Ethical reasoning about a legislation promoting contraception

by Fr. Julio Penacoba

Is it ethical for a government to promote contraception?  This question belongs to the ethical dimension of the debate on the RH Bill. I would like now to offer now some lines of ethical reasoning leading to an answer to the above opening question.

Let us begin with one basic principle in Ethics: “The end does not justify the means”. For example, we all can see that the good end of providing for one’s family does not justify stealing. That is why we all can easily agree on one starting point: The possible good objectives or ends of the RH would not justify using unethical means. And so, if contraception is unethical, the whole RH bill would be unethical as its main thrust is to promote contraception. We must then move to our next question.

Is contraception unethical? Since in the present debate we obtain different answers to this question, we must move now slowly but surely through our ethical reasoning.

Let us review first the fact that Ethics is not based on numbers --statistics or votes like in American Idol--, nor on religious beliefs --like the greatness of relating with Christ-- but on reason. Ethics is all about the truth of being human --the truth about what makes up the dignity of each and every human person. And we ask now: What are the elements in man that place him far above the rest of the beings in the universe?  Holistic ethics identify three of those amazing capacities in man --our intelligence to pursue the truth, our free will to pursue the good and our sexuality to pursue love and family. That is why to tell a lie, or to attack the freedom of others or to cheat on one’s spouse are all unethical behavior --regardless of the numbers or of the religion of the people. And that is so for every human person of whatever culture or religious belief. Ethics is all about understanding and respecting what makes us fully human.

Let us now focus on human sexuality. The starting point is the observation of a fact: we all consider human sexuality as loaded with a special dignity --as intrinsically connected with the dignity of the person. And we ask, why do we all consider rape to be a serious offense to the dignity of the persons?  The rapist is actually violating two ethical values: the freedom of the woman and the meaning of her sexuality. But we ask, which of them is more crucial for human dignity, her freedom or her sexuality? Consider by comparison that when a woman is victim of a hold-up, the robber --like the rapist-- is also violating her freedom, yet all peoples on the planet consider rape a much more serious crime than a holdup. We can find in all cultures and legislations countless examples of this universal recognition: there is something to human sexuality that makes it an intrinsically important part of the dignity of the person.

Our next step is to ask, What is it in human sexuality that gives it such “high dignity”?  The extreme case of rape can help us to identify the key meaning/value. We could say that from the point of view of biological sexuality, the rapist and the husband both do the same type of physical acts to the woman.  But why are they so different human acts from the point of view of sexual ethics?  Well, in one case the husband and wife are expressing marital love through their sexuality: a love with the high qualities of total self-giving (till death), unconditional  love (for better or for worse) and life-giving love (open to form family with you). Such quality love is recognized, sung and praised unceasingly in all cultures of all centuries as expressing not only a high human dignity but even something sacred or connected with the divinities. In the other case, the rapist is not loving the woman at all but rather using her --her sexuality-- for his own satisfaction. The feeling of rage we feel when sexuality has been abused by a rapist is symmetrical to the highest regard we give to marriage and conjugal act. In one case the person is used in her sexuality while in the other she is loved sexually with the highest human love.

We have arrived now at the most basic principle of sexual ethics: Sexual activity is ethical and meaningful --it is really human and great-- in as much as it expresses marital love.  Using this principle, any ethically-minded person can see that other sexual behaviors have something in common with rape. If we think enough, we can see that adultery, fornication, contraception, masturbation and pornography they all have something in common: they use sexuality to express less than total unconditional love. Obviously in different degrees, all those behaviors detract from the high dignity of the persons in their sexuality.  Let us take a closer look at the case of contraception.

In ethical discourse, contraception is technically defined as any action intended to deprive the sexual intercourse of its possible life-giving effect.   Now, let us go back to recognizing the key to the high dignity of the conjugal act between husband and wife. We could say, that with their bodies they are expressing a total self-giving love; in a sense, with their body language they are saying: Here I am, I am giving my all to you, all of myself --including my possible fertility-- to you. And so, the ethical evaluation is that the natural conjugal act is fully human --in keeping with high human dignity. On the other hand, if they practice contraception they are not expressing total love as if “saying by doing”:  I enjoy this but I do not want to give myself totally to you --I will withhold my/your possible fertility.  And so the ethical evaluation is that contraception detracts from the high dignity of human sexuality --that of expressing a total, unconditional and life-giving love.

We have arrived now at this conclusion:  Evidently in a degree much less serious than in adulterous sex, let alone in rape, still contraception is not ethically good nor neutral --it detracts from the high dignity of the person.

We come to the last part of our ethical discourse.  Would it be ethical to promote contraception in a pluralistic society? 

Here we start with the general frame of the relation between Ethics and Law. A basic fact is that Ethics is bigger than Law in the sense that the laws cannot cover the total spectrum of ethical behavior but only the ones that might affect the rights of others. Take for example the case of getting drunk which can be easily recognized as unethical behavior; yet, hardly a law can forbid you to get drunk privately but only in as much as it could affect others as in “driving while drunk.”  Likewise, practicing contraception, which detracts from one’s dignity, can hardly be prohibited by law since it does not affect other people.

On the other hand, let us consider this basic principle of Social Ethics --no law may run against ethical principles. In other words, one thing is that legislation cannot forbid all the unethical behaviors and another thing is that a law would foster them. Take again the case of getting drunk; One thing is to forbid that you get drunk in your room and another is to make available drinks for free --nationwide!-- for those who want to get drunk privately. Again, a law that would mandate education on how to get drunk as part of normal life would not be an ethical law itself. In a parallel way, one thing is to forbid contraception and another thing is to make a law that will provide it for free --nationwide!-- and to mandate education of the upcoming generation for them to consider contraception as normal and good for health and country.  Both behaviors cannot be forbidden by laws provided that no harm is done to third parties.  That type of law would be encouraging citizens to harm their personal dignity and to still call it neutral or even good. The final effect is already visible in the Western countries. Losing the sense dignity of the human sexuality can only weaken marriages and families.