SHOULD THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH REMOVE ITS BAN ON ARTIFICIAL METHODS OF FAMILY PLANNING?

This is a question faced by many catholic health care providers throughout the world. The Roman Catholic Church officially opposes any artificial method of family planning.

When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church (Church from here on) in February 2013 as Pope Francis, catholics all over the world were encouraged by the idea that they might see some changes in the teachings of the Church as it relates to many issues pertaining to the “family”. These issues include divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, family planning and a number of other topics. I want to focus in this discussion on the longstanding opposition by the Church to the use of artificial methods of family planning (contraception).

This ban on contraception affects catholic medical practitioners on a daily basis and this includes, family doctors, RNs, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and any medical care giver involved with counseling clients about methods for planning their families and implementing the chosen methods. As we know, the Church allows only “natural methods” of family planning, the so called “fertility awareness methods”. That is just fine for motivated and somewhat educated couples, with some access to medical care and teaching; also this approach works best if the women has regular menstrual cycles. Medical advances have made these methods more sophisticated and precise than the original method, based on just counting the days of the menstrual cycle and abstaining from intercourse on the so called fertile days.

Under ideal circumstances these natural methods have a high success and low failure rate, equal or better than some artificial methods. And many couples who use it are very satisfied with it, even though they still require a considerable amount of effort. Under less than ideal circumstances however, these natural methods have a high and unacceptable failure rate. This is true in our own country but especially in developing countries and areas (like refugee camps) where people live in squalor, lack food and most basic living needs, have no or inadequate medical care, and women often have very irregular or absent menstrual cycles, so that the natural methods of family planning become utterly impractical. Yet the Catholic Church insists that only these natural methods are acceptable.

The hope for a change in this official position of the Church has been fostered by the observation that Pope Francis seemed to be willing to listen and has made a number conciliatory remarks on issues like women’s equality, divorced and remarried couples and homosexuality, while continuing to accept only the natural methods of family planning. Then came the most recent publication by Pope Francis, “Amoris Laetitia” (The Joy of Love). This is a beautifully written document about issues related to the family, in which the Pope makes again conciliatory remarks about a number of issues, but reaffirms the position of the Church in regards to family planning. No artificial methods are condoned. This seems to close the door on this issue, at least for the foreseeable future. What a pity and what a missed opportunity for the Pope to bring the teachings of the Church as it pertains to contraception in line with the thinking and practice of the 21st century.

It is well known, and adequate statistics are available to show that worldwide a large percentage of catholics are ignoring the teaching of the church as it pertains to family planning and availing themselves of contraception to plan their families. On a personal note I have spoken to a number of priests and asked them about my practice as a catholic obstetrician and gynecologist of prescribing and implementing artificial contraception for my catholic clients. Some of them have told me to following my conscience and continue what I am doing. That is of
course just fine for me, but in the overall picture of things, it makes no sense. If rules, regulation, and laws are such that a vast majority of people, including those in position of authority are ignoring them, is it then not time for the leadership to seriously review and hopefully modify the rules? That, to me and to many of my catholic colleagues and patients, seems only logical. In that sense the recent publication by Pope Francis is certainly most disappointing.

In this regard the recent publication from the Wiingaards Institute for Catholic Research might be of interest: http://www.catholicsandcontraception.com

William J. LeMaire MD
Emeritus Professor
Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology
University of Miami
Miller School of Medicine
Miami, Florida

Authored By DR William LeMaire on Friday 27th May 2016