A moral high ground?

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

The Roman Catholic Church’s official policy on the ‘regulation of birth’ is, of course, that artificial birth control should not be used since the practice transgresses God’s ‘natural moral law’ to go forth and multiply (and, of course, with congregation numbers already being as low as they are, well…). Therefore, “direct interruption of the generative process already begun…[is] absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.”

The one loop-hole, however, is the rhythm method — refraining from sex during a woman’s fertile period — one of those handy laws of nature which “God has wisely ordered.” If you and your wife/husband just make sure to have sex only at those times when she’s/you’re less likely to get pregnant, then you can have your cake and eat it, too — avoid unwanted prenancies, while not interfering with conception or having to opt for a selective abortion. (The rhythm method, by the way, is estimated to be anywhere from 75-90% effective in avoiding unwanted pregnancies.)

However, in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Luc Bovens suggests that the rhythm method may work not (only) because it prevents conception from happening in the first place, but rather because those embryos conceived during a woman’s less fertile period are actually less viable. Both the sperm and the egg may be old and the uterine lining may not be optimal.

In the article [not yet available], Bovens offers some estimates of how many naturally aborted embryos we might be talking about — the upshot is that he reckons that for every one unplanned pregnancy in rhythm method users in ten woman-years, there would also be two to three embryonic deaths. Even though the actual numbers can be disputed, the logic of the argument seems pretty sound (Bovens, via email):

“If there is reduced viability for embryos conceived outside the abstinence period for rhythm method users, then the method is likely to be effective, not only because it reduces the chance of conception, but also because embryos so conceived have a lower viability. And hence for every failure of the rhythm method (i.e. for every pregnancy) there is a higher rate of embryonic death.”

If Bovens is right — and if (to paraphrase) every embryo is indeed sacred — rhythm method users may need to re-evaluate their ‘moral choice’.


  1. minor point, but my understanding is that thomist philosophers (e.g., roman catholic religious philosophers) claim to be able to derive natural law independently of theism. i could be wrong of course.

  2. You could very well be right, Razib. I honestly don’t know. (Just ’cause I was stuck in parochial schools for 12 years of my life doesn’t mean I learned much of anything about theology.) :p

  3. As far as the Catholic church goes, I don’t think its an ethical problem, due to their concept of human intervention. Remember this case?

  4. Consider this; not only is the rhythmn method an effective means of minimizing the possibility of conception, it’s also an effective means of maximizing the possibility of conception. Think about it. :D

  5. but my understanding is that thomist philosophers (e.g., roman catholic religious philosophers) claim to be able to derive natural law independently of theism 
    The phrase that I’ve heard is “transpartent to reason” implying that you don’t have to take the teaching on faith, you just have to understand its logic and internal consistency. I do think it requires some sort of belief in some kind of deity although they may claim that Muslims and Jews would have the same teaching if they could only get their reasoning straight. What is interesting is to see is the reaction of conservative Catholics to the incoherence of the offical teaching on birth control. They either claim to be able to understand how it makes sense and how others are misunderstanding it or they simply refuse to disagree with it by saying something to the effect of “it’s the church teaching, so it must be right and I will never say otherwise.” The later reminds me a bit of many people’s reaction to the genetic component of the black/white IQ gap. The question is not approached as a logical or factual question, but rather like a moral question or a political opinion. They don’t seem to treat their belief as something that could be held for honest reasons, but rather like some stand they are taking or some act of defiance or moral forthrightness.

  6. Natural law is pretty popular with Rothbardian austrian anarcho-capitalists, many of whom (like Rothbard himself) are agnostic or atheist. I’m a utilitarian minarchist (like Mises), which doesn’t go over well with a lot of commenters at the mises.org blog.

  7. I think your little cheap shot at Catholics at the end there is unnecessary even if it was just to work in a MP reference. The choice they made really does concern morals, I don’t know what the quotes are for.

  8. Don’t confuse the old, ineffective “rhythm method” (based solely on looking at a calendar and making a best guess) with Natural Family Planning (which entails using tangible cues such as temperature and mucous).

  9. prevent the misuse of his name.

  10. TGGP: (my previous got truncated somehow, leaving only the final words) 
    Mises, if alive, would have no more to do with mises.org than with the Mt. Pelerin society (tho for differing reasons) he left. 
    That said, it is still a valuable site and resource, if only for the downloadable archives. 
    I impute the shift to a deliberate and conscious effort by Rothbard to position himself as the successor (and further-developer) of Mises’  
    ideas–sort of a “culmination” of the Austrian school. 
    In at least a couple cases, I believe I’ve identified an instance where Mises’ words have been deliberately misconstrued to provide fuel for Rothbard’s fire and, in another, where a small but significant section of HUMAN ACTION was modified in one edition to yield words more to the liking of the Rothbard cult. (Lew attributed the difference to Mises’–financially-grounded–inability to resist knuckling under to a publisher’s demand but I spoke directly with the lady who was the transcriber of the manuscripts concerned–she insists the story is “whole cloth.”)  
    The anarchist wing seems not to appreciate the degree to which nothing other than an almost religious faith can explain their insistence as to the realizability of social schemes no less utopian than that of the socialists.

  11. What would Mother Teresa say? As an Albanian, she would no doubt advocate for out-producing the Serbians, so that in 2050 the Battle of Kosovo would be decided in favor of the Muslims once again, and the Renaissance would have to wait for 2571 to come around again for another Lepanto to rescue Christianity from the triumph of the new Caliph.

  12. If one can refrain from conduct likely to lead to reproduction during particular days of the month, why can one not so refrain in any particular time, making lustfulness utterly irrelevant? I blame the women, who consider that if they can put off their men they would, but they don’t, because other women would not. I see no solution for this.

  13. rhythm method users may need to re-evaluate their ‘moral choice’ 
    Not necessarily. Catholics would probably say that the embryonic death occurred naturally and was therefore the result of God’s will.

  14. “The one loop-hole, however, is the rhythm method — refraining from sex during a woman’s fertile period — one of those handy laws of nature which “God has wisely ordered.” “ 
    Ha! God knew what she was doing. During the prime conception times a woman is much more interested in sex. The church says no sex when you most feel like sex.  
    The moral problem that strikes me with the rhythm method is not the a higher rate of embryonic death, it is that the embryos that do survive are not as healthy as embryos conceived during the prime time.  
    It is all fine and well to worry about all the unborn, but it makes more sense make sure the born have the best chance of a productive and healthy life first.  
    Not to mention the benefits of fewer healthier children to Mom’s poor body and soul.  
    Why didn’t they ask me before setting their policy???