Recently it was announced in Germany that Catholic hospitals would be treating rape victims with a morning-after pill. It was established that the morning-after pill is not an abortifacient (at least under certain conditions), and that it can be legitimately used by rape victims to prevent conception (at least under those conditions). Catholic hospitals in Germany have therefore begun prescribing birth-control pills for rape victims. This was approved of directly by the Bishops in Germany under the head of the Archbishop of Freiburg Robert Zollitsch, and it was also approved of by Georg Gaenswein, the secretary of Pope Benedict XVI (soon to be Joseph Ratzinger again) in the Vatican. Does this represent a change of Church teaching on contraceptive technologies?
The simple answer is no, it does not. Catholic Theologians have been saying for a long time that if the morning after pill could be demonstrated (to a moral certainty) to not act as an abortion inducing drug, at least under some circumstances, that it could legitimately be used by rape victims, at least under those circumstances. Obviously the permission does not extend to RU-486. In fact, as the Washington Post points out, Catholic hospitals have already been in the habit of allowing things like spermicidal wash in the past, and allowing the morning-after pill is not qualitatively different.
The act is not one of a contraceptive mentality, but of the mentality of self-preservation. The woman who is raped has every right to protect her body from an intruder, a rapist. If the act of taking the morning after pill is an act of protecting her body from the rapist then it isn’t contraceptive in the moral sense (in the same way that having to make a medical decision between prioritizing saving the life of the mother or saving the life of her child soon to be born is not what the Church means by Her stance against elective abortion). The same could also be said of a logically possible contraceptive (which I note doesn’t actually exist), which operated like the morning after pill to regulate a woman’s periods, but did not have the side-effects of causing breast cancer in women who take it. That contraceptive could be legitimately used by some women, for instance nuns, who are not in any way employing the technology as a contraceptive.
It is wrong to use contraceptive technologies because they, by artificial manipulation, remove from sex something which is essential to it: namely the openness to the procreative end. However, the rape victim is not removing this essential element from sex, except perhaps as a tolerated effect of defending herself. The principle of double-effect states that a person can tolerate some evil for the sake of the greater good. For example, I may rush out in the middle of the street to push a child out of the way of an oncoming vehicle, knowing full well that I will inevitably have to push that child out of the way only to be run over myself. In this act I am not committing suicide, even though my actions will result in my death. The point is that my actions aren’t aimed at that end – I am not intending to kill myself. Rather I am intending to save the life of a child, and I am tolerating the effect that I will die. In the same way a woman who is raped uses a contraceptive to defend herself from the sperm of the rapist, and has to tolerate whatever contraceptive element she has introduced into the sexual act. Her intention is not to remove from the sexual act it’s procreative ends, but rather to defend herself physically from an aggressor. Her taking a contraceptive pill is no more of a ‘contra-ceptive’ act then kicking her aggressor off of her would be. To whatever measure it is contraceptive, the contraception is tolerated as a second order effect, the primary intent being to defend herself. However, the act is not truly contraceptive at all, as I will explain below.
If the contraceptive pill were an abortifacient, however, then it could not be used by the woman to defend herself because she would be ‘defending’ herself by killing an innocent child. The ends cannot justify the means. The reason this logic could not be used to justify, say, the use of condoms in Africa (or anywhere else for that matter) is that what the woman is doing in defending herself is not the same as introducing a contraceptive intention into the sexual act. The act is not introducing a contraceptive intention in the sexual act, but is aimed at impeding conception after the fact, as a way for the woman to defend herself from the ongoing attack on her body from the male sperm. A contraceptive act is one in which one introduces a contraceptive technology to prevent the sexual act from being open to its procreative ends. For example if a man and woman who were married were having sex, and the man was under the impression that they were trying to get pregnant while the woman was, for personal reasons, secretly using the morning after pill, then the man is at no moral fault even though the sexual act was not actually open to the procreative end. If the man knew, then he would be at fault. The fault, then, lies at the level of intention. One cannot intend to contraceptively participate in the sexual act in a morally legitimate way anymore than one could, with moral legitimacy, participate in a sexual act which did not involve the love and mutual commitment which the body-language of the act essentially expresses and involves. The rape victim, however, is not participating in the sexual act with any intention to contracept – in fact, she isn’t intending to participate at all. Therefore, her act is not in any sense a truly contraceptive act, as it in no way aims to divorce the participation in the sexual act from it’s procreative ends.