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Question 28: May an oppressed wife who should avoid pregnancy practice contraception?

Eighteen years ago, I graduated from college and married Dan, who was just beginning to practice his profession. Though he had been raised Catholic, by that time he considered himself an agnostic. I had been only a nominal Catholic. As a child I shared my parents’ faith, but I did not make it my own as I grew up. For twelve years, we lived like most other nonreligious couples of our social and economic class, and neither of us went to church.

Six years ago last spring, I was feeling a lot of stress. Not only was I raising our three children and managing the household, but I also was trying to cope with grief over the loss of my mother, who had died that February of brain cancer. My father was too overwhelmed himself to give me any support, and since Dan was, as always, deeply involved in his work and hardly involved in the family, I was getting no support from him. I literally cried that I could not go on alone any longer. Then I found myself doing something I had not done since I was thirteen or fourteen: praying for help. Though time went by and no help came, for some reason I continued praying. One morning after about a month, I awakened before the alarm went off. The rising sun was shining through the window, and all the pressure was gone. I felt greatly strengthened and hopeful, and as I peacefully lay there, I plainly received an answer to my prayer—the Lord would walk with me and take care of me if only I would follow a faith-filled way of life. I promised I would.

I went to confession, began going to Mass and Communion every Sunday, and started looking after the children’s neglected religious formation. A month or so later I read the encyclical Humanae vitae, which up to then I had ignored. It became clear to me that I had to stop using contraception, and I threw away my diaphragm and jelly. In a book store, I found a used book, The Rhythm Way to Family Happiness, which explains how to regulate births by abstaining from intercourse during the days of the cycle when conception is likely; its charts make it easy to identify the “baby days.” Since Dan considered our family complete, I wanted to use rhythm as a Church-approved method of family planning.

Though Dan did not want to cooperate, I tried for over two years to avoid intercourse on baby days. He became more and more frustrated and irate, and finally sent me to a psychiatrist, saying that I was a religious fanatic and obviously neurotic. I had several sessions with the psychiatrist, who put me through a series of psychological tests. Then he had Dan and me in, reported that I had no symptoms of mental illness, and recommended that we obtain joint marital counseling. We began going weekly, but Dan did not like the counselor, who was raising questions about communication and cooperation. After the third session, he canceled our next appointment, and we never went again.

Not long after, I found myself pregnant with our fourth child. During that pregnancy, I began having symptoms of what turned out to be a chronic disease. My obstetrician recommended an abortion, but, of course, I did not agree. I was very worried, but with a lot of prayer and good care managed to get through the pregnancy and deliver a healthy baby boy, now two, who is my delight and also the pet of the older children. The specialist who cares for me said my condition is progressive; it will never get better, only gradually worse. He warned me sternly not to get pregnant again. Both he and my obstetrician urged me to be sterilized, but I refused.

At first, I added more days to the baby days, but that left only a few days in each cycle when we could have intercourse, and after three months Dan called my attention to a magazine article about how divorce affects the wife’s and children’s standard of living and threatened to end our marriage. I thought about leaving him, but, with no experience working outside my home, I felt I could not face trying to raise the children and care for myself without his full financial support and his health coverage. I asked a priest what to do, and he told me to follow my conscience. I reluctantly decided to get a new diaphragm and went back to using it and the jelly during the baby days. I never used contraception during the safe time toward the end of each cycle just before my period. In this way, I felt I still was open to God’s gift of life if he really wanted me to become pregnant. And I did not see how I could do better. Yet my conscience has been bothering me, and I doubt I am living the faith-filled life I promised the Lord that sunny morning six years ago.

Though the priest who told me to follow my conscience later said he does not think contraception is seriously wrong for couples who really should not have another baby, I felt that simply following his advice would be cheating and useless. I hunted around and finally found a priest, Father Gibson, who urges couples to follow the Church’s teaching. I made my confession to him and told him about my problem. After doing his best to look into it for me, he thinks it might be all right for me to continue with the diaphragm and jelly, reluctantly accepting this means of preventing pregnancy while intending only to have marital intercourse as often as necessary to satisfy Dan. Father said there are two possible ways of seeing what I am doing as “permissible material cooperation.”

First, he said you have argued that contraception is wrong because it is the effort to prevent the beginning of a new life. In my case, continuing with the diaphragm and jelly, he said, “would not be contralife,” since my intention would be to please Dan while avoiding a pregnancy that would endanger my life.

Second, he said Edward J. Bayer, a moral theologian who is faithful to the Church’s teaching, has argued that a married woman may protect herself against rape when she really should not have another baby but her unreasonable husband is compelling her to have intercourse. I seem to meet these conditions, since I really should not have another baby, Dan is unreasonable in demanding intercourse, and I am not in a position to separate from him.

Father Gibson suggested I ask for your comments. If you do not approve of what I am doing but know some other way to solve my problem, I will be grateful for any help you can give me.


This question concerns the possible justification of contraception by a married woman who ought to avoid pregnancy but is being sexually oppressed by her husband. Her use of contraception must be morally evaluated insofar as it is her own act. Because that act carries out a choice to prevent conception, it is contralife, and the sexual intercourse it facilitates is not marital intercourse. Its nonmarital character also follows from the fact that it is imposed on the questioner contrary to her reasonable will. Still, because she reluctantly consents to the imposed intercourse, it is not rape or analogous to rape. Therefore, unless her husband repents and agrees to abstain from intercourse insofar as necessary to avoid pregnancy, the questioner should refuse to cooperate with him in intercourse.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Surely the Lord is pleased with your persistent effort to keep your promise—to walk a faith-filled way of life—despite Dan’s refusal to cooperate, his gross disrespect for your conscience and body, and his intimidation. You were courageous in refusing abortion and sterilization, and have been unusually clearheaded and conscientious in seeking a true answer to your moral difficulty rather than accepting and following advice based on opinions that dissent from the Church’s teaching. Still, I think you are right in doubting that your use of contraception is consistent with your promise to the Lord.

Since your obstetrician recommended abortion, and both he and the specialist who cares for you recommended sterilization, they clearly do not practice medicine within the framework of traditional Christian morality. Perhaps they have exaggerated the dangers of another pregnancy. Therefore, it seems to me you should obtain a second opinion on that question from competent Catholic physicians entirely faithful to the Church’s teachings on abortion, sterilization, and contraception. Even if another pregnancy would not be so dangerous as you have been led to believe, however, I think it likely—and shall assume in what follows—that your marital and health problems constitute a morally compelling reason to avoid pregnancy.

The suggestion that what you are doing might be permissible material cooperation is mistaken. Though using a diaphragm and jelly enables you to satisfy Dan’s sexual demands, it must be morally evaluated as your own act rather than as cooperation with anything he does. Considered as your own act and as distinct from the sexual acts it facilitates, it carries out your reluctant choice to prevent conception.

The Church’s teaching is that each and every marital act must be open to new life. In reaffirming this constant and most firm teaching about contraception, Paul VI clearly states what the teaching excludes: “any action which is done—either in anticipation of marital intercourse, or during it, or while its natural effects are unfolding—so as to impede procreation, whether that is intended as an end to be obtained or as a means to be employed.”96 Although you intend to prevent conception as a means of safeguarding your health, using a diaphragm and jelly precisely to prevent it is an instance of the contraception the Church’s teaching excludes.

You realize that many Catholics, including many priests, do not accept the Church’s teaching about contraception and would find nothing wrong with your practice of it. They are mistaken, and the Church’s teaching is true. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church, and that certainly means the whole body of the faithful cannot have been wrong down through the centuries about how they were to live as God’s children (see LG 12). But the Church’s teaching on contraception and other matters now disputed is nothing new; indeed it was shared by all Christians until this century.97 So, its truth is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit, who makes no mistakes and tells no lies.

I have argued that one reason why contraception is always wrong is that it is contralife (see LCL, 506–19). However, the truth of the Church’s teaching that contraception is wrong does not depend on my (or anyone else’s) attempt to explain why it is wrong. Even if your use of a diaphragm and jelly were not contralife, it would be wrong insofar as it is an instance of a kind of act excluded by the Church’s teaching. Still, in my judgment, even your reluctant choice to use contraception is accurately called “contralife.” To use a diaphragm and jelly is to prevent conception, not avoid it, as abstaining from intercourse is. Of course, you are not choosing to prevent conception as an end in itself. Your end in view is different and entirely good: to forestall the seriously bad effects on your health of another pregnancy while at the same time preserving your family. For those reasons, you wish not to be pregnant—that is, not to be nurturing a developing baby in your womb—and that wish, too, is morally acceptable. But in order not to be pregnant, you choose to prevent conception—the coming to be of the baby. Thus, although the end you are willing is in no way against life, your intended means is contrary to the coming to be of a new person, and for that reason is contralife.

Moreover, within marriage, contraception is wrong for another reason—the intention to use it is incompatible with the intention required for authentic marital intercourse (see LCL, 633–43). While marital intercourse is far more than a reproductive-type act, it must at least be that if it is to make the couple one flesh and allow them to experience themselves as one (see q. 29, below). Among all sexual performances, only a reproductive-type act is one act of the mated pair. Other sexual acts involving a male and female, even if they involve coupling the genitals, are really two separate and distinct acts, which in reality are not unlike mutual masturbation. Now, regardless of the method used, contracepted intercourse, by the intention it involves, is not a reproductive-type act. By contrast, even when a couple know they are sterile, if they act as they would if they were fertile and hoped to have a baby, they do a reproductive-type act in which they really become one agent (they are one flesh), and so not only feel close to each other but experience a unity that is real. Contracepted “intercourse” really is not marital intercourse at all. It is a mutual (or even a one-sided) use of the other person for sexual satisfaction, perhaps including an illusion of intimate communion. Since a contracepted sexual act cannot be marital intercourse, you cannot use contraception “while intending only to have marital intercourse as often as necessary to satisfy Dan.”98

Paul VI also teaches: “A conjugal act imposed on one’s partner without regard to his or her condition of personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love.”99 Dan’s sexual acts with you cannot be true acts of love, for, by threatening to leave, he is psychologically coercing you to provide him with sexual services, disregarding your wish to avoid pregnancy by abstinence—a wish that is reasonable inasmuch as abstinence is the only morally acceptable way to fulfill the duty you both have to avoid a pregnancy that would injure your health. Not being true acts of love, the sexual acts Dan is imposing on you are neither realizations nor expressions of marital communion. On this score, too, they can hardly be authentic marital intercourse.

Inasmuch as they are not and are being imposed on you against your reasonable wishes, you are suffering a grave injustice. You would be justified in refusing absolutely to participate in those acts and, if necessary, resisting forcefully any attempt by Dan to force himself upon you. Therefore, it might seem that you really are being raped and can rightly use the diaphragm and jelly to protect yourself.

Apparently, that would be so according to Edward J. Bayer’s view. He distinguishes between (1) contraception by someone who engages in a true marital act and at the same time intends to impede procreation, and (2) prevention of pregnancy by a wife who justifiably refuses consent to acts that might impregnate her and are unreasonably imposed by her husband.100 Bayer agrees that the first is always excluded by the Church’s teaching, but he maintains that the second can be consistent with it and morally acceptable.101 Father Gibson is suggesting that your use of diaphragm and jelly falls within (2) rather than (1). In my judgment, however, Bayer’s classification is inadequate, and what you are doing falls within neither (1) nor (2).

While agreeing that a wife whose husband insists on intercourse against her reasonable will suffers a grave injustice and that such a sexual act is not true marital intercourse, I think this imposed intercourse is morally different in kind from rape.102 And although it can be analogous to rape, I do not think the conditions required for the analogy are met in a situation, like yours, in which a wife gives in to her husband’s unreasonable demands. Thus, though you are the victim of gravely unjust sexual oppression by your husband, I do not think your situation is similar in the relevant respects to that of a rape victim.

Why is intercourse imposed by a husband on a wife in a situation like yours morally different in kind from rape? Since marriage is an indissoluble covenant and a married couple really are one flesh (see LCL, 555–84), sexual violence within marriage, unlike rape, does not merely violate another’s body. Rather, such violence is a special form of infidelity that in one central respect is worse than rape: A husband owes his wife marital love, and in sexually abusing her, he treats her as a mere sex object. Therefore, when a man sexually abuses his own wife his evil act is different in kind from rape—it is an act against the marriage itself. When forcible intercourse within marriage is called “rape,” then, the word is used in an analogous sense.

Moreover, even the analogous use of the word rape to refer to intercourse imposed by a husband on his wife is misleading unless the other features and implications of being raped hold true. The victim neither initiates the act nor consents to it, and she does what she can to avoid being raped; she should neither try to satisfy the rapist nor seek her own sexual satisfaction. If the victim can do so without excessive risk, she should resist sexual contact and penetration; even if resistance is impossible or seems too risky, she may not choose to engage in the sexual act, but should remain passive insofar as possible, performing only those outward behaviors demanded by the rapist.

Are all these requirements being fulfilled by wives who are imposed on by their husbands as you are? I do not think so. The wife yields to her husband’s unjust pressure and reluctantly consents to more or less regular intercourse; she chooses to engage in unwanted sexual acts, rather than resist them or remain passive, and attempts to satisfy her husband’s wrongful sexual demands. Plainly, such sexual acts cannot constitute true marital intercourse. However, neither do they constitute rape within marriage as Bayer defines it, for that involves the withholding of free consent. Moreover, unless a married woman responds to her husband’s sexual violence as she would to any rapist’s, the other conditions for the analogy with rape are not met.103

They apparently are not met in your case. You explicitly state your intention: to have “intercourse as often as necessary to satisfy Dan.” That implies the reluctant intention to engage in sexual acts rather than resistance or passivity in response to sexual violence. You are the victim of gravely unjust sexual oppression, but you are not being raped, and so your use of the diaphragm and jelly cannot be protection against rape.

Of course, a rapist need not use physical force to dominate his victim; he can use explicit or implicit threats of force or other forms of psychological coercion. Bayer might argue that, because a wife in your situation is being coerced psychologically, she lacks the freedom of choice necessary for consent, and so really is being raped. But that argument would not be sound. While psychological coercion can cause a woman who never consents to sexual activity to endure being raped, it also can motivate a woman to consent reluctantly to unwanted sexual activity to avoid an alternative she finds even more repugnant. That is true of the typical wife in your situation. She faces a hard choice: between meeting her husband’s demands, which are unreasonable inasmuch as the couple has morally compelling reasons for avoiding pregnancy, and accepting or initiating a separation, which would deprive her of at least part of her husband’s financial support and perhaps other advantages of maintaining the relationship, bad as it is. In such a case, the man exercising the coercion is no less guilty of gravely unjust sexual oppression than he would be if the woman refused to consent. Yet she is not being raped. Under duress, which no doubt reduces her moral responsibility, she reluctantly chooses to submit to her own victimization, much like the woman who reluctantly chooses prostitution so that she and her children will not starve.

Again, in my judgment, that is your case. You think you must choose between satisfying Dan’s sexual demands and separation. Lacking experience working outside your home, you could not face the prospect of trying to raise the children and care for yourself without his full financial support and health coverage. So, you reluctantly have chosen to have intercourse as often as necessary to satisfy him. In my judgment, Dan is not raping you, but he is treating you like a prostitute by not only imposing nonmarital sexual activity on you but using your dependence to extort your submission.

Having considered the two views of your situation—that Dan is raping you and that he is treating you like a prostitute—you should act on the one you believe true. What you should do if you believe you are being raped is clear: never consent, never initiate sexual activity, never seek pleasure in it, and never do more than perform those outward behaviors Dan demands, while otherwise remaining entirely passive and never trying to satisfy him.

But what should you do if you accept the alternative view I have proposed?

First, after careful preparation—with which Father Gibson probably will help—tell Dan how you see the situation and invite him to repent. Be both gentle and firm, neither judging his inmost heart and condemning him nor softening the truth about what he is doing and excusing it. Make it clear that you will never again use contraception or consent to intercourse that might result in pregnancy. At the same time, offer him your forgiveness, appeal to him to respect your conscience, ask for his cooperation, and promise to respond to it by doing everything you can to help build a better, happier marriage.

In preparing for this important conversation, learn more about natural family planning (NFP). While the rhythm method you tried so hard to use is morally acceptable, it is based on applying statistics about when women whose cycles vary within certain limits are likely to be fertile, not on positive evidence that a particular woman is fertile or not. Today, however, a woman can obtain such evidence about her own fertility, and most couples who practice NFP easily gather it by taking note of certain cyclic changes that occur in a woman’s body during every menstrual cycle in which conception could occur.104 Couples who cooperate in acting consistently on this information almost always can avoid pregnancy not only with greater security than you achieve by using a diaphragm and jelly but with less abstinence than you thought necessary after your last baby was born.

If Dan rejects your view of the situation and refuses to cooperate, do not consent either to any further sexual intercourse with him, since that would not be true marital intercourse, or to any other erotic activity legitimate only for married couples, since the moral acceptability of such activity depends on its relationship to true marital intercourse. That might lead Dan to repent, and you not only should pray that it will but should do everything you can without violating your conscience to encourage him to cooperate. But no longer getting what he wants also might, and perhaps more likely will, lead to the separation you wished to avoid (see q. 30, below). While the shock of separation also might bring him to a change of heart, you and your children no doubt will suffer economic hardship if it does not. However, you surely will be legally entitled to substantial support from Dan and should get the legal advice and help necessary to obtain it.

I realize that it will be very hard for you to take the steps I have outlined. But if you think my view of the situation true, this is the way you must follow to keep your promise to walk with the Lord. Do not think keeping your promise and living according to what you believe true will involve only pointless suffering. Instead, keep before your mind the short-term and long-term benefits for which you should hope and pray.

As for the short term, in standing up to Dan, you should hope not simply to escape the guilt of contraception, but to change your marriage for the better—not superficially, but in a deep and true way. That would require his repentance, and separating from him might help bring it about. If not, at least it will involve your faithfulness to your vocation as a Christian, wife, and mother, even if you must live in permanent separation from him, rather than submit to him and betray your vocation and promise to the Lord.

Separation will not be bad in every respect. You surely realize that your marriage has been deeply troubled for a very long time, if not from the start. Dan always has been more involved in his work than in your family. Six years ago, you were in great distress because of his failure to provide the domestic help and psychological support you needed. When you struggled to use periodic abstinence, he showed no respect for your belief, conscience, and feelings, but sent you to a psychiatrist. When the psychiatrist found you mentally healthy and recommended marriage counseling, Dan stopped going after only three sessions. When your chronic illness required pregnancy avoidance and you conscientiously judged more extensive abstinence from marital intercourse necessary, he would not accept his share of responsibility in the matter, but threatened to leave you unless you satisfied his sexual demands. Spouses should cooperate, but the record shows Dan has not been doing that. He has succeeded in dominating you, and you have submitted. That is bad not only for you and for your marriage, but for him, since he is missing out on being a good husband, failing to become a good person, and acting as your oppressor. This situation also is bad for your children. A man simply cannot be a good father without being a good husband, and your children need the love, dedicated care, guidance, and example of a good father—or, at least, they need to be freed of the bad example of a father who succeeds in dominating their mother.

As for the long term, while striving and praying and hoping for the best, you must realistically be prepared for much suffering. But even though miserable days and sad years seem so very long, life on earth is short. Quite soon it will be over. To walk with him, Jesus told you, you must take up your cross. But he also showed you where the walk with him that begins on Good Friday leads: to Easter morning’s victory and the joy of everlasting life. If you do not miss out on that glory, you will find again in heaven everything good about you and your life and effort here, but cleansed, healed, completed as you always wished (see GS 38–39). Pray you will find your children there, and Dan too.

96. Humanae vitae, 14, AAS 60 (1968) 490, PE, 277.14 (translation amended); cf. CCC, 2370.

97. See Charles D. Provan, The Bible and Birth Control (Monongahela, Penn.: Zimmer, 1989), for the witness of the Protestant tradition against contraception.

98. In taking the position that a contracepted sexual act cannot be authentic marital intercourse, I implicitly disagree both with canon lawyers who have held that certain sorts of contracepted acts could consummate a marriage and with those moralists (and the suggestion of the magisterium on which they depend) who think that one spouse can engage in a marital act even when the other is using a method of contraception that does not prevent semen from reaching the vagina (see LCL, 646, n. 184). My view implies that a couple who use any sort of contraception from the beginning of their marriage do not consummate it unless and until they engage in authentic marital intercourse—that is, intercourse without contraception and meeting the requirements for marital intercourse in other respects. My view does not imply, however, that such a couple are invalidly married; provided neither entirely excluded children in consenting to marry, the marriage will be valid if it is not otherwise impeded.

99. Humanae vitae, 13, AAS 60 (1968) 489, PE, 277.13.

100. See Edward J. Bayer, Rape within Marriage: A Moral Analysis Delayed (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985), 4–7.

101. Ibid., 124–41.

102. The fact and gravity of some husbands’ sexual violence against their wives has been studied and discussed in many substantial scholarly publications; see, e.g., Diana E. H. Russell, Rape and Marriage, rev. ed. (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1990). But the specific wrong and full seriousness of sexual abuse within marriage is missed, in my judgment, by classifying it as rape.

103. Indeed, Bayer, op. cit., 86–96, presents the views of Jan Visser, C.Ss.R, and Marcellino Zalba, S.J., as approximating his own, and both of these authors seem to be concerned, not with an ongoing situation, but with isolated incidents of sexual violence by a husband against his wife, and both make it clear that the wife must act in the same way as any woman being raped.

104. On the development of natural family planning (NFP) see Mary Shivanandan, “After Rhythm: The Development of NFP,” Ethics and Medics, 20:4 (Apr. 1995): 3–4. Sound and useful practical treatments of NFP: John F. Kippley and Sheila K. Kippley, The Art of Natural Family Planning, 4th ed. (Cincinnati, Ohio: Couple to Couple League, 1996); Evelyn Billings and Ann Westmore, The Billings Method: Controlling Fertility without Drugs or Devices (New York: Ballantine, 1983). On the scientific aspects of NFP, see Natural Family Planning: Nature’s Way–God’s Way, ed. Anthony Zimmerman, S.V.D. (Milwaukee: DeRance, 1980), 81–140.