Speaking of Contraception . . .

by Ramesh Ponnuru

At Catholic Online, Phil Lawler expresses polite but firm disagreement with me on whether Catholic politicians are obligated to seek a legal prohibition of contraception. I say no, he says yes. He first cites a snippet from Humanae Vitae, but it seems to me that he is misreading it. (I think that’s true for several reasons, but here I’ll just say that we are certainly not debating whether to “introduce” contraception to families in our society.) Next he says that

Catholic politicians . . . are obligated to serve the common good, and contraception violates the common good. The use of contraception is not merely a moral offense for Catholics, similar to eating meat on a Friday in Lent. As Pope Paul explained in Humanae Vitae, contraception is a violation of the natural law, harmful to anyone who engages in the practice. Contraceptives harm people (especially women) and harm our society. Catholic politicians—all politicians, actually—should look for opportunities to restrain the practice.

I’m part of the small minority of Americans who agrees with nearly all of those words. They do not, however, establish that prohibition is the right policy. There are many potential harms that we have good reasons not to seek to prohibit. The passage does not even establish that it would be wrong to allow the over-the-counter sale of oral contraceptives, as a few conservative Catholic politicians have suggested. To determine the right policy requires reaching quite a lot of prudential judgments, as the last sentence in that passage implies.

I think a faithful Catholic politician could reasonably conclude–because it is true–that there is not much that government can do to restrain contraception (there are few “opportunities”), let alone much sensible that government can do; and that in the case of many oral contraceptives, the restriction on over-the-counter sales in our society serves no useful purpose.