It is not widely known now among adherents of the faith, but in earlier times the Roman Catholic Church was not implacably opposed to abortion. Until 1869 the Church viewed abortion before “quickening” (the first movement of the fetus in the womb, when it was thought that the soul entered the body) as permissible under certain circumstances. But in 1869 — at a time of widespread social conservatism (not only in the Church) and worries about being overrun by rapidly-breeding “heathens” — a Papal encyclical radically changed this view, categorically forbidding all abortion at all stages of pregnancy. In modern terminology, the destruction of a fertilized egg was viewed as the killing of a human being.
Interestingly, over time the Church has opposed contraception much more consistently than abortion. By the 1930s, however, the Church had bowed to pressure from the faithful to countenance some form of “natural” family planning based on avoiding intercourse during the fertile period of a woman’s cycle. The so-called “rhythm method” became the only form of contraception permitted by the Church except for abstinence.
Over the decades the rhythm method has been gradually refined. In 2002 Catholic doctors introduced the Standard Days method, which was easy to follow with the help of a pretty trinket known as CycleBeads (pictured above). The woman uses the beads to keep track of the days of her cycle; the more brightly colored beads indicate the “safe” days at the beginning (days 1 through 7) and at the end (starting with day 20) when sex would probably not lead to pregnancy.
In recent years some medical ethicists have pointed out that, according to scientists’ current understanding of the physiology of reproduction, what happens in the later of the two safe periods is that the egg gets fertilized too close to the beginning of the woman’s next period; chemical changes in the womb have occurred that prevent implantation in the uterine wall. The fertilized egg eventually just gets flushed out with the menses. The ethicists then ask how someone can approve of the rhythm method and at the same time view the destruction of a fertilized egg as tantamount to murder. As Luc Bovens points out in an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, “the rhythm method may well be responsible for a much higher number of embryonic deaths than some other contraceptive techniques,” such as IUDs and contraceptive pills. In fact, even a woman who has several abortions in her lifetime has not caused as many “embryonic deaths” as one who uses the rhythm method. (Note: strictly speaking, the medical terms for a fertilized egg before implantation are zygote, blastomere, blastocyst, or morula, whereas embryo is used after implantation.) As Bovens says, “if one is willing to make a few relatively innocent assumptions, then the rhythm method may well be responsible for massive embryonic death and the same logic that turned pro-lifers away from morning-after pills, IUDs and pill usage, should also make them nervous about the rhythm method.”
Thus, there are several questions that should be asked of clergy who recommend the rhythm method to their parishioners and who are implacably opposed to abortion, which for them includes destruction of a fertilized egg before implantation. First, how do they explain why the safe days at the end of the cycle are safe? What prevents pregnancy from occurring? Second, are Catholic theologians aware of the work of medical ethicists such as Luc Bovens? If priests have known about this work for years and have continued to recommend the rhythm method, how do they reconcile their views and actions with the Catholic notions of sin and culpability? They are, after all, knowingly encouraging Catholic women to adopt a practice that results in the destruction of fertilized eggs.
The reason for raising this issue is that it points to a profound inconsistency in the stance of the Catholic Church. The point is not that the rhythm method — or any other method of fertility control — is morally evil. Rather, in the words of Luc Bovens, “One could simply conceive of this whole argument as a reductio ad absurdum of the cornerstone of the argument of the pro-life movement, namely that deaths of early embryos are a matter of grave concern.”