Friday, April 13, 2012

What About Catholic Docs Prescribing Contraception?

It should by now be perfectly clear that the Catholic Church teaches that using artificial contraception is gravely sinful, and that cooperating in the distribution and use of contraceptive products is also sinful. In a recent interview reported by LifeSiteNews, Cardinal Raymond Burke addressed what it means to Catholic employers to be forced to provide insurance that covers contraceptives. Here’s a critical excerpt (my emphases):

Interviewer: So a Catholic employer, really getting down to it, he does not, or she does not provide this because that way they would be, in a sense, cooperating with the sin…the sin of contraception or the sin of providing a contraceptive that would abort a child, is this correct?

Cardinal Burke: This is correct. It is not only a matter of what we call “material cooperation” in the sense that the employer by giving this insurance benefit is materially providing for the contraception but it is also “formal cooperationbecause he is knowingly and deliberately doing this, making this available to people. There is no way to justify it. It is simply wrong.

Now, if a Catholic employer who provides coverage for contraceptives is cooperating with sin, how much more so is a Catholic physician who prescribes contraceptives for patients who want it only for the purpose of…well…contracepting – of preventing the conception of a child?

At least the furor over the “contraception mandate” has led to talk about the grave sin of contraception itself – something that’s been lacking in the decades since Humanae Vitae. People haven’t wanted to talk about contraception for a long, long time. Why? Because they wanted to believe that it was “up to my conscience” and they did not want to form their consciences correctly – they just wanted to have sex without having babies. So it was just something better left unspoken.

How do Catholic physicians prescribing contraception justify their practice? The argument I’ve heard most often is that “as a physician, I can’t impose my views on people who don’t share them”. Hmph. I think most physicians do “impose” their views on their patients in some way or another – sometimes rightly, sometimes not; but when a moral absolute is involved, why shouldn’t they “impose” their views? To not do so puts the physician’s own soul at risk.

For instance, take a minute to watch this amusing video by Dr. Stacy Trasancos:

A few years ago, I read a book called Physicians Healed (1998; edited by Cleta Harman, published by One More Soul). The subtitle describes it as “personal, inspiring and compelling stories of fifteen courageous physicians who do not prescribe contraception”. In one story, a physician writes:

So one day at the end of a rotation in the family practice residency program, one of my best friends asked me something that will forever be embedded in the roots of my being. “Jose, I know that you are a good doctor, but are you a Catholic doctor?”…This simple question threw me for a tailspin, but convicted me in a way I had never been convicted before in my life.

…I sought the counsel of many; most everyone I spoke with could not appreciate what the struggle was all about or why I wrestled with these issues, especially at this point in my life. I was made to feel that I would be abandoning my patients. I would be denying a service I always provided in the past. What would my patients say to me when I told them that I had stopped contracepting, and that I could no longer perform a vasectomy or a tubal ligation, just because my Church said so! (p.30)

If this was true when the book was published in 1998, it is even more so now, 14 years later! The “contraception mandate” controversy is filled with statements about “women’s reproductive health care” and “women’s right to preventative health care” and the like.  And of course Catholics themselves are divided on the issue because so many have, currently do, or intend to use artificial contraception at some point in their lives.

The stories by these physicians also address fears of the economic pressures that might be induced if their patients sought "reproductive" services elsewhere. However, most of the doctors seemed to find that their fears were unfounded. As editor Cleta Harman states in the introduction,

None of the dire consequences I imagined came true. John continues to see many patients in their years of fertility…We were not forced into bankruptcy; our income experienced no change at all. (p. 7)

And even more telling, she adds:

To the casual observer, nothing much had changed in our lives. But to John and me, everything was changed.

Everything does change when you bring your practice into line with your beliefs. Everything does change when you start doing the right thing instead of the politically correct thing. And everything does change when you start speaking the truth in love.

Dr. John Hartman (husband of the book’s editor) tells a story about meeting Dr. James Dobson at a conference, which had a profound effect on him:

[Another doctor] asked the following question while posing this situation: I am greeted in the office by a sixteen-year-old girl whom I know to be sexually active and who is there to request birth control pills. Understanding that if I give her the pills, I’ll be condoning her actions, but if I do not, she might go on to get pregnant, or worse yet, have an abortion, what should I do?

James Dobson answered him in this way: “I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do, since you are the one who knows so much more about the situation…But having said that, I know that someone, somewhere, somehow must stand up for the truth. Unless she hears the truth, how can she be expected to respond to it? The truth deserves to be told. Who is the one to speak the truth?”

Dr. Hartman took the words to heart and began immediately to speak the truth. And while he was nervous at first about doing so, he found his patients accepting and even grateful for his stand.  A fifteen-year-old girl asking for birth control pills appeared to accept his reasons for refusing her, “and so did her mother”, he reports. When a young man with an STD came for treatment, Dr. Hartman pursued the real issues in the man's life:

…I inquired about what he wanted for his life and voiced my opinion that if he wanted to change that, he could…I was afraid that…[he] would surely reject my concerns as irrelevant or pious. I was waiting for his “Yes, but…" answer, or worse, his indignation. I felt it coming. When he spoke, I was astounded! He said: “Thank you!” I was surprised…[H]e continued, “No one has ever talked with me before in that way.” In his eyes I saw gratitude.

Not everyone will be open to hearing the truth, of course – that is very evident in our Church today, and in society in general. Stubborn minds will remain closed. 

But that’s not the point.

The point is that it is important to be truthful - and the more influence a person has in his world, the more responsibility he has for telling the truth. “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48).

The truth is that contraception is a grave moral evil. The truth is that physicians who prescribe contraceptives are engaging in formal cooperation with sin.

And for the sake of the souls of their patients, and for the sake of their own souls, they need to acknowledge this error and correct it.

And that’s the truth.

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