Is Contraception a Legitimate Response to the Zika Virus?

Pope Francis’ latest press interview on the plane from Mexico created confusion about the Church’s teaching on contraception. The Holy Father said, “Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape.” The Papal spokesman, Fr. Lombardi, trying to clarify matters, seemed to say that women in areas affected by Zika are in a “case of emergency or gravity,” and so are allowed to “discern” whether to use a contraceptive.

The process of “discernment” Fr. Lombardi seems to be suggesting, does not really make sense on its own terms. Let me explain.

Just this past weekend, I met David and Roz Rowan, a couple whose only child died suddenly at the age of 23 from a Massive Pulmonary Embolism. Why would a healthy young woman die from a stroke? Doctors attribute it directly to her use of hormonal contraception. The parents have set up a foundation in her honor, to do research on the link between contraception and Massive Pulmonary Embolisms.

Likewise, Erika Langhart died of a double pulmonary embolism, at the age of 24. She was using a NuvaRing, contraceptive device. This family refused an out of court settlement from the drug manufacturer. The parents wanted Merck, the international pharmaceutical giant, to face a jury trial, and be held accountable for the deaths of women like Erika. As her mother said,


In our opinion, Merck got away with murder, and continues to do so to this day. In 2011 NuvaRing made the company $623m; in 2013 it was $686m; and in 2014, after the settlement, Merck made a staggering $723m from it. Settlements are just the cost of doing business to Merck, all at the expense of women’s health and lives.

Earlier this year, Erika’s mother committed suicide.

How could Erika have predicted her own death, the nightmare her parents would endure on her behalf, the callous behavior of government agencies and drug companies, and ultimately, her mother’s suicide?

The calculating approach raises more questions than it answers. How many levels of consequences are we morally required to consider in our discernment process in a “serious case of conscience?” Is it ever morally permissible for a perfectly healthy woman to ingest a drug that has some discernible probability of causing her harm?

Are we required to take into account the very real possibility of our own premature death due to strokes or heart attacks? How about a drug that doubles our risk of glaucoma? Or a drug that increases our chances of cancer? Is it morally permissible to use a contraceptive drug or device that has some probability of acting as an abortifacient? Doesn’t this balancing act have to include all of the possible contingent outcomes? I don’t see why a probability of giving birth to a child with a birth defect is the only possible consideration.

Would it not have been better for young women to hear the full story about the truth and beauty of the Church’s authentic teaching? Sex belongs inside marriage. Each and every sexual act should be open to new life, so that the unitive and the procreative aspects of the conjugal act exist together and reinforce each other.

Children have a right to the love and care of their own mother and father. Reserving sex for marriage only, means that adults are preparing themselves to be parents together. They make a lifelong commitment to each other, before their child is even born. This is a great and beautiful good. Anything less is an injustice for the child.

Contraception upsets all this. It misleads us into thinking that we can do whatever we want, and somehow, everything will be ok. That is the way economists think: laissez-faire freedom is the best for everyone, all the time. But no matter what a person might think about the economy, it is surely not true that we can do whatever we want sexually, and everything will work out.

Shouldn’t all these second- and third-order consequences and systemic consequences also be considered?

My training is in economics and statistics, not moral theology. I am a “revert:” that it, a cradle Catholic who came back to the faith after an extended lapse. When I came back to the Church, I became persuaded that in the end, all these probabilities and possible outcomes cannot be fully weighed. People like Germain Grisez and Russell Hittinger and Robert P. George and J. Budziszewski convinced me to reject consequentialist moral theories as being non-serious.

This was a big step for me, because economists in the English-speaking world have a very strong tendency to be consequentialists. We get our utilitarianism from John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham and similar people.

I have spent the years since returning to the Church in 1988 purging my mind of all traces of utilitarianism, proportionalism and consequentialism. I am much happier without all that, I must say. I am most reluctant to dust off my old moral calculator and begin measuring and weighing and balancing all over again.

Calculating costs and benefits is what the drug company does. Why should we, as Catholics, join them?

Editor’s note: In the image above, Pope Francis is pictured with Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi during an in-flight press conference in 2014. (Photo credit: CNS photo)

Jennifer Roback Morse


Jennifer Roback Morse is the founder and president of The Ruth Institute, a non-profit organization focused on keeping the family together, protecting the rights of children and helping the millions of people who have been harmed by family breakdown. She is the author, most recently, of The Sexual State.

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