Janet E. Smith’s grave errors on Abortifacient Contraception

In a recent article, Catholic theologian Janet E. Smith correctly asserts: “The Church has never taught that if the harms are serious enough, it is permissible to use contraception.” True. The Magisterium teaches that grave harm in the circumstances can never justify the deliberate choice of any intrinsically evil act. Both contraception and abortion are intrinsically evil. Therefore, no amount or type of harm, which might be avoided by choosing an act of abortion or contraception, can make such a choice moral. Intrinsically evil acts are always wrong to knowingly choose.

Her article is titled: Contraception, Congo Nuns, Choosing the Lesser Evil, and Conflict of Commandments. Her main point is to refute the idea that an intrinsically evil act of abortion or contraception can be justified by a dire circumstance. She also correctly explains that one can never justify the choice of any sinful act as the lesser of two moral evils. It is moral to tolerate a lesser evil, in the sense of harm or disorder (“physical evil”), in order to avoid a greater physical evil or to avoid a moral evil. But it is never moral or in any sense justifiable to deliberately choose to commit an intrinsically evil act, nor to sin in any way. All sin is by definition immoral and unjustifiable.

However, Janet Smith commits two serious theological errors elsewhere in her article.

The ordinary and universal Magisterium infallibly teaches that intrinsically evil are never justified by intention or circumstances. Every intrinsically evil act always immoral to knowingly choose, because the act is wrong by its very nature.

What determines the moral nature of any human act? Each human person has the gifts of reason and free will. When we use those gifts by knowingly choosing any concrete act (the act in a particular case), that choice is subject to the eternal moral law. And while concrete acts are many and varied, every such act or choice has a moral nature; it has an inherent moral meaning before conscience and the eyes of God. This nature is nothing other than the ordering of the act toward its moral object. And the moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is intrinsically ordered. When that end is evil, the act itself is intrinsically evil, by its very nature.

When a human person knowingly chooses a concrete act, he or she necessarily always also chooses, at least implicitly, the nature of that act as determined by its moral object. These three components are inseparable in every knowing choice: concrete act, moral nature, moral object. The choice of the act is a choice also of its nature and its object. Moreover, it is not the attainment of the object that makes the act intrinsically good or evil, but the knowing (intentional, deliberate, voluntary) choice of the concrete act ordered toward that end.

First Error

I’ve read other articles by Janet Smith, in which she correctly identifies the moral object of an act, and refuses to justify any act with an evil moral object. But in this new article, she justifies the use of abortifacient contraception based solely on intention.

In the section of her article called “Therapeutic use of hormones”, Smith claims:

“Women who use those hormones with the intent of reducing pain and not with the intent of rendering their sexual acts infertile are not engaging in acts of contraception.”

That claim is problematic, because whether or not an act is intrinsically evil, and whether or not an act is the type of intrinsically evil act called contraception, is independent of intention. The moral object determines whether the chosen act is an intrinsically evil act of contraception or not.

And intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, and are never justified by intention or circumstance. The use of abortifacient contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. It is not the intention to contracept or the intention to kill the prenatal that makes contraception and abortion intrinsically evil — although a bad intention also makes any act immoral. Instead, every intrinsically evil act is immoral because the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered toward an evil moral object. So the absence of the intent to contracept, and the presence of an intent to attain a good end, does not justify the intentional choices to use abortifacient contraception, and to be sexually active at the same time.

The hormones to which Smith refers are abortifacients, not mere contraceptives. Later in the article, she condemns the use of abortifacient contraception: “These ‘contraceptives’ are not truly contraceptives. They cause the death of a new human being and are rightly called abortifacients”. But in the section on the use of abortifacient contraception with a therapeutic intention, she ignores the abortifacient nature of this use altogether. She thereby implies that the deaths of innocent prenatals are justified by the intention to treat a medical condition.

To the contrary, the Magisterium teaches that direct abortion is not justified, even with the good intention of saving the life of the mother. So then, how can abortifacient contraception be justified by the lesser intention of treating a medical disorder? It cannot be. The Church certainly permits abortifacient contraception pills to be used, by a woman who is refraining from sex while taking the medication. In such a case, the pill does not deprive any sexual acts of their procreative meaning, nor are any prenatals killed, since they are not conceived in the first place. But the basic principles of ethics on intrinsically evil acts and the absolute condemnation of every form of abortion by the Church do not permit abortifacient contraception and the resultant deaths of innocent prenatals to be justified by reference to a good intention.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: ” ‘An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention’ (cf St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. praec. 6). The end does not justify the means.” [CCC 1759]

When the Church uses terms such as “intentional” and “deliberate” and “voluntary” on the subject of any intrinsically evil act, the meaning is that it is always immoral for the human person to intentionally (i.e. knowingly, deliberately, voluntarily) choose any intrinsically evil act. The font called intention is the intended end, which resides in the subject (finis agentis), while the font called moral object is the end inherent to the act (finis actus). No intended end can justify the intentional choice of any intrinsically evil act. For by choosing an intrinsically evil act, the human person is also choosing, at least implicitly, its disordered nature and its evil object.

Moreover, the woman who chooses to use abortifacient contraception to treat a medical disorder has another choice to make: whether or not to have sexual relations while taking that medication. She is capable of abstaining from sexual relations. Her choice to have sexual relations while taking a pill that causes abortions is — like every other knowing choice in life — subject to the eternal moral law. She can avoid the harm, in the consequences of her act, of the deaths of innocent prenatals, by refraining from sexual relations. So the deaths of innocent prenatals, resulting from her choice to have sexual relations while taking the abortifacient contraception pill, is not an unintended secondary effect. It is the direct result of her deliberate choices.

In the case of a hysterectomy to treat a medical disorder, the deprivation of the procreative meaning is subsequent and unavoidable. In the case of removing a cancerous uterus in a woman in the early stages of pregnancy, the death of the prenatal is unavoidable (there is no way to save the prenatal at all). But in the case of abortifacient contraception used to treat a medical disorder, the good effect of treating the disorder can be obtain entirely without any loss of innocent life. Therefore, those deaths are not justifiable.

There are three fonts of morality: intention, object, circumstances. Even when we evaluate the circumstances of the act, the good consequence of being able to remain sexually active (while treating a medical disorder) is greatly outweighed by the deaths of innocent prenatals. And the good consequence of treating the disorder is attainable without the loss of innocent life, by refraining from sex.

Janet Smith is essentially saying that the good of having sex is worth the deaths of innocent prenatals. Why can’t the woman refrain from sex while treating the disorder? She can. So the choice to have sex while taking an abortifacient pill is the choice to kill your own unborn children so that you don’t’ have to give up having sex. The idolatry of sex is rampant among Catholic moral theologians today.

Smith goes on to claim:

“In the terminology of the principle of double effect, they are using hormones in pursuit of the good effect of reducing pain and, as a secondary effect, they are tolerating the infertility caused by the hormones they are taking.”

So, first she justifies the use of abortifacient contraception based on intention. Now she justifies abortifacient contraception based on the circumstances (i.e. the consequences or effects). Again, she ignores the moral object.

The principle of double effect NEVER justifies any intrinsically evil act. The first criteria for an act to be justified by the principle of double effect is that the act cannot be intrinsically evil. In other words, there can be no evil in the object of the act.

Furthermore, in evaluating the good and bad effects, the principle of double effect requires that the good effects equal or outweigh the bad effects. In the case of abortifacient contraception to treat a medical disorder, the bad effect of the deaths of innocent prenatals greatly outweighs the good of treating a disorder. More precisely, the good of being able to have sex while treating a medical disorder is greatly outweighed by the deaths of prenatals that result. And since the good effect of treating the disorder can be obtained without those deaths, that good effect cannot justify those deaths in any case.

Now the usual reply to my argument above is that the moral object in the use of abortifacient contraception to treat a medical disorder is the treatment of that disorder. In other words, it is both the intended end and the moral object. Well, let’s start with the case of a married woman, who refrains from sex while using this type of pill to treat a medical disorder. The act is moral, since all three fonts are good. The moral object is to treat the disorder.

But if she also chooses to have marital relations while taking this type of pill, her choice includes both moral objects: the treatment of a medical disorder and the killing of the innocent prenatal. For the latter is entirely avoidable, while still obtaining the former.

When evaluating intrinsically evil acts, many Catholics fail to consider that an act can have more than one moral object. For example, an act of adultery has the evil moral object of sex outside of marriage, as well as the evil moral object of breaking the marital vow. An act of premarital sex has the evil moral object of sex without the marital meaning; the same act with contraception has two evil moral objects, since the act is deprived of both the marital and procreative meanings.

Good acts can also have more than one moral object. For example, natural marital relations open to life has three good objects: the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings.

The decision to have sexual relations while taking an abortifacient to treat a medical disorder has two moral objects: the good end of treating the disorder and the evil end of killing the innocent. One evil moral object is sufficient to make any act intrinsically evil and therefore always immoral. So the principle of double effect does not apply in the case of abortifacients.

Second Error

In evaluating the case of the nuns in the Congo, Smith errs by again failing to consider that the contraceptives in question are also abortifacients. The reason that some theologians, at the time, opined that these nuns could use oral contraceptives (which had only arrived in the marketplace a few years earlier), is that no one realized that these contraceptives are also abortifacients. But given that fact, we must conclude that the decision to permit nuns to use abortifacient contraception, due to the danger of rape, was not justified. Mere contraception is certainly moral to use in cases of rape, but abortion and abortifacients are not.

Why is contraception moral to use in cases of rape? The reason given by Smith is not entirely accurate:

“Thus, for a woman to do something to prevent a rapist’s sperm from uniting with her ovum is a part of justifiable self-defense. Her act has nothing to do with violating God’s plan for sexuality. She is not choosing to use contraception to prevent a spousal act of sexual intercourse from achieving its natural end. She is not refusing to make a complete gift of herself to her spouse. She is fending off a rapist and all his physicality. Clearly, her use of ovulation-suppressing hormones is not an act of contraception”

There are several problems with the above explanation. Yes, we can say that contraception in cases of rape is a type of self-defense, but that explanation is theologically vague. It fails to explain why contraception, in such a case, is not intrinsically evil. The bare assertion that it is “not an act of contraception” is not sufficient. Another problem with her explanation is that she references the font of intention, but not the moral object. The woman is not choosing contraception as an intended end — good. She does not intend to thwart the unitive or procreative meanings — good. But what of the moral object?

My explanation is that contraception, like abortion, can be direct or indirect. Direct abortion is intrinsically evil because there is a direct relationship between the knowingly chosen concrete act and its ordering toward the moral object. Indirect abortion has no evil moral object; the death of the prenatal is in the consequences and not in the object. (Note that with direct abortion, the death of the prenatal is in the consequences and in the object.) We can make the same distinction for contraception (and all other intrinsically evil acts). Direct contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.

Contraception in cases of rape is indirect contraception. A deprivation of the procreative meaning does occur (just as the death of the prenatal does occur in indirect abortion), but the act is not ordered toward that end. Contraception, in cases of rape, is indirect and moral, on essentially the same basis that makes contraception, in other cases, direct and immoral: sexual acts are naturally ordered toward conception. In the case of rape, the prevention of conception is morally an interruption of the rape precisely because sex is ordered toward conception. So the moral object is good, and the deprivation of the procreative meaning is not in the object of the act, but only in the circumstances.

Final Thoughts

If any Catholic married couples decide to use abortifacient contraception for a medical reason, and they also decide to remain sexually active at the same time, they are committing the grave sin of abortion, which carries the penalty of automatic excommunication.

Janet E. Smith has publicly approved of the use of abortifacient contraception, while sexually active, for medical purposes. Her error constitutes formal cooperation with the grave sin of abortion. Moreover, she is morally responsible for any deaths of prenatals that may occur due to the influence of her false teaching on this topic.

[James 3]
{3:1} My brothers, not many of you should choose to become teachers, knowing that you shall receive a stricter judgment.

It is sadly ironic that, in an article in which Smith obtusely criticizes Pope Francis for his error in approving of contraception for the medical purpose of preventing disease transmission and birth defects, she errors by approving of abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose. The medical purpose referenced by the Pope is the grave harm of severe birth defects. Smith correctly rejects the use of mere contraception to avoid this severe harm in the consequences of the act. But in the same article, she approves of the use of abortifacient contraception, a greater evil, on the basis of lesser medical problems.

[Matthew 7]
{7:3} And how can you see the splinter in your brother’s eye, and not see the board in your own eye?
{7:4} Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter from your eye,’ while, behold, a board is in your own eye?
{7:5} Hypocrite, first remove the board from your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.

Smith sees the board in the eye of the Pope, but does not notice the sheet of plywood in her own eye. She corrects the Pope for one error, and yet, in the same article, she asserts a much more serious error on the same topic.

What the Hell is happening with teachers in the Church today?!! May God correct them all. False teachings on the topics of contraception and abortifacients are spreading rapidly and flourishing in the Church, darkening the souls of the faithful, causing grave harm to marriages, and resulting in the deaths of innocent unborn children. The Church is in dire need of a new encyclical on Human Life, to correct these many grave errors.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic moral theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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One Response to Janet E. Smith’s grave errors on Abortifacient Contraception

  1. Dave says:

    Regarding contraception causing grave harm to marriages… perhaps in the future, you can explore this topic.

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