An Open Letter to Karen HellerBy James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Devon, PA. Cursed with a lousy city newspaper rife with good coupons, I sat down with my coffee this morning to read Karen Heller’s latest column, “What? Birth Control? Again?” You can read it here. What follows is a note I sent her that I thought merited reprinting in this venue. For, while the attack on religious freedom manifest in the HHS mandate is patent and worthy of vigorous resistance, it may serve as a blessing insofar as it prompts Christians and others concerned with living in docility and joy within the natural order to consider more seriously what it is we have wrought in an age of biological and cultural sterility and technocratic absolutism.
Dear Mrs. Heller,
I am sure you have received many emails and letters in response to your misleading, crude, and thoughtless column in the Inquirer this morning; and so, I thought I might as well add my voice to the chorus and make a few answers to your rhetoric.
You point out that most “people employed, attending, or using church-affiliated institutions don’t have objections to contraception,” and then cite a Catholic politician whose position is both a violation of Church teaching and a compound of silliness.
Where to begin? What does it mean to “use” a “church-affiliated institution”? The mission of the Catholic Church is to proclaim the revealed truth of Christ. It does not make itself available for our use, like a therapist’s couch, but proposes truths to be followed if we would live well in this world and by happy in the next. It offers a truth we may serve, not one intended to be “used” by us at our convenience. The truth can be difficult to follow, and so, if many Catholics do not object to contraception, then that is merely a sign that the gospel needs to be proclaimed with greater force and phrased in a language that can penetrate the typical consumerist solipsism of our age.
The representative you cite, Rosa DeLauro, claims to be a “committed Catholic,” but it is unclear what that phrase means. Does not commitment in such a context mean fidelity to the truths Catholicism teaches? Or does commitment in her sense of the term mean just that she attends Mass on those Sundays when the weather is agreeable? Her claims justifying contraception coverage are patently bogus. It is not “gender discrimination” for medical insurance not to cover contraception while it covers treatment for, say, cancer. What distinguishes a drug to repress a woman’s fertility from a drug that kills cancer cells is that one frustrates a process that is a natural and normal development in every person’s life, while the other frustrates a process that is specifically unnatural, i.e. the perversion of normal cell growth from its proper course. It is the object of treatment, not the patient treated, that would evidently determine the differentiation in coverage here. So, it is condition discrimination, not gender discrimination.
Further, consequences of contraception are sufficiently documented to indicate that women’s health is not improved by its use. Granted, if by “women’s health” one means simply keeping women’s wombs free of babies so that they may not be distracted by the gifts of their own nature, then contraception would seem, at least in principle, to benefit women’s health. But if one means the actual prevention of disease, blood clots, hormonal imbalances that hurt mental health; if one means a healthy body and a healthy environment (i.e. the hormones in birth control pills have been found to pass through women’s urine and contaminate ground water, which in turn adversely affects marine wildlife); then most contraception clearly works contrary to women’s health rather than for it.
How sad it would be if “98 percent of Catholic women, have used some form of contraception banned by the Vatican.” I would contest the figure, but let’s grant it for the moment. I bet you that 100 percent of all Catholics have said an unkind word to their mothers; I bet you every Catholic has had an ill or lustful thought. Is ubiquity the sole criterion of morality? The Church does not have to teach us what lousy things human beings do — we know them all too well already and, at our best, confess them to the Church. But, the Church partly fulfilles its responsibility when it teaches us, again, what we must do if we would live well. And the obvious truth in regard to our sexuality is that it is an act proper to and fulfilling of marriage; that it is naturally fruitful, and that one function of marriage is to provide the natural context for that fruitfulness. To separate sexuality from marriage and from an openness to children is to violate the proper end of the act, degrading it along with the man and woman in the process.
Incidentally, what do you mean by saying “the Vatican” instead of “the Church”? If the Pope spoke qua Vatican, he would merely be speaking as Bishop of Rome. But it is the whole Church that preaches the evils of contraception and abortion.
After the sneers at Catholic teaching, you turn to conservatives, issuing a series of claims: “Birth control is smart business and cost-effective, a powerful weapon in combating poverty, lowering health costs, reducing abortions, allowing couples to have children when they’re ready, while enriching the economy with more working women.” That’s quite a litany; or rather a concatenation of incoherent phrases, false claims, and unattractive proposals.
Birth control is “cost-effective” compared to what? Seriously . . . I’ll leave you to puzzle that one out.
Birth control “combats poverty”? We can clearly see in the abstract that one’s having more children than one can provide for would by definition result in impoverishment. There’s no logical fallacy here, just a factual one. For, it is not the case that countries with lower birth rates are more prosperous in virtue of that fact. Rather, poorer countries with expanding populations are, thanks to that expansion, better equipped to rise out of poverty for the reason that you speciously gesture toward at the end of the quotation above: a growing population makes for an ample “work force” and is absolutely essential for the kinds of social welfare programs that (I imagine, based on reading your past columns) you support. Shrinking populations render such programs explosive long term costs.
Birth control “lowers” health costs? In what sense? Once again, compared to what? As I shall indicate immediately below, the effects of birth control use on sexual behavior are demonstrably costly — and not just in monetary, but in moral and spiritual, terms.
Birth control does not “reduce abortions.” That is a patently false claim and you know it. The rise in contraception use has been accompanied by an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, an increase in divorce, and an increase in abortion rates. The rates of disease transmission have become epidemic through the wide-spread use of contraception. In Africa, the “gospel” of condoms has exacerbated the spread of AIDS, while the teaching of abstinence has, where practiced, brought that epidemic swiftly under control.
What you call “smart business,” most people would call the attempt to control by chemical and other technocratic means what should be governed by the well formed moral consciences of husbands and wives. On that note, I turn to one last point. You speak of the Catholic Church’s approval of “one form of birth control, the rhythm method, which is contraception for stupid people.” As a young man, brought up while the baby boom generation still preached its gospel of libertinism, I find your “baby-boomer” slang here hideous. The “rhythm method”? That is just the tart epithet of an ignorant hedonist . . . but it is not your language to which I primarily object.
It is true that natural family planning is sometimes articulated as “birth control” the Church can live with — and not only by its opponents, but by some of its advocates as well. This is misleading. Natural family planning is hardly a natural equivalent to contraception: it will not reduce fertility the way that contraception can, nor is it intended to do so. The intention of those many couples who practice natural family planning is not to suppress fertility, but to make use of their reason in the spacing and conception of children while always remaining open to the gift of new life. It entails a commitment on the part of husband and wife that, while hardly onerous, is real. Like the commitment of a farmer to his land, or a craftsman to the work of his hands, natural family planning tends to become a way of life, or at least a significant force in shaping the lives of those who practice it: constraining their freedom to do as they like, when they like, but giving additional shape and depth of meaning to their lives. Like every substantively good thing, natural family planning gives form to freedom. You should listen to the testimony of the couples who practice it some day, and hear if what they say sounds “stupid” to you. I suspect it will sound much more like the joyful testimony of couples whose marriages have been strengthened by a shared sense of commitment and deepened by an alertness to the workings of their bodies that stands in powerful contrast to the well-documented numbing of desire and fertility brought about by contraceptive chemicals.
I wish I could credit you at least with the consistency of a position. Your prose style makes pretentions of giving voice to “no-nonsense” pragmatic liberalism, as if the test of every moral and political question were a government-generated statistic. But, aside from the objectionable nature of such a utilitarian approach to ethical life, I would point out that (as indicated above) you do not even rely upon accurate measurements in support of your claims. Contraception is bound up with the off-the-charts epidemics of disease, abortion, and divorce that are the nightmare of our age. The solutions offered by your “practical wisdom” would make these things, and perhaps many others, worse.
James Matthew Wilson