One of the aspects of Catholicism most frequently met with incomprehension and anger is its opposition to artificial contraception. This doctrine was what kept me out of the Catholic Church for many years. After I was received (in 2004, after 15 years as an Episcopalian/Anglican preceded by 20 as an agnostic), it took more than a decade for the Holy Spirit to turn my heart 180 degrees. I have finally come to see that conception is an earthly mirror of the God who is life-giving Love, as I explain in this essay, and that contraception clouds that mirror. Yet even before I could give the difficult teaching my full and real assent, I somehow trusted, or at least suspected, that the Church that was right about so many other things was right about this one as well. Her obstinacy in the face of changing mores was correct.
For some Catholics (and some other Christians), it seems as if the emotional and spiritual “antibodies” mobilized to fight against contraception and/or abortion are also fighting against COVID-19 vaccination. Facebook groups centered on Natural Family Planning are full of anecdotes about miscarriages and other fertility problems following vaccination, sometimes going so far as to claim that “the ‘vaccine’ is actually a sterilization tool” promulgated by Bill Gates and sundry characters. One disproportionately popular source for many Catholics who are distrustful of the mainstream media (it claims to have 20 million readers) sends a clear message that the physical and moral dangers of the vaccine are paramount. While stopping short of a direct equation with contraception, the site implies a connection, as when it highlights reports of menstrual irregularities and reproductive dysfunction following vaccination. All of its coverage encourages righteous defiance among its readers.
The similarity is psychologically plausible. After all, the medical establishment has told us for decades that it is safe to make chemical changes to our reproductive systems. In fact, oral contraceptives are a Class 1 carcinogen. They can mask health problems that might otherwise have been treated. They pose a substantial risk of strokes and blood clots—a risk the prescribing doctors often fail to point out. (In my Protestant days, I experienced such a side effect, and I knew half a dozen young, otherwise healthy women who did as well.) Now the same establishment is telling us it is safe to make chemical changes to our immune systems. Should we not be suspicious of vaccine propaganda as well? This attitude is understandable. Nevertheless, I suggest that the analogy is misleading, for several reasons.
First, the goal of a vaccine is opposite to that of a contraceptive. The purpose of medicine, rightly understood, is to preserve or restore health by helping the body’s systems to function better. Contraception is not medicine, because it is ordered toward disorder: its aim is to prevent a healthy system from functioning. By contrast, a vaccine is ordered toward helping the body’s own immune system do what it was made for, namely, to fight off disease.
Second, it is the virus, not the vaccine, that poses the real threat to pregnancies and fertility. The idea that the vaccine attacks Syncytin-1, a protein necessary for placental formation, has been shown to be scientifically untenable. In fact, expectant mothers who contract COVID-19 are significantly more likely to experience pre-term birth, and to become sicker from the virus than their non-pregnant peers do. Similarly, there is no evidence that the vaccine negatively affects male fertility, and increasing evidence that COVID-19 does.
Third, whereas contraception can cause the death of others, it is resisting vaccination that can cause the death of others. Though opinions differ about the extent to which this happens, the most popular forms of contraception do sometimes prevent the implantation of newly-formed human beings, thus causing their death. By contrast, there is no evidence that getting vaccinated oneself causes other people to die, and there is abundant evidence the world over that transmitting COVID-19 can do so. The current variant is so contagious that avoiding infection has become nearly impossible. Even if the vaccine does not eradicate the possibility of contracting the disease, it vastly reduces both its severity and its likelihood of transmission.
Finally, the Church’s teaching about contraception is the opposite of its guidance about vaccination. The Catechism states that every action whose intent is to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil (§2370). By contrast, Pope Francis has recently characterized vaccination against COVID-19 as an “act of love” and a “simple yet profound way to care for one another, especially the most vulnerable.” A posture of disobedience—“My body my choice, I don’t care what the Pope says!”—is questionable for Catholics, to say the least.
I have argued that the analogy between resisting contraception and resisting COVID-19 vaccination, though superficially plausible, is seriously misleading. Vaccine opposition fails to make use of medicine’s proper gift, threatens pregnancies and fertility, endangers the lives of others, and contradicts the Church’s guidance.
A better analogy for refusing vaccination would be choosing to drive falling-down drunk because one is unwilling to take a Lyft or Uber, in a situation where those are the only two options. It can be frightening to enter a stranger’s car, sober drivers sometimes have accidents too, and Lyft’s chief executive recently spoke out against Texas’s new law restricting abortions. These concerns are not trivial, and neither are the medical and moral concerns surrounding the new vaccine. It is still preferable to assume a relatively small risk, with a distant connection to moral evil, in order to mitigate a far greater risk to oneself and others—including expectant mothers and their babies.
One final, personal plea. This piece comes from a place of anguish, as I have been feeling increasingly alienated from friends who are extremely precious to me. I deeply admire your readiness to take a stand against the surrounding culture; that kind of obstinacy is what makes saints and martyrs, and the Church would be crippled without it. But it grieves me to see it mistakenly deployed. If we are going to arouse the world’s fury, we need to be especially sure it is for the right reasons. Otherwise, it can obscure our true witness to God’s merciful love, the witness it is the primary aim of every Christian life to convey.