Monday, February 5, 2007

Dawn Eden: Contracepting married couples don't really love each other

In searching the web for Christian opinions on contraception in marriage, I came across some posts on the topic by a Catholic blogger, posts which have achieved a degree of infamy among her antagonists and yielded a bumper crop of comments.

Dawn Eden is a recent convert to Catholicism, and she is an enthusiastic evangelist for the "Theology of the Body," a sort of rationale for the Roman church's rules on sexuality developed by the late Pope John Paul II and popularized in America by Christopher West. On her blog, she upholds the Vatican's ruling to prohibit the use of artificial means of avoiding conception, while permitting the use of thermometers, charts, and mucus monitoring to avoid conception.

She's not a theological authoriy, but her views are worthy of attention here because of her role as an apologist and popularizer of Catholic sexual morality, through her blog and a book called The Thrill of the Chaste, which is about her conversion from sexual promiscuity to Christian chastity.

It is interesting that, as many cradle Catholics have left the church over rules on sexuality that they consider too narrow, and others remain in the church but ignore those rules, those very rules and principles have been a major source of attraction to Rome for some converts. Eden seems to fall into that latter category, as do many of her commenters.

In one notable blog post, she uses a strange and arresting analogy to communicate the idea, central to Roman teaching on sexuality, that artificial means of birth control fundamentally change the nature of the sex act:

. . . suppose you could French kiss your beloved boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse without exchanging spit?

No, seriously. Suppose exchanging spit greatly increased one's fertility at certain times of the month and was hence something to be avoided at all costs by those wishing to be childless.

You could take a pill that would dry up your saliva glands and prevent your own mouth from absorbing your partner's saliva.

To preserve that nice gushy feeling, you could swish some prefabricated spit substitute, just like the real thing, between your teeth before locking lips. But neither you nor your partner would be capable of transmitting any of your own natural wetness to the other.

Physically, it would feel just like a real French kiss. But would it be one?

Is a kiss still a kiss when it's only sensation, with no substance shared? Is it still a soul kiss when you're purposefully withholding part of yourself — something that's always been an essential element of a smooch?

I wonder . . .

In a follow-up post, she explains what she was trying to get at:

I wrote an allegory about kissing, insinuating that true sexual freedom is accepting sex in all its meanings — pleasure, emotional union, and the possibility of procreation. To be truly sex-positive, one must be life-positive. Anything else stunts one emotionally and physically.

In the comments to the first post, it becomes clear that, for Eden and others, those three meanings aren't independent variables. Emotional union isn't possible unless procreation is.

You will find it worthwhile to read the entire conversation, but I'm going to quote rather a lot of comments here, as they illuminate the attitude of devout Catholics, following official church teaching, on the topic of contraception.

Kate B.:

I say it's still a kiss. It is also a deception: your bodies have been altered, and you are trying to pretend they haven't been. Thus, each member of this hypothetical couple would be lying to the other, as well as being complicit in the other's lie.

Dawn Eden, responding to an objection to her comment that seems to make "contracepted sex" and love mutually exclusive:

I don't believe our choices disable us from being capable of love. I do believe that our choices can put us in situations where, by closing ourselves off physically, we close ourselves off emotionally as well.

Dawn Eden, in response to a married commenter who speaks positively of sterilization:

Vasectomy brings in a different kind of barrier, Ledasmom — a barrier of refusal to accept the possibility of life. One doesn't love a man completely if one hotly desires to damage his properly functioning body by making him sterile.


Also, it's perfectly obvious that the amount of love is less in contracepting marriages. Maybe not zero (I should certainly hope not!), but definitely lower. As evidenced by the higher rate of divorce.


Non-contracepting couples love all of each other. Contracepting couples say to each other, 'I love this part of you (your body) but not this part (your reproductive capability and life-giving purpose).' Thus the contracepting couple lies in their wedding vows, partially, because your wedding vow is 'I take you to be my spouse,' not 'I take part of you, but not this part.' A contracepted marriage is a cafeteria marriage. The love is limited and the woman isn't valued for her lifegiving capabilities and femininity.

Further in the conversation, Cynthia Wood responds to Biddy's suggestion that vanity and ambition are what motivates the desire for no more children:

I don't want another pregnancy because it means 5-6 months of pubic symphis dysfunction, up to two years of hip pain, a new crop of moles (this is not vanity, at least two have been pre-cancerous), a high risk of life-threatening hemorrhage (not fun, even when you don't die), and a few other un-fun things.

It's pretty strange to me that someone would think it more loving, and better for the marriage to be celibate until menopause than to use contraception and maintain a loving physical relationship. I should reject my husband's body out of fear when it's not necessary?

Dawn Eden has a quick rejoinder:

Sorry about your illness, Cynthia, but natural family planning is a highly effective method of avoiding pregnancy that has no side effects.

Even if you wish to "play it safe" and use the most effective method known to you, which is oral contraception, you're giving up something valuable in terms of emotional intimacy. What you're giving up is much more than if you simply refrained from having sex, because you're physically withholding your fertility within the context of the sexual act. That will affect you emotionally and spiritually. I'm sorry if this offends you, but this is what I believe, not just for you personally, but for everyone who uses contraception.

Cynthia Wood responds:

But if NFP is as effective as BCP, then aren't I withholding my fertility from my husband if I use it? And if it's not as effective, I don't find terror particularly effective at promoting a loving relationship. I've already commented on the poisoning aspect. The "side effects" the pill causes me are, for me, highly desireable, and I would be likely to remain on it for that reason even if I were celibate.

I'm sorry, but I have a 14-year marriage that still going strong, and I haven't noticed any negative effect from the use of contraception. For you to tell me that I'm doing my marriage harm with no knowledge of our relationship except that we use contraception seems - premature at the very least. I don't see that I should start making major unilateral alterations to a strong working marriage because somebody far, far away feels we might be doing better. Far less that we should be forced into such a position against our will.

In her rebuttal, Dawn Eden turns to the effect she claims contraception has on one's attitude toward children:

Cynthia, I'm not going to try to convince you or anyone arguing against NFP why you should use it, because you're clearly not interested. The short answer to your question about whether it withholds fertility is that it depends upon your motivation.

There's nothing wrong with a couple's wanting to space births or refrain from having additional children, and using NFP to do so. The problem with contraception is that it treats the child as a "mistake." That leads directly to the mentality that considers the unborn child an "invader" or "unwanted tenant" who must be killed.

The premise of NFP is that one must be open to the possibility of children even as one attempts to avoid having them. Beyond that, I'm not going to argue with you because, again, your mind does not appear to be open.

A few more quotes:

Dawn Eden again:

But I don't think that NFP by definition consists of withholding fertility. It in no way alters the body's natural processes. When an NFP couple has sex, they really have sex.


When a couple uses NFP, they aren't withholding their fertility in anything like the same way as they are if they contracept. Contracepting couples seek consequence-free sex, so they do not give their whole selves freely to one another. Couples using NFP abstain during the fertile period, but if that is just more than they can handle (as an above commenter suggested), they can still enter the marital embrace (with the knowledge that they may be likely to conceive). Every time they have sex, they do so with all parts of themselves. The contraceptive mentality knocks sex down to mere feelings or sensations, rather than the perfect unity that is supposed to be present on the marriage bed.

The rhetoric gets even more forceful in the comments to her followup post.


Josh asks about "the moral distinction, if any, between NFP and artificial contraception." Well, if NFP is used with a contraceptive mentality, then no, there is no moral distinction -- they are both a corruption and distortion of human sexuality. Contraception, whether physical or mental, is a barrier between a man and woman -- literally. Such a barrier obviously prevents a man and woman from becoming "one." Indeed, it prevents any real or authentic intimacy at all. Contraception presents both a wall -- of rubber, chemicals, or otherwise -- and a withholding of a part of yourself from the other.

Because of this barrier and this withholding of self, sex is no longer an act of mutual giving, that is, an act of love. Instead, it becomes an act of taking; an act of exploiting; an act of using the other as an object, as a sex toy. By this use of contraception, couples no longer see each other as a subject or even a person -- they see the other as object, a thing. Nothing much more than a flesh and blood blow-up toy or vibrator.


Saying a couple can be open to children throughout the course of their marriage without every sexual act being fertile (at least having the possibility of conception) is like saying that you can be faithful to your spouse throughout the course of your marriage without every sexual act needing to be with him or her.

I don't think Dawn Eden and her commenters mean what they say about love and contraception in a personal way, as a personal attack on the relationships of their interlocutors who admit to using contraception. They are speaking dogmatically -- that is, they are asserting that the relationships of married couples who use contraception must be defective because the dogma of the Roman Catholic church teaches that it is so.*

It is interesting that most of the commenters in that thread who defended the use of contraception mentioned being married and already having children, while I didn't notice that any of those attacking the use of contraception mentioned being a spouse or a parent.

If you're wondering why I am quoting more than commenting, at this point I'm just trying to gather all the information in one place, so that I can easily refer back to it. I am planning one or more posts that tie all this together, in the context of my own life.

UPDATE: I have converted all the quotes to blockquotes for the sake of consistency and readability. Also I corrected a term ("Roman church") that gave unintended offense. I wasn't trying to channel Ian Paisley, I promise. (But as someone pointed out, there are denominations, such as the Eastern Orthodox, regard themselves as truly catholic -- holding to "that which ought to be believed at all times in all places by all people" -- and regard the church headed by the Bishop of Rome as schismatic.)

Also, in saying that these assertions about the effect of contraception on the nature of sex are "dogmatic," I wasn't meaning to say that they were pulled out of thin air (or some place darker) by the Magisterium, or that these faithful Roman Catholics were robotically regurgitating them in the linked comments. What I meant was that when, for example, Dawn Eden says, "One doesn't love a man completely if one hotly desires to damage his properly functioning body by making him sterile," that statement isn't grounded in personal observation of my wife's heart attitude toward me. She is applying the principles that she believes are true to the specific situation -- and thus the statement is grounded in church dogma -- its profession of its understanding of God's creation, both seen and unseen, its weltanschauung -- not in personal observation and experience. That's not a bad thing, in my view.


PerpetualBeginner said...

This is only a quick comment, since I don't have the time for a longer one just yet. I'm Cynthia from the above comments. I have seen nothing in my life and marriage to convince me of the absolute validity of the Catholic dogma on contraception (as opposed to its effectiveness when followed by two partners who both agree with it), indeed its proponents' tendencies to make statements directly contradicting my own experience of my own life tends to make me highly skeptical.

My simplest argument is that loving one another is high on God's list of priorities, and as I stated above, terror is not conducive to love. I am terrified of what an additional pregnancy would mean (much like your wife), with contraception, this terror has little to no effect on our marriage. Without it, I would be living with it constantly. Every time he gave me a hug, I would be thinking "what if he wants more?"

I'd rather maintain the loving relationship I'm convinced God values than risk it over an issue of dogma.

Contraskeptic said...

Thanks for your reply, Cynthia. I look forward to your longer comment when you have time.

Bender said...

they are asserting that the relationships of married couples who use contraception must be defective because the dogma of the Roman church teaches that it is so.

Um, not exactly. They "assert" that on the same grounds as the Catholic Church teaches it, not because they are puppets who think whatever the Church tells them to think, but because reason, as enlightened by revelation, dictates that it is so. The Church does not make things up out of whole cloth, and this teaching is not merely the imposition of the opinions of a bunch of old men in Rome.

However, since you have already branded us as puppets who do not think for ourselves, there really isn't much point in us further explaining the matter. After all, we are just parroting dogma.

(Also, the phrase "Roman church" is a give away.)

PerpetualBeginner said...

bender, dogma is the name for the set of teachings of a particular church. I have never asserted that the Catholic dogma was created out of whole cloth, nor ever would. However, as I am not a Catholic, I do not feel I am obliged to adopt those portions of their teachings that make little or no sense to me. Secondly, Roman as an adjective in this situation, serves to distinguish you from other churches (Orthodox, for example) that also use catholic in their self-descriptors.

Nor do I think of Catholics as puppets, not even the most conservative. I do, however, disagree with the church's reasoning in a number of areas. Tradition and an overage of institutional authority can be as much of a distortion to good reasoning as a love of change and too much reliance on self. Others are free to disagree with my reasoning as they wish - but I would say in the area of contraception, your odds of changing my mind are remarkably low - it's an area I've given a lot of thought to and feel strongly about.

Contraskeptic said...

Bender, I didn't mean to give offense by what I said, and I'm sorry if I did. I was attempting to make the point that you and the other commenters I quoted weren't personally attacking married couples who use contraception, even though several of the commenters who defended contraception took personal offense. You were simply speaking the truth as you understand it.

I certainly didn't mean to suggest that you were thoughtless puppets. Indeed, you were taking what you believe to be true and then using reason to apply it to a specific situation.

As a fellow Christian, I know that if I say something is a sin or something has negative spiritual consequences, I can expect someone to complain that I'm motivated by personal animosity or bigotry, even though I'm only speaking what I believe God teaches.

And I understand that the Roman Catholic dogma regarding contraception doesn't come out of thin air, but is grounded in an interpretation of scripture and natural law.

While I don't accept the authority of the Roman Catholic magisterium, the fact that there is a basis for the teaching beyond that authority is why it is of interest to me as an evangelical.

I would be interested in your thoughts on the dilemma I outline in a later entry.

Andy said...

It is interesting that most of the commenters in that thread who defended the use of contraception mentioned being married and already having children, while I didn't notice that any of those attacking the use of contraception mentioned being a spouse or a parent.

Not relevant at all. Truth is truth regardless of who speaks it. You could also spin it to say that those who are married parents are using their kids to excuse contracepting behavior. For the record, I am married with a child on the way, all without contraception.

PerpetualBeginner said...

Truth is truth, but situation can change the application of truth. Gravity pulls downward in all cases, but the effect is distinctly different if you jump off a couch, a building, or out of an airplane with a parachute. Same gravity in all instances. Is the parachute an offense because it mitigates gravity's downward effect?

One of the purposes of sex is fertility, but the effects of that fertility are very different in different situations. Endangering the marriage (which seems to already be affected by this) for the goal of letting fertility always have its way seems to be letting something much under debate (the status of contraception) get in the way of something under no debate at all, at least in religious communities - the value of marriage.

Andy said...

Endangering the marriage (which seems to already be affected by this) for the goal of letting fertility always have its way seems to be letting something much under debate (the status of contraception) get in the way of something under no debate at all, at least in religious communities - the value of marriage.

But it is a false dilemma. It is a choice between "vasectomy or sex." You also seem to ignore the fact that contraception itself can endanger the marriage. Sex without at least the possibility of conception is effectively saying to the person "I embrace every part of you, completely, except for the part I don't like: your fertility." That sounds like something that endangers a marriage to me.

Katie said...

I strongly disagree with Dawn Eden when she states that the commenter with pregnancy-related health problems is currently practicing a plan that gives up more than she would give up if she gave up sex.

I read it and I think of a commenter on your more recent post who said something about the "precarious relationship between a woman and her fertility." Now, I hated that that commenter implied you didn't respect it--I think you've shown careful consideration and been thinking about it quite a bit! But I did like the phrase and feel that it describes the situation in a way I can really agree with.

And that's why I disagree with Dawn Eden about what she wrote to that one commenter. When she says that, among the choices of, "losing health," "losing any form of sex," and, "losing fertility-including sex," the best option is "losing any form of sex" (and implies her acceptance of the notion that the worst option is "losing health"), she seems to take "fertility" as something that human women in a natural, normal state of affairs would have an almost entirely positive relationship with.

I just can't accept that notion of "fertility" and the relationships we humans, in the best of situations, have been born to have with it. I accept "precarious" as much more accurate a descriptor of that relationship.

Therefore, I rank the three options in a different order--"losing fertility-including sex" as the best option (since the body's fertility was a mixed bag, not a sheer blessing, to begin with), "losing any form of sex" as the middle option, and, like Dawn Eden and the commenter, "losing health" as the worst option.

PerpetualBeginner said...

andy - considering that my fertility is a huge health issue for me (and sounds like its a huge health issue for contraskeptic's wife as well), I don't want my husband embracing my fertility. To do so would show extreme recklessness of my health. So, given that fertility is not an option, how is it healthier for the marriage to say "I will not embrace you sexually again." then to say "we will love each other in every way possible that doesn't endanger the health of one of us."?

Plus, the detrimental effects of contraception on marriage just don't seem to hold up when you look at actual marriages. My marriage is 15 years along now and stronger than ever, despite the fact that we've had sex without contraception exactly twice (and we have two kids).

If my husband were to have some strange conversion experience tomorrow and say "no contraception", at the very least he'd be in contraskeptic's position. There's a good chance he'd standing on the porch while I rained his possessions down on his head. I wouldn't feel loved by someone who didn't take my health and my fears as least as seriously as his own. Not very healthy for a marriage there.

In short - what seems healthiest for a marriage is that the two partners are agreed - of one mind - on the issue. My advice to contraskeptic is to listen to his wife, and talk with his wife. Understand her fears. Realize what another pregnancy means for her, rather than pushing for his own take on it. Try to come to a meeting of minds. Whether that means a vasectomy, a tubal, or something else is up to them.

tubal reversal said...

I don't agree with this that contracepting married couple have no love. i have met many such couples passing their happy life.