I worry a lot about contraception these days. No, I have not taken a sudden relational turn, nor figured out how to reset my biological clock. The ethical conversation has simply emerged around me—was I asleep at the switch—in ways that I never expected and find deeply disturbing.
I have to admit that, as a theologian/ethicist, I have not written much if anything about contraception. The frank fact is that the question was settled before I started plying my theo-ethical trade. In Catholic circles, Humane Vitae, the so-called birth control encyclical, was big news in July of 1968. I was a teenager then, more worried about getting into college than what the Vatican promulgated.
To her credit, feminist Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether ventured beyond her early expertise in the Patristic period to express a solid pro-contraception position. Like many of her contemporaries, Rosemary took exception to the official policy. In subsequent years, many Catholics, like the rest of the U.S. population, used effective and increasingly affordable contraception as a matter of course. Those who did not were either too old, not interested, or, in relatively few cases, content with so-called natural family planning. To each his/her own until this presidential election cycle.
The ethical conversations about sexuality of the past thirty years have been focused instead on abortion and same-sex love. I think I have said most of what I need to say on those—agreeing with those who want to keep abortion safe, legal, and rare, and identifying with those who consider same-sex love as morally relevant as left-handedness. Now, suddenly, we are back to what feels like square one, having to defend the ubiquitous use of various forms of contraception, including condoms, despite the rise in sexually transmitted infections, especially HIV/AIDS.
I think we need to think seriously about how to discuss contraception rather than fall into the traps set very deliberately by those who would truncate women’s religious agency. For example, rather than jump into the fray, I preface my ethical remarks on this topic with the phrase, “Contraception is a woman’s right.” Then it is possible to look at the real issues at hand—power or taking away rights—but not get stuck on the moral no-brainer that is birth control. Another strategy, perhaps more difficult, is how to keep contraception in women’s hands but also encourage discussion of men’s role. Imagine the reaction to suggesting, for instance, that heterosexual men do their part by having less sex! I suspect contraception would be back in the health plans for everyone in a fast hurry!
My concern is that we not take the bait on this one, that we make it so clear so often that talking about contraception as such is a non-starter. Talking about power and who shares it is on our agenda. In the coming presidential election as well as in state struggles, clarity on this point is for some women a matter of life and death.