Currently there is a political argument in America over whether or not Roman Catholic institutions should be required by the Federal Government to provide health care policies for their employees that include prescriptions for birth control pills or devices at no extra charge. Variations of this sort of coverage are already the law in 28 states, eight of which allow no religious exceptions, even for employees that work for churches. This is also current policy for the majority of Catholic universities and hospitals and law schools. So it would seem that the current disagreement is mostly motivated by political considerations attempting to appeal to conservative, anti-Obama voters on the one hand, or on the other, more liberal, particularly women voters. The President’s most recent proposal puts the burden of including this coverage on insurance companies so that the Church does not have to specifically buy it. But the issue remains. What should the healthcare policy of the government of 21st century Americans be with regard to providing birth control measures for women? How should the Catholic Church’s teaching that contraception and abortion are immoral influence this policy?
Some historical considerations relevant to this argument are whether or not religious principles in some way attributed to God’s pronouncements ever change and whether or not governments have any legitimate interest in changing those views. I believe that the answer to both questions is, “Yes.” These questions revolve around the concept that certain religious principles, in whatever religion, are commandments from God while secular governmental principles are only derived from men, and more recently, women, with no claim that they are holy. Indeed the United States Constitution states at the very beginning, “We, the People….” as its authority and God is not mentioned. All our rights, including the right to freedom of religion, are granted to the American people by the American people.
Freedom of religion has been an evolving right in this country. If you read our history you will see that the idea of freedom of religion was interpreted by many, if not most Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries as the freedom to choose among the various Protestant sects such as Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and so forth. Catholics, Jews, Mohammedans, and atheists were excluded from holding office in many states. Atheists could not testify in court in many states because they would not swear on a Bible. Although the sixth article of the Constitution provides that no religious test shall ever be required for a person to hold any federal office, many states had just such requirements and these lasted into the twentieth century before court decisions finally interpreted freedom of religion to mean all religions. Some people today still apply religious tests to candidates for federal office as can be seen by Fundamentalist Protestant objections to the candidacy of Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon.
The Constitution originally condoned slavery and lots of Southern preachers and theologians used the Bible to justify this American institution. The Old Testament of the Bible also clearly condones slavery and provides rules for how one should treat one’s slaves. The 19th century witnessed many Bible based arguments on both sides of the slavery question. Finally, Americans fought a civil war that cost 600,000 lives to end this particular practice. Southerners argued that they seceded from the Union over the issue of “states’ rights” but the “right” in question was the right to own slaves. Sadly, we seem to have been the only country that required a civil war to end slavery.
Women were second class citizens in America until 1922 when they finally got the right to vote. Again, there was some religious defense of denying suffrage to women. In Utah, plural marriage was not outlawed until Utah wanted to become a state and the federal government required the end to this Mormon practice as a condition of admission. The Bible of course allows plural marriage as illustrated by the patriarch, Jacob, and his wives Leah and Rachel, and his two concubines who collectively gave birth to the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel. And, it was not until 1978 that blacks were granted the priesthood in the Mormon Church. Blacks were said to be the descendents of Ham who saw his father, Noah, lying drunk and exposed and for this sin was burned black.
After slavery was ended in the United States, the practice of segregation continued well into the 1960s and required more blood to end. The inferiority of blacks was an article of faith to many in the former Confederacy and may continue today as the knee-jerk “hatred” of President Obama illustrates. All these examples were moral issues for one religion or another, thought to be ordained by God, and were changed or are now being changed by human government.
And now we come to contraception and abortion. Without contraception the life of a married or sexually active woman is an endless succession of pregnancies and deliveries often resulting in death at an early age. The evolution of human head size over the last few million years has resulted in a cephalo-pelvic proportion or disproportion that makes human females just barely able to deliver their fetuses at term. Tearing, bleeding and, until relatively recently in developed countries, infection are so common at delivery that many women are destined to die in childbirth. As I write this I’m sitting in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City doing research on the first Bairds to come to America. My fourth great grandfather, John Baird came to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1772 from Ballymoney in Northern Ireland. He had three wives, two of whom died in childbirth. My fourth great grandmother, Agnes Moor, died giving birth to her first child. John’s second wife, Lilias, made it through five deliveries before dying. John’s third wife survived perhaps because John died at age 45. Any genealogist knows that this story is the rule, not the exception for the lives of women in the pre birth control and pre antiseptic era.
“The Pill” started to become available in 1951. Family sizes shrank, women, no longer slaves to their biology, began to enter the professions, and American society changed forever. Today it is estimated that 99% of all American women use birth control pills or devices and that 98% of Catholic women do. So the Church hierarchy continues to teach that contraception is a sin and the body of the Church ignores the teaching. I doubt if those women going to confession regularly list contraception as one of their sins.
Let’s look a little further back at Western Civilization’s ideas about when life begins and the sanctity of life. The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, is interpreted by the Jews whose ancestors wrote it to say that life begins after the first breath at birth. This reflects the story that God took the dust (adamah) of the Earth, molded a man (adam) and breathed into him the breath of life and he became a living soul (nefesh.) Breath and the soul are linked. Maimonides, a tenth century Jewish philosopher and physician, said that a fetus was part of its mother until it was mostly out of the birth canal (so it could take a breath.) Then it was a separate human being. Rashi, another medieval Jewish philosopher, said that a fetus became an independent human being when its head was out of the birth canal. These concepts hold in modern Judaism except for some Reform Rabbis who teach that life begins when the children leave home and the dog dies.
The concepts of breath and ensoulment were similar in other societies. The Romans agreed with the Jews that ensoulment occurred at birth. Aristotle, ca 300 BCE, said that ensoulment occurred in the womb at day 40 after conception if the fetus was male and at day 90 if it was female, partly because females were inferior to males in some unspecified way. The concept of female inferiority held well into the 20th century in the United States. Catholic theologians St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. Jerome all agreed that ensoulment occurred at 40 days after conception even though they didn’t know how conception occurred. At about 40 days the fetus has a head, eyes, arms, and legs. It is said to be “formed.” But the sperm wasn’t discovered until 1690 after the microscope was invented, and the idea that the sperm fertilized the egg to create an embryo wasn’t settled until 1870 so all of these religious pronouncements by the Jews, Greeks, Romans, and later, Christians about conception and ensoulment could be viewed as creative speculation even though the pronouncers were quite certain.
The official Roman Catholic view of conception, contraception, and abortion has continued to evolve until rather recently. In 1588 Pope Sixtus V ruled that the penalty for abortion or contraception was excommunication. His successor, Gregory IX, ruled that the abortion of an “unformed” fetus was not homicide. St. Augustine had previously said the same thing in about 400 CE. The value of formed and unformed fetuses went back and forth in several Papal pronouncements for over a thousand years. By 1869 Pope Pius IX ruled that the fetus should be protected from the time of conception since we can’t know for sure exactly when ensoulment takes place. Parenthetically, one might ask when ensoulment occurs in identical twins or triplets or quadruplets since the splitting of the embryo leading to these separate fetuses all occur well after conception.
Today the Catholic view is basically that ensoulment is a divine act that occurs at the moment of conception. Abortion is murder so birth control methods that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg in the endometrium amount to murder as well. Besides IUDs this includes birth control pills because they not only inhibit ovulation they also produce an endometrium that is inhospitable to implantation. In addition, one is not allowed to abort a fetus to save the life of a mother who has toxemia of pregnancy (for which the treatment is immediate delivery) because two deaths are better than one murder.
Protestant views vary from essentially the current Catholic position to condoning contraception and abortion for the convenience of the mother.
Since we have learned the biological and medical facts about contraception and delivery, the lives of women have been immeasurably improved. They are no longer slaves to pregnancy, delivery, and often early death. They may control how often they reproduce and when and with whom. They may enter any profession they choose. Separately evolving ideas have made them full, voting citizens of America. A review of mankind’s understanding of procreation and ideas about when life begins, when ensoulment takes place, and so forth shows clearly that these ideas are simply human, that they have been repeatedly revised, and that they still are subjects of disagreement both within the Catholic Church, as seen by the conflict between the pronouncements of its Bishops and practice of its members, and within and among the other Judeo-Christian religions. For the federal government to propose that Catholic institutions should provide birth control pills or devices as part of the health insurance package provided to their employees is not an attack on religious freedom in general or Catholicism in particular. It might be an attack on the views of the Bishops, but the state has a larger interest in protecting the health and welfare of its women citizens rather than protecting the evolving views of the Bishops. And, nothing in what the Federal Government proposes keeps the Bishops or the Catholic laity from believing what they want. That won’t change. The Church will continue to teach that contraception is a sin and the Church’s members will continue to ignore it.
Shall we stand with the Catholic Bishops or shall we stand with the women of America?
Stephen Baird M.D. February, 2012, Salt Lake City