Until fairly recently in human history, controlling fertility was a non-issue. This was because sexuality (and fertility, which arose from it) was seen as a force of nature, a sacred and mysterious force, not to be tampered with.
It is only with the rise of science and technology that societies have sought to plan, determine and control how men and women mate, whether or not they should have offspring, and how many.
“Family planning” or “population control” has therefore appeared on the public agenda of many countries struggling with modernity. As government propaganda goes, overpopulation hinders the goals of development because it eats up social and economic resources. It is harder to cater to the needs of a large family in terms of education, health care and employment, than it is for a smaller one. Large families are therefore poorer families, the argument persists.
To eradicate poverty one must address overpopulation and curb it. The state therefore prescribes just how many offspring a couple are permitted – two or three, or just two (as in India today)? or just one child (as in China)?
The means to effective population control is always some form of artificial contraception, failing which there is recourse to abortion or sterilization -- in other words an underlying violent approach. The values of technological efficiency remain paramount; ethical or religious values are held to be old fashioned, and carry no weight whatsoever. Artificial birth control methods are assiduously promoted in India.
Against such an aggressive pursuit of population control, the Church promotes the rights of a couple to choose. A couple’s choices however are to be made ‘according to conscience,’ that is, a decision which takes into account Catholic teachings; the respect and care for life, especially of the unborn; and the total context of the women and children in the family.
Where the state tends to issue threats and incentives, the Church says that it is the couple’s right to make an informed decision. In other words, the stress is on the values of responsible parenthood. At the same time, official Church policy has traditionally condemned artificial contraception.
This injunction is based on a distinction between what is ‘of nature’ and what is ‘artificial, technological’ in promoting or hindering life. It is a distinction which many Catholics consider invalid and secretly reject, but which still retains its public place in Church teaching.
Many women, for instance, find artificial contraception helpful in planning their professional lives, lives which are sexually active but outside of marriage – another aspect condemned by Catholic teaching.
Today's woman may look at marriage as a form of patriarchal control, and blame the Church for being as hostile to women as men traditionally are. Thoughtful women ask whether the Catholic Church really reflects God’s care for his people in these “pelvic issues,” or only mirrors the prejudices of a system which wants to keep women in shackles.
In place of artificial birth control, the Church promotes “natural” family planning, according to the woman’s menstrual cycle. While this is certainly effective, and unlike artificial methods does not have any harmful side effects, it requires the cooperation of the male partner – and in this less than perfect world, this is not always forthcoming. But where it succeeds, it builds up supportive sexual and familial relationships.
So the question of “family planning” or “population control” opens us to other issues. These are related not so much to sexual techniques as to attitudes, values and beliefs. Most societies – certainly in India – are ‘patriarchal,’ that is, the decisions of menfolk overrule the wishes of women. It’s the man who decides the nature and frequency of intercourse, whether or not contraception will be used, whether female fetuses will be aborted until the desired boy is conceived, and so on. Such decisions are taken unilaterally.
The woman is usually the victim, forced against her will to act as her in-laws dictate she must do.
A Church which sees the issue of fertility only in terms of “God’s law” could be more pastorally sensitive, and even more “gender sensitive” and attentive to the actual needs of women. But will this ever happen? Hard to say; but until such time, women and men will do what they must, not what they should.
Myron J Pereira is a Jesuit priest and media consultant based in Mumbai
India: Working toward 'a church that is poor and for the poor'.