contraception

On Rabbits and the Pill

trefalga / Shutterstock
trefalga / Shutterstock 

EARLIER THIS YEAR Pope Francis titillated the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics when he said we should not feel compelled to breed “like rabbits.” The Twitterverse resounded with commands to “hop to it.” The Italian press dubbed Francis’ speech the “Sermon of the Rabbit.”

In it, Pope Francis said, “Some think that—excuse the language—that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood.”

Was the pope changing Catholic teaching on birth control? On the contrary, Francis went on to underscore that “responsible parenthood” requires that couples regulate the births of their children, as Vatican teaching allows, using natural family planning methods.

What we think of as “the Catholic position” on contraception—“‘Every action which ... proposes to render procreation impossible’ is intrinsically evil”—was actually codified as official teaching in 1930 under Pope Pius XI and was part of a larger conversation in Christendom. At the 1930 Lambeth Conference, for example, the Anglican bishops approved a resolution stating: “In those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, other methods [of contraception] may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles.”

In 1951, Pope Pius XII overtly accepted natural family planning as a moral form of regulating births, in limited circumstances, within Christian marriage. He also emphasized the importance of a mature and informed conscience in moral reasoning. “It is correctly argued,” he wrote, “that the true meaning of adult independence is not to be led like a little child.”

As part of the process around the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI oversaw a commission to examine the use of oral contraceptives in light of church teaching. The commission’s report—titled “Responsible Parenthood”—argued for the use of artificial contraception within Christian marriage. In the end, Pope Paul VI rejected the commission’s recommendation, and his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirmed the church’s teaching against artificial contraception.

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The Planned Parenthood Scandal: Beyond the Morality Police

morality judgment illustration
Morality judgment illustration, VIGE.CO / Shutterstock.com

Our cultural pattern of becoming scandalized by the other side isn’t helping. Whichever side we are on, becoming the morality police is only making the scandal worse as we scapegoat and talk past each other. This pattern gets us stuck in a scandal of unhealthy righteous indignation over and against our opponents.

The alternative to getting stuck in a scandal isn’t to avoid scandals, but rather to go through them. As we go through them, we might just discover ourselves becoming un-scandalized as we see that the other is actually motivated by a good goal. In acknowledging the other’s good goal, we begin to see them as human and not the evil demons our minds have made them out to be.

Abortion Rates Declining Nationwide

Image via Steve Allen/shutterstock.com
Image via Steve Allen/shutterstock.com

The number of abortions nationwide has declined by about 12 percent in the last 5 years, according to the Associated Press. States with the strongest restrictions to abortion access and states with the least show a similar decline in rates. 

"Explanations vary," the Associated Press reports, with one factor being a decline in the teen pregnancy rate. Depending on which side of the abortion debate you lie, you can find advocates who attribute the overall decline in abortions to either better sex education and access to contracepton — or advanced technology and a new generation of women for whom there is "an increased awareness of the humanity of the baby before it is born."

From the AP: 

"Abortion-rights advocates attribute it to expanded access to effective contraceptives and a drop in unintended pregnancies. Some foes of abortion say there has been a shift in societal attitudes, with more women choosing to carry their pregnancies to term.

Several of the states that have been most aggressive in passing anti-abortion laws — including Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Oklahoma — have seen their abortion numbers drop by more than 15 percent since 2010. But more liberal states such as New York, Washington and Oregon also had declines of that magnitude, even as they maintained unrestricted access to abortion."

Public Religion Research Institute, a public opinion research group in Washington, D.C., has created an interactive atlas of American values and hot-button social issues. See where your state lands on attitudes over the availability and legality of abortion here.

A Mama Knows Best, So Let’s Let Her Decide

Photo via Lucian Coman / Shutterstock.com / RNS
A mother holds her daughter in Mmankgodi village, Botswana. Photo via Lucian Coman / Shutterstock.com / RNS

There are more than 220 million women in developing countries who don’t want to get pregnant, but who lack access to family planning information and contraceptives. Every year, nearly 300,000 of them will die during pregnancy or from complications giving birth. Far too many mothers will bury their babies before they even get to know the sound of their laughter. More than 2.6 million babies will be stillborn, and another 2.9 million will die before they are a month old.

Giving women the opportunity to time their pregnancies and space out their children through effective, low-cost contraception is key to turning around these heartbreaking numbers.

Pope Francis: Opting Not to Have Children a ‘Selfish Choice’

Photo via Cathleen Falsani / RNS
Pope Francis officiated at the weddings of couples at St. Peter’s Basilica in September 2014. Photo via Cathleen Falsani / RNS

Less than a month after saying Catholics don’t have to multiply “like rabbits,” Pope Francis on Feb. 11 once again praised big families, telling a gathering in St. Peter’s Square that having more children is not “an irresponsible choice.”

He also said that opting not to have children at all is “a selfish choice.”

A society that “views children above all as a worry, a burden, a risk, is a depressed society,” Francis said.

Citing European countries where the fertility rate is especially low, the pope said “they are depressed societies because they don’t want children. They don’t have children. The birth rate doesn’t even reach 1 percent.”

He once again praised the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, that reiterated the ban against artificial contraception while enjoining Catholics to practice “responsible parenthood” by spacing out births as necessary.

Francis added, however, that having more children “cannot automatically become an irresponsible choice.”

“Not to have children is a selfish choice,” he said. “Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished!”

Breeding 'Like Rabbits,' Sex by Rhythm Method, and Other Natural Family Planning Myths

Pope Francis in October. giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com
Pope Francis in October. giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

In discussing birth control and population issues when visiting the Philippines recently, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church promoted “responsible parenthood” that didn’t require good Catholics to be “like rabbits.” The frank imagery prompted a flurry of playfully creative headlines that ranged from mocking to woeful. And the byproduct of such reaction stories? The continued misinformation on what Catholics currently practice and what the Catholic Church actually teaches when it comes to family planning.

The pope’s remarks referenced Catholic teaching that prohibits artificial birth control. Family size, according to the Church, should be regulated by abstinence or a form of Natural Family Planning, sometimes characterized simply as trying really hard not to have sex when you’re “not supposed to,” which often fails and results in a ton of kids. Proponents of NFP say the method(s), and its practitioners, are too often misunderstood.

NFP for pregnancy prevention involves charting a woman’s cycles by testing for various biological markers — like basal temperature or cervical mucous — in order to assess fertile days and abstain from sex during that time. According to the World Health Organization, fertility awareness methods like NFP are 95-97 percent effective when used correctly and consistently (75 percent with typical use), and individual NFP models claim higher effectiveness.

Practicing NFP can certainly be complicated, especially when taking into account marriage and family dynamics that aren’t always conducive to the attention it requires.

But while it may be more difficult than, say, popping a daily pill or using an IUD, modern technology — like tracking apps and temperature-monitoting gadgets — is simplifying the process and coinciding with a resurgence in popularity. NFP practitioners say they appreciate the choice it offers — whether the motivation is following Church teaching or simply avoiding synthetic hormones.

Is California Forcing Churches to Pay for Abortions?

Loyola Marymount University’s Sunken Garden and Sacred Heart Chapel. Photo via Mishigaki via Wikimedia Commons/RNS.

Religious groups are battling the state of California over whether employee health insurance plans require them to pay for abortions and some forms of contraception that some find immoral.

So is the state forcing churches to pay for abortions? It depends on who you ask.

The issue gained traction after Michelle Rouillard, director of the California Department of Managed Health Care, sent a letter to Anthem Blue Cross and several other insurance firms in August warning providers that state law requires insurers to not deny woman abortions. “Thus, all health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally,” she wrote.

Rouillard wrote that state law provides an exemption for religious institutions.

“Although health plans are required to cover legal abortions, no individual health care provider, religiously sponsored health carrier, or health care facility may be required by law or contract in any circumstance to participate in the provision of or payment for a specific service if they object to doing so for reason of conscience or religion,” she wrote.

“No person may be discriminated against in employment or professional privileges because of such objection.”

However, two legal groups have filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, alleging the California rule puts faith-based organizations in a position to violate their conscience.

Conscience vs. Authority at Pope Francis’ Synod on the Family

The Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service/RNS.

A midpoint report from this month’s Synod of Bishops reveals that Catholic leaders are considering more conciliatory language toward gays and lesbians, divorced and remarried Catholics, and couples who live together before getting married.

Meeting with nearly 200 senior prelates and several dozen lay experts and observers at the Vatican, Pope Francis has deliberately engineered a lively discussion of issues concerning marriage and family life. This assembly, and a follow-up summit in 2015, will help shape the pontiff’s legacy.

Reporters and commentators are producing a flurry of analysis mostly centered on the question of whether the synod portends a change in substance or merely a change in tone. Such is the abiding question of Francis’ papacy.

Yet through these lively debates in Catholic life runs a theme that is as old as the Reformation: the role of individual conscience.

Hobby Lobby, Rivalry, and Choosing Grace

A Hobby Lobby store in Jacksonville, FL, at night. Image courtesy Rob Wilson/shu
A Hobby Lobby store in Jacksonville, FL, at night. Image courtesy Rob Wilson/shutterstock.com

It is an identical claim to moral superiority which matters and which is in fact the cause of the apparent conflict. The underlying issues, whatever you think they may be, whether religious freedom, women’s reproductive rights, creeping restrictions on abortion or loosening of civil rights protections—all these issues are things we can talk about and solve together through discussion and compromise. ...Unless we begin from a position that says, "We refuse to talk with you or compromise." 

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