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Should Catholic politicians oppose legal contraception? Yes; prudently.

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 20, 2014

Is a Catholic politician morally obligated to oppose the legal distribution of contraceptives? That question has come to the fore because of a surprisingly contentious Congressional campaign in Virginia.

Austin Ruse presented the argument to readers outside Virginia in February, with a Crisis magazine article entitled: “Is Contraception the Hill We Want to Die On?” Ruse argued that the American public is completely unsympathetic toward the Catholic argument against contraception, and a political campaign to ban contraceptives is doomed to failure. “Certain defeat awaits us up Contraceptive Hill,” Ruse wrote. “We should not fight there.”

With that political analysis, I sadly agree. When I was a candidate for public office myself, I steered clear of the issue, realizing that any discussion of contraception would serve only to alienate voters who might otherwise have supported me. As Ruse has explained in a subsequent Crisis article, we need to do a much better job of presenting the Catholic case, preparing the way, before we can realistically contemplate a public campaign against contraception.

But a discreet silence on contraception is one thing; a proposal to allow the sale of contraceptives without a doctor’s prescription is another. And that is the issue that has stirred the debate in Virginia. Barbara Comstock, the leading candidate for the Republic nomination in the 10th Congressional district, has proposed that birth-control pills be made available on an over-the-counter basis. Her opponent, Rob Wasinger, charges that Comstock’s proposal is morally indefensible.

Ruse, in partnership with a number of other prominent pro-lifers in the region, has come to Comstock’s defense. In practice, they argue, her proposal would not make contraception any more widespread, since any woman who wants the Pill can readily obtain the necessary prescription. By making birth-control pills available over the counter, the Comstock forces argue, the proposal would take government out of the equation; women who wanted the Pill would pay for it themselves, and the taxpayer (who may find contraception morally objectionable) would not be stuck with the bill.

Frankly, I find that reasoning unpersuasive. The Obama administration—to which the Comstock proposal is addressed—seems to regard the distribution of contraceptives as its top domestic-policy priority, and would surely find a way to continue taxpayer subsidies. But for the sake of the argument, let’s assume that Comstock’s proposal would not encourage contraception. Would it then be justifiable?

Ruse argues that it would. In yet another Crisis piece, he observes that “the Church in the US has not called for Catholics in public life to attempt to ban or restrict contraceptives from the larger society.” He adds:

I am not aware that the Church has even admonished Catholic politicians for voting in favor of increased funding for Title X Family Planning programs that provide low cost or free contraceptives for low-income women.

Writing for National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru goes further, claiming that “Catholic teaching does not hold that citizens or politicians are obligated to support laws to make contraceptives less accessible, or to oppose laws that make them more accessible. Catholics are not obligated to seek their prohibition.”

Ruse is on solid ground; the American hierarchy has not prodded Catholic politicians to curb the distribution—or even the public funding of—contraceptives. But Ponnuru’s statement is inaccurate. In his encyclical Humanae Vitae (23), after confirming and explaining the moral prohibition on contraceptives, Pope Paul VI appealed to political leaders: “do not tolerate any legislation which would introduce into the family those practices which are opposed to the natural law of God.”

Yet even without those clear words from the Pope, Catholic politicians would be under a moral obligation to oppose contraception, because they are obligated to serve the common good, and contraception violates the common good. The use of contraception is not merely a moral offense for Catholics, similar to eating meat on a Friday in Lent. As Pope Paul explained in Humanae Vitae, contraception is a violation of the natural law, harmful to anyone who engages in the practice. Contraceptives harm people (especially women) and harm our society. Catholic politicians—all politicians, actually—should look for opportunities to restrain the practice.

Again, I recognize that a frontal assault on legal contraception would fail miserably, given current political realities. But those realities may never change, if politicians who should know better use rhetoric that suggests contraception is a public good. And that is my quarrel with Barbara Comstock. On her web site, her proposal for over-the-counter distribution of the Pill is justified thus:

Ironically, the Obama Administration has made the morning after pill available over the counter, yet refuses to make birth control pills available. Currently, countries around the world allow for over the counter sale of oral contraceptives as well as other birth control methods. Allowing over the counter sales of oral contraceptives for adult women would enhance women’s access, put decisions in their hands, modernize the health care system, and lower birth control costs. It is a bipartisan solution that could bring people together and help in ending birth control politics.

Nothing in that paragraph suggests disapproval of contraception, or even ambivalence. On the contrary, the language reinforces the sadly inaccurate public perception that contraceptives are a public good. The Comstock site touts the proposal as a way to “enhance women’s access,” thereby strongly implying that it is desirable to make the Pill more universally available. Comstock may have justifiable reasons for proposing the new policy, but she is using inadmissible rhetoric to advance it.

In making this argument I do not intend to indict Comstock, nor to endorse Wasinger’s criticism. In fact, for the reasons outlined above, I think Wasinger’s attack is ill considered; it may hurt his opponent, but it will not help him. For now, prudent political candidates will continue to treat the issue of contraception with care. But those of us who are not directly involved in the campaigns, and can speak our minds freely, should hold our favorite politicians accountable, and not allow them to become—or even seem to become—cheerleaders for a moral disaster.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Nov. 12, 2016 2:20 PM ET USA

    I voted Trump because the alternative was Mrs. Clinton, who was rejected by the state where she was First Lady by a two-to-one margin. That alone should tell you a lot. I was unhappy not to be able to support a candidate, since every time I considered it, Mr. Trump would say some denigrating thing about conservatives, that he did not want or need my support. It is time for the Clintons to go home, wherever that is. It certainly is not here in Arkansas. I am still watching Mr. Trump closely.

  • Posted by: shrink - Nov. 10, 2016 10:36 AM ET USA

    The current elites will not retire they still have the cultural winds at their back. They will attempt a velvet glove coup to overthrow or emasculate Trump; and therein lies the problem. The irascible and impetuous Trump will over-react to the coup attempts UNLESS, there is some spiritual moderating force.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 10, 2016 2:18 AM ET USA

    I voted for Trump because he is a man who is constantly learning: learning from his blue-collar and white-collar employees, learning from his work in the entertainment industry, and learning from his mistakes. His most recent education is the most important of all: the quest to learn about God, His ways, and His will for us. The first step in this learning process was the appointment of a Catholic advisory group. Will he continue his learning about God? I don't know, but I hope and pray he does.

  • Posted by: feedback - Nov. 09, 2016 11:14 PM ET USA

    Donald Trump will be appointing new Judges to the Supreme Court, and that alone is well worth his victory. And his choice of Mike Pence couldn't be better from a Catholic and Christian perspective. I am very happy and very hopeful. If Trump manages to implement at least one half of his campaign promises, we will be in a very good shape.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Nov. 09, 2016 9:24 PM ET USA

    My short version of the above: the country rebelled against the so-called elites in politics, media, and culture. Trump, an insider, understood that people were ready to rebel and took on the appearance of an outsider and rode that to victory. The Democrats only regret is that the demographics haven't locked in an advantage for them and the combination of methods of voter fraud they have devised were not sufficient to allow them to cheat.

  • Posted by: Toddyo - Nov. 09, 2016 6:54 PM ET USA

    Trump has a 40 year record of success and generosity. He, Mohammed Ali and Rosa Parks were given the Ellis Island Award for promoting civil rights. He has over 500 successful, beautiful, well run projects that created jobs for every level of skill and intelligence. He has more women in high executive positions, black, white and Hispanic than any other major employer. Trump's Foundation supports St. Jude's. I suspect he is having a conversion experience too. Give him a break.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Nov. 09, 2016 5:03 PM ET USA

    I confess to being one of the 60 million. It was a vote against Hillary Clinton, not for the "salvation" by Donald Trump. It gives us a day to regroup and perhaps save a few thousand children before the inevitable problems with a new administration. Put not your trust in princes...

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 24, 2014 4:23 PM ET USA

    As in science, so in religion: don't publicly speak about a sensitive topic without a firm understanding of first principles. If you can't break a complex subject down in terms a school child can grasp, chances are you don't understand it well enough yourself. But if you are a master of the subject, then give a ready answer to anyone who asks. The basis for the Church's position against contraception is simple: the dual ends of sacramental marriage--life and love. These cannot be separated.