REFRAMING THE CONTRACEPTION DEBATE
Ethics & Medics – A Commentary of the National Catholic Bioethics Center on Health Care and the Life Sciences
by Elliott Louis Bedford, M.A.
The HHS mandate has had a significant impact on the American Catholic Community.1 The mandate, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, requires that all health insurance plans cover women’s so-called preventive services, such as sterilization and contraceptives, including some abortifacients. Discussion of the Church’s teaching on contraception is once again in the air, and two things have become apparent.
First, for many Catholics the teaching remains, as it were, unreceived. Insofar as the teaching remains unreceived, the entire Church suffers. For instance, commentators on all sides of the debate surrounding the HHS mandate cite the questionable statistic put out by the Guttmacher Institute that 98 percent of Catholic women who are sexually active do not avoid pregnancy by a means that Church teaching affirms.2 Commentators often cite such statistics to argue that, while the Church teaches that contraceptive practices are immoral, lay Catholics do not actually find them objectionable. The effect of these arguments is to isolate the bishops from the laity.3 Such division is seen to undermine the legitimacy of a Catholic opposition to the mandate.
Second, in the eyes of many people the distinction between sexual practices of responsible parenthood— specifically, avoiding pregnancy through the couple’s awareness of the fertility cycle—and contracepted sexual acts is ambiguous. For instance, a report put out by a department of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that 99 percent of sexually experienced women have used some form of contraception in their lifetime, counting “periodic abstinence—calendar rhythm” and “periodic abstinence—natural family planning” as two of twenty-one contraceptive methods that women used.4 As indicated by the CDC report, many consider these respective behaviors exclusively in light of the outcome of avoiding pregnancy. The persistence of such confusion surely has some effect on the degree to which the teaching is received among Catholics, reinforcing perceptions of hypocrisy for some or disillusionment among others who strive to hold to the teaching. Once again, the whole Church suffers.
TO BE CONTINUED