Love and Respect for Life.
Andrew L. Szebenyi S.J.
Le Moyne College
Every act of intercourse between husband and wife must remain open to conception. This is the statement of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae (On the regulation of Birth), written by Paul VI, July 25, 1968. I am going to place this statement into a set of concrete scenarios and so examine the consequences of its meanings.
One scenario is that of complete openness to new life with zero control of conception. In this scenario, couples try to have as many children as biologically possible. This is reproduction at its maximum biological potential. Of course, we must consider this total openness in the framework of the demographic equation, where the difference between birthrate and death rate determines the growth rate of a population. If death rate is very high, we may have to reproduce at our full biological capacity in order to survive. As far as we can tell, this has been the situation for many thousands of years in human history. High birthrate and high death rate in a relatively small base population were in balance with a slight positive edge in favor of survival.
So it has been until recently. During the last century, death rate has been substantially reduced by a number of significant discoveries in the medical sciences, such as the increasing emphasis placed on simple matters of hygiene, the discovery of the benefits of immunization, and antibiotics, and more recently the successful employment of new medical technologies. At the same time, birthrate remained high as part of a set of traditional, cultural values. The resulting demographic imbalance caused a sudden population growth increasing our numbers close to six fold to more than six billion today. The impact of this event on the earth and on human lives is of great concern today. The components of this concern are complex. We are facing something that we have never experienced before in human history. Traditional values seem to become counterproductive in the new circumstances. There is a great deal of concern about the way we approach and possibly overstep the carrying capacity of the earth, and about the destructive ecological consequences that may follow. We are deeply concerned about the negative effects of all this on present and future human lives. According to the demographic data published in 2003, the total world population is now 6.314 billion and is growing at a rate of 1.3% with a doubling time of close to 55 years. Such a huge and rapid increase in an already large population is expected to be devastating.
The conclusion is that the scenario of complete openness to new life with zero control of conception is, in our given situation, destructive to life and is, therefore, morally unacceptable.
The need for control presents the second scenario, where we attempt to balance the demographic equation through adequate means. This attempt represents the third phase of a huge demographic transition from zero population growth in a small base population, passing through a phase of exponential growth, and balancing off again at zero growth, but now in a large base population. It is hoped that the new balance is a realistic one, being within the carrying capacity of the earth. The demographic transition is well presented in a graph shown below. This graph was taken from the Population Bulletin, December 2003, page 33, published by the Population Reference Bureau under the title, Population, a Lively Introduction, by Joseph McFalls Jr.
The visual effect of this graph is striking, as it shows the event of the demographic transition in a historical perspective. The hoped for new balance is given in this graph at just under 11 billion people in the world. Whether balance at that level is feasible or not remains, for the time being, an open question. If balance is not reached, however, a population crash in our world of limited resources is unavoidable. And that would be a devastating experience, reaching a new balance by a sudden rise in death rates due to famine, and disease, accompanied by the disintegration of governments, social services, ecological devastation, and ethnic conflicts. We can see all this already happening on a limited scale at different parts of the world.
In the second scenario, the crucial point of inquiry is not the need for control, because that is obvious, but the nature and characteristics of adequate means of control. In this scenario, we aim at a world wide balance. In demographic terms, such balance means a global zero population growth, and this spells out for us the meaning of being adequate.
The demographic equation has two terms, birthrate and death rate. To balance these two terms in our present situation, we should either reduce birthrate, or increase death rate, or do both of these together. Since the need for balance is rooted in our love and respect for human life to start with, we should not attempt to increase death rate in any form, including abortion, the prevention of medical care, and the practice of euthanasia. Consequently, the only avenue open to us to reach the much needed demographic balance is through the reduction of birthrate by avoiding conception beyond replacement level. In practice this means the prevention of conception beyond two surviving children per family.
According to one idea such prevention is not necessary if the couple restricts intercourse to those days in a womans reproductive cycle when no ovum is present, the so called infertile days. This method is called Natural Family Planning. Another approach is to prevent the meeting of the gametes by placing a physical or chemical barrier between them and so avoid conception. There has been a great deal of controversy about the morality of the two methods, the natural versus the artificial, or the indirect versus the direct forms of intervention. This controversy seems to neglect the most important issue, the matter of adequate means. Using or recommending the use of a method that is inadequate to achieve the needed balance of zero population growth is morally unacceptable, irrespective of such finer nuances as natural or artificial, direct or indirect. The primary question about any method is: Does it work? And the only people who can answer this question are the couples themselves.
There is a certain artificial aura about natural family planning because of the promotion it has received from the Catholic church. For some people it works well, for others it does not. In some cultures it may work for some, while in others it may not. In other words it should not be the only acceptable method of planning for many couples. Is it natural? Even that can be called into doubt. The failure rate of even the most sophisticated form of natural family planning correlates positively with the irregularity of a womans reproductive cycles. Since regularity and irregularity in these matters have genetic foundations (irregularity runs in families), accidental conception, because of irregularity, results in a strong selection in favor of irregularity. In other words, and biologically speaking, the method destroys itself by rendering itself less and less efficient, and for that reason it should not be called natural. In addition, the method restricts intercourse to days, sometimes to just a few days in a month if the cycles are very irregular, which are safely away from the time of ovulation. But these are the days when a woman is least receptive. This is like eating when you are not hungry, and not eating when you are. I would not call that natural. The method also takes away most spontaneity of love making and produces an unnaturally regimented relationship. For some this may seem acceptable, for most it is not. For some, as it can be seen from personal accounts, such regimentation may even destroy the marriage relationship.
It should be also noted that up to date no contraceptive method is 100% effective. This means that, in practice, all such methods remain open to procreation at least to some extent. Needless to say that in cases of an accidental conception the resulting new human life is to be accepted, protected, nurtured, and loved. It is a contradiction to kill in the name of love and respect for life. For this reason some forms of contraceptives should not be used. They are called contraceptive, but they are actually abortive because they do not prevent conception but they render the lining of the uterus hostile to the implantation of an already fertilized ovum. Such contraceptives are the IUDs and some hormonal preparations, such as the morning after pills.
Another point to consider in choosing a method in this scenario of reproductive restraint is the possible side effects of any available method. Decisions as to what kinds of side effects are acceptable and what kinds are not acceptable belong again to the couples themselves guided by their personal and practical experience. Some people say, there are no side effects to consider in case of natural family planning. That is not quite true. There are certainly some psychological consequences to consider, which may deeply and negatively effect the relationship of couples. There are also some medical concerns about the use of natural family planning. In a study it has been found that the occurrence of ectopic pregnancies and of some birth defects has been slightly, but in statistical terms significantly increased in a sample of couples using exclusively the natural family planning method. The probable reason for this increase was that in cases of accidents, when conception did occur during the safe days, aged gametes have been involved, that is gametes, ovum or sperm, which survived longer than normally expected. The conclusions of this study need corroboration.
Considering all possible avenues, there is really no other practical alternatives beyond those presented in the second scenario of reproductive restraint. The problem arose in the first place because of our direct intervention upsetting the natural balance of the demographic equation. It is only logical and reasonable to expect corrections to be made through direct intervention as well.
I believe there is a possible way to harmonize the statement of Humanae Vitae of 1968 about being open to procreation in marriage and our present knowledge of the demographic and ecological issues expressed in the demand for reproductive restraint. Every sexual act between wife and husband should build and strengthen the dedicated, nurturing and loving relationship they need to provide for themselves and for their family. A child is the fruit of their love and life and not just the biological products of an act of intercourse. Their life together is open to procreation and renders their union and the fruitfulness of their union inseparable.