Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
In response to my piece about adopting HIV-positive children, I got some emails from readers wondering how a Catholic could raise a child with this condition, knowing what the Church teaches about condom use. One reader wrote:
I’m generally at peace with the Church’s teachings, but this situation troubles me. How could I tell my child that she could never use condoms? Does that mean she could never get married? Or her future husband would have to accept getting HIV? This is the first time I’ve thought that this teaching seems unfair.
I’ve received similar questions in other situations, as well. One reader confided to me:
I recently recovered from severe PPD [postpartum depression]. It got so bad that I was hospitalized for a while. I’m doing better, but my doctors have told me that I absolutely have to wait for at least a year to have another baby. To get pregnant again right now could destroy me mentally, and I’m not exaggerating. Wouldn’t the Church be okay with contraception in a case like this?
I had my own crisis along these lines when I found out while I was expecting my second child that I have a serious blood clotting disorder that, among other things, requires that I take an FDA Category X drug for extended periods after each baby is born. It is of critical importance that you not conceive while on this drug; it’s so prone to causing grave birth defects that many women choose to get sterilized before taking it. Many people I knew were appalled when they heard that the Church’s doctrines had no exceptions on contraception use for situations like mine.
For a while, I was troubled by this. At first it did strike me as unsympathetic and unfair. Like the women who wrote in about HIV-positive children and avoiding pregnancy after severe PPD, I wondered: Why doesn’t the Church make exceptions for those cases where pregnancy or STD prevention is critically important?
Then a wise Catholic friend offered me an explanation that was startling in its simplicity: No contraceptive method is 100% effective. If it’s really super-duper extra triple important that you not conceive a child (or contract an STD), then why would you even want to sign yourself up for a situation where there was a risk of it happening?
The effectiveness rates for contraception based on actual use are not impressive. Commonly accepted one-year failure rates are: 2.4% for the Pill, 4.6% for the intrauterine device, 9.6% for condoms, 17.9% for spermicides, and 18.6% for diaphragms. In the case of HIV prevention specifically, the Journal of the American Medical Association says: “Condoms have a substantial failure rate for AIDS transmission. The risk of fatal infection is quantifiably significant. Among heterosexual couples studied using condoms in which one partner was infected, 30 percent became infected within the year.”
When you consider these statistics, it’s clear that contraception is not the panacea it seems to be. In fact, especially in the cases where it’s of the highest importance that pregnancy or STD transmission not occur, contraception should not even be an option on the table, regardless of your religious views.
In the case of young people with HIV, they are in a difficult situation, but the Church’s stance on condoms is basically moot in terms of their future prospects for marriage: Given the statistics on barrier methods of contraception, it is virtually impossible that a failure would not occur over the course of a 10-year marriage.
In my own case, I realized that by using contraception while taking that dangerous drug, I would basically be saying: “I’m willing to take about a three percent chance that I’ll intentionally expose one of my children to extreme suffering and an early death.” The option of artificial birth control had been held out as the perfect solution to my predicament, but suddenly I realized that it would actually put me and my future unborn children in a horribly precarious situation.
Any time a person is in a position where he or she must avoid the natural results of the sexual act, it is always difficult. There are rarely easy answers, and heroic sacrifice is inevitably required. But the important thing to understand is that contraception is not a cure-all solution that makes the problem go away; in fact, it sets the roulette wheel in motion for you to take a bet that your problems will get exponentially worse. We Catholics should thank God that our Holy Mother Church understands this.
In a touching article at Catholic Exchange, Theresa Thomas shared her story of getting pressure to use contraception when she had to undergo months of chemotherapy after her ninth child was born. She and her husband made the decision to use the only method of birth control with a 100% effectiveness rate: abstinence. It was a time of great challenges and great spiritual growth, but they got through it. She summed it up beautifully when she wrote:
Today I look at Catholic couples who struggle with the Catholic teaching on birth control and who feel tempted to think that artificial contraception might be the answer. I want to encourage them: Be strong. Stay true to your faith. You can do this! Even in exceptional situations, make the right choice, even if it is the difficult one. God is with you each step of the way, more than you can understand. Trust Him. Blessings will follow.