When Did the Catholic Church Endow Sperm With Inalienable Rights?
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Recent events make clear the need for a new language to describe the raging debate about sex and birth. Consider the problematic word that dominates our conversation: pro-life.
Most pro-life organizations more accurately should be labeled pro sperm. For they insist the sperm has the inalienable, indeed the God-given right to pursue the egg without human enabled interference. Joseph M. Scheidler, the National Director of the Pro-Life Action League memorably declared, “I think contraception is disgusting-people using each other for pleasure.” Judith Brown, President of The American Life Lobby asserts its opposition “to all forms of birth control with the exception of natural family planning.”
The Catholic Church is fervently pro-sperm. Decades before the Church mobilized against abortion it mobilized against contraception. As late as 1960, many states outlawed sales of contraceptives. The Catholic Church was the driving force behind these laws. In the 1940s, Connecticut legislators introduced bills allowing physicians to prescribe contraceptives only for married couples if a pregnancy would be life threatening. The Catholic Church swung into action. One historian describes the process; “priests became heavily involved…Their efforts were not confined to anti-birth control sermons on Sundays. They engaged in voter registration drives, they encouraged parishioners to support anti-birth control candidates for the legislature, and they actively campaigned to defeat any changes in the birth control laws”. The bills failed.
Prior to 1930, all Christian denominations held that contraception was contrary to God’s will. Then one by one, beginning with the Church of England they began to accept birth control.
Many expected the Catholic Church to follow suit. In the mid 1960’s Pope Paul VI appointed a commission on birth control to advise him on the issue. An overwhelming majority of its members favored lifting the ban. In his 1968 Encyclical, Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) the Pope summarized the argument of the majority:
... world population is going to grow faster than available resources, with the consequences that many families and developing countries would be faced with greater hardships… not only working and housing conditions but the greater demands made both in the economic and educational field pose a living situation in which it is frequently difficult these days to provide properly for a large family…(we need to take into account) a new understanding of the dignity of woman and her place in society, or the value of conjugal love in marriage and the relationship of conjugal acts to this love…
…if one were to apply here the so-called principle of totality, could it not be accepted that the intention to have a less prolific but more rationally planned family might transform an action which renders natural processes infertile into a licit and provident control of birth? Could it not be admitted, in other words, that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act? A further question is whether, because people are more conscious today of their responsibilities, the time has not come when the transmission of life should be regulated by their intelligence and will rather than through the specific rhythms of their bodies…
Pope Paul VI decided that the rights of the sperm transcended any and all of these arguments. The use of contraception, he concluded results in “an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design.”
But the biological facts make God’s design less than clear. Consider that when artificial birth control or abortion is not used, more often than not God chooses death, not life. A third to a half or of fertilized eggs do not implant. Some doctors believe this figure could be as high as 80 percent. A third of those that do implant end up in spontaneous miscarriages. Does the pro-life movement believe this makes God a mass murderer?