How Do the Different Types of Action Relate to Contraception?

Q: In another question, you discussed the moral differences between inaction, indirect action, and direct action as they relate to euthanasia. How do they relate to contraception?

A: These same things distinctions that apply to the euthanasia apply to contraception. Consider the following three cases:

CASE 1 — Inaction: One does not have sex (as in the case of a celibate).

CASE 2 — Indirect Action: One does something to determine when one should not have sex, then one is inactive during that period (as in the case of a married couple using NFP). In this case, the action does not directly stop conception, because all it does directly is determine when inaction should be used. It thus only indirectly stops conception.

CASE 3 — Direct Action: Two variants here: First, one uses some artificial means to block conception from happening (e.g., condoms, spermicide, the Pill, Norplant, etc.); second, one directly kills the child after conception (e.g., surgical or chemical abortion).

In yesterday’s question we saw that direct action against the possibility of human life is impermissible when one is terminal; the same is true at the other end of life, and indeed before life beings. And it is for the same reason: the ends do not justify the means; something wrong may not be done so that something right may come of it. Even when a goal is just, unjust means may not be used to achieve it.

Thus, even in those circumstances in which not having a child is desirable (and one must note that our culture vastly overestimates the number of circumstances in which that is true), only a just means may be used to pursue that end. Direct action to prevent the possibility of human life is impermissible in all circumstances, both when a person is living, dying, or yet to be conceived. Thus contraception may not be used because it is direct action against the possibility of life.

However, when not having a child is the desirable thing, just means, such as inaction (celibacy) or indirect action (determining when periodic continence is to be used) is permissible. Just means may be used to achieve a just end.

This is spelled out in the Paul’s VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. Note in particular the emphasized portions:

“Equally to be excluded, as the teaching authority of the Church has frequently declared, is direct sterilization, whether perpetual or temporary, whether of the man or of the woman. Similarly excluded is every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.

“To justify conjugal acts made intentionally infecund, one cannot invoke as valid reasons the lesser evil … In truth, if it is sometimes licit to tolerate a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater evil or to promote a greater good, it is not licit, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil so that good may follow therefrom; that is, to make into the object of a positive act of the will something which is intrinsically disorder, and hence unworthy of the human person, even when the intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family or social well-being” (HV 14).

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