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An Excerpt from Ethics of Sex: From Taboo to Delight

Edited by Dr. Gifford Grobien, Ethics of Sex is a compilation of ten essays written by various authors whose expertise spans the fields of pastoral ministry, teaching, science, and medicine. Covering a variety of standard subjects and hot-button issues, from homosexuality and transgenderism to the meaning of marriage and contraception, Ethics of Sex offers a timely and Christ-centered book on some of today’s most pressing issues.

The following excerpt from Chapter 4 offers a preview of Donna Harrison’s essay, titled “Contraception: An Embryo’s Point of View.”


Issues surrounding the creation and care of children touch almost every married couple. The marital one-flesh relationship forms the context in which God creates new human beings. These new beings make demands of the parents, challenging and stretching their ability to love, to forgive, to be consistent, and to provide for their children’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. In this practical, immediate care for their children, parents are given an opportunity for character growth.

In the last century, the ability to separate the act of physical intimacy from the birth of children has brought difficult theological and scientific issues into the heart of every marital relationship. Until the 1930s, couples generally understood and accepted that sexual intercourse could very likely lead to conception and birth of children, and married couples mainly faced the challenges of faithfulness to one’s spouse and the willingness to give oneself in sacrificial love to each other and to their children. Today’s married couples face even more questions: “Do we want to have children?” “Why should we have children?” “How many?” “When is the right time?” “Is there any God-pleasing way to structure our family size and timing?”

Faithful couples faced with these theological and practical questions turn to pastoral counselors for answers. The pastoral counselor seeking scientific information about contraception will find a lot of information designed to sell a particular device or pill. The marketing discussion centers on how effective the drug or device may be in preventing a recognized pregnancy. Little or no discussion is given to the way in which such pills or devices alter or change the natural physiological processes of a woman’s body. Rarely is any information given on the effect of that drug or device on interpersonal relationships, long-term fertility, or the effect on an embryo created when the drug fails. The pastor is then left to counsel couples about decisions that have a profound impact on their interpersonal relationships, without the foundational knowledge of normal physiological processes, how those processes are altered by contraceptives currently on the market, and the effects such alterations could have on interpersonal relationships.

The purpose of this essay is to equip the reader to better understand how different methods of contraceptives function in relation to the working of the reproductive system. Although each method affects not only the reproductive system and the woman’s long-term health but also the couple’s relationship as a whole, this essay will focus only on what is currently known about the effects of contraceptive methods on embryos. Whether or not an embryonic human being faces harm from the use of a contraceptive method is often the single most important question to faithful couples. When pastors and parishioners understand the biological reality of various contraceptive methods, they can then begin to address the deeper theological issues and provide those answers urgently needed to bridge the gap from “What we know” to “What should we then do?” . . .

Contraception: An Overview

The scientific and medical concept of “contraception” is a curious one. Usually, drugs, surgeries, and implants are given to cure or prevent a disease. But contraceptives do not prevent or cure any disease. In fact, contraceptives prevent our bodies from doing something our bodies were designed to do, i.e., procreate. Contraceptive drugs, devices, and surgeries induce a state in which the normal function of the body is altered. Why would someone want to alter the normal function of his or her body? Perhaps more significant: ought we be inducing an abnormal physical state in our bodies to make our bodies function the way we want as opposed to the way that our bodies were designed to function? Considering some aspects of contraception may give insight into these questions. This chapter will consider three aspects of contraception: the advent of the term contraception, the concept of “efficacy,” and the reasons for concern about the environment that embryos face when they are created during the use of contraception.

The Advent of the Term Contra-Ception

Contra-ception is a term coined in the 1960s for drugs, devices, and surgeries that prevent a sexually active woman from obtaining a positive pregnancy test at the end of her cycle. The term was designed to be the opposite of conception.

The term conception is understood by most people to be the moment of fertilization—the moment when the sperm penetrates the egg. The term conception is used interchangeably with the term fertilization in many biology textbooks, as well as in current medical dictionaries.

In the 1960s, researchers discovered that giving large amounts of artificial estrogens and progestins could interfere with a woman’s reproductive system and keep her from having a positive pregnancy test. But some people were concerned about how these artificial hormones actually worked. Could these hormones harm a human life at the beginning? The general public understood that ending an unborn human life is generally called an “abortion.” Many people were worried that these drugs and devices were “abortifacient”—things that end the life of an unborn human being. Manufacturers recognized that this thinking could interfere with the marketability of the drugs or devices and felt a need to reassure the public that contraceptives did not cause abortions.

The solution to the problem of public concern about whether contraceptives caused early abortions was developed in 1965 by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG),[1] which is heavily financed by the contraceptive drug industry. ACOG acknowledged that the term abortion is understood to be the ending of a pregnancy. Everyone knows that pregnancy begins at conception. But ACOG recognized that the term conception had no scientific definition. (The scientific definition for the beginning of any organism, including human beings, is fertilization—the moment of sperm-egg fusion.) So, ACOG decided to legally define the word conception as “the completion of implantation.”[2] Now, legally speaking, pregnancy begins at conception, but conception is an event that takes place ten days to two weeks after fertilization.

Using the ACOG definition of conception as the beginning of pregnancy, the accusation against contraceptives as abortifacient is easily dismissed. Since abortion is defined as the ending of a pregnancy, and since pregnancy does not begin until the completion of implantation, then legally, drugs and devices that kill an embryo before implantation is complete cannot be classified as abortifacients.[3] Voilà! Problem solved!

Thus the term abortifacient is rendered meaningless in discussions about most contraceptive mechanisms of action. But the fact remains that some drugs, devices, and surgeries labeled as “contraceptive” can and do have actions that harm or kill embryos. Thus the difficult moral question for faithful couples is not whether a contraceptive is abortifacient but whether the contraceptive is embryocidal—does it have an action that can kill an embryo if the embryo is formed during the use of that contraceptive drug, device, or surgery?

[1] “Terms Used in Reference to the Fetus,” American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Terminology Bulletin 1 (1965).
[2] ACOG, “Facts Are Important,” (June 12, 2014) www.acog.org/-/media/Departments/Government-Relations-and-Outreach/FactsAreImportantEC.pdf?dmc=1&ts=20160722T1510227981. Note that ACOG commits many logical fallacies in this document and also includes some factually inaccurate statements, such as the timing of fertilization, which actually takes place in milliseconds, not twenty-four hours. See footnote 3. Rachel Benson Gold, “The Implications of Defining when a Woman Is Pregnant,” Guttmacher Policy Review 8 (2005), www.guttmacher.org/about/gpr/2005/05/implications-defining-when-woman-pregnant.
[3] The ACOG acknowledges the distinction between fertilization and the ACOG definition of conception and the implications on the difference in their recent press release on personhood amendments: “Although the individual wording in these proposed measures varies from state to state, they all attempt to give full legal rights to a fertilized egg by defining ‘personhood’ from the moment of fertilization, before conception (i.e., pregnancy/implantation) has occurred. This would have wide-reaching harmful implications for the practice of medicine and on women’s access to contraception, fertility treatments, pregnancy termination, and other essential medical procedures.” See www.acog.org/About-ACOG/News-Room/News-Releases/2012/Personhood-Measures.

From Ethics of Sex: From Taboo to Delight, pages 79–80 and 85–87 © 2017 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.


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