Monday, August 08, 2011

Pruss on natural family planning

In fact, the biological union does not even require the couple consciously to will the striving towards reproduction. The biophysiologically united man-woman organism instinctively and automatically on a biological level strives toward that end. What is required is only that the couple should not place an obstacle in its way, because the act of placing the obstacle is an act of disturbing the union. The act of contracepting is opposed to the end of the teleological process by which union is constituted. A distinction between permitting and causing is relevant here.
The couple that contracepts is the intentional cause of their infertility. The NFP-using couple, when infertile, is not the cause of the infertility: the natural cycles of the female body are the cause of the infertility, which cycles are independent of the couple’s decision to use NFP. The couple permits the infertility, and draw good from it, even though it would be wrong for them  directly to will this infertility. That the distinction between permitting and causing is a significant one can be seen in at least two other examples. One is the distinction between letting die and killing, often discussed in the context of euthanasia.

It’s odd that someone as astute as Pruss would leave it at that. It’s of course true that the distinction between causing and permitting can sometimes be morally relevant or exculpatory. But it’s easy to come up with counterexamples where that distinction is morally irrelevant or culpable.

In The Little Foxes, Regina doesn’t cause her husband to die from a heart attack. Rather, she permits him to die by withholding his heart medication.

In that situation, letting him to die is morally equivalent to murder, even though she didn't positively bring about his demise.

Natural family planning has a contraceptive intent, and–where successful–a contraceptive effect.

This illustrates the problem with Catholics who use natural law to ratify a conclusion they arrived at by other means.


  1. One of the main proponents of John Paul II's "Theology of the Body", Christopher West, uses this kind of reasoning as well.

    He says that some people ask "What's the difference between causing infertility, and just waiting for the woman to be infertile?" His response is "what's the difference between killing grandma, and just waiting for grandma to die?"

    This usually gets a laugh from the audience (his delivery IS pretty funny) but I always suspected there was a problem with the analogy.

  2. Most Catholics don't abide by the Church's stance on contraception anyhow. In any rate, there's no substantive difference in intent between contraception using a calendar or with a piece of rubber (or a pill). Doesn't the Church keep reminding us that contraception is "ineffective"? If it is, then there's not a greater likelihood of preventing pregnancy with a condom than with NFP.

  3. Well, yes. And the Spartans didn't practice infanticide, strictly speaking - they just left imperfect babies exposed on the hillside overnight.

    The irony is that in other spheres, "Catholic social teaching" is scathing of the "just leave people alone" thrust of Whig Protestant capitalism. Governments, say various Popes, have an affirmative duty to ensure that their subjects have healthcare, food, etc. You can't just ignore them while they starve, like Dives with Lazarus, or the "goats" on Judgment Day. Yet when it comes to methods of contraception, the Vatican has copied Judith Jarvis Thomson's "live and let die" defence of abortion and moved it a stage earlier in the life-cycle.

  4. I have responded, but in a way not conducive to combox posting - so it is on my blog.