About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The philosophy of contraception

Philosophers seem to be in the news, of late. Luc Bovens, a philosopher at the London School of Economics, has published a controversial article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, arguing that couples that engage in “natural” contraception (i.e., that time their intercourse away from the woman's ovulation window) may actually increase the rate of spontaneous abortions (which is already about 50% in humans). The idea is that embryos conceived toward the end of the fertility period are more likely to spontaneously abort both because their chromosomes get lost or damaged and because they are less likely to implant in the uterus.

The empirical evidence is rather controversial, as the evidence in favor of Bovens' claim is not definitive (though it is mounting). But what is interesting to me is how this is affecting th abortion debate. Let us assume for the sake of discussion that Bovens' empirical claim is correct. What follows? According to the British philosopher, this means that by engaging in natural contraception, pious couples are actually causing the same sort of outcome as “plan B” pills, and that it would therefore be preferable to use mechanical barriers to fertilization, which simply prevent the embryos from being formed in the first place.

Judie Brown, the president of the “pro-life” American Life League dismisses Bovens' argument, suggesting that even if there is an increased rate of spontaneous abortions late in the fertile period, this is natural, and therefore acceptable. It is astounding how some people can commit multiple logical fallacies in a single sentence. First off, equating what is natural with what is good is what philosophers since Hume have identified as the naturalistic fallacy. It simply doesn't follow, just think of poisonous mushrooms (very natural) and whether you'd like them added to your diet.

Second, Brown is glossing over the all-important detail that couples using the timing method are purposefully avoiding reproduction, so that any spontaneous abortion that their practice may be causing would not in fact happen under natural conditions at all – which, one would think, makes such couples morally responsible for said abortions (if one takes the pro-life stance, of course).

This debate has brought back to my mind a simple, and yet, unanswered to my satisfaction, question: why is it ok to have sex (obviously for pleasure, not reproductive, purposes) outside of a woman's fertility period, but not ok to do the same at any given time with the use of a condom (which has the added benefit of reducing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases)? I mean, the goal is the same: getting pleasure out of sex without it resulting into a pregnancy. Why does how one goes about it matter at all? The only answer I can fathom relies, again, on the naturalistic fallacy: engaging in sex away from ovulation time is natural, using a condom is not.

On top of which, such reasoning is flawed at two additional levels: to begin with, there is nothing “natural” about abstaining from sex during the female's fertile period. On the contrary, having sex for the sole purpose of procreation is exactly what any good mammal would do under natural conditions. Moreover, by the same token these people should stop driving and go back to walking whenever they want to go to another city or to the grocery store. After all, walking is a natural way of seeking food, driving is an evil invention of post-Biblical times...


  1. On the contrary, having sex for the sole purpose of procreation is exactly what any good mammal would do under natural conditions.

    Massimo, I know you know all that I've written below but it's a fun topic so, forgive...

    "Purpose" is a tough subject with nature. I would argue that one can't really say sex happens for procreation any more than one can say feeding or mitosis or adulthood happens for procreation (which is to say that one can argue that everything happens for procreation, which is somewhat meaningless). These things happen, but not 'for' anything. They happen because they work. If they didn't they wouldn't happen. Do adult men make sperm in order to reproduce or do sperm make adult men in order to reproduce?

    I get asked so often "What is the point of mosquitoes?" and my answer is always "To make more mosquitoes." But this highlights how distorted most people's view of nature is - thinking so often about purpose from a human perspective.

    Most mammals don't even know they are animals and certainly have no idea what their drive for sex is 'for'. I understand it took humans a good while to put 2 and 2 together before they realized that sex resulted in pregnancy.

    All this said, I think Massimo was pointing out that 'in nature' wild animals tend to have sex when it is most likely to result in fertilization - which is a true pattern, but making the jump to a cause for the pattern gets one off into an infinite loop of causality (but, this pattern is not 100% - there are plenty of examples of animals 'getting it wrong'. My favorite is the buprestid beetles in Australia who mistook beer bottles for females, thinking these discarded beer bottles were the largest and best females they'd ever found. The males spent so much time trying to inseminate the beer bottles that the species was potentially in trouble of maintaining its numbers!)

  2. It is interesting to compare the sexual behaviour of humans with that of other animal species, and then think of what is actually "natural". "Me's" point about the variability of animal species is well taken. However, many, but not all, animal species have sexual activity that is fairly closely prescribed to occur during a "heat" period when it is most likely that conception will occur.
    Very few animals have sex outside of these time periods, one is humans, and another are the bonobo chimpanzees. The bonobo's sexual behaviour is highly variable among the different sexes (i.e. homosexuality) and activities like oral sex in addition to copulation. Their varied sexual activity is much more analagous to humans than any other species.

    So I wonder if religious conservatives might see the bonobos' activities as "un-natural"? How could they really make the argument? Are bonobos rebelling against god's plan for the sexes? Then they would have to concede that humans aren't so distinct from what is a close human relative. If they would concede that the bonobos are behaving "naturally", then they would have a hard time defending the idea that human "sinners" in all their sexual "perversions" aren't also behaving "naturally".

  3. The bonobos are just an instrument of Satan... :O)


  4. Religious fundamentalists only utilize the "natural" argument in so far as it aligns with what they believe is God's plan or God's rules.

    Thus some behavior is "unnatural" if God did not desire it to be natural.

    So in their eyes (for the tiny few who even know what Bonobos are), Bonobos behave that way because God made them that way.

    But God gave humans different and explicit rules about sexuality. It is those "rules" for religious folk that define "natural".

    For instance, there are many animals that would naturally prey upon and eat pigs. That is OK, it is God's plan. But it is not OK for an orthodox Jew to eat any meat from a Pig because they beleive that God forbids it.

    Therefore, your Bonobo example provides little difficulty for true believers.

    Since believers (by definition) don't have to submit their beliefs to any outside confirmations based on evidence they are free to create elaborate Polemic Circles to try to maintain internal consistencies. Since human imagination is quite good, it is not surprising that it is vey difficult to use rational arguments to unseat religous beliefs.

  5. And to follow up: J is not too far off the mark with his Satan jest.

    I once asked a fundamentalist acquaintance of mine why God would deliberately create such a vicious and cruel natural world where animals suffer and die in horrible ways. Man's inhumanity to man is explained away as the regrettable manifestation of our free will, but what of the animals? His reply was that Lucifer was also given the irrevocable gift of free will. And Satan uses that free will to create suffering on Earth in general. It is Satan who caused animals to suffer and kill each other.... before that they all lived in peace and harmony. (Never mind asking would good fangs would be for plant eating lions).

    Incidentally, Thomas Paine thought the concept absurd and writes:
    ..... the inventors were under the necessity of giving to the being whom they call Satan a power equally as great, if not greater, than they attribute to the Almighty. They have not only given him the power of liberating himself from the pit, after what they call his fall, but they have made that power increase afterwards to infinity. Before this fall they represent him only as an angel of limited existence, as they represent the rest. After his fall, he becomes, by their account, omnipresent. He exists everywhere, and at the same time. He occupies the whole immensity of space.

    Not content with this deification of Satan, they represent him [as having] all the power and wisdom of the Almighty. They represent him as having compelled the Almighty to the direct necessity either of surrendering the whole of the creation to the government and sovereignty of this Satan, or of capitulating for its redemption by coming down upon earth, and exhibiting himself upon a cross in the shape of a man.

    Had the inventors of this story told it the contrary way, that is, had they represented the Almighty as compelling Satan to exhibit himself on a cross in the shape of a snake, as a punishment for his new transgression, the story would have been less absurd, less contradictory. But, instead of this they make the transgressor triumph, and the Almighty fall.

  6. Let us assume for the sake of discussion that Bovens' empirical claim is correct. What follows? According to the British philosopher, this means that by engaging in natural contraception, pious couples are actually causing the same sort of outcome as “plan B” pills...

    Ridiculous. Plan B contraception temporarily alteres certain hormone levels in a woman's system so that an egg is not even released/ejected/erupted from the ovary. It has nothing to do with abortion, and should not even appear in this post. Any comparison to an abortion argument is flat-out dumb.

    Additionally, since the most common types of contracaption have to do with keeping sperm and egg from combining, any comparison to a form of contraception that applies after an egg erupts from the ovary to the fallopian tubes is also a farce.

  7. aerik,

    Generally speaking yes,
    but its not quite so simple. According to this NY Times article on contraception, both Plan B and the regular old Birth Control Pill may exhibit cases when they prevent implantation of a fertizlied egg. Granted the evidence is unclear because of the high rate of natural failures of the egg to implant.

    In the article, Dr. James Trussell, director of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University and one of the world's leading experts on contraception asserts that the evidence of both the pill and Plan B acting as a potential abortificent is about the same -- as it is for all hormonal methods of contraception. He was quoated as "We can't rule out a post-fertility effect for Plan B, and the same is true for the birth control pill."

  8. You can't argue with someone who is always right. Even if you are 100% correct, you also left out an important factor. Sex outside of marriage is unnatural to these people, despite the fact that marriage is a truly human institution and not "naturalistic" in any sense.

  9. Here's the difference between NFP and "artificial contraception" methods, per Judie "Nutball" Brown:

    [i]"contraceptive methods" say no to God's gift of a child; NFP says while we might prefer not to have a child, if God blesses us with His gift, we welcome that gift of a child.[/i]

    There you have it. So I guess there's never been a woman or a couple who ever used a barrier or chemical method but who decided they would keep the baby in case of an "oops", right?

  10. Oh oops, I forgot how to do italics correctly on here. Sorry.

    Also from Judie's blog, quoting a dr. who responded to the original article re: a possible increase in spontaneous abortions due to NFP:

    "The article fails to acknowledge the distinction between natural loss and loss caused by deliberate human intervention; common sense and every criminal law system recognise the importance of knowledge and intent in human responsibility; in particular, the fact that accidental deaths happen does not justify causing similar deaths."

    But if a couple has knowledge that they might be increasing the chance of a miscarriage by using NFP, then such a miscarriage would not be purely "accidental" anymore, right? They would be having carefully timed sex while knowing they were possibly contributing to the death of their own offspring if they happened to conceive (assuming they believed that a spontaneous abortion of a barely-fertilized embryo constituted murder).

    Another interesting factoid I bet Judie Brown and her "pro-life" friends never considered: if 50% of pregnancies end in these super early miscarriages as Massimo claims (I thought I read the number was more like 33%, but that's still high), then that makes God the biggest abortionist of all time.

    So why aren't they picketing churches, or at least gnashing and wailing inside them, begging God to stop killing 1/3-1/2 of all the little babies?

  11. Reading through these posts, man you guys really have a general distain for the religous. Anywho, keep in mind there are many of us who don't take issue with preventive birth control. I am not sure why Rome came to the conclusion they did about birth control. I think even most Cathoilics don't agree with it (at least the few I know).
    I did just want to say that the term "spontanious abortion" is really a contradiction in itself. Abortion is in itself a procedure, not by definition, but when we talk about abortion in most cases, we are really discussing an intentional procedure due to an unwanted pregnancy. So its like saying "spontanious procedure". The term should really be spontanious miscarriage. But of course if that term were used instead the contraversy of the post would loose its flavor.
    Also Alan,
    Very few religious would agree that animals suffering is the work of Satan. Using your friends example is really a poor misrepresentation of most fundimentalists. The bible very rarely speaks of Satan, it certainly doesn't say that.

  12. Very few religious would agree that animals suffering is the work of Satan. Using your friends example is really a poor misrepresentation of most fundimentalists.

    Certainly this may be true of many man-in-the-street fundamentalists. But it is also true that philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, and ID advocates like William Dembski, have recently espoused the very position you say is a misrepresentation. For a Calvinist like Plantinga it represents a strategy for extending the debate with atheists over the "problem of evil", for a standard atheist response to theologians' free-will defence is to point out that this cannot apply to natural evil. For IDers it represents a means of countering objections that much of the intricacy we observe in nature, if it is design, is in fact dysteleological, i.e., seems to be harmful in its effects to some creatures (e.g.,parasitism). Michael Behe was asked on the stand at the Dover trial if the "designer" could be malevolent. His simple answer was Yes.

    If these people do not represent the average fundamentalist, perhaps their detachment from mainstream beliefs should cause one to examine the cogency of their beliefs more closely.

  13. If these people do not represent the average fundamentalist, perhaps their detachment from mainstream beliefs should cause one to examine the cogency of their beliefs more closely.

    So what are you saying, that If I dont agree with Dembski then I should re-evaluate my beliefs? You and I just said is this is not mainstream beliefs, They just get the most publicity due to their extreme nature.

    Could someone tell me how to put the first paragraph in italics?

  14. use bracket < then letter i then reverse bracket > at the beginning of the paragraph. Then bracket < with slash and letter i /i then reverse bracket > at the end of the selection. [3 keystrokes at the beginning of the paragraph, 4 at the end]

    As for the substance of your post, if we agree that Dembski's views are extreme, fine. I was just pointing out that the Satan hypothesis for natural evil has received support from philosophers like Plantinga, and from ID advocates whose main purpose seems to be to insert their ideas into the mainstream. (for what it is worth)

  15. I will use braces instead of brackets so you can see how it's supposed to look.

    {i} selected text {/i}

  16. A couple of other points.

    1. What I meant was that if "average" fundamentalists see Dembski's and Plantinga's opinions as being outside the mainstream, perhaps they would like to re-examine some of their [ D. & B.'s]other opinions as well.

    2. You did not identify yourself as a fundamentalist, so I don't see how I could be asking you to re-examine anyhting.

  17. 2. You did not identify yourself as a fundamentalist, so I don't see how I could be asking you to re-examine anyhting.

    I don't know what I am. Still trying to figure it out. I guess living up in the northeast a fundimentalist meaning is different than other parts of the country. Thanks for the italics info. Been trying to figure out that one for a while

  18. I think even most Cathoilics don't agree with it (at least the few I know).

    As a Catholic, I can personally say many people I know from my congregation don't agree with the Church's policy on this issue. They use contraception anyway.

  19. evolutionists and fundamentalists actually agree on the proposition that sex is for kids. All right, it's sex is for making kids.

    evolutionists see sex as natural and seleccted to help make more creatures, and pleasurable to help make more creatures, including humans.

    fundamentalists see sex as necessary to make kids, and even okay to do if trying to make kids, maybe even pleasurable as a way to help being fruitful and multiplying.

    The difference is that fundamentalists see sex as only to make more kids, and only to be done by married people. As for raising kids, having them in stable families probably has some evolutionary advantage anyway, even though fundamentalists only follow the words of the lord.

    A key point is that fundamentalists see sex as ONLY for creating children, evolutionists see it as good for having kids, but have no restriction on using the process for other things. Isn't that how we discovered how to make mousetraps?

    By the way, is it ever discussed in fundamentalist writtings what the point of sex during non-ovulatory periods of a woman's cycle is? Or whether it's moral to enjoy yourself sexually if a woman can't any longer get pregnant.

  20. Actually, I'm not so sure that fundamentalists can be accused of always restricting sex to the purpose of procreation. i recall reading the 5 articles of faith of one of the southern religious groups (Pentecostal?). The fifth tenet was sexual freedom for married couples ( the "marriage bed undefiled"). I remember pausing to wonder who was doing what important thing to whom, and how he/she managed to discover like-minded individuals.

    Wish I could steer you to the direct quote, but I am sure one of the knowledgeable blog readers can step in here.

  21. This all reminds me of the Saturday Night Live skit with Dana Carvey as the "Church Lady". He(she) always interviewed celebreties who are known for their sexual indiscretions (for example, Hugh Grant caught with a prostitute)The skit always ends with the Church Lady saying "I'm just a little superior to you".

    I think what this boils down to is rationalizing that a natural, premeditated abortion is acceptable. The religious conservatives who boast of abstaining from sex during the furtile period, consider themselves superior to those who lack self control by having sex for pleasure (with condoms) whenever they darn feel like it. They just bend the rules to suit themselves (To avoid having that 12th baby?)


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