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 website, 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.
Philip F. Lawler is the editor and founder of Catholic World News, the first English-language Catholic news service operating on the Internet. Mr. Lawler has served as director of studies for the Heritage Foundation—a conservative think tank based in Washington. He was founder and president of a national organization of Catholic laity, and was editor of Crisis magazine. In 1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper. Mr. Lawler is the author of six books on political and religious topics. The most recent is The Faithful Departed, a book about the decline of Catholic influence in Boston. His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers around the United States and abroad.
This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otn.cfm?id=1025.