We Need a Thoughtful Discussion About Birth Control (A No Easy Answers Post)

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No Easy AnswersThere is a reason I generally don’t post about headlines: it takes me time to process things and make sure my first reactions all hold water. I hate the tendency to react without thinking, the way it leads us to view everything in black and white and fail to acknowledge the nuances in every situation, and the fact that if you stop and reflect for a while before posting, the topic has passed and no one cares anymore. But usually I choose to sacrifice timeliness in the service of thoughtfulness.

All this as a preface to the fact that my sister, the lawyer, pointed out that my post on Zika and contraception included a rather major flaw that, in my attempt to react in a timely fashion, I somehow overlooked. Namely, the whole flap about Zika really is about preventing pregnancy, not just about preventing disease spread, so the whole argument about barriers vs. hormonal birth control doesn’t hold up.

I feel particularly embarrassed because the topic of sexuality and its relation to family planning is so important to me, and I get so frustrated when people of faith end up turning off those they’re trying to convince by reacting without thinking things all the way through. It’s called shooting ourselves in the foot.

I think I shot myself in the foot, and I spent half the weekend cringing about it.

However, I do not delete the post, because I still believe most of what I had to say is important to have out there. Every single article that touches on the Church’s teaching on contraception emphasizes that “Catholics aren’t paying attention to this teaching, anyway,” as if that proves anything other than that people do what they want to do and always have—screwing around on their wives, cheating their customers, spreading rumors, and a host of other things the Church has always taught are wrong. Yet there’s not one of those other cases in which anyone would even consider suggesting that noncompliance = an institution “out of touch” and a teaching in need of change.

Birth control is one of those topics that people on both sides—myself included, apparently—just don’t seem to be capable of thinking rationally on. We can all project some semblance of reason, but there are conversations we ought to be having but which are considered to be non-starters.

For instance: if Church teaching on contraception is so universally ignored, why do its opponents get so bent out of shape about it? Why do they feel this compulsion to bring it up at every possible opportunity? What possible threat could it pose to them?

And another one: Is birth control actually good medicine? Isn’t it possible that it’s actually bad medicine, disrespectful to the dignity of woman, to go in and shut down a part of her body that is working just fine?

And related, but distinct, because sometimes the body isn’t working just fine: Is it truly good medical practice to use pharmaceuticals to mask symptoms of problems like PMS, endometriosis, PCO, thyroid deficiency, etc.? Shouldn’t we default to “Let’s figure out what’s wrong and fix it,” and only go to “mask the symptoms” when all other efforts have failed?

These are questions that truly puzzle me, and on which I truly would like to see thoughtful, non-polemic discussion take place. Perhaps there are things I don’t see that would make a difference to my view on them.

Can we have that discussion? Are there any people out there willing to read through a post on birth control and get to the end of it willing to engage?

For other posts in the No Easy Answers series, click here.

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Mountains, Molehills, Contraception, and The Zika Virus

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Image by KOREA.NET – Official page of the Republic of Korea, via Flickr

When I heard the radio headline yesterday afternoon, I groaned. Because I knew I was going to have to blog about the pope’s comments, and as a proponent of natural family planning, it would be hard to convince anyone that I’m approaching the topic objectively.

But there under the awning of the Gerbes fuel station, I took a deep breath, and I said to myself, “Okay. If Pope Francis does move us away from the teachings on contraception, I will be open to the Spirit, and I will be a better person for it.”

Of course, the headline was sensationalized; when I listened to the report, it became clear that a Mount Everest is being made out of, well, a hillock at most. So here are my thoughts, as someone who’s been studying and reflecting upon this extremely complex and far-reaching topic for sixteen years.

1. There’s always been a medical exception to the birth control teaching. So why don’t we hear about it? Well, this is just my opinion, but I think it’s because it can’t be sufficiently addressed in 140 characters, and since that’s about all most of us are willing to listen to these days, it’s better to stick to the “in general” rule of thumb and deal with the exceptions case by case. There are other reasons, of course. The medical exception is really easy to abuse, for one thing. For another, hormonal birth control is used far too often as a bandaid to cover up problems that need to be addressed at the level of cause, not symptom (i.e. irregularity, PMS, abdominal pain, etc). I wrote a lot about that for this post and then realized it was irrelevant, so I may post those thoughts on Monday.

2. If you think logically, you have to realize that the only form of contraception the pope is even addressing in the case of Zika is barrier methods*; hormones are going to do absolutely nothing to prevent disease transmission. And if you think logically, it should also be clear that barriers aren’t a slam dunk fix. They’ll surely make a difference, but there are plenty of people still getting STDs in America, and we have plenty of condoms.

3. A caution about oversimplification. The story I read on CNN yesterday ended with a quote from a Catholic theologian that I am guessing was taken out of context, because as it stands it makes no sense at all (here’s the original article; oddly enough, the link I copied yesterday goes to a very different article this morning, in which Bretzke isn’t quoted at all. Hmm.):

“In Catholic Church teaching, some would say it would be acceptable to try to prevent conception in cases like this,” Bretzke said.

Why does this make no sense? Because the Catholic Church has never said you can’t try to avoid pregnancy. Never. Ever. The assumption in the secular culture, even when lip service is paid to natural family planning (as it is in the CNN article), is that there are only two paths: contraception or perpetual pregnancy. The Church never said you can’t plan your family. It just says it matters to our human dignity how you do it.

4. Finally: NFP proponents also need to take a deep breath and recognize that NFP can’t prevent Zika, either. Just as it couldn’t help the nuns in the case Pope Francis invoked–the exception given to nuns who were being repeatedly raped. So it makes perfect sense to see the Pope offering this very specific exception to the Church’s teaching on birth control. He would be less Christlike if he did not.

*This argument, it was pointed out to me, is just plain wrong; I addressed that in another post here.

Sex Always Has Consequences

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Photo by Selbe <3, via Flickr

When I heard the story on the news this morning, I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or do a face palm. There’s a new study out saying that women taking the newer-generation mini birth control pills have 3x higher risk of blood clots compared to women who don’t take oral contraceptives. But, they hasten to add, that doesn’t mean you should stop taking them.

I’ve come to a realization lately that I think all women, and frankly all men too, need to come to terms with. For me, it was a long time in coming, considering how obvious it is.

There is no such thing as sex without consequences.

Proponents of natural family planning and proponents of artificial means of birth control both seem unable to grasp this simple truth. The NFP community likes to harp on the side effects of birth control and its potential to damage human relationships. Those who use birth control deride NFP as ineffective and contrary to human nature because it requires people to fight their instincts to come together at women’s most fertile time.

We would all like to think there’s some magic bullet that takes away the sacrifice and, dare I say it, suffering that is part and parcel of reproductive life. We want to be able to enjoy the coming together without the side effects/consequences. There are basically three courses you can take: you can impose artificial controls on nature (contraception); you can work with nature (NFP); or you can do whatever you want and let the chips fall where they may.

Photo by einalem, via Flickr

But every one of those paths has consequences.

If you use natural family planning, you have to deal with occasional (and for some people, frequent) ambiguity in the signs and the need to abstain when the woman is most interested in sex. There’s no question that requires sacrifice and, sometimes, suffering.

If you use chemical contraception, though–assuming it does what it’s supposed to do, and fools your body into thinking it’s pregnant already–you’re giving up that increased sex drive altogether. Which is why I find it puzzling when proponents of birth control criticize NFP for the abstaining when the sex drive is highest. I mean, it’s not like contraception solves that issue. And besides, there’s that whole thing about side effects, and environmental impact, and blood clots. Again: sacrifice, and sometimes, suffering.

Your third option is to let the chips fall where they may. You get the best of both worlds: sex whenever you feel like it, without side effects, without increased risk of blood clots. But there’s a natural consequence to that, too, and it involves bigger cars and bigger houses and a humongous grocery bill, to say nothing of college costs. And a lot of time pregnant and breastfeeding and exhausted. So again: sacrifice, and sometimes, suffering.

The reality is that sex does have consequences, no matter what you do. You can gnash your teeth all you like, but that’s the reality. Our job is to make the most responsible choice we can, based on as much information as we can. And the longer I’m involved with natural family planning, the more thoroughly convinced I become that NFP, while not without consequences, is the best option. It’s not the easiest, but it is the best–for women, for couples, for the world.