Tuesday, June 13, 2006

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For the philosophers in the audience....

Luc Bovens has a fascinating article in the Journal of Medical Ethics about whether strict pro-life activists -- i.e., those who are as concerned about embryonic death as they are about fetuses -- can ethically endorse the rhythm method as a means of family planning. Why?

Pro-lifers oppose IUDs because their main mode of operation is to make embryonic death likely. Now suppose that we were to learn that the success of the rhythm method is actually due, not to the fact that conception does not happen—sperm and ova are much more long lived than we previously thought—but rather because the viability of conceived ova outside the HF period is minimal due to the limited resilience of the embryo and the limited receptivity of the uterine wall. If this were the case, then one should oppose the rhythm method for the same reasons as one opposes IUDs. If it is callous to use a technique that makes embryonic death likely by making the uterine wall inhospitable to implantation, then clearly it is callous to use a technique that makes embryonic death likely by organising one’s sex life so that conceived ova lack resilience and will face a uterine wall that is inhospitable to implantation. Furthermore, if one is opposed to IUDs because their main mode of operation is to secure embryonic death, then, on the assumption that one of the modes of operation of the pill is to make embryonic death likely, one should be equally opposed to pill usage. This is essentially Alcorn’s argument and assuming that the empirical details hold, consistency does indeed drive IUD opponents in this direction. If, however, our empirical assumptions about the rhythm method hold, then one of its modes of operation is also that it makes embryonic death likely. And if embryos are unborn children, is it not callous indeed to organise one’s sex life on the basis of a technique whose success is partly dependent on the fact that unborn children will starve because they are brought to life in a hostile environment?
This rests on the belief that the rhythm method works because of embryonic death rather than a failure to fertilize an egg in the first place. Amanda Schaffer's article in the New York Times about the Bovens paper discusses the scientific lay of the land on that question.

I have no idea whether Bovens' empirical assertion is correct -- but if it is, it would seem to pose a very interesting quandry for some pro-life activists.

UPDATE: The comments tend to run towards the distinction between sins of omission and sins of commission. Just to be really subversive, try applying that framework to this question and see if your views remain internally consistent.

posted by Dan on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM


You think the pro-life movement is influenced by something as flimsy as fact?

posted by: Doug on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

First of all, the rhythm method hasn't been taught (or used, really) for about 40 or 50 years. The author of this article completely misunderstands the way non-contraceptive methods of family planning work and are used. Essentially, he gets the non-science parts of his article plain wrong. While I'm not directly competent to comment on the science, my understanding is that he got that wrong, too. There's a good view of the other side here: http://www.lifesite.net/ldn/2006/jun/06060508.html

posted by: Phil on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Contra Phil, the rhythm method is still taught, particularly by the Catholic church. Regardless of whether its done by merely counting days on the calendar (the old way) or the taking of temperatures and measuring of secretions (the new way), the method is the same -- the purposeful timing of intercourse to decrease the possibility of pregnancy. (I think the church "rebranded" what it calls this practice at some point, so it shies away from calling it the rhythm method any more.) At my pre-marriage counseling in New York City three years ago, we had videos, speakers, and handouts all pushing this (to much laughter).

posted by: Apu on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Confusing the sympto-thermal method with the rhythm method misunderstands what is meant by "rhythm method" both in common use and in the article under discussion. Regardless of the terminological issue at hand, the fact remains that the article misunderstands the moral issues behind the rationale for using Natural Family Planning (or even the rhythm method), and (apparently) misunderstands the difference between the loss of a fertilized embryo due to the natual state of the womb and due to the abortofacient effects of an IUD.

posted by: Phil on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Philosophers schmilosophers.

I don't think anyone is taking into consideration the obvious discrimination inherent in the so-called rhythm method: white guys are at a disadvantage. And don't get me going on the unattractivenes of the White Man's Overbite in preparing a woman for sexual intercourse.

posted by: Racer X, Speed Racer's (unbeknownst to him) brother on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

This rather confuses sins of omission with sins of commission, which the Catholic church distinguishes between.

posted by: Jane Galt on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

I've been away from the fold too long- are sins of commission the ones where the Church gets its cut?

Next thing ya know the Church is gonna have a problem with interruptus... oh wait..

posted by: Mark Buehner on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Both methods require a high degree of commission. The only position with integrity is use of condoms to prevent the fusion in the first place.

posted by: Lord on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]


You are playing with semantics, choosing your words to create a distinction without a difference.

The point of Drezner's post is that the "sympto-thermal method" is matter of finding the time that the womb is "naturally" in an abortofacient state.

According to the journal article- by following this method, you are knowingly having intercourse and creating an embryo that will die. Just because it happens through "natural" means, doesn't make it any more ethical.

posted by: Rick Latshaw on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Actually, it's "naturalness" does make a difference, and it's not clear that "Bovens' empircal assertion is correct". The scientific correctness of the article, however, does not change its incorrectness with regard to the relevant moral principles. My point is that there is good reason to question this article's assertions about both the science and the ethics.

posted by: Phil on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Such banefully obvious misassertions over what constitutes "naturalness", tsk, tsk.

posted by: Lord on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

We must return to old-time traditions! Namely, the one where the mother has total power over the fetus' life up to one week after birth. I have read that, in certain technical senses, the newborn is still a fetus for about a week. The mother should be able to leave it on a hillside. Another tradition is that ensoulment occurs after a month. Aren't traditions great? Just pick the one you want.

posted by: Demiurge on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

interruptus... oh wait

Didn't Onan get in trouble for that!

posted by: Mitchell Young on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

By Bovens' rationale, all conception is murder, since every child who is conceived is guaranteed to die some day. Needless to say, I've never met anyone, pro-life or pro-choice, who made that argument. Some things take a professor . . . .

posted by: Virginia on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]


The sympto-thermal method is not "natural"- you are just choosing different technology to achieve the same result.

"Natural" would be engaging in intercourse without using a technology to create an abortofacient state.

You just chose a different means. But you are still using technology to abort an embryo.

posted by: Rick Latshaw on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

Naturalness/artificial. Omission/commission.

Isn't it more useful in exploring the ethical parallel of IUD and rhythm to consider intent/accident, informed/ignorant?

Once you know that rhythm is like IUD you've got an issue if you've got an issue with the IUD on ethical grounds. So, boys and girls, close your eyes and cover your ears.

Unless what you are saying is God, in her infinite wisdom, only gave us a few days of sex without consequences so that the IUD goes against God's will but rhythm doesn't. There again, those freebie days were not revealed to us except by a certain amount human of experimentation and deduction. Did God intend that we would find this out? And now that we are not so innocent can we use this information to time safe sex by the rhythm method andavoid the IUD pitfall? May be you can as long as you don't take your temperature, etc.

posted by: John B. Chilton on 06.13.06 at 11:34 PM [permalink]

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