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That's one thing that bothers me. While I agree that using means of birth control that affect embryo is simply wrong in the terms of morality, I cannot tell any difference between natural family planning and different kinds of contraception (as mentioned in the title).

I know the argumentation that the first mentioned way is consistent with nature, while the other one is contradictory with characteristics of the true act of love. However, that doesn't appear to be really convincing to me. After all, preventing yourself from having sex in certain period of life also appears to be not consistent with nature - after all, it's act of human will (I'm not saying it's wrong, it just appears to be not different from other means of contraception).

Also, I think that the intention of the action is most important factor of moral evaluation of it. Nevertheless, both the outcome and intention of using contraception in both mentioned cases are the same - partners don't want to have baby, and so it happens, though no embryo dies.

Also, some people indicate that using, so to say, "artificial" contraception makes people more liberal in their love life. Actually, I'd dispute with that. After all, it's not impossible that individuals would be able to "control" themselves but just not bother with natural method of family planning.

To sum up, I wanted to indicate that for me there's no actual difference between natural and non-natural birth control (excluding all the means causing early miscarriage). Can anyone tell me real difference between those two that could cause varying moral evaluation of these?

Thank you in advance for all the answers.

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Are you asking for Catholic teaching to be explained, or for something else? – Andrew Leach May 24 '14 at 23:31
It is birth control, obviously. – bit_ly_1selcQ3 May 25 '14 at 2:02

3 Answers 3

I will try to answer the question entirely from a Catholic perspective, as that seems to be what the question demands.

The classic determination of a moral act has three parts (CCC 1749-1761):

  1. Is the act intrinsically immoral --- which is to say, wrong in every circumstance --- by its very nature?
  2. Is the intention good, or bad?
  3. Would the circumstances surrounding the moral act make it have an evil result?

A moral act (which is to say, an act in which a human has the freedom to act one way or another) must pass those 3 tests above to make it a moral action.

Now, let's compare non-abortifacient artificial contraception and Natural Family Planning in regards to the tests above. I add the proviso that the artificial contraception be non-abortifacient because otherwise we are talking about abortion (even if early abortion), and such act is fairly equated to murder of the innocent (CCC 2270-2275): an intrinsic evil of its own. It goes without saying that we are assuming any sexual intercourse takes place within marriage in both cases, or else we are talking about fornication, which immediately fails the third requirement (CCC 2353).

In what follows, see (CCC 2366-2370)

Non-abortifacient artificial contraception fails the first test. By its very nature artificial contraception (even when it doesn't kill the unborn) is a contradictory act. On the one hand, the sexual act is supposed to be (among other things) a total self-giving of spouses to each other, and on the other hand, the contraceptive symbolism (and intended effect) is to withhold from each other an integral part of themselves: their fecundity --- whether abundant or slim. In a sense it is very much like deception. One would have strong objections to a man pretending to be someone else in order to marry a woman (and vice-verse) --- it would go against the very nature of marriage that requires honesty and trust.

On the other hand, Natural Family Planning (refraining from having sexual intimacy at times) does not fail this test. There is no moral requirement that a couple have sex every waking moment of their lives. And in fact, there are circumstances when they must not have sexual intimacy (for instance, after surgery in their nether regions). And engaging in Natural Family Planning does not engage in the double-speak that contraceptive sex does: it is the difference between lying and remaining silent (See esp. CCC 2370). While we are called to always tell the truth, we are not always called to speak.

Of course, we are sometimes called to speak, and tell the truth. Analogously, God calls us to "be fruitful and multiply". Here is where we talk about intentions (the second requirement), which gets at the heart of the question. After all, aren't both methods (non-abortifacient artificial contraception and Natural Family Planning) intending to avoid children? And isn't that against God's will for humans stamped in their reproductive nature --- whichever method you use?

To be sure, there is much truth in these questions. If there was not the positive call from God to reproduce, one might be able to respond that both methods have the same ends, but one uses intrinsically flawed means of accomplishment, while the other uses entirely natural means. That difference is not trivial, of course, and would suffice as an answer if there was not the positive command from God to "be fruitful and multiply". However, we are called to reproduce. For now, let me say this: if someone's use of Natural Family Planning has as its goal the avoidance of children for the sake of not having any children, then that person is clearly doing violence to one of the purposes of matrimony (which is to obey the command to "multiply"), and as such has failed the second requirement of a moral act by having the wrong intention. Which is to say, Natural Family Planning is not "intrinsically moral" or "intrinsically good" (always right).

But how can it be right at all? Isn't the command to be "fruitful and multiply" definitive and absolute? Shouldn't the mandate be to find the best time for procreation every month and make sure to have sex during those times (whether or not on other times as well)?

Well, but we have been given other mandates from God on the subject of marriage. One of them is, for example, to care well for the children we do have. In other words, the command of God to "be fruitful and multiply" would not be fulfilled very well at all if we left our children to fend for themselves once we gave them birth. Part of the command is that we must do our best to make sure our children have a good chance of surviving in this world. And that may mean that we must have less children than we are physically able to have in order to be able to feed and care for the ones we do have.

Among other things, we are also called to respect our spouses bodies, for instance, and we must not engage in sexual intimacy when our wife is likely to be fecund if she is physically unable to handle the pregnancy.

In other words, we must be responsible with the gift of fecundity we are given (CCC 2367-2368), and take into account all other commandments from God. But we must have the right intentions. An avoidance of children must be motivated not by the wish not to have to sacrifice --- we are all called to sacrifice, just as Jesus sacrificed Himself --- our affluent lives, or by the wish to make all procreation impossible, or by selfish reasons, but must instead be "in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood" (CCC 2370). Our parenthood must be both responsible and generous, and never selfish. To take one instance, one must not forgo having a child because one really wants a boat.

Okay, but isn't it possible to have this lofty (and very worthy) aims in mind when one uses non-abortifacient artificial contraception to avoid children? Yes! In regards to intentions, the intention to avoid children is the same whether one uses non-abortifacient artificial contraception or Natural Family Planing, and in both cases the intentions can be worthy and moral, or immoral. However, assuming morally acceptable intentions, the question of means now shows up again. Whereas it is quite natural to use Natural Family Planning to space one's children, non-abortifacient artificial contraception is intrinsically evil because, by its very nature, it lies in a very fundamental way which is entirely contradictory to the essence of matrimony.

Finally, circumstances. Some actions which may be otherwise moral, may end up becoming immoral depending on the circumstances. A classic example of this might be the following: while it is morally good to attend Church on Sundays, it might not be moral to do so while in a foreign country that actively persecutes Christians if by doing so the attention of the authorities would be called to an underground group of Christians in hiding. In other words, consequences of an action are evaluated here. I have already included some language of circumstances above in my discussion of intentions. As far as Natural Family Planning goes, its morality might change or might be different if talking about a well-to-do family compared to a poor family, or if talking about a young and healthy couple compared to an elderly or not so healthy couple, or if talking about a large family compared to a small family. The devil here is in the details (and the moralist). In any case, the circumstances do not ever change the nature of an intrinsically evil act to a morally acceptable one (CCC 1754). They might lessen the moral culpability of an evil act, but the action remains as evil as ever. They might also increase the moral culpability of an evil act (lying about one's finances is less problematic when doing it to your friend than to the court, for instance). Similarly, circumstances can also increase or diminish the moral worthiness of a moral act (volunteering for the army would be more courageous in times of war than in times of peace, for instance). In any case, there are no circumstances in which non-abortifacient artificial contraception becomes a good act (that is the meaning of intrinsic evil, after all).

Well, that was too long. I wonder how many will read it all the way through?

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Or.. As the priest from Lake Woebegone would say, if you're not going to St. Paul, what'cha doing on the train. – Peter Turner Jun 5 '14 at 20:24

Natural Family Planning (NFP) does not interfere with the marital act. Interfering with it is what caused God to punish Onan in Genesis 38:9-10.

NFP, also known as periodic abstinence, is supported by St. Paul when he writes (1 Corinthians 7:3-5):

3 Let the husband render the [marriage] debt to his wife, and the wife also in like manner to the husband.

4 The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband. And in like manner the husband also hath not power of his own body, but the wife.

5 Defraud [deprive] not one another [of rendering the debt], except, perhaps, by consent, for a time, that you may give yourselves to prayer; and return together again, lest Satan tempt you for your incontinency.

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Contraception that takes place before conception, by itself, in any form, cannot reasonably be considered morally wrong. This is considering the view that birth begins at conception, that the organisms aren't misused, and that the mass death of eggs and sperm is automatic and natural. The following facts illustrate this.

  • Spermatoza die and are reabsorbed into the male body every 2 months if unused
  • During sexual intercourse, ejaculate may contain from 200-500 million sperm, of which only one reaches the egg and gets to continue its life
  • Unfertilized ova (eggs) have a lifespan of 12-24 hours after release, which happens automatically around the 15th day of a woman's cycle
  • A man's body will produce (waste/let die) over 12 trillion sperm during its lifetime, and a woman's around 750 ova

Please note that these statistics do not address the issues surrounding actual sexual practices in light of these facts (for example, ejaculation not being equivalent to genocide does not necessarily morally condone specific sexual behavior such as masturbation or premarital sex). Post-contraception birth control is also not addressed here, which is, morally, another issue entirely.

As for natural family planning or even abstinence, one could argue that these are just as sinful as other means of contraception, in that it is man choosing his will over God's in the area of when or if to produce a child.

In regards to why God slew Onan, sums it up well: "[Onan] contemptuously refused to fulfill his familial responsibility under the Old Covenant. This particular practice is called levirate marriage, in which a dead man's closest unmarried male relation (usually a younger brother, as in this case) married the widow to produce an heir for the dead man. This duty is spelled out in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 to preserve tribal inheritance rights (verse 6). Another, happier circumstance of levirate marriage is recorded in the book of Ruth, an event that eventually produced Israel's greatest king, David (Ruth 4:17). Of course, this ancient national statute is no longer applicable today. Catholic doctrine uses Onan's story to prohibit the use of birth control. However, this is specious reasoning, based on an ancient and flawed notion that sexual relations between a man and his wife are only for the purpose of producing children."

To support this rationale, an entire book of the Bible (Song of Solomon) is dedicated to explicitly condoning several sexual acts without intent to produce child, including cunnilingus, within the context of the consummation of marriage.

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It would be good to add references showing this is the Roman Catholic perspective. Also the Onan discussion doesn't seem related to this specific question. – curiousdannii May 25 '14 at 6:10
This is wrong a. Because you confuse scientific facts with acts of the will. B. Because you don't acknowledge the fact that God gave women a natural cycle. C. Because within marriage, you still shouldn't practice NFP as birth control unless you have a grave necessity. D. Because the Church does not use Onan or SOS to justify her understanding of the natural moral law wherein every conjugal act should be open to God's purpose for it, which is to create new life. – Peter Turner May 25 '14 at 12:15
Theft is not murder, but it is still a sin. – Big Ed Jun 11 '14 at 22:04

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