Why Do We Call It a "Culture of Death"?

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Earlier this week, Protestant author and blogger Rachel Held Evans conducted an interview with Sister Helena Burns about what it's like to be a nun. It was a great piece, and Evans' readers mostly seemed to enjoy it, but there was one part that offended some people. Sister Helena wrote:

I used to consider myself a feminist -- I think because I was searching for my true identity as a woman. Now I consider myself a woman. I don't need any labels, although I'm sympathetic to some feminist causes. I think the feminists went off when they embraced the culture of death (contraception and abortion) and in doing so denied their feminine identity, obliterated and did violence to the feminine, and, ironically, held up the male paradigm as the only good paradigm.

Some folks took umbrage at her use of Pope John Paul II's term "culture of death," particularly in reference to contraception. What on earth does contraception have to do with death?, they wondered.

I can relate. When I was first exploring Catholicism, I visited a Catholic church that had a poster that was said to contrast the "culture of life" with the "culture of death." It displayed side-by-side pictures of a dandelion and a rose. On the left, the ragged dandelion was said to indicate the contraceptive worldview; the blooming rose on the right was said to symbolize abstinence-based methods of birth control and openness to life. The fruits of this rose bush mentality were said to be secure families, long marriages, and care for the elderly; the fruits of the dandelion mentality included terms like divorce, abortion, and euthanasia.

"Talk about taking your pet issue too far!" I guffawed to my husband as I scanned the poster. I had started to think that the Church might have a few good points about the issue of artificial contraception, but I thought it was ridiculous to imply that it could lead to things like abortion, euthanasia, or poor care for the elderly.

But the images from that poster stayed with me, and kept coming to mind in the weeks and months that followed. The more I thought about what contraception is, and the more I observed its impact on society, the less crazy that poster seemed.

The first thing that clicked was the link to abortion. While not every woman who uses contraception would have an abortion or even necessarily supports the pro-choice movement, it became clear that, on a society-wide level, the widespread acceptance of contraception makes people feel like abortion is necessary. When women are told to go ahead and participate in the act that creates babies, even if they are certain that they are in no position to have a child, babies become the enemy, and women begin to feel like the only way they can have real control over their bodies is through the services of their local abortion facility.

But that was only the beginning.

The more I studied the Theology of the Body and took a look at human sexuality through the lens of millenia-old Christian teaching, the more the problems of contraceptive culture came into relief. I noticed that with abstinence-based methods of child spacing like Natural Family Planning, there remains a mental and physical openness to the potential for new life. Couples may try to avoid pregnancy, and may even be able to do so with a high degree of accuracy, but there is always an acceptance that new life could be created, an ever-present understanding that an inherent part of this most sacred of human acts is a willingness to care for any new family members God may give you through it. And, because it involves abstinence, there is an inherent element of personal sacrifice. You live daily with the reminder that life isn't about doing whatever you want, whenever you want.

In contrast, I began to see that contraception tempts us to value human life according to how it impacts us. Contraceptive culture tells us that we're entitled to the pleasurable aspects of sexuality, even if we reject any new life that could be created. It tells married couples that we can and should exercise complete control over our fertility so that we only add children to our families when we are one-hundred percent certain that we want them  -- in other words, to value other human beings according to how they impact our own lives. Columnist Mark Steyn summed up this mindset well when he wrote in a 2006 article:

One consequence of abortion is that, in designating new life a matter of "choice," it made it easier to make judgments about which lives are worth it and which aren't...But it's foolish to think you can raise entire populations to make self-interested judgments about who lives and who doesn't and expect them to remain confined to three trimesters. The "right to choose" is now being extended beyond the womb: the step from convenience conception to convenience euthanasia is a short one, and the step from convenience euthanasia to compulsory euthanasia shorter still.

Though he was speaking specifically about abortion, this mentality of "convenience conception" is rooted in the acceptance of contraception. And we only need to look at history to see where this line of thinking goes: Any time a society accepts it as true that it is okay to value other human beings according to how much we want to deal with them, there will always be death. At a minimum, it leads to spiritual death, when people begin to live their lives closed to deep connections with other humans, but there is usually also bodily death, as those who cramp the lifestyles of those who are more powerful are gotten out of the way once and for all. And thus we end up in a "culture of death."

I think what initially bothered me about this term, and what probably troubled Rachel Held Evans' readers, is that it doesn't fit every single person who uses contraception. I mean, when my neighbor refilled her prescription for the Pill last week, as far as I know she didn't swing by the hospital and unplug some life support machines on the way home. I know plenty of caring, giving people who control their fertility through chemical or surgical means. But there is no question that, on a large scale, acceptance of contraception -- and the "truths" about human sexuality that go with it -- leads to a decreased respect for human life. Because as that old rose and dandelion poster showed, any time an entire culture believes that it is okay to live in a state of active rejection of the newest and most innocent human lives, it will end up being a culture of death.