Sunday, February 28, 2016

Rape and Contraception

Is rape an exception?

Now that I've got your attention, here's another long essay. (And you thought you would be free of this after you graduated.)

Don't worry. I'll get back to Islam soon enough. But this issue niggles.

By the way, I welcome arguments for the opposite point of view. Just because you disagree with me doesn't mean you're a heretic.

Necessarily . . .


Catholic moral theory prohibits contraception on the grounds that it is intrinsically evil. Recently, however, there has been talk of possible exceptions or special cases where the use of contraceptives may be licit. Pope Francis himself suggested that married couples might allowably use contraceptives to prevent conceiving a child with birth defects caused by the Zika virus.

I think it's safe to say that Catholic ethicists have generally rejected the Pope's reasoning, with the exception of dissident ethicists who were pro-contraception to begin with. (What this says about the state of the Church and the current papacy, I'll leave for another time.) Among other things, the 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae was quite clear in rejecting the use of contraceptives by married couples for any reason.

However, another sort of exceptional case is currently being discussed--the use of contraceptives to prevent conception in the case of rape. Ironically, the discussion was prompted by the Pope, in support of his Zika claim, citing an alleged historical example that has now almost certainly been debunked as a myth--the story of the Belgian Congo nuns who were "on the pill."

I have written elsewhere that this story is not only false but maliciously false--even obscene. And indeed it was denied by the Vatican when it last publicly surfaced in 1993. This hasn't stopped some Catholic commentators from continuing to use it as a moral thought experiment: True or not (they have argued), it shows that there are some cases--rape being one of them--where use of contraceptives might be licit.

But independent of relying on a bizarre and grotesque moral hypothetical, these commentators appear to have another thing going for them: For at least the last fifteen years the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has apparently endorsed the use of the Morning After Pill for rape victims. This quasi-official instruction is contained in the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (no. 36).
A woman who has been raped may defend herself against a conception resulting from sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medication that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. It 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.
It is important to note that the USCCB prohibits the use of anything that might be or function as an abortifacient. Many Catholic ethicists have claimed that the medical evidence now shows that there are no post-coitius contraceptives that meet this standard, and thus the 2001 USCCB directives implicitly get the science wrong.

This is obviously a very important debate but I want to leave it here for now. Rather, I want to assume with the USCCB that some of the contraceptives in question are merely contraceptive in nature, that is, they merely block or prevent fertilization. In that case, would it be licit to take them in the case of rape? Or to put it negatively, if contraception is intrinsically evil as the Catholic church has always taught, how could it be allowable in this case?

I think the answer is that the USCCB is incorrect--contraception is not allowable, even in cases of rape. But I want to consider the argument for the contrary position. Where does it go wrong?  

In certain recent articles and discussions, one claim has been that we simply know it is licit. Why? Because the USCCB has told us so. This assertion, I suppose, has the added bonus of introducing a new definition of infallibility to the Magisterium. If a bishops conference pronounces on a philosophical claim on page 211 of an instruction manual for doctors, we know it to be true.

In fairness, there is also an actual argument that some Catholic theologians have set out.

Warning: the following discussion may get slightly gross.

The argument makes use of the doctrine of double effect: While blocking conception is an intrinsically bad result, we may intend a good result that merely has the blocking of conception as a foreseen though unintended result. A woman may obviously resist a rape, which of course may have the consequence of blocking conception. Thus, in the same way (so goes the argument), the use of contraception after penetration has occurred--i.e. the next morning--may be properly thought of as resistance to the rape. Blocking the sperm, or preventing it from fertilizing the ovum is no more morally problematic than attempting to physically throw off an attacker. The intention is not to contracept but to defend oneself against a rape.

But this misunderstands the doctrine of double effect. We may not do an intrinsically bad thing if that thing, even if not intended per se, is being used as a necessary means to achieve another albeit possibly good end. Blocking conception after a rape, while the general intention might be good--to avoid having a child (in and of itself a perfectly allowable intention)--includes the blocking of conception as a necessary means. What else would the purpose of taking a contraceptive pill be but that?

Against this it is claimed that what is occurring is self-defense against the rape, not the blocking of conception per se. There is no principled difference (again, so goes the argument) between attempting to block the penetration of the rapist and attempting to block (say) the continued progress of his sperm.

I still find this argument bizarre. Among other things it is an abuse of the English language. It doesn't diminish the horrible crime of rape in the least to say that rape, like most human actions, is implicitly defined as having a beginning point and an end point--that end point being no later then when the attacker leaves the scene. One doesn't go to the police or to a clinic the next day and say, "I am currently being raped even as we speak." And again, this is not to devalue the awful potential consequences of rape--physical or mental--which may unfortunately last a lifetime. But these are consequences, not the ongoing continuance of the rape itself.

The linguistic contortions necessary for the argument can be shown by this passage from a published Catholic theologian (much published, according to his website):
Similarly, after a rape is completed, if a women enters a hospital emergency room and is given a non-abortifacient spermicide, this medical intervention has the moral object of interrupting the rape.
Did you get that? After a rape is completed, one may interrupt the rape. Or at least one may have "the moral object" of interrupting the rape. That makes no sense.  

One could grossly say, I suppose, that the rape ends when the sperm reaches something, or fails to reach something. But this is also not how we use the word. Rape is not defined as a forcible attempt to fertilize an ovum. Among other things, men can rape other men, men can rape woman in ways that cannot possibly lead to conception and so on.

This bizarre stretching of the definition is an attempt to get around the fact that contraception is intrinsically evil. The only way to do that is to somehow redefine contraception as something else.

But answers to moral questions can never be about mere definitions of words. So, for the sake of argument, let's imagine that rape does continue way past the duration normally thought. As that sperm is attempting succeed in fertilization, hours after the initial act, the rape is continuing to occur. When does it end? It is possible, of course, that fertilization will occur and a baby will start to grow. That baby was not intended by the victim, nor is it morally required that she desire to have that baby. If we define a swimming sperm as the continuance of an attack, why not define a growing baby in the same way?

Or to look at it another way, suppose the baby were not a person but merely a tumor, starting to grow malignly. Surely in that case resisting that could justly be looked on as self-defense, made manifest as a result of the rape, whether we wish to say that the victim was still being raped or not.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that resisting that baby would be justified, nor does the USCCB suggest that. Indeed, it explicitly condemns abortion even after rape. The reason it condemns it is the correct one--that killing the baby, even as merely a means to achieving a permissible end (not wanting to have a child that one had no part in consenting to) is intrinsically evil.

So, there it is. Intrinsically evil. We can redefine rape as lasting nine months. We can call abortion after rape "self-defense" (and it perhaps would be self-defense, just not justified self-defense). But because killing the innocent baby would be intrinsically evil we cannot do it.

But for some reason the USCCB refuses to apply this logic to contraception.

Abortion and contraception are both intrinsically evil. If you want to say that one is more evil than the other (as virtually everyone would), that's fine. But they are both on precisely the same grounds when it comes to functioning as absolute side-constraints to our actions. We cannot intend to do them, either as ends themselves or as necessary means to achieve other ends, even if those ends are good ones.

Redefining words or concepts--rape as a two-day process--is one way to cheat this logic, but as I have tried to show, even that fails.

Why is all this important? The question of contraception after rape is not just a remote sort of case. If one adds "date rape" into the mix, this sort of issue is no doubt dealt with virtually every day. Though actual rape is horrific and it may seem unfeeling to ask a rape victim to refrain from doing anything that she believes will help her, it is still wrong to compound things by introducing further evil into the situation.

Equally importantly, the history of ethics in general and Christian and Catholic ethics in particular, show that these sorts of moral "exceptions" have the tendency to eventually undermine the entire moral structure. That's certainly why some defend and advance them. They hate the Church's teachings on sexual morality but they know they cannot, at least at the moment, attack those teachings directly. So they float these sorts of arguments.

Others are perfectly faithful and sincere and have merely been convinced on the not completely unreasonable grounds that important Catholic people or groups such as the USCCB have endorsed them. And of course, some faithful Catholics are convinced by their own sincerely made arguments. Their arguments are nevertheless unsound. That's not a criticism per se. It happens.

But it's still dangerous.

The Belgian Congo nun case was a thought experiment floated by three Catholic theologians sixty-five years ago. They were explicit in claiming that their argument could not and would not be used to justify contraception within marriage. (Whether or not they were sincere in this I have no idea.) Two weeks ago they were proved wrong.

By a pope.


  1. In your argument for the opposing side: “blocking conception is… intrinsically bad”
    I have denied this, and still deny it.

    “There is no principled difference between attempting to block the penetration of the rapist and attempting to block (say) the continued progress of his sperm.”
    This is right, and shows by example the reason I deny that blocking conception is intrinsically bad. At no point do you give a real reason to disbelieve this - you only suggest that the difference in time is morally relevant.

    “After a rape is completed, one may interrupt the rape.”
    You absolutely can, in the relevant sense. This is why when the wife uses the morning after pill, her sexual act the previous night is made contraceptive. The distance in time is an illusion; it’s not morally relevant.

    You repeat that “contraception is intrinsically evil” but what you seem to mean by “contraception” is really a set of physical facts: there is physically, a sex act, and then there is something which prevents generation. It LOOKS the same, physically, as a husband and wife sinfully contracepting. So you conlucde there can be no moral difference. But I say that’s a mistake. If the woman is not choosing any sexual behavior, then she cannot be choosing any disordered sexual behavior. And that’s the difference, it’s in the will, it’s purely moral difference.

  2. The “There is no principled difference between attempting to block the penetration of the rapist and attempting to block (say) the continued progress of his sperm" is my imagined opponent's argument, not mine. I'm sorry I wasn't clear. I just added an "(again, so goes the argument)" thing to it.

    1. Right, I understood that - I’m agreeing with your imagined opponent. I don't think you’ve shown a good reason that position of his is wrong.

  3. To your paragraphs:

    1. Then what IS intrinsically wrong, according to you?

    2. I don't think it is a difference in time per se. It is a difference in blocking the rape versus blocking something else (that may be a result of the rape but still).

    3. With respect, that's just silly. I'm sorry but it is. If a rape has occurred, you can't then interrupt it.

    4. I think I disagree. If elephants used condoms (without having any idea what they were doing, obviously) that would still be contraception. That would say little about their moral culpability (since they had no idea what they were doing) but it wouldn't change the fact. But you're right that intentions do matter. The woman in the example isn't choosing sexual activity, but she is choosing to frustrate the purpose of the sexual activity that has been forcibly initiated with her. As awful as it may sound to some, that's wrong. Or to put it another way with another example, if I am simply handed a baby (without asking for it) I still may not kill it.

    1. 1. Disordered sexual acts are intrinsically evil.

      2/3. The problem is the word “rape.” It is too narrow and too broad. I’m saying the rape (= the rapist’s sexual act) is interrupted in precisely the same sense that the wife interrupts the sexual act of her husband and herself by taking the morning-after pill afterwards.

      To say it again differently: In the same way that there is no moral difference between the wife convincing her husband to pull out, and the wife taking an emergency contraceptive the next day, there is likewise no moral difference between the woman forcing her rapist to pull out, and the raped woman taking an emergency contraceptive the next day.

      In the first case, either is contraception; either are evil. In the second case, neither is contraception; neither is evil.

      4. This whole discussion is about the moral act, the sin, of contraception. Animals are incapable of moral acts and sins. We can speak about the biological function of “contraception”—I have avoided this carefully because it confuses the discussion to use a second definition of the word—and in THAT SENSE, certainly any use of an emergency contraceptive is contraception. Even an ant could use contraception in this sense. So that’s very plainly not the definition relevant to the kind of moral judgment the Church rightly makes.

      But you’re equivocating freely between the two definitions. The biological function is not itself an act. Moral analysis doesn’t enter into it.

      You can have the sin without the biological function, say if you attempt to use the contraceptive but fail, or you use something you wrongly believe to be a contraceptive.

      The case of the woman forcing her rapist to pull out is certainly a case of the biological function of contraception. But it is just as certainly not the moral evil of contraception. It would be better if there were two different words.

      “she is choosing to frustrate the purpose of the sexual activity that has been forcibly initiated with her. As awful as it may sound to some, that's wrong”

      This is just nuts! You’re quite right, she’s frustrating the purpose—and that’s perfectly good to do! If her husband walks in and stops the rapist—is he guilty of contraception as well? He’s frustrated the natural purpose of the act!

    2. I said: “It would be better if there were two different words.”
      Earlier I was calling the biological function of contraception “preventing pregnancy.” That works well enough.

    3. Frustrating God's or the natural law's purpose, not the rapist's purpose. And of course you have the right to resist rape, as was clearly stated, but in doing so you're not intending to contracept, nor are you using contraception as a means to effect some other result.

      When you take a pill to prevent conception, you're intending contraception, or you're using contraception as a necessary means to effect something else. Calling it "self-defense" doesn't change that fact, just as calling abortion "self-defense," even after rape, doesn't make it permissible.

    4. This is not recognizable as a reply to my last comment. You’ve simply ignored the distinctions and arguments I made. I can only urge you to reread it.

    Beautiful little girl said by the mother herself to be the result of rape. Good comes of evil. God has His plans. Who are we to employ our hocus-pocus after the generative act is completed, even if it is not consensual?

    1. This is total foolishness. Of course God brings good from evil. No evil is ever permitted by God otherwise. To be consistent, you must also affirm that women should never resist rape at all—not before, during, or after. That in fact no one may ever resist any evil, whether against themselves or anyone else.

    2. It is a fact that under certain circumstances it would be in a woman's best interests NOT to resist rape. If she knows she risks a severe beating for example she may do her best to stay calm and not resist.

      This is not the same as resisting any evil. You are extrapolating the principle way out to an opposite pole.

    3. Thanks for the link, Sandpiper. I was not aware of that story. And I think you put the general argument well. Being against the "hocus-pocus" means that one is taking Catholic teaching seriously, not that one is against resisting rape or in favor of being passive in the face of evil or whatever.

  5. If the woman is not choosing any sexual behavior, then she cannot be choosing any disordered sexual behavior.

    I think this is where Nicholas (and Janet Smith, by the way) have the best of the discussion.

    The intrinsic evil is the contradiction between the (willed) sex act and the contraceptive. The UN-willed sex act brings licit self-defense into the argument.

    1. correction:

      "The intrinsic evil is the contradiction between the (willed) sex act and ?USE OF the contraceptive."

    2. The result of contraception in cases of willed acts, and un-willed acts is the same. That sameness is what rules here - not the willing or unwilling of the act.

      Your argument can lead to the position that abortion is ok if it is the result of rape. What's the difference between stopping a pregnancy after rape by using something to prevent conception, and getting rid of the product of the conception later?

      Surely contraception is contraception in the ACT and the INTENT no matter what the circumstances. I do it (act of stopping conception) because (intent) I was raped and don't want to get pregnant. Pretty clear.

      When God made His laws, He perceived every single circumstance and excuse we could possibly encounter - yet He still made His laws. Is it possible that God did not foresee rape? Did He not foresee the development of drugs that might 'help' us out of these messes?

    3. 1) Remember that for an act to be immoral, INTENTION is required!

      2) Your argument can lead to the position that abortion is ok if it is the result of rape

      No it cannot.

  6. Oakes, I’m a big fan of your site, and I have been for some time, but I must disagree with you here. I think you’re imputing a moral value to sexual acts outside of wedlock that does not exist.
    Let us agree on the following Catholic teachings, which I summarize here in grossly over-simplified form – and forgive me if I, too, get “slightly gross”:

    1) God wills that married couples should perfect their union through acts of sexual intercourse that are fully open to new life. Where married couples engage in acts that thwart that openness (e.g., use of contraceptive devices, engagement in deliberately infertile activities), they sin.

    2) God wills that human beings should not be murdered, irrespective of how they were conceived. Actions that inflict such murder (e.g., surgical abortions; use of abortifacient drugs) are sinful.

    3) All consensual sexual contact outside of marriage is sinful.

    4) All non-consensual sexual contact is sinful.

    But you appear to be entertaining a fifth thought that sits well outside of Catholic thought. I summarize what I take to be your position thus:

    “Anytime a woman has any kind of sexual contact with a man – be it her husband or not, be it consensual or not – she must be fully open to new life. To close off such openness is to sin.”

    I disagree. God wills only that a woman be open to new life WITH HER HUSBAND. A woman (or, for that matter, a man!) is under no obligation at all to be open to the possibility of new life with anyone outside the marriage. Any sexual conduct with someone other than one’s spouse is inherently sinful (although in the case of rape, the sin in question is obviously not the victim’s), and thus it is meaningless to speak of whether anyone ought to be open to new life in such a circumstance. There is no “natural law purpose” to inherently sinful sexual acts. The very concept is an oxymoron. To hold otherwise is to embrace the absurd position that rape WITHOUT use of contraception is somehow less sinful than rape WITH use of contraception!

    Now, with that said, murder remains murder, and thus abortion is never licit except when necessary to save the life of the mother, etc. This is true even for children conceived under illicit circumstances. But we derive that rule from the dignity and ontology of the child, not from any sanctified status imputed to sexual acts outside of marriage. It may well be that a sinful sexual act brings forth good in the form of a human life, but as Nicolas Escalona wisely observed upthread, it is no defense to evil that good may come of it.

    I understand and respect your desire to put all contraception beyond the pale of Catholic thought. But I invite you to consider that the touchstone of Catholic reasoning here is openness to new life within marriages. Catholic rejection of contraception flows from that idea, not the other way around.

    1. Thanks for your reply, Lincoln. I might have put it slightly differently but I think you adequately sum up two of the possible opposed positions. But I think that far from being "outside the tradition of Catholic thought, "my" position is the longstanding philosophical position of the Church.

      I'm not going to argue for that here, but it probably deserves a separate post. Among other things, it relies upon distinctions between "sinful," "intrinsically sinful," "disordered," "intrinsically disordered," and so on.

      But to make one just one claim: yes, it is indeed the case that the Church believes that contraception is intrinsically evil both inside and outside of marriage. Obviously if it didn't believe that, then the rape case would be easy.

      I owe you some sources or citations. If I'm right, they shouldn't be difficult to find. :)

  7. I welcome any correction you would care to offer. My admittedly cursory review of the relevant materials (to include the CCC) indicates that Church teaching in this regard is always framed in terms of marital acts (or, if you prefer, "conjugal" acts) and the marital bond. To be sure, some church thinkers have articulated anthropological harms that may ensue from the widespread use of contraception, inside or outside of marriage. These arguments have obvious merit, but they do not really inform the question of whether contraception is an inherent evil with regard to non-marital acts. Moreover, the anthropological harms discussed do not really apply for the very limited purposes discussed here. It is hard to believe that a rape victim's (non-abortifacient) use of the morning after pill will lead to the dimunition of the "reverence due to a woman," as Paul VI might put it.

    And let me be clear: I agree that contraception is an intrinsic evil as it pertains to the acts of married couples. I understand myself to be arguing in favor of orthodoxy here, not against it.

    But I could be wrong. It happened once in 1989. Cite away!

  8. @A Daughter of Mary, impressive, plain, simple and common sense argument.