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5 misconceptions about Catholics and abortion
The church's position on sexual health is more nuanced than critics suggest
It's a nuanced argument.
It's a nuanced argument. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
T

he rifts between various segments of the Catholic Church have been making news.

The publication of Univision's survey of global Catholics and the growing Catholic response to the Vatican's own survey have reportedly exposed internal divides among the faithful, especially on two hot button issues: abortion and contraception. The media has been quick to zero in, especially because the story is related to ongoing and often vocal Christian criticism of provisions of the Affordable Care Act. But what does the Catholic Church really have to say about abortion and birth control? And when the church speaks, do its congregants listen?

Here are five popular misconceptions about the Catholic Church's position on abortion and birth control that might help clear up the terms of engagement.

1. There's nothing inherently wrong with contraceptive devices or medications.

Part of Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke's famous 2012 testimony on contraception access concerned a friend with a disease called polycystic ovarian syndrome. Fluke spoke movingly of her friend's condition, explaining:

[She had] to take prescription birth control to stop cysts from growing on her ovaries.... After months of paying over $100 out of pocket, she just couldn't afford her medication anymore and had to stop taking it.... Without taking the birth control, a massive cyst had grown on her ovary. She had to have surgery to remove her entire ovary.

In cases such as these, where a person requires medication that also functions as contraception, the church does not object to the prescription or use of birth control drugs. So long as an unmarried person using the medication is not using it as contraception — the married can be sexually active with their spouses, though — there is no moral problem with its use for other medicinal purposes. Thus, though panic seems to persist as to an imminent birth control ban, it seems highly unlikely that forces within the church would ever advocate for the wholesale illegality of medications that can be used as contraception.

2. Contraception is not identical to abortion, and Catholics oppose them for different reasons.

Put most simply, the majority of contraceptive devices and medications are not abortive in nature. There is some muddying of the water on this issue by discussion of very early term abortions caused by the regular use of birth control pills or devices, but contraception in its purest form — say, barrier methods — prevents life from coming into being rather than ending it. The Catholic Church therefore recognizes a distinction between contraception and abortion, meaning the "every sperm is sacred" criticism often lobbed at the church is, in fact, misrepresentative.

As Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae,

[Though they are related,] contraception and abortion are specifically different evils: The former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment "You shall not kill."

3. Catholic doctrine does not prohibit lifesaving medical procedures that result in the death of fetuses.

A recently released Univision survey of global Catholics only offered those polled three positions on abortion: "Contrary to the Catholic Church position," "in accordance with the Catholic Church position," and "intermediate position." By intermediate, the survey means that one believes abortion should be allowed only in "some cases, for example when the life of the mother is in danger."

But it's the church's belief that medical procedures intended to save the life of a mother that result in the death of a fetus are morally permissible. The church would probably take issue with the phrasing; it doesn't consider such unintended fetal death "abortion" — that's reserved for elective abortion with the sole intent of ending the life of a fetus. Thus, the third position offered by the survey isn't really intermediate: As noted by Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, "the church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from."

4. Evangelicals' newfound opposition to contraception is not identical to Catholic opposition to contraception.

Though Catholics and Evangelicals have found themselves on the same side of the contraception-mandate debate, the two groups do not hold identical views on birth control. To use the recent Hobby Lobby case as an example, it's notable that the Evangelical proprietors of the retailer objected to contraception believed to cause early-term termination of fetal life, but not to all forms of contraception. It did not take issue with birth control on principle, as the Catholic Church does. Similarly, when Mike Huckabee infamously said that Democrats believe women are incapable of controlling their libidos without the aid of government, he did not launch an attack on the private purchase or use of birth control, suggesting that the issue has more to do with funding than principle.

5. Catholic opposition to mandated coverage of contraception does not equal opposition to universal health care overall.

With all of this being said, there still remains a diversity of Catholic opinion on contraception, and if recent polls are to be trusted, a modest spectrum of thought on abortion as well. But for public discourse, the most important fact is that the Catholic promotion of a culture of life is not incompatible with universal health care. As recently as 2012, the Vatican expressed support for all nations pursuing universal health care approaches that do not exclude their poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Speaking at the 65th World Health Assembly in 2012, Archbishop Zygamut Zimowski spoke for the Holy See when he said, "My delegation strongly believes that in the endeavor to promote universal coverage, fundamental values such as equity, human rights, and social justice need to become explicit policy objectives."

Therefore, the church's objection to some aspects of particular health care laws — those like the contraception mandate — should not be confused with an objection to universal health care overall. This is where the alliance with political conservatives, like Mike Huckabee, becomes most clearly shaky — and it's a good reminder that the debate over how to handle contraception and abortion should be conducted with attention to the real diversity of thought at hand.

(Editor's note: The article originally stated that people using contraceptive medications for therapeutic purposes are not permitted to be sexually active in the eyes of the Catholic Church. This applies only to unmarried persons.)

Elizabeth Stoker writes about Christianity, ethics, and policy for Salon, The Atlantic, and The Week. She is a graduate of Brandeis University, a Marshall Scholar, and a current Cambridge University divinity student. In her spare time, Elizabeth enjoys working in the garden and catching up on news of the temporal world.

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