Hey, Father! Explain the Church’s teaching on birth control

Given the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion, is the use of birth control pills considered an abortion? If so, does it prevent those who use birth control pills from receiving the Eucharist?

– Anonymous in the diocese

To answer your questions, we have to make several important distinctions. Briefly put, the Church’s moral evaluation of abortion is distinct from that of using birth control (contraception) because these are very different acts. Abortion is the “direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being” (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n. 57). Contraception is “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation” (Humanae Vitae, n. 14). Abortion destroys life, contraception prevents it. If chosen freely and knowingly, both abortion and contraception constitute serious sins (see Pius XI, Casti Connubii, n. 56).

In the case of abortion, a new human life is already present, and therefore the only “birth control” possible would be to destroy the human embryo or fetus, a clear violation of the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill.” In the case of contraception, fertilization is prevented in some way, and so there is no question of destroying a human life. However, contraception violates the nature of marital love, in which the spouses should give themselves to each other unreservedly. Openness to new life is an essential element of every sexual expression of marital love, even when natural methods like Natural Family Planning (NFP) are used to avoid pregnancy for some legitimate reason (illness, spacing births for serious financial reasons, etc.).

When it comes to contraception, we have to be precise, because the term is often used to describe a variety of drugs with very different effects. The most common contraceptive drug is a combination of estrogen and progestogen known colloquially as “the pill.” The pill alters a woman’s menstrual cycle and prevents ovulation (the release of egg cells), rendering her temporarily infertile. This is contraception in the proper sense of the word because conception is prevented altogether.

However, other drugs advertised as “contraceptives” can actually allow conception (fertilization) to occur and then cause the death of the embryo afterwards. Such drugs are not really contraceptives but “abortifacients” (abortion causing drugs). This is especially the case for drugs sold as “emergency contraceptives.” The so-called “morning after pill,” Plan B (levonorgestrel), is the most popular of these. When taken after sexual intercourse (as advertised and instructed), the only remaining way for this drug to “work” is by preventing the embryo’s attachment to the uterus. This ultimately kills the embryo and is thus an abortion. Of course, given the typical woman’s fertility window of about six days per month, so-called “emergency contraceptives” certainly do not cause an abortion every time they are used. This does not diminish the moral evil of using them, but it does reduce the number of human lives destroyed.

There are also drugs that are explicitly advertised as abortion drugs. The most common one is RU-486 (mifepristone), openly called “the abortion pill.” It is usually used together with the drug Cytotec (misoprostol). These drugs are used throughout the first and second trimesters of pregnancy. They first cause the death of the embryo or fetus and then its discharge. This is called a “chemical abortion.”

So, to your question about whether the Church considers “birth control pills” to be a form of abortion, the answer is that it depends on which drug is used. The most common form of contraception, “the pill,” is taken daily and prevents fertilization itself rather than killing embryos post-fertilization. It is possible for the pill to make the uterine wall less hospitable to the embryo’s attachment. But this would be an indirect abortive effect and not an abortion properly speaking (many medications can have indirect effects on fertility and pregnancy). Recall that abortion is the “direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being,” not a rare, indirect, and unintended side effect of some other action. On this note, it is important to acknowledge that some women are prescribed the pill for therapeutic reasons, for example, to treat endometriosis, severe acne, and certain forms of cancer. This use of the pill is morally permissible provided that the contraceptive effect is not the intention of the woman, and she is still open to life (in the context of marriage, of course) (see Humanae Vitae, n. 15).

It is possible and perhaps even likely that someone could be ignorant of the abortion-causing effects of so-called “emergency contraceptives” like Plan B. After all, they are advertised as “contraceptives,” not abortifacients. This ignorance would reduce the person’s moral culpability for using the drug. However, it would be difficult for someone to claim ignorance about a drug like RU-486, which is openly advertised as an abortion pill.

Regarding worthy reception of the Eucharist, abortion and contraception are not unique: all Catholics who are conscious of committing any serious sin are obliged to refrain from Holy Communion until they receive absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (see 1 Cor 11:27–30 and Code of Canon Law, n. 916). Anyone who has been involved in an abortion in any way should ask for God’s forgiveness and come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation to receive mercy, grace, and healing. Anyone who has used contraceptives for the purpose of preventing new life should do the same. Behind every “no” in the Church’s teaching is a life-giving and liberating “yes” to authentic human love and flourishing.

Father Christopher Trummer, S.T.L, is parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Springfield, associate delegate for Health Care Professionals, associate chaplain of the Springfield Chapter of the Catholic Physicians Guild/Catholic Medical Association, and has a license in Sacred Theology in Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Italy.