In his Ethics of Procreation and the Defense of Human Life, philosopher Martin Rhonheimer offers an exposition and defense of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on the subjects of contraception (chs. 2–4), artificial reproduction (ch. 5), and abortion (chs. 6–7), especially as laid out in the papal encyclicals of Paul VI (Humanae Vitae) and John Paul II (Evangelium Vitae, Veritatis Splendor). Readers who are interested in gaining a deeper understanding of Catholic teachings on these matters will find it to be a worthwhile resource, of course, but the book is also a substantive contribution to philosophical discussions about the moral dimensions of human sexuality and procreation. It contains much that is worthy of consideration for Catholics and non-Catholics (indeed, non-Christians) alike.
All of Rhonheimer’s arguments are grounded in a natural law approach to morality, and a principal strength of this text is his elucidation of this theory as a virtue-oriented understanding of rightness and wrongness. Critics often assume that all natural lawyers are “neo-thomists,” holding that the application of natural law theory to sexual morality is merely a matter of determining what the functions of our reproductive organs are. Use of those organs in accordance with their functions would be morally permissible; using them in a way contrary to their functions would be morally impermissible. Rhonheimer argues that neo-thomism ought to be rejected. In its place, he defends a far more subtle theory. The details are complex, but the following summary seems fair. On Rhonheimer’s version of natural law theory, what we are to seek is the perfection of the person, which consists in the exemplification of moral virtues. The moral rightness and wrongness of an act are determined in light of their relationship to the human ideal. This ideal is known through reason, specifically through reflection on the nature of human beings as unified bodily and spiritual beings. Such reflection also makes it possible to identify the morally significant “meaning” of a particular action, which is equivalent, at least roughly, to determining the substantive content of the moral law. In the case of reproductive ethics, for example, Rhonheimer believes that a correct analysis of human sexuality reveals that the meaning of intercourse is twofold—it unites husband and wife as one, and it is the means for the transmission of life—and that it is wrong to act so as to intentionally prevent intercourse from having either of its natural meanings.
Based on this conception of human sexuality and the natural law, Rhonheimer maintains that the use of contraception within marriage is morally wrong. He offers at least two distinct (though related) arguments for this view. First, as just noted, using contraception distorts the meaning of the marital union. A deep understanding of the human person, and hence, human sexuality, reveals the inseparability of the unitive and procreative meanings of intercourse. When sex is either non-unitive or (intentionally) non-procreative, it is no longer a truly marital union. It is a fundamentally different kind of act, and one that falls short of what human sexuality ought to be. When the possibility of procreation is intentionally thwarted, intercourse becomes the mere satisfaction of an impulse, “not a principle of union of two persons . . . [it transforms] spouses into accomplices of a mutual satisfaction of the impulses, where each with the other’s help does something in relation to him- and herself” (p. 113). Openness to procreation is essential to morally good sexual intimacy by virtue of “‘elevating’ mere sensuality, integrating it in the life of the spirit” through acceptance of the possibility of the transmission of life and shared responsibility for any new life that is created as a result of the act (p. 114). This is a crucial point for Rhonheimer, as it makes clear why the two meanings of sexuality, on his view, are inextricably linked. Intuitions to the contrary notwithstanding, contraceptive sex cannot be genuinely unitive, because it lacks a further, transcendent purpose beyond the mere satisfaction of the individuals’ desires.
Second, contraceptive acts are wrong because they violate the virtue of chastity (or temperance). The importance of this point cannot be overstated, especially for non-Catholics who may be prone to assume that the Church prohibits contraception either because she wants to promote the creation of new Catholics or because she is opposed to the use of “artificial” technologies. It is also important because it enables Rhonheimer to make a moral distinction between the decision to use contraception and the decision to engage in “periodic continence” in order to avoid conception. For Rhonheimer, our attitude toward sex is the fundamental locus of moral concern. The virtue of chastity involves a proper recognition of what human beings really are, or are at our best: rational beings who are not enslaved by their desires but whose desires are under the control of reason. This includes our desire for sex. The problem with contraception, in a nutshell, is that it removes, and is designed and intended to remove, any need for responsible self-control. The very point of contraception is to “render needless the responsible modification of sexual behavior” (p. 99).
I have dwelt at some length on the topic of contraception because I suspect that it is the issue on which readers of this journal are most likely to find Rhonheimer’s claims objectionable or surprising. His discussion of artificial reproduction, however, is also worthy of close attention. Rhonheimer sees in vitro fertilization (IVF), along with other forms of artificial reproduction, as morally wrong primarily because it violates the requirements of justice. One fundamental principle of justice is that all persons are of equal worth and therefore worthy of equal treatment. Natural procreation supports fundamental human equality because it implies, on the part of parents, an unconditional acceptance of any person who is created as a result of the marital union. Artificial reproduction is problematic not because it is artificial, but because it makes the existence of a person directly dependent on the will of others, who cause the person to exist in order to satisfy their own desires. In Rhonheimer’s words, it is as though the parents say to their child, “You live because and in the measure in which we want it” (p. 170). Thus IVF can be understood as the “mirror image” of abortion: the existence of a child is not something good in itself which is received as a gift, but rather as something which is good because it satisfies others’ desires. Whether a child is wanted by its parents or not becomes the crucial factor in determining whether the child is of value, whether his existence is a good thing or not. It may be common for parents who conceive via IVF eventually to value their child for his own sake, but this fact does not retroactively render the initial decision morally permissible. It would be far better, Rhonheimer thinks, for sterile couples who desire to be parents to pursue adoption.
The last topic Rhonheimer addresses is abortion. Chapter 7 offers a helpful discussion of the relationship between law and morality as well as an overview of the history of abortion in American law since Roe v. Wade (and in Germany during the same time period). Chapter 6, however, in which Rhonheimer defends a strongly pro-life position and seeks to engage with pro-choice philosophers, is the weakest part of the book. Rhonheimer’s argument for fetal personhood is hard to follow and risks begging the question; he places enormous emphasis on the claim that personhood is not a property that is had by things, but a fact about what persons are. I confess to being uncertain about what this distinction is supposed to mean (it does not seem to be equivalent to the distinction between accidental and essential properties), and Rhonheimer’s discussion does not adequately engage (well-known) arguments that genetic humanity does not imply moral humanity, that personhood can be understood as a degreed property, and that rights are grounded exclusively in a being’s actual interests. I am extremely sympathetic with Rhonheimer’s conclusions about all of these topics, but would not recommend his defense of them to an interested inquirer. Such a person would do much better turning to Francis Beckwith’s Defending Life (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
Other weaknesses worth noting in this text are the author’s rather dense prose and penchant for overstatement. The book demands quite a lot from the reader, even by the standards of academic philosophy and theology, and Rhonheimer has an unfortunate tendency to assert that one claim “follows” from another, or that something “must” be the case, even when it seems that, strictly speaking, this is not so. Overall, however, this is a very impressive work of moral philosophy, and one that deserves a wide hearing. Non-Catholic Christians, in particular, who have largely acquiesced to our broader culture’s cavalier attitude toward contraception, will find much here that is worthy of serious reflection.