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.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post ran a story about efforts within the Church to modernize the image of Natural Family Planning. Religion writer Michelle Boorstein interviewed Ashley McGuire, Dr. Janet Smith, me, and a few other folks to get a feel for how modern Catholic women view NFP. (I wrote a clarification of some of my quotes from the article here.)
Not surprisingly, the piece has generated a lot of discussion. Cassie Murdoch of Jezebel picked it up, and spoke for many secular feminists when she basically rolled her eyes at the entire idea. Her main takeaway seemed to be that it's futile to even have this kind of discussion, since everyone knows that it's crazy to oppose contraception. She wrote:
Modernizing the Catholic Church has never been an easy task, and there's certainly an argument to be made that a better way to modernize it would be to reverse or modify its anti-contraception stance rather than worrying about the pictures it uses on it's brochures.
She quotes McGuire saying that Natural Family Planning allows women to live freely, and remarks:
Ahh, yes, knowing your body and living freely, two things which the Catholic Church has been freely promoting since back in the days of, ohhh, never.
The Catholic understanding of human sexuality oppresses women, but contraception encourages them to know their bodies and live freely. This is certainly a thought that is widely accepted in our culture as being true. But is it true? Let's take a closer look.
The day before the Washington Post piece ran, the New York Times had an op-ed by a woman who talked about how much easier it used to be to get an abortion. Susan Heath wrote:
It's 1978, five years after Roe v. Wade. I’m 38, I have four sons -- the oldest is 17, the youngest is turning 12. I’m at school, getting a B.A., and I’m loving it.
I’m about two and a half months pregnant.
I don’t want this child. [...]
So I'm on my way to Planned Parenthood to have a legal abortion. My husband drives me there -- this is a serious matter for both of us, but we absolutely agree it's my decision to make. We have been conscientiously using contraception and it's failed us this time.
The six words she writes next speak a thousand words about contraception and women's freedom. She says of her situation:
I'm pregnant but I'm not trapped.
Interesting. So, in other words, if it weren't for abortion, she would be trapped.
Even those who are in favor of abortion have to admit that this is a sad situation. Heath acknowledges that this new life is her child. She later wonders whether the baby was a girl, and pictures having an infant snuggled into a car seat next to her. She recognizes the humanity of this little person, but she didn't feel like she was in a situation where she could allow her or him to live. She did not even want full information about what was going on inside her own body, expressing relief that she never had to see an ultrasound. She was so utterly unprepared for the prospect of mothering another child that she had to undergo an invasive procedure to terminate the young life in her womb. In her mind, she had no choice; without abortion, she would be "trapped."
This is no way to live.
From what we can tell from the article, Heath is a well educated, intelligent woman. She was getting a college education in addition to raising four sons, so undoubtedly she was a responsible, capable person. She clearly states that she had been using contraception "conscientiously." And yet it still failed. She joined countless women who have found out the hard way that the lie that human sexuality can be severed from its life-giving potential is just that: A lie.
Cassie Murdoch scoffed at the notion that the Catholic Church encourages women to live freely, but it is only the Catholic Church that is willing to tell women unpopular truths about human sexuality. Only the Catholic Church dares to remind us that the human sexual act always carries the potential to create new human beings, and that we're setting ourselves and our future children up for disaster when we disregard this most fundamental of truths. It may not be convenient. It may not be what people want to be true. But it is true. And knowing the truth is always a prerequisite for freedom.
And so I find it ironic when contraception is said to allow anyone to live "freely." Secular culture assures women that they can go ahead and engage in the act that creates babies, even if they are not ready to be mothers. They are handed contraception, and told to forget all about the possibility of parenthood. Then, when the contraception fails, as it so often does, they find themselves feeling trapped, perceiving that their only escape is through the doors of an abortion facility. This, to me, does not look like freedom.