Contra the Contraries on Contraception

The ostensible motive behind opposition to contraception has two fundamental components: 1) the belief that the primary purpose of sexual activity is reproduction, and 2) the belief that life begins at conception and that anything which interferes with the natural development of concepti is therefore murder. Let’s break this down, shall we?

A random glance at online sources informs me that the likelihood of a woman becoming pregnant from any single act of sex is probably in the 15% to 25% range. Of course, this is dependant upon any number of factors—where the woman is in her menstrual cycle, sperm count of the man, etc. While fertile, a woman’s body releases one egg a month, but even if fertilized, the likelihood that said egg will successfully implant into the wall of the uterus and start developing is probably around 50%.

I don’t think you get to say that the primary purpose of sex is reproduction if sex only ends in some attempt at reproduction 25% of the time. I mean, the primary purpose of one’s lungs is the intake of oxygen and the expulsion of carbon dioxide. The fact that I have yet to pass out as I write this tells me that my lungs are working at a fairly high rate of efficiency. Likewise with stomachs, the primary purpose of which is the breakdown of food into chemical components for use of the body. Granted, there have been occasions when my stomach has failed to do this, but this seems to be more the case of me having overlooked the expiration date on some can than a systematic breakdown of the digestive process—I can reasonably say that the stomach has completed its task 99% of the time, gas station burritos included.

Now, I had a friend who, for a university engineering class, was able to get a passing grade on a model elevator that worked beautifully 90% of the time but failed miserably and killed all the riders the other 10%. But sex as a method of reproduction doesn’t even rate that at its miserable 25% success rate (and that’s assuming the fantastically high levels of health and nutrition of the Western world). Saying that the primary purpose of sex is reproduction is like saying that the primary purpose of toasters is hammering nails into wood. Sure, I can probably hammer a nail into something with my toaster at the same 25% success rate, but my local hardware store is not about to stock them just because of that.

More and more research leans in the direction of perceiving sex as, first and foremost, a means of social cohesion in human beings and related animals. Interestingly, this view helps explain homosexuality, which you find in a number of species. In a hierarchical society such as that of chimpanzees, in which access to females is restricted to those at the top, homosexuality can actually serve an adaptive purpose by helping to provide a sexual outlet for non-dominant males and thus aid in social cohesion, keeping those males within the group. Sex as pleasure and social bond is arguably more a part of the survival of the species than sex as reproduction.

Secondly, let’s look at the idea that life begins at conception. A while back, in light of new proposed legislation across the states attempting to enshrine a definition of personhood as beginning at conception, I developed an analogy to explore some of the legal and philosophical absurdities I see as inherent in this project. Like all analogies, it no doubt has some imperfections, but it does compare life processes to homebrewing, so it has that in its favor.

After all, beer, like life, is hard to define. The old German Purity Law held that beer was composed of only barley, water, hops, and yeast. However, there are long-standing traditions of wheat beers, and other cultures have introduced rice and maize into the mix. (German trade negotiators have, in the EU, tried to pass measures limiting the label of “beer” only to those items which conform to the old purity law—as if to pretend that they have the only longstanding brewing traditions around.) Therefore, my operative definition of beer for this particular thought exercise is: “Beer is the result of combining grain, water, hops, and yeast in such a way as to produce a beverage with a modicum of alcohol.” (Of course, all true beer lovers know that beers vary wildly, but this catches all of them from the two-percent alcohol “lite” beer to the fifteen-percent barleywine.)

Now, the way that this is done is that your grain product and your hops are boiled in water for a set amount of time and allowed to cool before yeast is added in. Before the yeast is added, what you have is called “wort.” The added yeast consumes the sugars that were in the grain product and metabolizes them into alcohol and carbon dioxide, resulting, over a period of time, in what can be called beer.

At what point does wort become beer? After all, our operative definition of beer is not based upon a certain alcohol content. Therefore, one could conceivably (no pun intended) make the argument that beer begins at fermentation, when the first yeast cell produces the first molecule of alcohol—at that point, the substance does literally have an alcohol content, thus meeting out definition of beer. Never mind that you would need a mass spectrometer to detect such an infinitesimal amount of alcohol—it is undeniably there.

And here is where we hit our legal absurdities, for if this substance with its 0.000000000000000001% alcohol is defined as beer, then it must be a controlled substance. That means that, if my underage nephew sticks a straw in the fermenter and sips away, then I’ve contributed to the delinquency of a minor and can be jailed. Or, likewise, I can sell it in liquor stores, never mind that the overconsumption of my product will not result in the slightest drunkenness whatsoever.

Does beer begin at fermentation? (In other words, are we defining beer, something which has been on this planet for thousands of years, according to scientific equipment which has been in existence for less than one hundred years?) Or is there instead some magic point we cannot necessarily point to at which beer begins, before which it is but potential beer? Is beer instead in the eye of the beholder or recognized by the consensus of the community?


One comment

  1. […] such as the surprise pregnancies which pile on when one adheres to Natural Family Planning. (I have discussed before some of the irrational assumptions underlying the church’s opposition to contraception.) I […]

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