Contraception and Public Policy

One can readily see why there is an insistence against “artificial” methods of birth control, while something like Natural Family Planning is in accord with the natural law.  It is not because they are artificial, per se, but because they are unnatural.  In other words, they violate human nature.

In what many regard as the most prophetic work of the 20th Century, Brave New World, Aldous Huxley presents a culture in which fertility is seen as a nuisance, with women carry contraceptives with them everywhere they go on their “Maltusian Belts.”  Perhaps, the last major obstacle to making this prediction a reality is the Catholic Church.  That is why the recent HHS mandate that requires religious institutions to subsidize free contraceptives for their employees is seen by many as a shot over the bow of the Bark of Peter in the United States.  Not surprisingly, one Catholic GOP candidate for President was peppered with questions related to the mandate, and birth control in general.  He attempted to address the immorality as well as the societal consequences, but his support of public policy was inconsistent with his personal views.  This is especially true with his support of the Title X program that provides access to contraceptive services, supplies and information.  Clearly, he felt the pressure of speaking to a society that has become dependent upon the widespread availability of contraception.  It seems that the only recourse is to fall back on the safety net of:  “I am personally opposed, but I can’t impose my beliefs on others.”  But given our contraceptive culture, is there a realistic public policy that respects both the common good and the natural law?

To begin, one might simply say that the government ought to give the people what they want.  This is a foundational principle of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”  Those that do not want to use contraception have a right not to make use of the service, but that should not take away the rights of those who do.  Although this is the prevailing mentality, it rests upon two erroneous assumptions.

Running from the Natural Law?
The first is a misunderstanding of self-government.  This does not mean majority rules, and whatever a majority wants, they should get.  This eventually leads to the type of soft-despotism that Tocqueville thought a very real possibility in the democracy of the United States.  Instead, because the right to self-government proceeds from the natural law, the exercise of that right must be in accord with natural law.  If natural law is sufficiently valid to give this basic right to the people, then it must be valid to impose its precepts on this same right. 1  Whatever rights the people want to exercise must be in accord with natural law.  You cannot run away from this law, as any honest moral relativist quickly finds out.  To the matter at hand, the immorality of artificial contraception is not simply a religious or personal belief, but something that can be arrived at through the application of natural law.

Despite the fact that the founding fathers framed this country on a Judeo-Christian understanding of natural law, very few Americans today actually know what it is, and how to apply it.  Most assume it has something to do with what naturally occurs rather than something that is linked to man’s nature or essence.  Therefore, it is instructive to discuss precisely why contraception violates the natural law, if for no other reason than to put away the myth that it is merely a regurgitation of outdated religious dogma.

In examining human nature, one finds that man has a natural inclination to the good.  In particular, there are four intrinsic goods in which man is naturally inclined.  First, all men have an inclination to conserve their being.  From this inclination every man naturally does those things which preserve and enhance his life, avoiding those things which would be harmful to it.  Second, man possesses the natural inclination to marriage and procreation (including the raising and education of children).  Third, because man is a rational creature, he has a natural inclination to know the truth, especially about God, and how to live in society.  Whatever pertains to each of these inclinations belongs to the natural law. 2  In other words, whatever leads to true human thriving, ought to be promoted; whatever is contrary to one of these goods, is wrong and ought to be avoided.  It is also important to note that something is wrong, not simply because God said so, but because, ultimately, it is harmful to us.  That is why Aquinas insisted that we offend God only by acting contrary to our own good. 3

Notice also that in the list of intrinsic goods, marriage and procreation appear as a single good.  That is because they are intrinsically linked, so that anything that harms either of the two aspects, harms both.  Therefore, contraception is intrinsically wrong because it harms the good of marriage and procreation.

Many question how these two aspects constitute a single, inseparable good.  If we understand marriage in the traditional sense to mean the “one-flesh communion of persons in which the spouses unite on all levels of their personhood (body and soul)” and we examine the conjugal act on a biological level, we can illuminate the inseparability principle.  Professor Germain Grisez articulates this well when he carefully explains this based on the following principle:

Though a male and female are complete individuals with respect to other functions—for example, nutrition, sensation, and locomotion—with respect to reproduction, they are only potential parts of a mated pair, which is the complete organism capable of reproducing sexually. Even if the mated pair is sterile, intercourse, provided it is the reproductive behavior characteristic of the species, makes the copulating male and female one organism. 4

While it was claimed above that the laws of nature are not the same as the natural law, these laws can serve as a reliable guide in discovering the good.  Because nature is intelligible, to act in accord with nature is to act in accord with reason and, therefore, to act morally.   Conversely, we can say that which is not natural is not in accord with reason and, therefore, is immoral.  One can readily see, based on this principle, why there is an insistence against “artificial” methods of birth control, while something like Natural Family Planning is in accord with the natural law.  It is not because they are artificial, per se, but because they are unnatural.  In other words, they violate human nature.

“I Want My Rights”
A second confusion arises with respect to whether there is truly a “right” to contraception.  There is a necessary distinction to be made between what are commonly referred to as “strong” and “weak” rights.  A “strong” right is always connected to a true perfective good, which cannot be derived from a broader right.   On the other hand, “weak” rights flow from others’ duty of non-interference.  This distinction is important because many people confuse the fact that if there is a right of noninterference, then this gives them a right to a particular activity.  True rights never proceed from another’s duty not to interfere.  This, unfortunately, is a source of confusion even in our current judicial climate, especially in the relationship between Roe vs. Wade’s “right to privacy,” and Casey vs. Planned Parenthood’s declaration that a woman has a “right to abortion.”  In applying this to the question of artificial contraception, one can say that, although there may be a right to non-interference because artificial contraception violates the natural law, there is no right to it.

The Policy
Based upon this foundation, one might conclude that artificial contraception should be outlawed immediately.  One can hardly begin to imagine the political upheaval if such a policy was put in-place.  That is why St. Thomas Aquinas thought that not all vice ought to be outlawed.  Instead, he thought only “the more grievous vices from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others…” 5 should be outlawed.  In essence, the Angelic Doctor is saying that when a law prescribes acts that are far beyond the virtue of the average person in society, then there ought to be no laws against it.  One of the reasons for this is that the law may become a pathway to further vice.  For example, suppose you outlaw contraception but not everyone has the level of virtue to follow the law.  Now, you can create a situation where a black market arises, causing  more serious crime to occur.

This does not mean that contraception is a necessary evil, and that nothing can be done.  Classically understood, a good government is one that helps make the people morally good.  This is especially true of a democracy which depends on a “moral and religious people” to survive, as John Adams said.  While laws may not seek to outlaw all vices, they certainly should not promote them.  Therefore, governmental policies, such as Title X, that actually supply and pay for contraception, should not be in-place.  A policy such as this would also respect the fact that most people view contraception as “a private matter,” although they may not be happy once they got their wish. This step in the process may not be a hard sell, but there would be an aspect of the policy that would literally be a very difficult “pill” for many to swallow.

The Bitter Pill
Unfortunately, one of the best kept secrets with respect to most chemical contraceptives is that they act as abortifacients.  These would have to be made illegal immediately.  The killing of an innocent child in the womb involves the type of “grievous vice” that St. Thomas said must always be outlawed.  In fact, one could argue (although it might be difficult to prove) that more abortions occur through the use of these “medicines” and devices than the 1.2 million that are performed directly in the US each year.

Justice Harry Blackmum, in the Roe vs. Wade decision, said: “we need not resolve the difficult question as to when life begins.”  But, this is precisely the question that needs to be answered, as shown by the rather schizophrenic manner in which he later says: “(If the) suggestion of personhood {of the preborn} is established, the {abortion rights} case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life is then guaranteed specifically by the {14th} Amendment.”  A policy such as this would force an answer to this “difficult question” because of the prevalence of chemical contraceptives.

Furthermore, this would force out into the open the myth of government neutrality.  Even though one may say that the question of personhood is “above my pay grade,” and attempt to appear neutral, this so-called neutral position makes a claim that personhood begins at birth (as distinct from “partial-birth”).

This is one of those rare cases in our society in which we drown out the voice of science.  When Congress attempted to answer the question in 1981, they found that “physicians, biologists, and other scientists agree that conception marks the beginning of the life of a human being—a being that is alive, and is a member of the human species. There is overwhelming agreement on this point in countless medical, biological, and scientific writings.” 6  Unfortunately, that initiative failed 30 years ago.  It is time it be reopened in order to provide a definitive answer.

Effect on the Common Good
In Huxley’s book, “Brave New World,” the disillusioned Bernard is banned to the Falkland Islands.  While a candidate that ran on a platform that proposed removing the government from the business of providing contraception might get elected, I fear a similar fate to Bernard’s would await any candidate that proposed outlawing all chemical contraception with abortifacient properties.  Nevertheless, the morally responsible policy would be one similar to what has already been proposed.  Still, one aspect that should be examined is the harm that readily available contraception does to the common good, especially to women.

Contraception is often presented as an important issue related to “women’s health.”  But as economist, Timothy Reichert, 7 has shown, contraception is anything but a social good for women.  It shifts wealth and power away from women by creating a “prisoner’s dilemma” game, where each woman is induced to make decisions that make her, and other women, worse off in the long run. 8

One of the social consequences of a contraceptive culture is that, what was once a single mating market—men and women paired in marriage—has now become two markets.  There is the classic “marriage market,” that represents the market for marital relationships, and a “sex market,” which represents a market for sexual relationships.  Because of ready access to contraception, both men and women frequent the “sex market” earlier in life, and then inhabit the “marriage market” later in life.  With supposedly more reliable contraception, assurance is provided that participation in the sex market will not result in pregnancy.  This separation into markets is not necessarily adverse to either sex, assuming that the amount of sex being had is the same.  It only becomes adverse to one of the sexes when there are imbalances in the “price” that is paid.  The price the women pay is much higher than the men.

The two markets are not equally populated by men and women.  At a certain age, because of their biological clocks, most women will inhabit the marriage market rather than the sex market.  Men do not enter the marriage market at the same time, or even at the same rate.  The imbalance comes in that, in the sex market, women have more bargaining power than men, since they are the scarce commodity, and can command higher “prices.” The picture is flipped over when women make the switch to the marriage market, in that there is a relative scarcity of marriageable men. Over time, however, women cut deals and settle for less of a man.  Thus, men take more and more of the “gains from trade” that marriage creates, and women take fewer and fewer.

Contraception, then, ultimately leads to divorce for two reasons.  The first reason is because of the lower relative bargaining power that women wield relative to men, as more women will simply strike bad deals.  The second reason is that it creates a demand for divorce, even before marriage occurs.  Women now need a pre-marriage exit strategy, in case things turn out badly.  They do this primarily by going into the labor market at the price of developing stronger familial relationships.

You might say that professional development is worth the price of stronger familial relationships for women, because the women are more personally satisfied.  However, this ignores the fact that about half the children who are placed in daycares are girls and, therefore, future women.

Obviously, contraception also increases the incidence of infidelity.  It opens up more opportunities for infidelity to married men than it does married women.  It is easier for an older man to enter the “sex market” than an older woman.  It also increases a demand for abortion in that women rationally plan their human capital investments around childbearing in the later phases of their lives.

As economists and social scientists know, it is nearly impossible to break out of a prisoner’s dilemma unless there are changes in laws and social mores. Thus, even from a common good standpoint, it is necessary that the access to contraception be limited greatly.  This begins, first of all, by removing the government as a provider of contraceptives.  Catholics also have a key role to play, in not only continuing to preach the message of just how harmful contraception is to women and society as a whole, but also to preach the “new feminism” proposed by Blessed John Paul II in his “Letter to Women.

Works Cited
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles. n.d.

Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. 1920.

Goldin, Claudia, and Lawrence Katz. “The Power of the Pill: Oral Contraceptives and Women’s Career and Marriage Decisions.” Journal of Political Economy, 2000: 730-768.

Grisez, Germain. “The Christian Family as Fulfilment of Sacramental Marriage.” Studies in Christian Ethics, 1996: 23-33.

Maritain, Jacques. Man and the State. Washington DC: Catholic University Press, 1989.

Reichert, Timothy. “Bitter Pill.” First Things, May 2010:

  1. Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (Washington DC: Catholic University Press, 1989), 135.
  2. Summa Theologia (ST), I-II, q.94, a.2
  3. Summa contra Gentiles, 3.122 
  4. Germain Grisez. “The Christian Family as Fulfillment of Sacramental Marriage.” Studies in Christian Ethics, 1996: 27.
  5. ST, I-II, q.96, a.2
  6. Subcommittee on Separation of Powers to Senate Judiciary Committee S-158, Report, 97th Congress, 1st Session, 1981.
  7. Timothy Reichert, “Bitter Pill.” First Things, May 2010.
  8. Goldin and Katz, “The Power of the Pill: Oral Contraceptives and Women’s Career and Marriage Decisions.”…
Rob Agnelli About Rob Agnelli

Rob Agnelli holds an M.A. in moral theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife, Allison, and their three sons. Rob teaches bioethics throughout the Diocese of Raleigh, and is part of a national speakers' panel in which he addresses issues related to marriage, fatherhood, and moral theology. He has published numerous articles related to the Catholic faith in journals such as the National Catholic Bioethics Center's Ethics and Medics newsletter, Homiletic and Pastoral Review magazine, and Social Justice Review.


  1. Avatar Fr. W. M. Gardner says:

    This is worth reading over more carefully. Thank you.
    In the paragraph under Policy, in this sentence: “In essence, the Angelic Doctor is saying that when a law prescribes acts that are far beyond the virtue of the average person in society, then there ought to be no laws against it.” did you mean to write “proscribes”?
    However, I wonder if St. Thomas would hold today that artificial contraception should be illegal since it was considered to be a murderous-type of crime to tamper with the levers of life.
    Also, for many years artificial contraception was illegal in the U.S. under the Comstock laws (of Puritan origin) because of its close association with pornography. Perhaps the question should be how such laws would be enforced?

  2. Thank you mr Agnelli for a concise presentation of this subject. Yes the Natural law as Paul thr apostle states is written in our hearts. Yet many people and governments must learn it and act on it. Martin Dallas


  1. […] Contraception and Public Policy – Rob Agnelli, Homiletic & Pastoral Review […]

  2. […] per se, but because they are unnatural. In other words, they violate human nature. Read more here: Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. August 20, 2012 by […]