ONE COULD SAY I HAVE always wanted to be Catholic. I was raised in a non-practicing Methodist household. At least twice a month, though, I would sneak off to the Catholic church–during off hours–and sit in the silence and admire the beauty. The intricate carvings, the candles burning steadily and the smell of incense all combined to form a sense of holiness and presence that I still love.
When I became engaged to a Catholic gentleman, I began the process of converting to Catholicism. We were married in the Catholic church by an extremely nice priest who didn’t berate us for living together prior to the wedding. As a happily married Catholic couple, we had to immediately deal with the fact I was on six different medications for my bipolar disorder. My doctors have made it clear that, for the health of any future child or children, I would have to be on different medication or none at all for at least six months before trying to get pregnant. I would also need family members to stay with me during the pregnancy. These considerations mean that, realistically, pregnancy is not an option for me.
My husband is on active duty with the Navy, and after our marriage we were transferred to South Carolina, where we immediately found a new church. I scheduled an appointment with the priest and he assured me that natural family planning (NFP) was the way for us to go. He said that there was no need to violate the ban on contraception and we could still act responsibly in regards to my medical situation. My husband and I met with a lady, whom I’ll call Nancy, who had gone through the required NFP, classes and certifications and was highly recommended by our priest.
The two initial NFP classes taught me more about the female reproductive system than I ever learned in school. For the first two months we were abstinent, as required for the initial charting. It seemed like a small sacrifice in our marriage for the state of our religious well-being, which was important to us both. During the two-month period, we went to two additional appointments with Nancy, learning more about the natural family planning method. Despite the fact we’re fairly intelligent (my husband is a chemist and an engineering laboratory technician; I’m also a former chemist and current Mensa member), we fell for Nancy’s claims that NFP is 99 percent effective without doing any double-checking. After all, a lady in the employ of any church wouldn’t lie. Then I attended appointment number five. Nancy told me that the birth control pill, which I had used for five years, had probably caused me to have multiple abortions without me realizing it.
I sat there speechless. I believed her for about m seconds, and then the part of my brain that uses reason spoke up. It said plainly–and thankfully, silently–a skeptical word that a nice, religious young lady shouldn’t say. I smiled sweetly, sat through the rest of the appointment, and left. Upon reaching the house, I got on the computer and started researching. My initial web search brought up a variety of sites agreeing with Nancy that I had unintentionally killed multiple babies, but I was still skeptical.
Then I adjusted the search parameters to pull up scholarly articles, published news articles and results from educational sites. To my relief, I found out that taking hormonal birth control does not cause abortions. But my curiosity was aroused. I wondered how many other women were being told this. I also wondered how many did a general web search, believed the results of the first five sites that a search engine pulled up, and stopped their research there. Luckily, while some women may believe the mis-information out there, many are dismissing it. A recent report from the Guttmacher Institute showed that only two percent of sexually active Catholic women, even regular church attendees, rely on natural family planning. The other 98 percent have used birth control methods banned by the Vatican at some point in their lives, with 70 percent currently using the pill, sterilization or an IUD. This is not a surprise, since the World Health Organization states that natural family planning is only 75 percent effective, not 99 percent as we were told.
A year later, we’re using birth control pills again, since our three options according to the Catholic hierarchy are:
1) use natural family planning and run a serious risk of getting pregnant and causing harm to the fetus; 2) abstain from sex all together and run a serious risk of ruining our marriage; or 3) violate the rules laid down by the Vatican and use “real” birth control. Also a year later, I’ve become aware of a movement, disguising itself under the banner of morality, attempting to take away the option to use many forms of birth control. This movement is trying to force us back to the era when women faced with choices about contraception, pregnancy and necessary–even lifesaving–medications had fewer options than they do today.
CONTRACEPTIVES DO NOT CAUSE ABORTIONS
Hat was told to me in a church-sanctioned class can be heard elsewhere: that any woman using a hormonal method of birth control–including oral contraceptives, Depo-Provera and Lunelle shots, NuvaRings, Ortho Evra patches and IUDS–can induce abortion. Hormonal contraceptives help prevent pregnancy by three means: preventing ovulation, thickening cervical mucus to make it harder for sperm to reach the egg and by thinning the lining of the uterus. But the fringe of the antichoice movement argues that pregnancy starts the moment sperm meets egg, forming a zygote. By this logic, if any woman with a fertilized egg is pregnant, then a contraceptive that prevents pregnancy after the point of fertilization is actually causing an abortion. However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) holds that a pregnancy is not established until a fertilized egg is implanted in the lining of a woman’s uterus.
This question is not just nitpicking over definitions. The argument that certain contraceptives cause abortions has been used by some pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control, thereby denying women prescriptions that are not only legal, but prescribed by their doctors. It is fundamental to the question of contraceptives and women’s right to use them.
Those who object to birth control either for religious reasons or based on faulty science are actively working on the political front to change laws and regulations so that women no longer have the option of choosing some forms of birth control. Several states have attempted to pass sweeping pieces of legislation claiming to protect “personhood,” which is defined as beginning at the moment of fertilization. This move is being promoted most heavily by an organization going by the name of Personhood USA, though many other groups are aiding the battle. The Mississippi version of the amendment was defeated during the November 2011 election, but the similar movements in other states are causes for concern. Well-known politicians, including both parties’ nominees for governor of Mississippi, supported the measure. The major media networks, including CNN, consistently referred to the amendment as an “abortion ban,” completely ignoring the various other fields the amendment would affect. This oversimplification misleads many who would vote against it if they were privy to the full story, which is that this amendment would also outlaw many forms of birth control as well as in vitro fertilization.
The misconception that using a contraceptive is the same as having an abortion may be distressingly common at church, in politics and online, but there is hope. Men and women, once informed about the full scope of this issue, often express a dissenting point of view. They spread good information to those they know. They vote. And they let their church leaders know that they, the laity, are considering the moral implications of these questions. But are church leaders listening? And are all of the laity brave enough to share their opinion?
I must admit with sadness that, thus far, I have not been one of the brave ones. Once back on regular birth control and more informed about its effects, I avoided going to confession. Our priest’s insistence that natural family planning was the only moral decision caused me to fear his possible reaction–particularly in light of the fact that I was not planning on “repenting” of my sin. Having not gone to confession, I felt guilty about taking part in the Eucharistic celebration, specifically the actual taking of Communion. Our church attendance became less frequent.
We’ve recently moved again–as I said, my husband is active duty military. Three months in our new home and we still haven’t visited our local church. I cannot speak for my husband’s reasons; I can only share his actions. My conscience has been bothering me, and writing this essay has helped clarify my feelings. At this point I am gathering my courage: I love my church and shouldn’t avoid it out of fear. I plan on going to confession and hearing the priest out. And unless he flatly forbids it, I also plan on taking Communion. Because I am morally sure, in my heart, that for me, this is the proper decision.
JENNIFER BECKER-LANDSBERGER is a freelance writer who publishes religious and travel articles. She is a member of MENSA, has a degree in history and does volunteer work for Kitsap County HIV/AIDS Foundation and in support of fellow military spouses.