Compassion, Morality, Feminism and Natural Family Planning

Libby Anne over at “Love, Joy, Feminism” has made a post on the recent comments by Pope Francis in the Philippines about Natural Family Planning and contraception. Essentially, the Pope commented that a woman who had had seven C-section births who was pregnant for an eighth time was acting irresponsibly, and should use the approved methods of contraception, namely Natural Family Planning. People considered that statement compassionate, and Libby Anne’s main point in the post is that it wasn’t.

There are two main issues with her post. The first is that her assessment of how compassionate the Pope is being there is based on an assessment of morality that isn’t the one the Pope is using, and one cannot claim that someone isn’t being compassionate when they only advocate for the options that they consider moral. You have to settle the moral questions first, and insisting on claiming that they are not compassionate is an appeal to emotion, not an appeal to reason. The second is that the assessment here clashes with a feminist interpretation of sex … at least, of sex positivity in feminism and of how they treat rape and male sexual desire.

Let’s start with the first issue, but the two will intertwine a bit. The underlying philosophical basis of Catholic morality on this issue is that you ought not do things that interrupt the natural order. Artificial birth control methods do this, but NFP doesn’t, mostly I’d guess because it uses the natural powers of humans — planning and will power — to avoid pregnancy. We are all able to decide to have or not have sex; we are not slaves to our sex drives. So, under Catholic moral philosophy, artificial contraception is immoral, and NFP is not, and so the compassionate option for someone for whom pregnancy is an issue is for them to practice morally acceptable forms of contraception. Libby Anne clearly does not share that morality, but how does she object to the Pope’s views?

You know what’s interesting? Of all methods of birth control, it is NFP that is most difficult to use. NFP also only works with complete cooperation of the male partner, which prevents a woman from making independent decisions about her own reproduction.

Not only is NFP difficult to learn and use, it also doesn’t work for everyone.

The most interesting one from here is the idea that artificial forms of contraception can be used by women unilaterally, but NFP requires both partners to agree and participate. What’s interesting about it is that sex is, in general, supposed to be something between two consenting adults, as is reproduction. To object to NFP because it requires two partners in a marriage to agree to how to avoid pregnancies and when they have sex seems like a rather odd claim for a feminist to make … or, rather, it would be an odd claim if it wasn’t insisting on giving control over all of this to the woman, as she literally says that the problem with NFP is that is doesn’t let her make independent decisions about her own reproduction. Sure, there might be a case for this in single, sexually active women, but since Catholic doctrine also discourages sex outside of marriage in the context of this debate Libby Anne is arguing for a woman to be able to make independent decisions over reproduction — ie having children — in a marriage. If the two of them can’t agree, allowing the woman to unilaterally make the decision on that is not in any way going to improve the marriage … and is not a good example of what a marriage should be.

Beyond that, the other two arguments here are ones that don’t carry any weight against a moral argument. If the Catholics are right about morality, then the only moral option being harder isn’t anything you can fault them for; we all should expect to have to avoid the easy but immoral solutions. And to say that some people won’t be able to follow NFP is essentially to say that people will be incapable of following the moral option. Since ought implies can, if true this would be an objection … but all of Libby Anne’s examples are of people who simply didn’t or weren’t capable of taking the care needed to maintain, one presumes, a certain level of sexual activity while ensuring that they didn’t have that while the woman was ovulating. But unless NFP is excessively onerous — and that Libby Anne was able to follow it suggests that while it may be tough, it isn’t impossible — asking people to take that sort of care is what we’d expect from asking them to do the moral and avoid the immoral.

So without settling the morality issue, these objections hold no water. As we’ve seen so many times before, if she can prove that the Catholic moral view is incorrect, that NFP is more difficult or that some have a hard time following it is only relevant as a practical consideration. There’d be no major conflict there. However, if she can’t, then saying that NFP is harder and maybe too hard from some to follow easily in no way impacts an argument that says that it must be what you do because all other options are immoral.

We can put this into sharper focus by looking in more detail at why some people can’t follow it:

Indeed, the years I spent using NFP wreaked havoc on my sex life.

She also quotes someone frustrated with NFP that says similar things:

And there’s only so much abstinence that can reasonably be expected of a couple not in a Josephine marriage. Seven, eight months last time? I lost count. How long this time? A year, two? And how do we deal with the incredible strain that so much abstinence places on our marriage? The frustrated desires, the feelings of rejection, the guilt, the anger, the loneliness?

So, one of the main arguments on why it’s hard to follow — beyond it requiring a lot of calculation to work — is about its impact on the sex life of the participants … in general, that people can’t have sex whenever they want (this is the only benefit to one’s sex life that artificial contraception has over NFP or any abstinence-based model). This is where the contradiction with feminist attitudes towards sex comes in, because in any discussion of sex from rape to simply commenting on men who aren’t having success getting sex, the feminist attitude is that if men can’t get sex in a manner consistent with feminist principles and morality then they should abstain, and that that sort of abstinence should not bother them. Certainly, it ought not overcome a moral reason to not pursue sex in that manner — again, ranging from rape cases to simply sexist ways of pursuing sex. The underlying principle is that sex is not so important as to trump morality, and that we can indeed live and even live reasonable lives without it. Which holds right up until the point where someone is advocating that someone abstain from sex in a case where they don’t think it immoral to engage in sex there. Then, it’s one of the worst and most damaging things that anyone can do.

This highlights how the debate is moral, and not over compassion. Feminists do not think that they are not acting compassionately when they tell men that if they can’t pursue sex morally they ought not pursue sex, even doing so harshly (eg pretty much anything Amanda Marcotte says on the subject), whether or not they agree that doing so is immoral or not. Sure, we have very good reason to say that rape is immoral and one ought to abstain from sex if the only option for getting it would be to rape someone, but when we get into, say, criticizing PUAs the objections are that it is more sexist and objectifying than that it is forcing someone into it, which one could argue is not a moral problem, or at least not a moral problem that justifies forcing someone to abstain from sex rather than follow them. But insisting that that is bad and is a problem is not see as not being compassionate to feminists … but it is when the Catholic Church applies their morality and asks for abstinence.

People will protest that the difference is that the feminist moral judgements here are about what you can do to others, and about causing at least potential harm to others, and the Catholic moral judgements only impact the couple, and that moral judgements don’t apply to yourself; one cannot do anything immoral if it only impacts yourself. However, this isn’t a universally proven moral principle; there are many moral systems that do think that you can act immoral towards yourself, and so it would still apply. So again this comes down to a moral assumption that isn’t proven, and the objection is simply that they are acting badly because of their views, which implies that their views are wrong but uses emotional language, arguments and practical arguments to avoid having to address the moral differences in any way beyond a very shallow assessment, like when Libby Anne asks this:

I have to wonder, why is NFP the only method God allows? I know the justification is that artificial birth control negates the procreative purpose of sex, but doesn’t using NFP to prevent pregnancy do that as well?

As I said above, the difference is that it does so by blocking the natural process, not by a human simply using their existing natural faculties. I’m not certain that this is the justification, as I am not a Catholic theologian … but this is an answer that I came up with in about 5 seconds knowing only a bit about it and about Aristotle. If she really had to wonder that, surely she could find ways to try to figure out what the difference is. But she doesn’t try because, presumably, she doesn’t care to. She is confident in her view of morality, one that is based on Utilitarian views, feminist principles and an idea that morality only applies to relations between people. None of these are uncontroversial morally, so she can’t simply state that the Pope isn’t compassionate simply because he only recommends things based on the morality that he thinks is correct, any more than we can claim that she isn’t compassionate because she only recommends things based on the morality that she thinks is correct. Someone following their genuinely held moral principles is not a bad person simply because you don’t agree with those principles. And we should ensure that our rhetoric does not imply that, and certainly that it does not imply that because that’s what might win you the argument.

2 Responses to “Compassion, Morality, Feminism and Natural Family Planning”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    Excellent job, and you’ve nailed the difference between ABC and NFP. It’s like losing weight by dieting vs. losing weight by making yourself throw up. You’ll lose weight both ways, but one is moral while the other isn’t.

  2. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    Your point quite clearly demonstrated yet I’m not 100% sure about the idea that preventing pregnancy trough most methods is more disruptive to nature than many common medical procedures… once the pregnancy is completed it’s a new life though.

    Sometimes I wonder if the posture of the church on contraception is not more politically convenient than philosophically coherent since it could be that the church wants to overpower the general secularization of population trough the prohibition of most contraceptive methods.

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