A Critique of the Culture of Life, Part 2

Although anti-abortion rhetoric usually takes up most of the space in the “culture of life” discourse, opposition to contraception pays a key part in this ideology as well. A particular point of scorn is the so-called “contraception mentality” which is:

…rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfilment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception (from Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II).

From this perspective, contraception is a selfish act undergone by couples who find children to be a burden and use sex in ways not intended under natural law. The contraception mentality is part of a “culture of death” because it violates the natural end of sex, which is procreation. Once one ignores the true meaning of sex (which is to be open to the possibility of new human life), then destroying human life through abortion become a minor concern.

Aside from the fallacy of ascribing a “natural” end to sex, this view needlessly romanticizes pregnancy and childbirth, brushing aside any concerns about the possible health risks such an endeavor entails for the woman, as well as for her family. In the real world, pregnancy can led to anemia, depression, ectopic pregnancy, gestational diabetes, hyperemesis gravidarum (i.e., non-stop nausea which can cause dehydration), preeclampsia, and placental rupture. This doesn’t even include the risks associated with the act of childbirth itself, which was the number one cause of death for young women in the pre-modern era, and even into the 20th century. Women in childbirth can suffer from puerperal pyrexiai (i.e, infection of the female reproductive organs due to childbirth or miscarriage), various types of hemorrhages, and toxaemia or suffer from obstetric fistulas, something that continues to be a major problem in the developing world.

The medical advances of the past one hundred years or so have greatly curbed maternal death in the West to the point where most people take for granted that a pregnancy will led to the birth of a healthy baby and a mother who can be up and about in a few days, no worse for the wear. Part of the reason for the decrease in maternal deaths is due to contraception and the practices of having fewer children with considerable gaps between births. This article about British material deaths in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is instructive (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1633559/).

The World Health Organization indicates that 800 women in the developing world die from childbirth everyday. Many of them are adolescents whose bodies aren’t built to handle a baby at all, much less back-to-back pregnancies. For women living in extreme rural poverty, bereft of education or control of their bodies, being pregnant can and does very often send them to an early grave. If they weren’t pregnant in the first place, these women would not only not be dead, but they could be in a better position to care for the children (if any) they already have, perhaps start a business, go back to school, or find other ways to better their lives without having to worry about an increasingly number of dependents.

Even right here in the USA, maternal deaths are on the rise due to lack of access to quality healthcare, and we have the highest mortality rate for infants and mothers in the developed world (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/03/why-are-american-women-dying-childbirth-201438161633539780.html).

When it comes to the question of why so many Western Catholics ignore the Magisterium on birth control, I feel like conserotrad Catholics have to concoct these mental narratives like, “Couples who use birth control must be selfish. They hate children. They just want to spend money on gadgets and vacations. They have no self-control, etc” all of which ignores the practical reasons why having lots of children is not desirable for many people. By choosing not to see these problems (e.g., the health risks of pregnancy and/or giving birth many times, economic considerations, environmental issues) or alternatively considering these problems to be illegitimate, the Catholic church has left the conversation. This is precisely why groups like Planned Parenthood came into existence, because established groups like the church refused to address the concerns many women had in the early twentieth century about having to give birth over and over again with little rest in between.

I don’t see how the church’s flowery teaching on the “culture of life” can be converted into a public policy that actually works. Despite a strong Catholic culture in Latin America and heavily restricted access to abortion and contraception (in Chile, procuring or providing an abortion comes with a prison sentence), teen pregnancy is still rife, women die from clandestine abortions, and STDs are on the march(http://www.unicef.org/lac/desafios_Nro4_eng_Final%283%29.pdf)

Given the reality that pregnancy and childbirth is inherently a dangerous activity that should not be entered into lightly, I say that any real “culture of life” must include access to a full array of family planning services as part of a public health program. It is irresponsible to deny women the ability to plan their own fertility, when hundreds of them are dying each day from the complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Treating public health issues as a matter of sin may make the self-righteous among us feel better about themselves, but it won’t do anything to solve the problems in question.

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