Patti Maguire Armstrong
February 9, 2008
How can something be both immense and minute at the same time, something upon which all of human history depends, yet fragile and almost non-existent to the eye? It is the union of an egg and sperm — an embryo. Such is God's way. He takes something smaller than a mustard seed and brings forth all of civilization. After creating everything in the universe single-handedly, He created us in his own image and bestowed upon us the power to become co-creators with Him. Working in union with us, when the sperm unites with the egg, not only has a new human life been set in motion, but so too has a spiritual life. God places an everlasting soul into the being of every son and daughter.
Most of us rarely think that deeply about it all. In our worldly way, we forget eternity and begin to affix costs — physical, emotional and monetary. The costs can seem exorbitant when we focus only through the eyes of the world. And looking through those same worldly eyes, the way to prevent the miracle we clearly do not recognize as such is so easy, inexpensive, and ironically, also so small — the birth control pill. But the pill does not just prevent the miracle, it also destroys it, a fact that is often surprising to committed pro-lifers. This fact is true for all contraception that works through manipulation of hormone levels.
The pill has become a symbol of freedom to those who have been told they can "have it all". And it has become a symbol of destruction to those who support a "Theology of the Body," philosophy, the essence of Catholic teaching that artificial means must not disrupt God's natural order of things.
The first birth control pill received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 1960. Using a synthetic estrogen hormone, the pill tricked a women's body into thinking it was pregnant. No egg would be released thereby preventing the opportunity for conception.
Although the pill was initially introduced with the idea of affording women a reliable way of limiting their family size, it soon became the ticket to the Sexual Revolution that began in the Sixties and never really ended. The pill promised something it's never been able to deliver: sex with "no strings attached". There are always emotional and moral consequences to thwarting God's purpose, but women discovered physical problems too. Blood clots, heart attacks and strokes were some of the side effects caused by the Pill's high estrogen levels. Drug manufacturers lowered these levels in order to reduce the side effects but that also increased the incidence of breakthrough ovulation. With the lower levels of estrogen, eggs would sometimes still get released and pregnancies resulted.
The drug companies tackled this situation by adding the synthetic hormone progesterone, which makes the uterine wall (the endometrium) inhospitable to implantation by an embryo. So if an egg was released and became fertilized by a sperm, thus creating life, the pill would have actually failed to prevent a conception, meaning it failed as a contraceptive. But, through preventing implantation of the embryo, the pill acts as an abortifacient and stops life from continuing to the next stage. (A clear and simple demonstration of this can be seen here.)
Since some women actually do become pregnant while on the pill, there are some embryos that manage to implant into the uterus. Whether it's RU-486, Norplant, Depo-Provera, the morning after pill, the Mini-pill, or the Pill, there is no chemical "contraceptive" that always causes an abortion. There is also none that never causes an abortion.
There is no way of knowing what percentage of pregnancies result in abortion through the pill. The woman using the pill with this scenario never even knows that she conceived a child. Her cycle will continue on schedule with no realization that an embryo is being flushed from her body. The Catholic Church has never wavered on the teaching that life begins at conception. Although Catholics are contracepting at rates parallel to non-Catholics, using artificial means to change our body's natural functions in order to block the potential for life has been recognized as rebellion against God's plan for humanity. However, using natural means to understand the rhythms of life and then to work in union with God is encouraged through Natural Family Planning.
The issue of birth control is a big one where misunderstanding and ignorance often misguide people. But when it comes to the pill, the ignorance that many women fall prey to is lack of understanding of its abortifacient properties. Most women don't consider that while taking their birth control, they may also be aborting a life within them. As Pope Paul VI predicted when he issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) in 1968, the use of artificial contraception would lead to abortions.
Although it seemed to many to be an overdramatic prediction, it proved to be prophetic. In hindsight, its logic in saying that widespread use of contraception would lead to "conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality" was prophetic. Since the Pill began to be sold in 1960, divorces have tripled, out-of-wedlock births jumped from 224,000 to 1.2 million, abortions doubled, and cohabitation soared 10-fold from 430,000 to 4.2 million.
Sex both inside and outside marriage ceased to be about a bond of marital love in which a couple became one in union with God. It became merely an activity for personal satisfaction devoid of anything more. The Pope predicted man would lose respect for woman, considering her "as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion."
Society as a whole moved from recognizing sex as something reserved for married couples to something for everyone, since the possibility for pregnancy was greatly reduced (although never completely removed). Thus, people completely opposed to having children could have sex with others whom they had chosen as bed partners but would never chose to co-parent their children. The most intimate experience intended to be shared in love and self-giving with the potential for creating life became merely a form of recreation. And if life sprang forth, such a life was easily regarded as nothing more than an unintended problem that could legally be disposed of through abortion.
But women choosing abortion and the men who either make that choice with them or plead for them to do otherwise, are very aware of the decision that is being made, whereas women who choose to take birth control pills are not so aware of the potential ramifications of their choice. There is not a baby with a heartbeat who must forcefully be removed, but unbeknownst to many, there is a baby. Since life begins at conception, a life, even though undetectable to us, is still a life. It is the way God chooses to begin things, small and yet mighty in its eternal existence.
In addition to the pill, IUDs, Depo-Provera and Norplant also cause early, undetectable abortions. Doctor usually fail to warn women of the abortifacient properties of the pill. I've heard some doctors admit they were not actually even aware of these properties. Women often choose contraception as a means to avoid pregnancy without realizing they are not actually stopping pregnancy, but quickly ending it.
In his booklet, titled Does the Birth Control Pill Cause Abortions?, Randy Alcorn states: "The question of whether it causes abortions has direct bearing on untold millions of Christians, many of them pro-life, who use and recommend it. For those who believe God is the Creator of each person and the giver and taker of human life, this is a question with profound moral implications."
Alcorn was a Protestant pastor who not only used the pill in his married life, but also counseled other married couples to do so. He had a vested interest in not recognizing the pill as an abortifactient. But when confronted with the facts through his own research, it demanded changes in his own behavior and philosophy. His booklet was written in 1998 to inform others of the truth.
Alcorn's booklet has met some opposition. According to him: "Despite evidence, some pro-life physicians state that the likelihood of the Pill having an abortifacient effect is infinitesimally low, or nonexistent. Though I would very much like to believe this, the scientific evidence does not permit me to do so."
Alcorn, surprisingly, found that the greatest resistance to recognizing the abortifacient quality of the pill comes from the Christian community. "Dr. Walt Larimore has told me that whenever he has presented this evidence to audiences of secular physicians, there has been little or no resistance to it. But when he has presented it to Christian physicians there has been substantial resistance. Since secular physicians do not care whether the Pill prevents implantation, they tend to be objective in interpreting the evidence. After all, they have little or nothing at stake either way. Christian physicians, however, very much do not want to believe the Pill causes early abortions. Therefore, I believe, they tend to resist the evidence. This is certainly understandable. Nonetheless, we should not permit what we want to believe to distract us from what the evidence indicates we should believe."
It's easier to be pro-life when we limit the discussion to the abortion industry. The inclusion of artificial birth control complicates and confuses people. With so many opinions even among Catholics, how is a person to know what to believe? I understand the confusion. While living in Montana, I had a doctor who was also a priest, who told me it was not realistic to expect a couple to follow the Catholic teaching on birth control. He prescribed birth control pills to many of his female patients. So, is it any surprise there are many Catholics, ones like me, ignorant of the true teaching?
Yet, we must cut through the false teachings and erroneous opinions to reach the truth. Our lives, our bodies and our souls are all we have. They are gifts that must be safeguarded. Christopher West, author and speaker, has written books and articles explaining the beauty and truth of God's plan for men and women. In his book, Good News about Sex and Marriage, he asserts that the Church's teaching on sex and marriage is good news because it's the truth about love and true love is the fulfillment of the human person. He also admits that the news is challenging. "This is so because the truth about love is always challenging."
A Challenging Truth, Part One: How Birth Control Works
Patti Maguire Armstrong
February 12, 2008
"Everyone does it, so what's the big deal?" Taking the pill, getting "fixed", getting a shot of Depo-Provera...there's a myriad of choices for contraception. The expectation in today's modern society is that everyone uses artificial birth control at some point in their lives, be they married or not. Right?
Many years ago, I would have agreed with all of the above. I was not a rebellious Catholic, just an ignorant one. But the guilt of my ignorance rests on more shoulders than just mine. I was surrounded by contraception Catholics who discussed their birth control as easily as they spoke of which brand of toothpaste they used. And then there was the Catholic clergy. There was nary a homily I heard that even hinted of the Catholic teaching on human sexuality. Understandably, it's not an ideal topic for an audience of all ages. And, truthfully, I did not always make it to Mass, so maybe I missed the "Talk" one Sunday. Had I kept up on Catholic teaching, I would have been aware of the "Theology of the Body". This was the first major teaching Pope John Paul II gave in 129 short talks between 1979 and 1984. This project was a Biblical reflection on the meaning of human embodiment, particularly as it concerns human sexuality.
I was not aware of the "Theology of the Body" because I was not a good Catholic back in the day. Nor did I pay much heed to Natural Family Planning in which couples regulate births without recourse to unnatural methods that interfere with the way God designed our fertility. But I expected a popular priest at my parish in Montana to be up on all things Catholic. Unfortunately, he was not. As both a priest and doctor, his parishioners and patients looked up to him. He let them down by stating, "It's not realistic to expect couples to follow the Pope's teachings on birth control."
The Error of our Ways
I believed my doctor/priest and followed society. Not until I began to embrace my Catholic faith and trust its teachings to guide me did I come to trust that God's plan is always the best. When Mark and I married in 1981, I was not even aware the Catholic Church taught that contraception was against God's plan. We were both Catholic and occasionally went to Mass. It seemed like a good thing to do, but other weekend plans easily took precedence over Mass. Our Catholic faith was mostly on the back burner.
After the births of our three boys, I decided to have surgery for a tubal ligation. I loved my children very much, but three seemed like plenty. Mark said the decision was up to me. During the pre-op exam, the doctor explained the failure rate was only 1 in 500. Those odds were unsettling. "Not bad odds for a million dollar lottery," I thought. A failure could result in a tubal pregnancy, which could result in death. That thought weighed heavily on my mind. I canceled.
The next line of attack was birth control pills prescribed by my Catholic doctor/priest. (He had become a priest first then received permission to go through medical school and become a doctor.) When my cycle started up again halfway through the package of pills, it was obvious they were not working. My doctor/priest had explained they contained a low dose of estrogen to avoid common side effects. Obviously, the dose was so low that they were not preventing ovulation as intended. I tossed them out.
The following month I became pregnant. When Mark heard the news, he announced: "I've been praying for this." It turned out the big sneak had literally been praying on the sly. He liked the idea of having another baby and decided to pray rather than argue about it. I was actually happy about the news. A diehard baby lover like myself could not help but rejoice at another little one. This may seem odd from a person taking precautions against having more children, but as you can see, none of this was very well thought out.
Jacob was born on May 13, the anniversary date of Our Lady of Fatima's first appearance in Fatima, Portugal. It was also Mark's birthday and Mother's Day. Mark too had been born on Mother's Day thirty-three years earlier. Happy Birthday Mark — from God.
During this time in our lives, we began reading about various Marian apparitions and were inspired for the first time to pray the rosary. We stopped missing Sunday Mass and began learning more about our faith. Still, we were not fully converted yet — particularly when it came to family planning. There's always a learning curve and we did not go from A to Z overnight. After four children, I insisted Mark have a vasectomy. He resisted at first but finally relented.
Initially, I was oblivious that we had done anything wrong. But gradually, as I grew to desire God's will in my life, started making visits to Jesus in the tabernacle and continued praying the rosary, a feeling grew in me. I realized that the Church, which Christ had founded to guide us until the end of time, had authority to teach on spiritual matters, including matters relating to sexuality. I had been given no such authority.
I shared my feelings of regret over Mark's sterilization with him. He was less than thrilled since he thought it was a bad idea to begin with. As a matter of fact, he accused me of being like Eve. "You are right," I agreed. "But remember, Adam was kicked out of the garden, too." We began praying that God's will would be done in our lives, including whether we would have more children. We determined that if it was God's will, Mark's vasectomy would fail.
But, one night, I had a dream in which I saw two babies — one blonde and one dark-haired. I felt an intense love for these babies as if they were my own. At the end of the dream, I was made to know that these were babies God had planned for us, but because we had not lived in union with His plan, they would never be born. I woke up feeling like a mother who just lost her babies. I knew the only way to get to them was to convince Mark to have a reversal of his vasectomy.
When Mark came home from work that day, I approached him with my idea for a reversal. He would have none of it. I barely got two sentences out of my mouth before he announced the subject was officially closed. Even if we could afford it, he was completely unwilling to subject himself to another surgery. Now, it was my turn to pray behind Mark's back. "Okay God," I prayed, "I want to do Your will but I am powerless to change Mark's mind. I'm putting everything in Your hands." Then, I just kept praying.
Of One Mind
Several months had passed when one morning after Sunday Mass, Mark casually wondered out loud how much a reversal operation would cost. "I know," I announced. Before Mark had shot my idea down, I had called the doctor's office to get all the information.
"I can't get off from work this month," Mark said, "but next month I could go in and get it done." I was both shocked and thrilled. We did not have the money to pay for it, but we determined we could probably make payments.
"What changed your mind?" I finally asked, wondering what had caused such a drastic change of heart. His answer took my breath away.
"I had a dream last night," Mark said. "I saw two babies that God had planned for us." I had never told a single soul about my dream.
Three months later, we were expecting a baby. I had a strong feeling that it would be our first girl and God wanted us to name her Mary after the Blessed Mother who had intervened for us. We had never considered the name with any previous pregnancy. I wrote on a slip of paper, "Yes, I think Mary would be a good name," and tucked it in my wallet. I figured that when God let Mark in on the plan, I would pull out the slip and show him.
Our blond-haired baby girl, Mary, was born on December 22, 1993. A few months before her birth, we inherited the exact amount of money we needed to pay Mark's reversal surgery in full. Dark-haired Teresa was born on my birthday, April 18, 1996. I thought we must be done now that we had the babies from our dream. Mark said he thought ten would be a good number of children. I did not actually take this seriously. I recalled that when St. Maximilian Kolbe was young, he had received a vision of Our Blessed Mother. She had shown him two wreaths of roses — one of red representing martyrdom, and one of white, representing purity. She asked him which he would like to choose. He chose both. I wondered if, like St. Maximilian, we should volunteer to take on more than God asked? We prayed for guidance.
John was born on August 31, 1999 and Isaac was born on his sister Mary's birthday, December 22, 2001. We are a family of twelve now, including two brothers who were AIDS orphans from Kenya. As of this writing, the ages range from 24 to 6. There could be no greater blessing on our family than our precious children. The kid's love for each other runs deep. I know that one of the biggest draws for my oldest sons to come home for visits is to spend time with their siblings.
The moral of this story is not that everyone must have a big family to do the will of God. No, my plan is not your plan. The moral of my story is that God has a plan for us all. To discern His plan and strive to live in union with it, we must learn and embrace the teachings He gives us through His Church. Nowadays, there is an abundance of authors, speakers and organizations that support and encourage couples in this way. I have no doubt that much of that information was available back when I first married, but I did not make it my business to learn about it. Make it your business to learn because, until your plan is God's plan, it's the wrong one.Patti Maguire Armstrong is the mother of ten children including two Kenyan AIDS orphans. She is a speaker and the author of Catholic Truths for Our Children: A Parent's Guide (Scepter). She is also the managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press's Amazing Grace book series. Her website is RaisingCatholicKids.com