is always a direct causal connection – no one is saying “Well, because people contracept, their marriages will fail,” for example. But contraception makes possible a world in which pre-marital chastity is no longer necessary; and this creates a world in which marital chastity is more difficult. It creates a world in which there is tremendous pressure on both spouses to work, and to postpone children, and this also creates new tensions in the family. And it seems plausible that the idea that we are entitled to the unrestricted satisfaction of our sexual desires has played a considerable role in the growth of the pornography industry, which also has wreaked havoc on the family. So the end result of a world broadly shaped by contraception is a world that is far from friendly to marriage and family.

MercatorNet: "Family planning" is a concept that now belongs in the mainstream of society. Do you see anything problematical in the term? Is "responsible parenthood", a term used by the Catholic Church, better, and if so, why?

Dr Tollefsen: Well, one problem it that it seems often to be a euphemism for abortion on demand. And certainly the idea of “planning” something can sometimes seem too technical, in a way that is manifest in many forms of assisted reproduction. But I think it is also a mistake to jettison the idea that I mentioned above, that sexuality and procreation do involve responsibilities; married couples can have significant reasons to seek some space between their children or to refrain for a time from conceiving. So “responsible parenthood” seems to me to give a pretty good sense of what is called for.

MercatorNet: One of the most controversial claims about contraception is that it leads to widespread abortion. Many conscientious people are angered and appalled at this claim, but are they kidding themselves?

Dr Tollefsen: I’m afraid so. Contraception made possible something that many human beings have always wanted: sex without consequences. Prior to the twentieth century, the consequences of extramarital sexuality were typically pregnancy, sometimes disease, and often a vastly lowered reputation. But contraceptive technology certainly lowers the probability of the first and the third of those consequences… to a point. However, it does not entirely eliminate the possibility of pregnancy; and so sex without consequences, even with widespread contraception, remains out of reach without access to abortion. So I think it is a natural thought to go from being a pro-life opponent of abortion, to being a pro-life proponent of pre-marital and marital chastity.

MercatorNet: Some people see no moral difference between contraception and natural fertility regulation techniques -- so-called natural family planning -- because the desired end is the same: no baby at this time. Is there a moral or philosophical difference?

Dr Tollefsen: Contraception says: no baby, and takes steps to insure that will be the case. It is that choice to prevent the possible baby that seems to me a choice against human life. On the other hand, there is clearly no obligation for married couples to have intercourse at every possible opportunity, and various good reasons for refraining at different times. During a fertile period, the effect of refraining is sometimes desirable, so the choice to refrain is permissible, and is different from a choice to prevent a possible baby from coming into being.

MercatorNet: To claim that using the Pill is unethical is counter-cultural -- so much so that most people dismiss it out of hand. Do you have a two-sentence sound bite to help people sit up and think about the issue?

Dr Tollefsen: I think people should ask themselves whether the world the Pill makes possible -- a world in which a sexual relationship comes with no commitment to a permanent and exclusive union with the hope of children, and in which marriage is often seen as a partnership for the mutual acquisition of money and status, with children an optional add-on – is a world that has made them, or their friends and family happier. They might be surprised at what an honest answer would show.

Christopher Tollefsen is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and coauthor, with Robert P George, of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008). He is also a fellow of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, New Jersey.


This is one of three articles on the world after Humanae Vitae. See also: The Pill: past its use-by date which exposes the fantasy ideology driving the quest for perfect contraception, and Singapore’s fertility woes call for a change in sexual attitudes, which describes what happens when governments, not parents, regulate births. 


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