Tuesday, November 4, 2008

An argument against contraception

Suppose a couple uses contraception but conception nonetheless occurs. Then it is true that the couple have put obstacles in the way of their own child's life, indeed that they have engaged in activity directly opposed to their child's life. To stand to one's child in the relation of having directly opposed Johnny's life fits poorly with having an unconditional love for Johnny, unless one has repented of having opposed Johnny's life. But if the act of contraception was morally unproblematic and rational, then one cannot repent of it, since a part of repenting of an act is recognizing that the act was not to be done.

Therefore, contracepting couples take the risk (for surely there is always a chance of pregnancy) of standing in an inappropriate relation to their child—in the relation of having striven against that child's life.

I don't know how much this argument establishes. In the case of 100% effective contraception (e.g., complete removal of the ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus), the argument is silent. In the case of typical contraception, whose effectiveness is less than 100%, the argument either establishes that the contraception is wrong, or that at least there is a very strong moral presumption against it.

Does the argument say anything about the couple who uses natural family planning (NFP)? Well, there are two ways conception can occur despite NFP. One way is because the couple engage in marital union despite the fact that the NFP method tells them that there is a significant chance of conception. If Johnny is conceived in this way, then the couple has not done anything that hindered or opposed Johnny's conception. (One might think that by abstaining on other days they hindered Johnny's conception. But Johnny could not have been conceived on those other days—they abstained from conceiving other children then.) In fact, in this case, it is right to say that the couple wasn't using NFP on the relevant day.

The other, and apparently rarer, case is where the couple mistakenly believe that they are infertile on a given day, but in fact they are fertile (either because they incorrectly used the NFP method or because the NFP method made a mis-prediction). In this case, I do not think we can say that the couple hindered Johnny's coming into existence. But we can say that they hoped Johnny would not come into existence, and that they would have refrained from bringing Johnny into existence if they knew there was a significant risk. The relation of having hoped one's child would not come into existence, and of its being the case that one would have refrained from bringing the child into existence, is not an ideal one. Thus there is a presumption against risking being in such a position, and hence there is a presumption against using NFP (which is closely related, I suppose, to the Catholic claim that a couple needs to have serious reasons to use NFP). But this is not a relation that is as morally problematic as the relation of having actively tried to hinder one's child's coming into existence. It is one thing not to have striven to further a child's life and another to have striven to hinder it.

But could one perhaps say that the NFP-using couple in the second case was trying to abstain from the act that would have produced Johnny, and trying to abstain from conceiving is an active opposition to life? But it seems to me that if it is an opposition to life at all, it is a much lesser one than active hindrance—just as it is one thing to try to abstain from giving an extraordinarily burdensome medical treatment (this may be hard—it may require a struggle for a conscientious health professional to refrain from offering the treatment) and another to kill. And perhaps the intention in abstaining is not to prevent Johnny from existing, but to prevent oneself from acting against the virtue of prudence (by having potentially fertile marital relations when one has grave reasons to the contrary).


jawats said...

It seems to me that one must introduce a complete discussion of the question - one must also deal with the questions of onanism and marital union.

Mike Almeida said...

One might think that by abstaining on other days they hindered Johnny's conception. But Johnny could not have been conceived on those other days—they abstained from conceiving other children then.

A few quick points. First, you seem to be talking about inhibiting the existence of possible beings. Do you want to say that there exist possible beings whose conception contraception inhibits? Second, if instead you want to say that it is the conceived being whose conception was inhibited, then couples do nothing wrong (in contraceiving) unless conception actually occurs. Last, it is not obvious that by abstaining on other days Johnny's conception (assuming we can coherently talk this way) is not inhibited. There are certainly several days during which Johnny might have been born.

Alexander R Pruss said...




Actually, I am only talking about inhibiting the existence of actual beings. That is why the argument only works in cases of contraceptive failure, because only then is there an actual being whose existence was inhibited.

Since I accept essentiality of origins in a strong sense (the whole causal history is essential), I don't think anybody could have been conceived in any different way from the way she was in fact conceived.

Suppose I grant you for the sake of argument that Johnny might have been conceived earlier. Then I will have to say that there is a difference between inhibiting someone's existence by inaction and inhibiting someone's existence by action. There is, at least, a stronger presumption against the latter.

Old Fritz said...

I think that if they believe in contraception then they should have an abortion if the contraception fails and they do not want the child. However, if they choose to have the child then they simply changed their minds and no one should cast judgement on the parent or the child for that.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But if contraception fails, then they already have a child, whether or not they choose to kill that child. In neither case do they escape the argument--if they don't kill the child, then they are in a position of having hindered the child's life unsuccessfully, and if they do kill the child, then they are in a position of having successfully hindered the child's life.

Ryan said...

I'm not sure I understand the distinction you're trying to make between (what appears to be) pharmaceutical contraception and natural family-planning. Why is the former "active" prevention but the latter is merely "hope[ful]" prevention?

It seems to me they are merely different means to the same end, which is the prevention of pregnancy. Can you elaborate more on why you're making this distinction?

Alexander R Pruss said...

In NFP, the "cause" of non-conception is abstinence, a non-action. In pharmaceutical cases, the cause is swallowing a pill, an action.

Mike Almeida said...

I am only talking about inhibiting the existence of actual beings. That is why the argument only works in cases of contraceptive failure, because only then is there an actual being whose existence was inhibited.

This does have a strange implication. You don't have an argument against successful contraception, only unsuccessful contraception. So successful contraception is not immoral (or not for these reasons) while unsuccessful contraception is.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, this is also an argument against successful contraception when there was a risk of being unsuccessful.

It's still a bit weird, but I think there are other arguments like this. For instance if I attempt to deceive a friend and I fail because the friend sees through the deception, I will lose the friend's trust. But a friend's trust is a precious thing. Thus, I should not to try to deceive a friend in cases where there is a risk of failure. This argument does not apply to cases where I know for certain the deception will be successful. Deception in those cases may still be wrong, but for different reasons.

Old Fritz said...

I fail to see how a couple could have unconditional love for a child before he/she is conceived. Is there a Johnny before conception? If you believe that then your argument is valid and the couple must come to terms with those facts. However, if life does not begin before conception then "Johnny" was not opposed because he did not exist.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If we pollute the environment, we are opposing the health of future generations as yet unconceived.

Ryan said...

In NFP, the "cause" of non-conception is abstinence, a non-action. In pharmaceutical cases, the cause is swallowing a pill, an action.

The “abstinence” distinction doesn't seem to work in the more interesting example of the couple practicing NFP who conduct NFP incorrectly (etc.)and become pregnant. In that instance, the couple engaged only after they assured themselves of the low probability of becoming pregnant (because they erroneously believed their planning was effective). In short, in the more difficult example, the couple is not abstaining at all. So doesn’t the misfeasance/nonfeasance distinction break-down in this example?

Alexander R Pruss said...

But it wasn't by having sex that they opposed Johnny's coming into existence. That only promoted his coming into existence. They opposed Johnny's coming into existence only in their abstinence. This post may help a little.

Paul said...

Dr. Pruss,

One can have unconditional love for something they did not want. Why not? Have you ever wished for something not to happen only to have it happen, but then you have to deal with it? Didn't Jesus pray in the garden for hours on end asking God to let his burden pass over him? Where was his faith? Does that mean he wasn't committed to dying on the cross? I kind of always held that against Jesus. However, I still believe that you can have a child, one you didn't want before you had them, but still love them unconditionally. I have four and it is truly a humbling experience. Repenting is something you have to do on a regular basis, but the unconditional love is constant.


Alexander R Pruss said...


These are good points. I would, however, qualify them by making a distinction between wanting something not to happen, and actively fighting to hinder it.

I am not claiming that one needs to have unconditional love for non-existent children. Rather, the claim was that once one has the child, if one had previously fought against the child's existence, one needs to repent of the earlier actions. There is nothing wrong with repentance, and indeed it is a common part of our lives. But repentance (in the full and rich sense of metanoia--not just in the sense of the English phrase "change of mind") is only appropriate when one had done something wrong. This means that the earlier actions--the contraceptive ones--must have been wrong.

Reuben said...

While somewhat off topic, I think this is a good post to field my question and so to get your perspective.

There is necessarily a ceiling that limits the number of organisms that the earth can support in a minimally decent way. While different experts produce different carrying capacity figures, many think that we are near that limit, or even already past it unawares since the environmental consequences are not so immediately clear and have yet to catch up with us.

At any rate, the human population must not continue to grow exponentially. Is respect for carrying capacity a good reason to engage in NFP (or even contraception)? Consider our moral obligation in terms of responsible stewardship of the planet and of avoiding the Malthusian consequences of overpopulation. Cannot these considerations outweigh the alleged good of human procreation, or is unbridled NFP and contraception so great an evil?

Mike Almeida said...

But a friend's trust is a precious thing. Thus, I should not to try to deceive a friend in cases where there is a risk of failure

But it's tricky, Alex. Suppose there is some chance that the contraception is unsuccessful and therefore some chance that I inhibit the existence of some being. Why would that make it wrong? If I do not in fact inhibit the existence any being, then, at most, I possibly inhibited the existence of some non-actual being. But you don't want to talk about inhibiting the existence of possible beings. So this is not a line you can take, it seems.

Dale said...

Odd. How far to push this? Let's set aside contraception and consider a parent-child interaction in which mother and father strictly forbid daughter from engaging in premarital sex. They hector the girl daily on the point that it is wrong, wrong, wrong, making the strongest case they can in favor of abstinence. They call in as many allies as they can -- friends, neighbors, teachers, clergy, and so on. They share books and videos. They press the case relentlessly (but let's also stipulate lovingly, with the best possible goodwill intentions). They deploy both threats and offers of reward, etc.

Despite it all, stuff happens, and daughter turns up pregnant.

Are the parents now compromised vis-a-vis their love of the grandchild whose existence they worked so tirelessly to prevent?

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's a good question.

In response to the precise case you give, it is one thing to oppose pre-marital sex and another to oppose the existence of the child. What the parents should be opposing is, primarily, the moral wrong of pre-marital sex. They might use the danger of pregnancy as an argument there (for instance, in this form).

A better case is where you have a adult married woman who is thinking of having a child, and her parents who thins it would be inadvisable (for economic or health reasons, say) strive to dissuade her.

In response to this modification of the case:

1. I think the presumption against damaging the grandparent-grandchild relationship is significantly weaker than in the parent-child case. Thus the conclusion of the argument in the grandparent case is going to be weaker than in the parent case.

2. My argument does, however, provide the grandparents with a reason not to be too forceful. It is one thing to try to convince one's adult married daughter to look at all the aspects of the situation and make a rational decision, and another to try to pressure her into a particular decision in what is clearly a marital matter.

3. I knew a man once who told me that his grandmother advised his mother to have an abortion. The advice that one's parent was given by the grandparent may well come out, as in this case, and surely this does not help the relationship with the grandparent.

Anonymous said...

What makes hoping against pregnancy in a marriage "non-ideal"? It's just a subjective emotion, and I'm not sure how we identify the set of ideal emotions. If it's not an emotion, but a practical plan for other goods, I also don't know how we call that non-ideal, for who follows an ideal plan? My opinion is that hoping against conception and planning for other goods are not per se defective, but only as defective as their motivating ends (i.e. disliking hospital food is an extremely cowardly and unjustified reason to use NFP, but not a contraceptive reason).

On a related note, do you think my linked argument has any cogency? Thanks for considering.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I may have been thinking this: To hope against the great good of life seems to require circumstances where the great good is linked to some serious loss. But those circumstances are non-ideal.
This doesn't make the hope at all faulty. It may be the right response to the non-ideal circumstances.