July 2013 Print

Question and Answer

Fr. Peter Scott, SSPX

Is the “morning-after pill” ever licit?

It is certainly very strange that a Catholic would feel the need to ask this question, which has already been many times resolved. However, to the shock, astonishment and scandal of faithful Catholics worldwide, the German Bishops’ Conference confirmed in February the approval of Cardinal Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne, for the use of the “morning-after pill” in Catholic hospitals in cases of rape. And to add further to the scandal, the official representative from Rome, Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, speaking in an interview with Vatican Insider on February 22, gave his full support to the decision of the German Bishops’ Conference in these words: “It is an exemplary law which reiterates what the Catholic Church has been proposing for the past 50 years—but a law that has been misinterpreted.…What Church teaching says in this case is: in cases of rape all possible action must be taken to prevent a pregnancy but not to interrupt it. Whether a given medicine is classed as a contraceptive or abortion-inducing medication is up to doctors and scientists, not the Church.”

This issue raises two questions, whose resolution is, however, not as obvious as may seem. The first question is whether the morning-after pill is actually an abortifacient agent or whether it is simply contraceptive in its action, as some scientists maintain. This is also the position of those who maintain that the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate does not force people to pay for abortion-inducing drugs. If it is abortifacient, then it is manifestly immoral. The second question is whether, given that it is not abortifacient but only a contraceptive agent, it could be considered as moral in extreme cases such as rape. Many moral theologians maintain that this is the case, and this is certainly the position of the German bishops and of the 2013 Pontifical Academy for Life.

Is it abortifacient?

The “morning-after pill” is a term used to describe hormonal medications that are designed to be administered after “unprotected” sexual intercourse. There are several different brands, such as Plan B One-Step. It does not follow from the fact that they are administered after sexual intercourse that they are necessarily abortifacient.

Abortion is the termination of pregnancy by the killing of the fetus. The question as to whether such treatments are to be considered as abortions or not depends on when the fetus is considered to be a living being. Some scientists and obstetricians consider the beginning of the life of the fetus as being the time of implantation in the endometrium of the uterine wall, which is then taken to be the beginning of pregnancy. An equal number of scientists maintain that the beginning of life, and hence of pregnancy, is the moment of fertilization of the ovum, which precedes the implantation in the uterine wall (see the excellent article by James Agresti published on LifeSiteNews.com on March 1, 2013). The consequences of this different of opinion are far reaching. Those who believe that pregnancy only begins at implantation in the uterine wall maintain that drugs that prevent implantation are contraceptive agents, and not abortifacient, whereas those who believe that life begins at conception, that is at the union of the two zygotes, will clearly consider that a drug that prevents implantation is an abortifacient agent.

However, a Catholic may not have a difference of opinion on this subject. Although the Church has not defined the moment of conception, which is the beginning of human life, it has always been the protector of that life from the very moment of conception. Since the fertilized ovum is alive and growing, independent, and has in itself all the genetic information from which the adult will grow, it cannot be considered as anything else but a living human being. If it has the organization of a living being, then it has the soul that gives life to that living being. Implantation in the uterine wall is but one stage in the development of the fetus, and to establish this as the moment of conception and the beginning of life and hence of pregnancy is entirely arbitrary. Hence a drug that prevents implantation must be considered as abortifacient.

It is the Church’s decision

We do not have the right to opt out of this discussion, as Bishop Carrasco de Paula tries to say, by affirming that it is up to doctors and scientists, and not to the Church to determine whether a given medicine is contraceptive or abortion-inducing. No, it is up to the Church to defend the very beginning of human life and to condemn the use of any medication that prevents the continuation of that life by implantation in the uterine wall as abortifacient, under pain of participation in the crime of abortion. In fact, it was the very Pontifical Academy for Life of which Bishop Carrasco de Paula is now the president that declared this on October 31, 2000, in its Statement on the so-called “morning-after pill.” It had this to say: “The decision to use the term ‘fertilized ovum’ to indicate the earliest phases of embryonic development can in no way lead to an artificial value distinction between different moments in the development of the same human individual. In other words, if it can be useful, for reasons of scientific description, to distinguish with conventional terms (fertilized ovum, embryo, fetus, etc.) different moments in a single growth process, it can never be legitimate to decide arbitrarily that the human individual has greater or lesser value (with the resulting variation in the duty to protect it) according to its stage of development....Moreover, it seems sufficiently clear that those who ask for or offer this pill are seeking the direct termination of a possible pregnancy already in progress, just as in the case of abortion. Pregnancy, in fact, begins with fertilization, and not with the implantation of the blastocyst in the uterine wall” (§2-3).

Therefore, the statements frequently made by scientists that blocking the implantation of fertilized eggs does not constitute abortion are quite simply false. It is a termination of a pregnancy that has already begun and is thereby condemned by the Church.

How does it work?

However, this does not resolve the question, since there is a dispute as to the manner in which morning-after pills work. The principal mechanism is by suppressing ovulation if it has not already occurred by the time that the medication is given. This is a contraceptive action, and is the most frequent way in which these medications work. It must be understood that the spermatozoa can remain alive in the woman’s reproductive tract for five or six days after intercourse and can still be able to fertilize an egg that may be ovulated several days after the “unprotected” intercourse. By preventing ovulation, these medications make this impossible.

But this is not the only manner of action of these hormonal medications. They work even though ovulation has taken place before the medication is taken or around the same time. Some scientists maintain that this action is not by preventing implantation of the fertilized egg, but rather by other mechanisms, such as increasing cervical mucus viscosity and thereby preventing the sperm from swimming to the egg. However, this has never been proven, and there is much evidence to support the long-standing opinion that it is in fact implantation that these drugs prevent. It is for this reason that Dr. James Trussell and Dr. Elizabeth Raymond, in an academic review on these “emergency contraceptives,” although maintaining that these drugs’ effectiveness can be fully accounted for by non-abortifacient effects, had this to say: “To make an informed choice, women must know that [emergency contraceptive pills]…prevent pregnancy primarily by delaying or inhibiting ovulation, but may at times inhibit implantation of a fertilized egg in the endometrium” (quoted in LifeSiteNews.com February 22, 2013, by Patrick B. Craine). It is for this reason that the FDA obliges all the manufacturers of these pills to affirm that they may block implantation. James Agresti points this out in the above-mentioned article: “The website for Plan B One-Step states, ‘It is possible that Plan B One-Step may also work by…preventing attachment (implantation) to the uterus (womb).’ And the website for Next Choice states that the drug ‘works by preventing…attachment of the egg (implantation) to the uterus (womb).’ ”

Consequently, these drugs are really no different from oral contraceptives, which are known to have an abortifacient effect on a regular basis, whenever ovulation is not suppressed. In such cases pregnancy is terminated by suppressing implantation in the womb. Well-known moral theologian Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, S.T.D., had this to say in October 2007, commenting on the approval of the Connecticut bishops for the use of Plan B in Catholic hospitals: “The fact is, if we have any doubt about whether a given action would directly risk someone’s life, entail a violation of justice or threaten the salvation of a soul, we may not act on the basis of a scientific probability. That means that if the pill in Plan B is only ‘dubiously’ abortive, we simply may not use it at all” (www.airmaria.com, p. 576).

Here we do well to refer again to the Pontifical Academy for Life’s 2000 Statement on the so-called morning-after pill. This statement, only 12 years old, clearly states that this pill “has a predominantly ‘anti-implantation’ function, that is, it prevents a possible fertilized ovum (which is a human embryo), by now in the blastocyst stage of its development (fifth to sixth day after fertilization), from being implanted in the uterine wall by a process of altering the wall itself” (§1). If some scientists might dispute the use of the word ‘predominantly,’ nobody can doubt that this can sometimes be the case. Hence the decision of the Statement still stands: “It is clear, therefore, that the proven ‘anti-implantation’ action of the morning-after pill is really nothing other than a chemically induced abortion. It is neither intellectually consistent nor scientifically justifiable to say that we are not dealing with the same thing” (§3).

Since this document was attacked for being out of date, in February 2008 Bishop Sgreccia, then President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, was asked if the decisions were still valid (LifeSiteNews.com of February 29, 2008): “The position of the Church is the same. The morning-after pill is dangerous; it is an abortifacient when there is a conception and so illicit to prescribe by doctors. Thus there is the same position from the beginning of the presentation of this pill. It is not medicine, not a composition for health, so physicians are not obliged to prescribe it. It is forbidden for Catholic doctors to prescribe it and also to be requested by Catholics.” He was then asked the specific question that now concerns us, namely whether there could be an exception in cases or rape. His answer: “No. It is not able to prevent the rape. But it is able to eliminate the embryo.”

Confusion amongst Catholics

It cannot, therefore, be anything but the most obvious hypocrisy for the present president of the Pontifical Academy for Life to blithely state that the decision of the German bishops “is an exemplary law which reiterates what the Catholic Church has been proposing for the past 50 years.” This is quite simply a lie when put side by side with the decisions of his own Academy for Life of 2000 and 2008, which reiterated the constant teaching of the Church.

It is for this reason that the secretary of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference on March 5, 2013, made a public statement refusing the decision of the German Bishops’ Conference and of Bishop Carrasco de Paula. Bishop Juan Antonio Martinez Camino had this to say: “If there is a pill that prevents conception in cases of rape, then it is licit to prevent it. However, we have no knowledge of a morning-after pill without abortifacient effects.…if it did exist, we would be sure to know it.…All morning-after pills have this possible abortive effect. Therefore, its use is illicit” (LifeSiteNew.com, March 5, 2013). 

Would it be permissible if purely contraceptive?

This brings us to the other delicate question. If we were to imagine that these medications were purely contraceptive, with no abortifacient effect, would they then be permissible in cases of rape on account of the violence exerted against the woman. Many Catholic authors, such as Bishop Martinez Camino, admit that in such extraordinary cases the use of a contraceptive would be permissible since it does not take away human life. They consider the seed of the rapist to be an unjust aggressor and that, consequently, its effect can be prevented by contraception. However, if this were truly the case, then it could hardly be said that contraception is intrinsically evil and against nature. If contraception is permitted in one emergency exception, what is to stop other emergency exceptions, and if so, it could only be considered evil from the circumstances, and not in itself.

The truth here can be considered on two levels. The first concerns the morality of contraception itself, and the second the consideration of what means are licit for those women who have suffered the horrifying violence of rape.

That the intrinsic evil of contraception excludes its use at any time and for any reason was clearly defined by Pope Pius XI in his 1930 encyclical on Christian Marriage. He does so by declaring that it is against the natural law; namely, that contraception is an unnatural act, which means that it is not just a sin against a commandment of God, but against the nature of man, because it is a perversion of the very act of human procreation. As such, it is always immoral and cannot become permissible for any reason whatsoever: “But no reason whatever, even the gravest, can make what is intrinsically against nature become conformable with nature and morally good. The conjugal act is of its very nature designed for the procreation of offspring: therefore those who in performing it deliberately deprive it of its natural power and efficacy, act against nature and do something which is shameful and intrinsically immoral” (§54). As John Western pointed out in LifeSiteNews.com of October 23, 2007, even John Paul II repeated this doctrine, making this statement on October 10, 1983: “Contraception is to be judged objectively so profoundly unlawful, as never to be, for any reason, justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God.” He also quotes the Pontifical Council for the Family’s statement of March 1, 1997: “The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception…this teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable.”

It follows from this that even the immoral use of the conjugal act by those who are not married cannot justify the use of the contraception. Rape adds to this immorality an injustice. However, this injustice cannot justify another sin, and this one against nature, in order to protect the woman from the effects of the rape. Consequently, there is no such thing as licit emergency contraception, nor could any emergency justify it.

What can be done for victims of rape?

The circumstantial response to the particular problem of rape concerns the determination of the means that are licit for a woman to protect herself from the unjust aggression of the rape. For only licit means can be used for a good end. No good end can justify an illicit means. The old theologians did not discuss the question of contraception, but did discuss the question of vaginal washings to eliminate the seed, as if it were an unjust aggressor. St. Alphonsus considered this to be illicit. Merkelbach in his Summa Theologiae Moralis, Vol. II, §1010, refutes the opinion of the 20th-century moral theologians who considered that this is licit, and gives the following reasons: “Man does not have dominion over his seed, and therefore every action which directly concerns the seed is illicit, except that which is intended by nature, namely marital intercourse…because it is a great injury against human generation and the common good to expel the seed from the final place to which it is destined by nature than to expel the seed by procuring pollution [self-abuse]…because it is licit to repel the aggression during the act of intercourse itself, but not afterwards, since then the aggression has ceased and the seed is in its place, to which it is destined by nature… for it is illicit to interrupt the work of nature in human generation.” For us it sounds strange for a theologian to state that man does not have control and power over his own seed, but this is explained in the following way: “Man does not have dominion over his seed, but it belongs to the species; and in the whole process of generation, the individual is to be entirely subordinated to the species.” This gives an understanding of the sanctity of the act of generation in the natural law, which is not lost even when it is used in an immoral way.

Father Merkelbach answers the objection that to leave the seed in place is to allow the effect of injustice to remain: “The effect can be removed by licit means, but not by illicit means, as an action that is directly against the seed or the fetus, just as it is illicit to directly kill the innocent in order to protect oneself against an unjust harm” (ibid.).

It is true that post-conciliar moral theologians, such as Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, do not agree with the eminent Dominican, writing in 1935, and consider that a flushing or vaginal washing before conception is permissible (www.airmaria.com, op. cit.) as a licit means. He fails, however, to fully comprehend the full weight of Father Merkelbach’s argument in the natural law, and simply states that such “a flushing before conception has occurred is but an aspect of abstinence from sexual intercourse, a negative action.” This argument is not at all convincing, for it is done after the forced intercourse and, consequently, after the unjust aggression has come to an end; and it is a positive attack on the seed, and not a purely negative action.

However, regardless of this dispute, any Catholic moral theologian can understand Father Merkelbach’s principle; we must distinguish between licit and illicit means. Contraception is always illicit because it is intrinsically evil. Consequently, it cannot be allowed even in cases of rape, and the injustice performed against the woman cannot justify another injustice against the natural law concerning the act of human procreation. It is thus a sign of great decadence that so many Catholic authors speak in such a way as to say that if the morning-after pill were purely contraceptive and not abortifacient, then it would be morally permissible. They are directly opposing themselves to the Church’s constant teaching in saying so.