What Comes Naturally

BROADWAY, VIRGINIA. — Broadway, Virginia. -- It is regrettable that, on the issue of contraception, the Catholic Church remains unbending. It is also, to me, incomprehensible. To condemn contraception as "unnatural" does not withstand close logical scrutiny.

The Church would align itself with "natural law," and the natural purpose of sexual intercourse, it is argued, is reproduction. But a good deal more is known now than in an earlier era about the sexuality of humans and other creatures. And it is clear that what is special about human sexuality is that, with our kind, nature has gone out of her way to use sex for other purposes.


In our fellow mammals, the female is sexually receptive only when she is fertile, and generally only then does she send out chemical or visual signals that make her attractive to the male. The reproduction of the species is evidently the sole business at hand. With humankind, by contrast, nature has worked to add new dimensions. What is remarkable about us is that the female is receptive throughout the cycle, and that the time of fertility -- as many couples trying to conceive can attest -- is quite difficult to discern.

The clear message is that, in the human, the purposes of sexuality have been expanded. When a couple, therefore, uses sex as a pleasurable way to deepen the bond of their love, without necessarily inviting conception, it would seem that they were answering an invitation from nature herself. And when the Church would focus only on the reproductive aspect of sexuality, requiring that sex entail the possibility of bringing forth a new life, its vision would seem to be more narrow than that by which our nature was designed.


But is it not unnatural to put obstacles in the way of new human beings coming among the living? Is this not interfering with the natural course of events?

Perhaps so, but why single out the entryway to life as the one point at which we are forbidden to interfere? When a modern pharmaceutical drug saves the life of one suffering from what would have been a fatal illness, is this not equally "unnatural"? Are we not continually creating unnatural means to block the exit from life? So why not also the entrance?

Indeed, it is the very fact that we are so effective in interfering with the natural rate of death that makes it so urgent that we take equal measures to reduce the natural rate of birth. Until scientific medicine and public health lengthened human life expectancy beyond what it had been in the "Be fruitful and multiply" days, human population was rather stable. now, with developments like vaccinations to give an unnatural boost to our immune systems and thus free us from the ancient scourges of pestilence, humanity's numbers are increasing geometrically -- to the peril of ourselves and the rest of the planet.

What could be more unnatural than a species reproducing out of all balance with its biosphere? If we do not bring our rate of birth in line with our rate of death, the only possible alternative in a finite world will be that terrible calamities will drive our death rate up again until a sustainable balance is reached.

Far more is at stake here than the freedom of individual couples to control their lives. With the Church an important force in the world, including in many countries where the burden of excessive population growth is especially heavy, the Church can either be part of this dangerous global problem or, rethinking its position, it can become part of the solution.

Andrew Bard Schmookler's most recent book is "Fool's Gold: The Fate of Values in a World of Goods."