An Invitation to Life: the Heart of Humanae Vitae

By Janet E. Smith


Humanae vitae, Day of Prayer for the Legal protection of unborn children, Janet Smith
Photo Credit: Thiago Cerqueira

There is a particular version of natural moral law theory known as “New Natural Law”: it understands morality as a matter of living in accord with basic human goods and not acting in such a way as to violate those goods. Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae defines and excludes as morally wrong “all acts that attempt to impede procreation, both those chosen as means to an end and those chosen as ends” (Humanae vitae 14). For the New Natural Law theorists, the encyclical’s definition of contraception thus makes it clear that what is relevant is not the behavior involved but the intention to impede procreation, no matter how that intention is carried out. What is wrong with contraception is that it precedes from a contra-life will.  

According to this view, although contraception presupposes an act of intercourse, it is not itself a sexual act, for it involves a distinct choice. A couple chooses contraception when they have already decided to have intercourse and fear it will result in the conception of a child. Their decision to use contraception is aimed precisely at preventing the child they fear will come into existence from actually doing so. Contraception, then, is a contra-life act.  

By rejecting contraception as contra-life, the Church makes it clear that, like other choices, the choice to contracept has an intrinsic meaning. A couple cannot reasonably define the act purely in terms of the end they have in mind and discount the significance of their chosen means. A married couple may well intend the good end of enjoying intercourse without risking conception when their other responsibilities would make it irresponsible for them to conceive. If, however, contraception is their chosen means, then one of the reasons for its wrongness is that it is a contra-life choice. 

This problem becomes especially clear when one considers the relation of the couple to the child when contraception fails: since they tried to prevent that child from existing, they almost invariably to some extent regret the fact that the child has come to exist. Given that conception is seen as a failure, it is not difficult to see how it can lead to abortion, for it is all too easy for the couple to follow the fatal logic of taking the life of the child they failed to prevent. While they will likely come to accept and love their child, the fact is that their choices have caused them to some extent to have a contra-life will.  

It is worth noting that couples who practice Natural Family Planning never make such a choice. Since they make the sacrifice of abstaining whenever they think conception is possible, they never make the distinct contra-life choice of trying to prevent a child from coming into existence. Nevertheless, if a child is conceived, they may initially be emotionally distraught, but they are morally secure. No change of heart is necessary.  

In short, Humanae vitae’s definition of contraception perfectly captures the idea that contraception is contra-life—wrong precisely because it is intended to prevent a new person from coming to be. 

Living by the Church’s teaching that it is good for each and every act of marital sexual intercourse to retain its openness to life can present many challenges that seem insuperable. But the Gospel, or Good News, is good news. We are not on our own. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, came to make available to us the graces that enable us to live up to the demands and greatness of our nature. He is eager to take our burdens onto Himself and has provided many sources of grace, such as prayer, the Eucharist, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. At times, we must all practice what can seem a frightening, radical reliance on the Lord, but we must have confidence that He is there to help us: “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you” (1 Pet 5:7). The time we spend worrying would be better spent in prayer, for there we can hear the voice of the Lord and learn His plan for us, a plan He will help us achieve. 


Interested in learning more about the issues addressed in Humanae Vitae? Read Janet E. Smith’s Self-Gift: Essays on Humanae Vitae and the Thought of John Paul II for an in-depth treatment of the encyclical and the conversation surrounding it.