Editor’s Note: The editors present this series (read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5,) on the recent furor over Plan B as an opportunity for our fellow pro-lifers to slow down, step out of activist mode, and enter into the conversation in a prayerful and thoughtful way.
The Church encourages conversation among faithful scientists and theologians as new science comes to light and as we deepen ethical reflection. Typically such conversations occur in academic settings, but since the recent furor pushed the issue into the open, causing much confusion and scandal, we felt it important to present the latest science and moral reflection in a context of faithful discussion.
We offer this series in a spirit of obedience to the Magisterium, and as an opportunity for faithful Catholics and people of good will to come to a greater understanding of the nuances of the Church’s teaching and the complexities of the science and art of medicine in the difficult situations involving the treatment of women who have been raped. There has been no (and will be no) revision in the Church’s teaching concerning direct abortion or contraceptive sexual acts between spouses. Both are morally illicit without exception.
As with all Truth and Charity Forum articles, opinions belong to the author alone and do not necessarily represent the official position of Human Life International.
In January, Cardinal Joachim Meissner of Germany issued a statement in support of administering a certain type of contraceptive to victims of rape. In February, his brother bishops declared that treatment of victims of rape “can include administration of a ‘morning-after pill.’”
After the Bishops’ statements, a great furor erupted. Secular papers praised the German bishops for being brave enough to thwart the Church’s teaching, or asked if the Church was changing her teaching. Pro-lifers claimed the bishops “caved under intense media pressure” and bloggers criticized the German bishops as having “an ill-conceived notion of ‘kindness.’” Confusion has reigned.
Now that the furor (caused by both misplaced elation and condemnation) has died down, the Truth and Charity Forum has hosted a discussion on this important matter. In the spirit of Christian Charity united as it always must be, with Truth, we have grappled with the issues at hand in hopes of becoming better informed. This is the last article of the series.
Two Essential Principles
Rape is a vicious attack on the dignity and rights of the innocent victim. In treating victims of rape, two principles are vital: 1) The victim has a right to, in the words of the German bishops, “human, medical, psychological and pastoral help as a matter of course” and 2) Assistance to victims may not include abortion, which creates another innocent victim.
The Bishops’ Proper Role
The Church and the bishops have received the charism and duty of teaching in matters of faith and morals. Bishops are not scientists and when they speak on scientific issues, they rely upon research and knowledge of scientists. The Church has no scientific authority. On bioethical questions the bishops inevitably base their moral conclusions – derived from unchanging moral principles – on the science they have before them. The science can be in error, which may lead to incorrect conclusions, but the substance of Church teaching remains intact.
Stopping Fertilization Following Rape is Not Immoral
The Church teaches that rendering the marital act infertile is a grave sin. In shorthand, we tend to say that contraception is an intrinsic evil. This teaching, however, specifically addresses intercourse within marriage and not non-marital sexual acts. Rape is an act of violence, not a marital act – that is, it is not a gift of self between two freely acting spouses.
Recourse to a contraceptive can be, in principle, morally licit in cases of rape because sperm are an extension of the attacker and thus a contraceptive thwarts the completion of the grievous act. As the bishops of the United States have written: “A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault” (ERD n. 36). Cardinal Meissner echoed this long-standing teaching when he wrote “[if] a medication that hinders conception is used after a rape with the purpose of avoiding fertilization, then this is acceptable in my view.”
Abortion as Treatment?
Direct abortion is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being, willed either as an end or a means, before birth. It can involve both the murder of a child already implanted or it can involve willfully preventing the fetal human being from implanting. Such direct abortions are mortally sinful and lead to an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication.
The U.S. bishops state that following rape “[i]t is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.” Again, the German bishops echo this teaching, “Medical and pharmaceutical methods which result in the death of an embryo still may not be used.”
Deceptive Definitions of Life, Conception and Pregnancy
Life begins at the moment of fertilization (conception) when sperm and egg are united. Some researchers and activists who promote contraception and abortion have redefined pregnancy (and even conception) as beginning once the child has fully implanted in the uterus, ignoring that the woman is with child as soon as fertilization occurs. It can take approximately two weeks after conception for implantation to occur at which point there is an “established” or “clinical” pregnancy.”
Any act that willfully prevents the nascent human being from implanting is a direct abortion. We must be wary of deceptive definitions of “conception” and “pregnancy.” The question is, does a particular intervention prevent a developing human being from living? Is it embryocidal?
Avoid Ad-Hominem Responses
In response to this series, some have claimed that because some scientific studies are performed by people who are pro-contraception or pro-abortion, their data is necessarily tainted. This is a fallacious response that we have to avoid. While we should certainly consider the source and read with a wary eye, we need to evaluate the scientific evidence on its own merits. If it is faulty research it should be critiqued on that basis. If the conclusions do not follow from the results of the study, this should be critiqued as well. But a researcher’s scientific analysis cannot be rejected simply because he is pro-contraception or pro-abortion. This is an ad hominem attack akin to one that pro-lifers often hear when bringing up embryological science, and should be avoided.
Mechanism of Action of Plan B and Ella
Plan B (levonorgestrel) has not been shown to disrupt established pregnancies (post-implantation) and it may work by preventing ovulation. The FDA notes, however, that it may affect the endometrial lining of the uterus and thus discourage the child from implanting.
Here it is important to take notice of an important fact. 1) “May” affect the endometrial lining does not mean that this is always possible or likely. Nor does it necessarily mean it is ever possible. It could mean that it definitely causes abortions at certain times or it could simply indicate that not every possible abortion inducing mechanism of action has been ruled out by research. Such language is ambiguous and does not prove that Plan B causes early abortions.
Next page: Conclusions About the Science–>