Skip to comments.Abortion and Contraception: Old Lies
Posted on 07/31/2007 7:29:27 AM PDT by NYer
Growing up Catholic, I knew theologically that my church forbade abortion and contraception. Although the church's stand on abortion was self-evident in my opinion, I didn't really understand why she took such a hard line on contraception until I found myself judging annulment cases on a Catholic marriage tribunal. With few exceptions, I could trace every marital breakdown to the couple saying "no" to the fertility with which God had blessed them.
Shocked, I began to research the history of abortion and contraception in my spare time. I was interested, both as a canon lawyer and a pro-family journalist, in discovering how modern society had fallen for such a grand lie. Yet, the deeper I researched, the darker were the conclusions.
Contraception and abortion were nothing new. Rather, they were old lies that were often tied to sorcery and witchcraft in the ancient and medieval worlds. This is the context in which I found myself reading two books by Dr. John M. Riddle, a professor of history at North Carolina State University, published by Harvard University Press. The first was Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (1992) and the second was Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West (2002).
Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance
To begin, Riddle's thesis in this work is simple: contraception, abortifacients and abortion-inducing substances are not modern inventions. Both the ancient and medieval worlds had knowledge of herbs and other plants that, when administered in a certain ways, prevented conception or caused women to abort. That being said, I did not find this work as interesting as Eve's Herbs. While Riddle does an excellent job detailing the various formulas used throughout history to prevent conception and induce abortion, Contraception and Abortion often reads like a cookbook or a pharmacist's manual. Thus, I would find it tedious reading, since my interest lay more with the why than the how.
Nevertheless, I am glad I read Contraception and Abortion for three reasons:
1) the book confirms, in great detail, that abortion and contraception have been practised for as long as man has kept written records;
2) the book admits that abortion and contraception are often linked to pagan gods (or more commonly, goddesses); and
3) the book corroborates — from a secular, scholarly and historical perspective — that the Christian church has struggled against abortion and contraception for centuries, and thus, our present-day struggle as right-to-life activists is nothing new.
Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West
I found Eve's Herbs the more compelling of Riddle's two books. While it was not without its weaknesses, it answered a question that had long troubled me: I had often wondered why Holy Scripture appeared to say so little about the grave evils of abortion and contraception. As a pro-life Christian, it troubled me that the Bible never mentioned the words "abortion" or "contraception." Eve's Herbs provided me with a startling realization: in ancient and medieval times, contraception and abortion were often considered a form of sorcery and witchcraft, rather than a form of medicine.
Thus, Holy Scripture may never use the words abortion and contraception; however, the Bible is not silent on the issue. It simply condemns these practices under a different name. For example, Riddle notes the following while discussing the medieval witch: "The magic associated with women was often connected to their use of herbs." He then cites a number of modern studies corroborating the effectiveness of the anti-fertility herbs used by witches and midwives during the Middle Ages. "In other words, the deeds described in the 15th century as the sevenfold traits of witchcraft are all creditable, according to modern medicine," Riddle states. "Midwives and witches, whether one and the same, knew the drugs to take to reduce fertility."
The author quotes modern historian Richard Trexler: "Infanticide was far and away the most common social crime imputed to the aged witches of Europe by the demonologists." While sometimes prone to accepting the allegations of anti-Catholic historians, Riddle disputes one of their more common claims; namely, that midwives were often singled out for accusations of witchcraft because they were women of prominence and influence. "More likely," he writes, "the primary reason witches were persecuted was the same as that for which a woman in Hamburg was burnt to death in 1477: 'because she had instructed young females how to use abortion medicines.'" He had already noted that "Sexual offences were, by far, the leading offences of which witches were accused in three Essex villages between 1560 and 1599."
Eve's Herbs is an excellent expose of the wide availability of contraception and abortion in the ancient and medieval times. It also does a fairly good job, from a secular and scholarly perspective, of showing the historical link between contraception, abortion and witchcraft.
Couples who are capable of having children have a moral obligation to have children.
NFP is intended to provide a respite if necessary in a larger context of having children.
For example, my friend who was advised by her doctor after a couple of miscarriages to take an 18-24 month break between pregnancies in order to reduce the chance of further miscarriages.
That is an appropriate context.
Correct. There are frequently cases where, for a serious medical reason, a woman who already has children to care for, may need to avoid another pregnancy for a limited period of time.
That is one value of knowing NFP. On the the other hand, NFP can be helpful when couples want to achieve a pregnancy.
Impotence is an impediment to valid marriage, as it makes impossible consummation of the marriage.
However, I don’t believe that infertility is an impediment.
Here's a cite from Canon Law:
Can. 1084 §1. Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have intercourse, whether on the part of the man or the woman, whether absolute or relative, nullifies marriage by its very nature.
§2. If the impediment of impotence is doubtful, whether by a doubt about the law or a doubt about a fact, a marriage must not be impeded nor, while the doubt remains, declared null.
§3. Sterility neither prohibits nor nullifies marriage, without prejudice to the prescript of can. 1098.
Natural sterility is not treated the same as the three actions above. Right?
Someone who is sterilized with just cause, it is my understanding, is free to marry if he or she isn’t impotent. A woman who has a hysterectomy because she has uterine cancer, or her ovaries removed because of cancer, is, to my understanding, still free to marry.
I have actually known Catholic women who have validly married who have had these surgeries for legitimate medical reasons.
Similarly, if a man were to receive medical treatment that incidentally rendered him infertile, but not impotent, it is my understanding that he could still marry.
I don’t know what would happen to someone made sterile for the purposes of avoiding procreation, i.e., a man who voluntarily received a vasectomy strictly to avoid procreation.
The canons don’t seem to suggest any differentiation between natural sterility and sterility imposed by human action.
Interesting. I think I’ll request the books he mentions in his article. We might even have them in our library, since the author is a local university professor!
Thank you for this information, since no numbers are given anywhere about the history of abortion. I need to know if abortion was practiced in pre-war Germany and Europe, and now I know what to look for in my research. I could never understand the holocaust, but if abortion was being overlooked and practiced, then a Bible study I have done will be confirmed in my mind, and a great fear of the LORD fills my heart.
“Holy Scripture may never use the words abortion and contraception; however, the Bible is not silent on the issue.” God definitely lets us know that He hates child sacrifice.
What is interesting is that many pastors are starting quietly change their view on chemical contraception, so the tide is starting to turn.
Dang double post!
Happens to us all.