For those who don't live in Calgary in the fair province of Alberta, you may not have heard the uproar over a doctor refusing to prescribe birth control pills to patients. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are upset by this.
Equally unsurprising is Bishop Fred Henry's contribution to the discussion, published as a "Letter to the Editor" in today's Calgary Herald.
Re: "Doctors' ability to say no must be limited," Naomi Lakritz, Opinion, July 2. Physicians will sometimes prescribe the pill to treat problems like heavy menstrual bleeding, painful periods, pre-menstrual syndrome, endometriosis or severe acne. In these cases, the pill is used not as a contraceptive, but as a therapy for a medical condition.
This can be morally permissible under the principle of double effect, which allows for the treatment of a serious medical problem (good effect) while tolerating its unintended consequences, when other less harmful treatments are not available. In this case, the unintended consequences would be the impeding of fertility and the pill's potential health risks and side-effects (evil effect).
Some medical professionals insist that the pill, taken purely to avoid pregnancy, is "health care." It is not health care, but a lifestyle decision. This lifestyle decision is frequently made in the midst of a cultural backdrop that sanctions the misguided view that "health" means we have the right to practise consensual indiscriminate sex without consequences.
The pill, when chosen strictly for these contraceptive purposes, fails the test of being health care because it does not heal or restore any broken system. It breaks a smoothly working system - the reproductive system - by disrupting the delicate balance of hormonal cycles regulating a woman's reproductive wellbeing and fecundity.
When taken for lifestyle purposes, the pill is quite the opposite of health care - being detrimental to women's health - in light of its frequent side-effects of weight gain, headaches and depression, as well as its heightened and well-documented risk of thrombotic stroke, heart attack and breast cancer.
We need more information from the professionals as to how the pill works. Does it prevent fertilization or is it an abortifacient? Or both?
Bishop Fred Henry
It comes as no surprise that the local Catholic Bishop would be objecting to the idea of contraception. Last I checked, the official position of the Catholic Church was still that contraception is unacceptable - including condoms. So, no big surprises there.
Fred Henry is bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary.
However, I take considerable exception to several aspects of the Bishop's arguments.
First, he claims that the contraceptive action of the pill is an "evil effect". For those who choose to believe what the Bishop preaches, that's just fine. Go ahead and believe that there is an "evil" associated with the pill. The issue is not that the medication has effects on the body - that is both well documented and well understood. To call them "evil" is something of a reach ... but we'll come back to this in a moment or two.
He then moves on to the old saw about how sex must have consequences. Again, if you bought into the old guilt trip routine that the Catholic Church has been teaching about sex for the last several centuries, that's one thing. On the other hand, some people actually like sex for its own sake. I'm certain the Bishop will find this terribly appalling - we aren't supposed to actually enjoy it. Especially not women.
This is, of course, complete nonsense. Human beings have used sex as a means of pleasure, social bonding and goodness knows what else for far longer than the Catholic Church has existed. For at least that long, men have been trying to regulate women's sexuality ... unsuccessfully for the most part. I for one don't exactly think terribly highly of a bunch of supposedly celibate males trying to dictate how we should experience sex.
Accordingly, because it is "a lifestyle choice", Bishop Henry figures that the Pill isn't "medical care". Is the pill "medical care"? That's a matter of perspective. In some countries, it's an over-the-counter medication - walk in and ask for it and off you go. In Canada, we still require a doctor's prescription. I suppose from the perspective of monitoring the patient for possible side effects and consequences, a visit to a doctor for a prescription isn't a bad idea. In claiming that it is a "lifestyle choice" and therefore not "care", the Bishop is overlooking the obligation of the physician to ensure that the patient is in fact not experiencing serious side effects from the medication.
Perhaps most annoying about the Bishop's argument is his attempt to muddy the waters further by questioning whether the pill is "contraceptive" or "abortifacient". This latter claim is relatively recent, and has been used to argue that certain medications are in fact essentially "chemical abortions" and therefore should be suppressed as violently as abortion itself. It is part of the wedge politics approach to regulating women's sexuality.
Frankly, I don't think it matters which way (or both) that the Pill works. The decision isn't the Bishop's to make, nor is it the Church's. Women have a right to administer their bodies as they see fit, and manage their lives as they see fit. (and that may just include enjoying sex now and then too)
As the old joke goes: If the Bishop no playa da game, he no make da rules