Long before we trusted the Catholic Church or even considered marriage, my wife and I got into a heated debate about abortion.
“So you think abortion is a sin?”
“There’s no question: it’s wrong,” she said, as if it should have been obvious.
“What gives you the right to say that? I think there are several cases where a mother should have the choice to have an abortion.” “Like what?” she replied.
“Well, what happens if a father rapes his daughter?” “Um . . .”
“And what about the mother who is addicted to drugs?” “Well . . . ”
“See what I mean now?”
“No. Absolutely not! There’s no case in which a woman should abort her child. You gave two examples in which you think it would be good for that child based on outcomes you can’t predict. Do you just end lives because you think a life might be of less quality? I think all lives have limitless quality!”
“Um . . .”
She was making a good point. She continued:
“Then there’s the fact that you’re punishing an unborn child for the mistakes of adults.”
“But why would you force a child to be born with a disability?”
“Why would you take life away from any child? You’re not even giving them a chance! Some of the happiest people I’ve known are kids with Down syndrome, and their parents are filled with love for their kid.”
“. . .”
“Well, I just think women should have a choice. I guess I would put it this way: personally, I’m pro-life; I would never have or encourage an abortion. But at the same time, I think, legally, women should have a choice. I mean, how can we take away someone’s free will?”
We didn’t talk more about abortion that day or for many months to come. Talking about pro-life issues can be incredibly frustrating for disagreeing parties. Her opinion made some sense at the time, but it didn’t persuade me to abandon my sentiments on the subject. Even though we disagreed, what Jessica told me that day has come to mind every time I’ve had a conversation about pro-life issues.
I remember the conversation Shaun mentions. His tone shocked me, and, like him, I’ve not forgotten it.
I went silent. That’s when I first realized we were not on the same page on the pro-life issue. He agreed that an abortion shouldn’t happen just because a baby was inconvenient. However, Shaun said, “It wasn’t that simple in real life.” He told me he had once helped a woman consider whether to abort her baby. The father wasn’t someone she was with any longer. She felt trapped between two bad alternatives: being tied to a man she didn’t want to be with, or being a young single mother. Months later, Shawn looked up the woman on Facebook and was surprised by her profile picture with a beautiful baby girl. Shaun was immediately taken with the baby.
“Are you happy she didn’t abort the baby?”
“Jess . . .”
“Think about it. Had she made that decision, regardless of when you think life begins, that little girl would not be alive. Period.”
The conversation went on to the usual: rape, incest, birth defects, and handicaps. I had the classic, thought-provoking answers. In the end, he left the conversation saying he thought women should have the choice, and I left it saying that everything possible should be done to save and bring dignity to both lives — mother and baby, but especially the innocent baby.
When we realized our relationship was heading toward marriage, I brought the subject up again. Abortion was a deal breaker for me. Although Shaun’s beliefs weren’t as strong as mine, I was relieved that in the meantime he had become very pro-baby as well as pro-woman.
Fast forward a year: we were planning to be married; there was lots to discuss, and we wanted to be responsible. Our plan was, after about a year of being married, for me to get out of the military so I could finish my undergraduate degree.
We agreed that having a child was something we wanted, but not immediately, and so I asked Jessica if she would go on birth control. Jessica hesitated for health reasons, so I said I would go to the doctor with her. The doctor assuaged all of her concerns. From there, it seemed as easy as choosing a method. Was she going to take a shot? Pop pills? Wear a patch?
For reasons I don’t remember, Jessica decided to receive her birth control with the shot. One shot provided birth control for about ninety days, which eliminated problems that would arise if she forgot to take a pill.
For me, the goal was to make the issue “out of sight, out of mind.” To achieve my educational goals and maintain the integrity of my future family, using birth control was a no-brainer. I convinced myself that postponing children now would be better for kids born later.
It was 2008, and the job market was weak. With my unemployment imminent, I didn’t want to start our new life together without a solid plan. Since money problems were a major cause of divorce, I was convinced that the thirty-dollar cost of birth control was better for our marriage than the thousands of dollars it costs to have children — at least until I got my college degree and had a good job.
Shaun and I had a very short engagement — just under a month! He had been working very hard on his degree and had to complete it.
My dream was to be a stay-at-home mom. We needed to work as a team on a strict plan. Time wasn’t on our side because of reproductive problems I had, so we wanted to work fast to get to a place where we could have babies.
We decided to postpone children for at least the first two years of our marriage and then revisit the topic. That meant we needed to choose a responsible method of family planning. We wanted to ensure the egg and the sperm would never meet, but if they somehow did, that life wouldn’t be aborted by the contraceptive. We wouldn’t risk the life of our baby, planned or not.
The doctor allayed all our worries. He assured us that we could use any of the following methods without compromising our will to protect life at every stage from conception onward: the implant, the shot, the pill, or the patch.
We chose the shot, the easiest of the methods. The nurse administered it while Shaun held my hand, and within ten minutes I felt nauseated and lightheaded. I was glad Shaun was there to drive us home. I hoped that the symptoms were the result of stress. On the way home Shaun thanked me, saying he wished there was a way he could take the shot instead of its being a burden laid solely on my shoulders.
Before we were married we had what was for us responsible discussions about the future of our family. How many kids we should have? How should we space them? Did we want boys or girls?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but these questions were selfish. I see now that they weren’t really “responsible” conversations. We were concerned with convenience and selection, as if having a family works well only when it is arranged around material or professional goals. Unconsciously, we had judged that we could not take part in the creative act of childbearing unless we determined how, when, and where it happened. As good as our intentions were — not to form a family that we couldn’t manage — we were deeply mistaken about our obligations in marriage.
After two years of preventing pregnancy through contraception, I earned my undergraduate degree and landed a decent job. One night in September, Jessica was brushing her teeth, and I said to her, “Jessica, I’m ready to have kids. Can you stop taking birth control?”
I’ve only seen her that happy a few times. It’s a unique sort of satisfaction that filled her face. It was a mix of “Really? Are you sure?” and “Definitely!”
We stopped the contraception immediately, hoping she would be pregnant soon. But we had a tough road ahead of us.
The shot was horrible. Horrible!
I woke up every morning so nauseated I couldn’t function for the first half hour, was miserable until noon, and miserable again at bedtime. I had daily headaches, was always tired, constantly “spotting,” and emotional. I had to force myself to eat well when I didn’t want to eat at all, and I gained weight at an alarming pace. I had had two rounds of the shot when, in a social situation, I met the nurse who had administered the shot to me.
She told me about methods of contraception she couldn’t believe were legal, and what women complained about. The thing that she said she hated most in her job was giving women that shot and not being allowed to warn them ahead of time what they were in for, knowing two of the doctors gave poor information.
I requested a different doctor.
I would love to say that this is when I wised up and did my own research and at minimum read the small print for each of the methods we considered, but I did not. I have no one to blame except myself.
Next I tried the patch, which became increasingly unpleasant. I was glad when we ran out. Shaun was no longer in the military, and we had no health insurance. Although we both worked long hours, we had minimal income.
Someone recommended that I get the pill from Planned Parenthood.
Wasn’t that the place that does abortions? I wasn’t sure, but if it was, I wanted no part of it.
So I called.
The receptionist said they didn’t perform abortions, so I made an appointment. One small step at a time, our use of contraception — even while we tried to protect life — led me to the doors of Planned Parenthood.
The waiting room was well lit and comfortable. I couldn’t find anything about abortions anywhere. I was looking for any reason to bolt. Sexually transmitted diseases and safe sex seemed to be the push. I went back to the room with the provider, who gave me my annual physical and a prescription for three months of the pill — the most affordable method they provided. She seemed as if she truly cared about me. She told me, when I asked, that their clinic did not perform abortions, but others did.
As I checked out, they pushed for full payment, which I didn’t have. Eventually the receptionist said they would cover half. I didn’t want to give them my business, but if I did, at least they were footing part of the bill.
The next two years I bit my tongue a lot and wondered when, if ever, we would try for babies. Then it finally happened.
Shaun came home from work one day thoughtful and quiet. That evening, he said, “Jess, I think I’m ready for us to have a baby. If we keep waiting for the perfect situation, it may never come. But we can make it work. What do you think about coming off the pill?”
Only a few times in my life have I been that happy and excited. I couldn’t hug him tight enough. I flushed the rest of the pills the same hour. A week later I couldn’t believe how good I felt; it was like someone had physically lifted a weight off my body and a fog had cleared. I told Shaun I didn’t care what we had to do in the future, I wouldn’t be going back on contraception. He laughed, thinking I was just happy we were trying to conceive. But two weeks passed, and he noticed the differences in me as well.
Days after I asked her at the bathroom sink if it would be alright to stop using birth control, I remember inquiring with excitement, “So have you stopped taking the pill?” She assured me she had. “Great!” I remember thinking. “You’ll be pregnant soon.”
But those couple of days turned into a couple of months, and still no sign of pregnancy. I asked her about it — why it might be taking a while — and she told me that it would take time for the hormones completely to exit her system.
I had to be patient.
Around nine months went by.
“How long should this take?”
As much as I tried not to stress about it, I was worried that our use of contraception had left Jessica sterile. I was afraid to ask her the questions that haunted me: “What have I done? Is my wife barren now?”
The likelihood of infertility and miscarriage tormented me. I placed my desire for children in God’s hands and continually had to remind myself to trust God. He could make fertile even a barren womb. He alone could bring forth a life — no one else could.
I had cried and prayed over so many of my friends and heard of their infertility struggles, the doctors, the injections, and the humiliating intrusion into the most intimate areas, with sex becoming a chore and their hearts sinking at every negative pregnancy test, month after month. Worst were the miscarriages.
Rather than worry, I made a plan. We would give it a year of trying, and I wouldn’t get my hopes up in that time. I plugged everything into an app, and we focused in on days it said we were fertile.
Shaun was due to go on a business trip over the time our app said I was next going to ovulate, so we set ourselves up to let it go for a month and a half. While he was gone, I had a lot of time to myself to think things through. I finally let myself feel it all: the fear, the disappointment, the hope I didn’t even realize had been building. I steeled myself for what would likely be a long road toward getting the family we wanted through fertility treatments or adoption, or both. I didn’t know how we would afford either, but we would figure it out.
I pulled myself together and was refreshed with a newfound trust that God’s plan was greater than mine: He would lead and provide for each step, and He would use the pain and disappointment for good somehow. I again handed Him my hopes and begged Him to return them in one way or another.
Shaun came home, and just over a week later I took my habitual pregnancy test before having a glass of wine.
It was positive!
My heart soared!
I couldn’t wait to tell Shaun we were going to be parents!
While we were trying to conceive, I began considering the Catholic Church. For me, authority, morals, and sexuality were big stumbling blocks. “How could a group of people be free from doctrinal and moral error?” The way I saw it, nobody could be free from error except for Christ Himself, and claiming to “know it all” smacked of blasphemy, equating a creature with the Creator.
As I began reading Catholic books, however, I often found myself thinking, “Well, that actually makes a lot of sense. I’d better keep reading to see where this argument falls apart.” Next thing you know, I’d be at the end of the book. “Better get out another book, because Catholic morality can’t be flawless.”
Next book, same result: arguments that were complete, charitable, and satisfying. Not only did they thoroughly explain the Catholic Church’s position and the defense thereof; they revealed the terrible errors in my own logic, much of which was made up of what I had learned as a Protestant.
One thing helped me immensely as I drew closer to the Church: an understanding of her authority. Once I came to see that it came not from the Bible, but directly from Jesus by way of the apostles (who later wrote much of the New Testament), almost all of my issues with Catholic teachings evaporated.
Two of the Church’s moral stances continued to trouble me, however: her prohibition of abortion and of artificial contraception. I wanted to confess my sins of supporting pro-choice ideologies and using birth control, but I still did not understand why they were judged to be sinful.
I suffered from a classic case of relativism, a powerful, seductive, and deceptive heresy that denies all universal truths, holding that their truth or falsehood depends on how they are judged by any individual.
I had always been personally against abortion but thought that it should be a personal decision for a woman. I thought that if a woman truly believed abortion was right, then it was, in fact, right for her. Clearly, I was confused about the application of universal moral truths.
The answer to one question destroyed my relativism: “If the unborn child is truly a child, then how can killing him be wrong for me but licit for someone else?”
Overcoming my relativism brought healing, consolation, and reconciliation. Next, I had to decide how I would treat birth control.
Frankly, I had never given birth control much thought. The word contraception seemed more medical than anything else. Since my teen years I had heard stories from female friends about how their parents had them on birth control. These parents claimed that it was not that their teen was sexually active; rather, they said, the pill provided regularity in their menstrual cycle. So, from the onset, it seemed perfectly responsible to use birth control.
Any conversation I had with my wife or Christian friends about birth control mainly addressed the physical risks, rather than the moral questions. In the decades I had been an Evangelical, I never once heard a sermon about birth control. Not once.
Interestingly, this was one of the first things I learned about the Catholic Church; but I wasn’t impressed when I learned that many Catholics ignore the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception. So if I was going to become an obedient Catholic, which I wanted very much, I had to understand the immorality of contraception prior to making my first confession.
Although I didn’t realize it at first, my former opinion on abortion was related to my opinion on birth control. It seemed evident to me that birth control would reduce unwanted pregnancies and therefore would reduce abortions. So birth control seemed to be a force for good. I assumed that people on birth control were no more or less prone to promiscuity than those who didn’t use it. In fact, in repeated studies, birth control has been directly shown to promote sex outside marriage and with multiple partners. It has aided in the creation of a society that values the pleasures of sex over sexual responsibility.
I was wrong about artificial birth control as a positive force in society, but I still needed the Christian basis for saying it is immoral. Where was I to look? Naturally, I searched the Bible but nothing there directly referred to contraception.
Or did it?
Online, I came across a reference to the story of Onan. I thought to myself, “I know this story, but it has nothing to do with birth control. It’s about masturbation.”
But what did masturbation have to do with birth control? Everything.
Since Onan spilled his “seed” (semen) to avoid procreation, God’s condemnation of Onan shows His disapproval of sexual acts that are not open to life. When couples use withdrawal to avoid pregnancy, it is mutual masturbation. Absolutely preventing conception in this way — or any other way — is contrary to God’s law. Couples who use devices, techniques, or hormones to prevent conception violate the very nature of the act of intercourse.
I realized that my sins were equal to Onan’s, and I was in desperate need of God’s grace and forgiveness. To my relief, I was soon to become Catholic and could enter the Church with a clean conscience after my first confession.
In a matter of months, through my uncompromising search for the truth and my desire to follow Christ, I had gone from a pro-choice, birth control–endorsing relativist to a Christian in full communion with the social and moral teaching of the Catholic Church. I made my first confession on Good Friday 2012, and the next day I receive my first Eucharist and was confirmed.
After telling Shaun I was pregnant, I set about to find doctors who would do everything in their power to protect our unborn baby in the womb. That led me to NaProTECHNOLOGY, which specializes in women’s reproductive care, especially in infertility and bringing high-risk pregnancies to term.
The NaPro medical staff treated me with a courtesy I had never experienced before and extended it to Shaun and to our baby as well. From the start, I was in their office every two weeks receiving the care I needed to maintain a healthy pregnancy.
After the baby was born, we began charting my cycles using the Creighton Model method. The longer we charted, the more trust I had in it. Not only did it teach us to manage our fertility, but we were encouraged to be mindful of all the various aspects of our relationship. As we learned to trust each other with our fertility, our trust in each other in general grew. I can honestly say that managing our fertility and seeing the dignity it brought to my marriage and my family drew me to the Catholic Church. When we were expecting our second baby, our FertilityCare office approached me, offering me a scholarship to become a practitioner myself.
Charting was much more than a different form of contraception. I learned the actual effects of artificial contraception on women, on marriages, and on the culture as a whole. I learned that the pill is a class-one carcinogen, and that it also weakens the lining of the uterus to cause early miscarriage in cases where conception manages to occur. Moreover, some forms of artificial birth control also disguise the symptoms of curable diseases, causing women not to get the treatment they need.
During my training, I fell in love with Humanae Vitae, the celebrated encyclical of Pope Paul VI. It explains God’s design for marriage and love, and presents responsible parenthood as a vocation we should take seriously and manage as good stewards. It promotes the dignity of all human life in a straightforward, no-nonsense way.
“Value of Self-Discipline” is one of my favorite paragraphs in Humanae Vitae. In it, periodic abstinence is not presented as easy. Instead, the encyclical encourages us to see the positive effects of periodic abstinence. Practicing self-control helps us to value ourselves and each other. A further benefit is the value children feel from growing up in a loving marriage that holds strongly to these truths. Says Humanae Vitae:
[Periodic abstinence] brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace. It helps in solving difficulties of other kinds. It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another. It helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity. It arouses in them a consciousness of their responsibilities. And finally, it confers upon parents a deeper and more effective influence in the education of their children. As their children grow up, they develop a right sense of values and achieve a serene and harmonious use of their mental and physical powers. (no. 21)
This moral training was providential to me because, until then, I had a very contraceptive mind-set regarding natural family planning. Although I liked NFP better than the pill because I wasn’t altering my body, I didn’t see the fundamental difference between the pill and NFP. I had to ask myself, “Why is artificial contraception a sin, but NFP is not?”
Pope John Paul II and Pope Paul VI acknowledge that there are many pleasures in sex but remind us that it has only two fundamental purposes: unity and procreation. Obviously, sex is how babies are made, but our society sees babies as a risk of sex rather than the blessed fruit of sexual union.
When we don’t accept both purposes of sex, we rob ourselves and our spouse of its wholeness, its life-giving power, and its total unity. In fact, we rob our spouse of his inherent human dignity by saying, “I like everything about you — except the way your body is inconveniently fertile.”
In his encyclical Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II puts this well:
When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, they act as “arbiters” of the divine plan and they “manipulate” and degrade human sexuality — and with it themselves and their married partner — by altering its value of “total” self-giving. . . . When, instead, by means of recourse to periods of infertility, the couple respect the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality, they are acting as “ministers” of God’s plan and they “benefit from” their sexuality according to the original dynamism of “total” self-giving, without manipulation or alteration. (no. 32)
Sexuality is a gift we give and receive in totality, holding nothing back, never using one another as a means to an end, but always going back to the two purposes of this sexual aspect of our relationship. When Shaun and I began charting, I managed our fertility as a burden instead of the powerful gift it is. I robbed my marriage during that time. In a letter to the director of the Centre for Research and Study on the Natural Regulation of Fertility, John Paul II writes:
In the act that expresses their love, spouses are called to make a reciprocal gift of themselves to each other in the totality of their person: nothing that is part of their being can be excluded from this gift.
Denying oneself isn’t always pleasant, but when done for the correct reasons, a husband and wife say to each other, “I cherish you, everything about you, so much that I would deny myself on occasion rather than alter you in any way.”
Contraception and natural family planning are worlds apart, and I’m grateful to have come to understand this in my Faith and within my marriage. Since we began practicing self-control together, stopped holding back parts of our personhood from one another, and worked responsibly as a team without denying God’s ultimate control, the peace and unity we have achieved is unlike anything we experienced before. We have become more giving, more loving, more accepting, and we aren’t afraid of our own fertility or of a method “failing” us.
Today, Shaun and I have been blessed with three wonderful children who are among the greatest sources of joy in our lives: Gabriel, Tristan, and Dominic. We have healed from the negative effects of contraception in our marriage and are thrilled to encourage others to discover the same freedom found in practicing true, authentic love with the use of natural family planning.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Patrick Madrid’s Surprised by Life: 10 Converts Explain How Catholic Teachings on Life Led Them to the Church, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.