IUDs: Secretly Awesome

by Belle Waring on February 8, 2012

Having gotten music all over the blog, I am now going to cover it with human blood. Intrauterine devices, whether copper only or with a progestogen-releasing cylinder, are actually the most common form of reversible birth control in the world. Most of the users are in China, however (2/3 according to Wikipedia). In the U.S., IUDs suffered a fatal blow to their reputation when the defective Dalkon Shield was released, causing at least 7 deaths and many septic abortions. It was pulled from the market in 1974, but the damage was done; as a girl I was never even informed about IUDs as a method of birth control.

That wasn’t totally unreasonable because they are less effective for women who have never given birth vaginally, being more likely to be expelled. I think there was also a misguided consensus that you couldn’t dilate a woman’s cervix enough to insert the device unless she had previously given birth. Today, as I understand it, manufacturers produce a smaller size to solve this problem.

I was on the pill for about 10 years. I always had trouble with it, experiencing breakthrough bleeding (basically you get your period twice a month, no thank you) and other various side effects including, in my opinion, exacerbation of depression. I got switched around to more types than I can remember in an attempt to find one that was acceptable.

Here’s what’s great about the copper IUD: no hormones! The copper makes your womb inhospitable to a fertilized egg, for reasons that I think are still somewhat unknown. So, maybe an egg is fertilized, but it can’t attach itself and begin appropriating resources to build a placenta. I’m not sure whether this counts as baby-killing to the anti-abortion crowd; probably yes, even though the definition of getting pregnant involves a fertilized egg implanting itself in your uterus. Not just, you know, hanging around briefly. (Do these people really think when they go to heaven they will be vastly outnumbered by the souls of fertilized eggs who failed to implant and were washed away during menses? That’s going to be some boring conversation right there. Will those little dudes be casting down their teeny, tiny golden crowns around the glassy sea? I call bullshit; I don’t think anti-abortion people believe that at all.)

Insertion of the device does hurt. It only takes a few seconds, though, and then you don’t have to do anything about it for several years. The main reason women have the device removed it that it causes heavier bleeding during their period. My experience was that this was (dramatically!) true at first, but that my body then adjusted.

Obviously the IUD does nothing to protect you from STDs. But it’s not competing with condoms in this area, it’s competing with the pill. Pregnancy rates are lower when using IUDs than when being on the pill, probably because it’s very difficult to be a perfect pill user. Guys may think it sounds easy: you take one a day, end of story. But sometimes you forget if you’ve taken it or not; actions repeated so frequently have a tendency to blur together. Or you end up staying out super-late and crashing at your friend’s place. In theory you’re meant to add condoms to the mix at that point until you start taking a new set, but in real life people often don’t bother. Part of the appeal of the IUD is that you don’t have to do anything.

My only jealousy now is of the new pills where you only get your period 4 times a year. That would be great! Let’s face it: getting your period is a pain. There’s blood everywhere! Who needs it? It’s true that it can be the most welcome sight in all the world, when you have been sitting there thinking you might be pregnant, and wondering what the hell to do about it. And suddenly these is a cadmium red solution to all your problems. Otherwise: lame. So, ladies, IUDs are great and you should consider them.

UPDATES: One commenter notes that although we don’t know how the IUD works, it seems to work primarily by inhibiting fertilization, and only secondarily by preventing implantation. So we all win, including the little dudes with the tiny crowns. Another commenter who survived a pregnancy while his/her mother was using an IUD wants me to point out that this is a possibility, and that grave birth defects can result. This is true, and something my doctor mentioned to me. The failure rate is incredibly low, but if the IUD does fail the consequences can be very serious for the developing fetus (if not fatal before the fetus is viable outside the womb, which is more likely).



mollymooly 02.08.12 at 12:31 pm

This is a useful post.

The excursus on abortion was distracting; one might have mentioned that IUDs are not compatible with life-begins-at-conception extremism and left it at that. Zygote metaphysics deserves a separate post or, better, nothing.


glenn 02.08.12 at 12:33 pm

Thank you, Belle. I will accept your words as Truth. And anytime I ever lament being my gender (dude, for the record), I will re-read your post.


marcel 02.08.12 at 12:58 pm

My college health center routinely inserted IUDs for (into?) girls who asked for birth control (mid-late 1970s), and I recall hearing about minor, occasional discomfort (I’m a mid-50s male). I don’t recall hearing about any issues that insertion was a problem if the girl had not previously given birth (no one I knew back then had, to my knowledge). Let’s hope that the smaller ones reduce the discomfort.


Belle Waring 02.08.12 at 1:15 pm

My OB/GYN is Indian, it’s possible this was a worry in India but not other countries.


abracadabra 02.08.12 at 1:17 pm

The information that I have on Paraguard says that the copper ions and the immunological response to them impair sperm function — from less formal sources, I’ve read that was everything from slowing them down to “making their heads explode” (more accurately heads detaching from tails) — and that with both Mirena and Paraguard the primary mechanism is to prevent fertilization of the egg. Of course, that does indicate there is a secondary mechanism: preventing implantation and no where is there any estimate of whether that is a 99% to 1% or a 51% to 49% split.


Adam Roberts 02.08.12 at 1:21 pm

Here’s what I recommend: vasectomy. Once you’ve had kids, there really isn’t a downside … or that has been my experience.


Kevin Donoghue 02.08.12 at 2:06 pm

“Do these people really think when they go to heaven they will be vastly outnumbered by the souls of fertilized eggs who failed to implant and were washed away during menses?”

Well they’d have to have been baptised, wouldn’t they? Most of them would have to settle for Limbo, at best.


Belle Waring 02.08.12 at 2:15 pm

Adam: it’s surprisingly hard to talk guys into this in many cases. The idea that they are “shooting blanks” disturbs them.
Kevin: the Catholic church did away with Limbo recently, and I don’t know that any Protestant denominations ever had it. It is at least the stated belief of many Protestant, anti-abortion folks that aborted “babies” end up in heaven. I mean, they’re clearly not going to hell, right? And they’ve got souls. Not many other options there.


Belle Waring 02.08.12 at 2:17 pm

I’m going to sleep; don’t y’all have a stupid argument about abortion while I’m gone. (Yeah, yeah, I should have thought of that before.)


dsquared 02.08.12 at 2:22 pm

The Wikipedia entry on Limbo is pretty entertaining reading for anyone who wants to see how totally twisted up in oneself it is possible to get while trying to make religious doctrines both consistent and non-repugnant. FWIW, apparently the current state of the art is that infants might have a shot at heaven, no comment on unimplanted blobs (or at least, no comment on that Wikipedia page).


Jim Henley 02.08.12 at 2:28 pm

I’d just like to say that all the ladyblogging about ladyparts and ladyissues only of interest to ladies around here lately has been awesome. I’m learning a lot from it.

But do IUDs go back to the veldt?


Rob in CT 02.08.12 at 2:29 pm

For me, it’s not about shooting blanks. It’s about having surgery and pain resulting therefrom (which, I know, makes me a huge wimp). Still, it’s better than my wife staying on the pill for another decade or so…


Marcellina 02.08.12 at 2:33 pm

I used a Mirena for 5 years, between 2005 and 2010. Insertion was bite-on-a-tongue-depressor-painful, and I had cramps for the rest of that day and the next. Otherwise, it was really a wonderfully convenient form of birth control. My doctor told me that some women stop having their periods altogether while the IUD is in, and that was the case with me — it virtually disappeared.
Having it extracted after 5 years was not as simple, however. It seems that my body was beginning to grow around it (I imagine this like a tree growing around and over an iron fence!) and it could not be removed at my Gynecologist’s office. Hospital day visit, full anesthesia. (Done in Europe, perhaps other regions would use local anesthesia.)
Perhaps not for everyone. I do know one woman who uses the hormone patch (this is depo provera in the States?) and is satisfied with it.


dairy queen 02.08.12 at 2:42 pm

I have an odd enough immune/hormonal system that I never considered the pill. Also, if the guys think shooting blanks sounds just awful – imagine spending decades with a major hormonal system in your body completely artificially controlled. No thanks! So used barrier methods for yonks ’til had achieved child. Then talked to (middle-aged, male, African American) Dr. re: having tubes tied. He said – No problem! One pre-requisite: your partner has to bring a note from my urologist colleague upstairs explaining why he can’t have a low invasion, outpatient vasectomy. Then we schedule away with your full anaesthesia, in patient abdominal surgery!

Here’s what happens when you have a vasectomy, as far as I can tell: it really hurts, like more than you imagined. Your partner brings you ice packs and you get loads of good drugs and sympathy. Then you heal surprisingly quickly and – – – totally carefree sex sex sex sex sex sex sex!!! It’s awesome.


BigHank53 02.08.12 at 2:48 pm

The pain, discomfort, etc resulting from a vasectomy is roughly equivalent to one average-to-bad period, based on the admittedly small sample of females I have dwelt with. I spent one afternoon on the couch with an ice pack, walked carefully the next day, and didn’t run or bicycle for ~3 days.


Joshua W. Burton 02.08.12 at 2:51 pm

Undifferentiated blobs: of course, the whole embryonic stem cell debate danced on the head of this pin. Is there any doubt that many Americans, at least, are life-and-death serious about it?

I realized many years ago that the old SF standby (Clarke’s Songs of Distant Earth, for example) of saving mass by sending fertilized eggs to the stars and growing them at the other end can be further optimized by using IVF surplus. After all, it’s a lot cheaper if you don’t grow them at the other end, nor waste reaction mass decelerating them, nor scouting ahead for a planet, nor terraforming and possibly disowning the prior occupants of said planet. Most of the universe is already hospitable to frozen blastocysts in their native state, and their potential lifespan fits the cosmos. Metabolism is a monkey habit; in a few trillion years we’ll have to get past it anyway. Why not start now?

Of course, “they never call, they never write.” That’s been the perpetual complaint of human parents ever since Cain moved to the land of Nod. Get over it and let go — they’ll be fine. Repurposing the old abbot’s harsh dictum to a gentler end, “let God sort them out.”

(And what about baptism? It’s not my fight, but putting myself in the place of a Roman Catholic soul whose mortal frame is a sixteen-cell embryo, I have to admit that after spending my entire existence, decades or millennia, experiencing nothing, due to total lack of a central nervous system, vitrified cytosol and zero metabolic activity, I would find Limbo an anticlimax. Perhaps there is a middle ground, however.)

ObIUDs: no one knows how they work, the Chinese government used to implant them forcibly, and 1970s models like the Dalkon Shield looked scary. Also, no continuing revenue stream.


G. Mcthornbody 02.08.12 at 2:56 pm

I think you meant to write, IUDs: Secretly Awesome


Elly 02.08.12 at 3:01 pm

I had an IUD for several years and was pretty happy with it. My husband, however, occasionally got poked by the tiny wires extending from it.

I totally agree with Adam Roberts: my husband had a vasectomy after our daughter (2nd child) was born. He was perfectly fine with it, since – compared to what I’d been through w/respect to pregnancy, childbirth and nursing – he acknowledged that the post-procedure swelling and discomfort represented a minor inconvenience, at best.

It’s sad that some men can’t see it that way, however. I recall participating in an online discussion thread started by a man who had some questions about the procedure (it was a private bodybuilding forum, and he wanted to know if it would inhibit muscle-building). Despite the reassurance of several other men who’d gone through it, a friend of mine jumped in to insist that he would never allow “sharp objects” anywhere near his balls. Talk about strident – nothing could cut through his resistance to even considering the idea… even though he was equally opposed to having children!


At any rate, my husband and I found it totally liberating to not have to worry about birth control – at all – anymore. If you’ve had kids (or have decided against ever having them) it’s the way to go, IMHO.


Dave W 02.08.12 at 3:07 pm

RE: Marcellina Depo is the shot, Ortho Evra is the brand name of the patch (I don’t know if there are generics available).

I work at a family planning clinic and we’ve seen a huge increase in demand for IUCs and hormonal implants, due no doubt in part to the national Bedsider.org and Ad Council campaigns.


Maria 02.08.12 at 3:12 pm

Funnily enough, I was at a coffee morning at the barracks today, and the talk was all about the Pill. The number of women who felt it had made them depressed / made their depression worse was surprisingly big. The coil is pretty popular, anecdotally, but if you want to be on-trend, everyone’s getting the hormone patch they put on their bum for 3 weeks in 4 (or more or less indefinitely if they want to skip their period.). It was an unexpected trip down memory lane for me, as what I want is the exact opposite to contraception. I am very pro-ception, in theory.

Then the talk turned to trying to get accidentally on purpose pregnant before the men all deploy next month. But just for laughs, folks, not for reals.


LizardBreath 02.08.12 at 3:26 pm

But do IUDs go back to the veldt?

I recall reading somewhere that they go back to camel drivers who would prevent their camels from getting pregnant on long trips by inserting pebbles. This is too good to check, so I haven’t googled.

God knows how the camel drivers got the idea: I suppose you can get really, really bored in the desert.


Nick Barnes 02.08.12 at 3:57 pm

We both had negative experiences with my partner’s IUD, and after a while these got bad enough that she chose to have it removed in a procedure which was neither straight-forward nor painless (in comparison my later vasectomy was a walk in the park). On the other hand I know several women who have had no trouble with their IUDs, so anecdote vs data.


JRoth 02.08.12 at 4:37 pm

I always said that we should schedule my vasectomy for the same time as the birth of #2, but my wife’s GP/OB/GYN said that, given my wife’s age, she might just as well get 2 IUDs (in succession, that is) to take her to menopause and be done with it. Since I didn’t really want surgery (I still have my wisdom teeth, even), I wasn’t going to argue.


Cahokia 02.08.12 at 4:42 pm

Posting on CT counts as a patent, right?
There should be a teeny tiny itsy bitsy valve for men. I mean easy and obvious right.


Anderson 02.08.12 at 4:55 pm

Will those little dudes be casting down their teeny, tiny golden crowns around the glassy sea?

Favorite sentence I’ve read all week.


Alex 02.08.12 at 5:07 pm

how totally twisted up in oneself it is possible to get while trying to make religious doctrines both consistent and non-repugnant

…and the enduring likelihood that someone, faced with this dilemma, will come down firmly on the side of Team Repugnant.


Henri Vieuxtemps 02.08.12 at 5:32 pm

Oh well. Back in the day – long time ago in a galaxy far far away – a lot of my girlfriends were using this thing, that was then/there called a spiral (short i, emphasis on a, soft l). Those were the days… Didn’t always work, as I remember.


Wrongful Birth 02.08.12 at 7:15 pm

Please look into birth defects. I was one of those rare fetuses who survives the IUD — only to be born with multiple serious birth defects as a result of sharing the womb with an IUD. This information seems to be omitted at the doctor’s office.


Antti Nannimus 02.09.12 at 12:23 am


The obvious solution to all of these problems is avaginal sex, if you know what I mean. There are several alternatives, if I’m correctly informed.

Have a nice day!


Belle Waring 02.09.12 at 1:26 am

Wrongful Birth: I’m very sorry to hear about your experience, and your family’s. I know that although the failure rate is low, it is not non-zero, and while most of those pregnancies fail (due to the IUD) not all do, and that birth defects can result when the growing fetus has to share the womb with a metal object. I agree that any doctor discussing this procedure with her patient should mention this possibility. Mine did, but said that in her practice so far she had delivered more babies with (natural) birth defects from unplanned pregnancies which occurred while using other types of birth control (for some value of using, but in practice people “using,” say, barrier methods are not really using them all the time.) I’ll update the post to reflect this.


Belle Waring 02.09.12 at 1:32 am

dairy queen: “Then talked to (middle-aged, male, African American) Dr. re: having tubes tied. He said – No problem! One pre-requisite: your partner has to bring a note from my urologist colleague upstairs explaining why he can’t have a low invasion, outpatient vasectomy. Then we schedule away with your full anaesthesia, in patient abdominal surgery!”
OMG I love this doctor.


Doctor Memory 02.09.12 at 4:12 am

Cahokia@(currently)24 — google for “vas-clip”. There have been a number of “valve” options for vasctomies tried over the years, with varying degrees of success.


wileywitch 02.09.12 at 6:38 am

Hmmm. I was told for years that I “couldn’t” get an IUD because I might want to have babies in the future and they didn’t want it on their conscience if I could not conceive because of an IUD. I found it much easier to get from women gynecologists and am keeping this one through peri-menopause and beyond.

ADHD and birth control that has to be taken daily is a bad combination.


dairy queen 02.09.12 at 7:02 am

Yes, he was great. Said he had gotten tired of hearing the same-old, same-old, and decided that at least in his own practice he just wasn’t going to be passively complicit anymore. Very light-hearted guy, actually, just lovely.


Salient 02.09.12 at 7:17 am

Having gotten music all over the blog, I am now going to cover it with human blood.

Pretty sure this is the best opening line to a blog post ever on CT ever.


mossy 02.09.12 at 10:36 am

I had a copper IUD in the 1970s that caused a massive infection. The infection spread to peritonitis and (most likely) caused secondary infertility. At the time they didn’t know all the contraindications. Later it turned out I had something like 5 out of 6 of them.
But now I live in a country where the hands-down most popular form of contraception is the IUD.
From which I conclude:
1. Great form of contraception for women who have had a child, have one partner, and don’t have any other contraindications (small and/or tipped uterus, etc.).
2. If you have any of the contraindications, you really shouldn’t use it. Really.
3. Because the things that can wrong with an IUD are really Big Things, if anything at all seems amiss, run, don’t walk, to your health provider.


MarkusR 02.09.12 at 1:43 pm

Wife has had one for years now and with her it helps with her periods. She doesn’t have them all that often anymore. Even if I get a vasectomy one day she may want to keep the device in her for that reason.


Ryan Miller 02.09.12 at 3:48 pm


I enjoy your writing, but I don’t understand why you feel the need to tell those of us who disagree with you about contraception and abortion what we do and don’t believe: you’d never stand for us making similar claims about you. I really do believe that every fertilized human egg is a baby human person, and that all of them will participate in a general bodily resurrection where those who did not commit unrepentant, grave, intentional sin will spend eternity with their Lord, Jesus the Christ. That’s the orthodox Christian doctrine. If you want to say that we’re crazy, I’ll empathize and engage with argument, but it’s really not very productive to say that we don’t believe it.


Belle Waring 02.10.12 at 12:50 am

Well Ryan, I agree that was rather uncharitable of me and I am willing to accept that you believe this if you say you do, so I apologize to you. In general, however, I think that most people opposed to women’s being able to get abortions are much more concerned with policing women’s sexual behavior than with saving ensouled creatures. The most obvious example is the rape exception. If what exists inside that woman’s body is one of god’s dearest creatures, it hardly matters how it got there. No one supports a right to infanticide if the child were conceived in a rape. Similarly, I think I may fairly say that if your view is an orthodox one, Christianity is way crazier than I was led to believe…at my Episcopalian girls’ school. Because probably 1/3 of implanted pregnancies will fail naturally, and I really don’t think anyone has a very good handle on how much of the time an egg is fertilized and then fails to implant. We really are talking about a world in which god creates a vast share of his human children in the form of multi-celled embryos which are then killed before reaching anything approaching sentience. I’m sorry, but that’s just a very strange way of going about things. No stranger than us killing one another all time time from a certain way of looking at things, but I always took that to be a result of our sinful nature (and there are innocent victims, naturally). Those little zygotes haven’t had a chance to do anything even in the category of moral act, so I suppose they’re just fallen as well (which seems not unlikely but is, if I may say, uncharitable on god’s part.) If heaven is a real place where you get to bask in god’s glory, what are these things meant to do? They appear to lack even future basking abilities. Sorry for saying it’s too crazy to believe since clearly some people believe it, but I reserve the right to say it sounds crazy full stop.


John Quiggin 02.10.12 at 1:07 am

Vasectomy is definitely a good choice in the right circumstances, almost always better than tubal ligation for a stable couple with a completed family. I’m told there is some chance of reversing it if the need arises, but you wouldn’t want to bet on that.


Helen 02.10.12 at 1:23 am

I think I may fairly say that if your view is an orthodox one, Christianity is way crazier than I was led to believe…at my Episcopalian girls’ school. Because probably 1/3 of implanted pregnancies will fail naturally, and I really don’t think anyone has a very good handle on how much of the time an egg is fertilized and then fails to implant. We really are talking about a world in which god creates a vast share of his human children in the form of multi-celled embryos which are then killed before reaching anything approaching sentience. I’m sorry, but that’s just a very strange way of going about things.

When you think about it, that’s a good Catholic argument *for* the IUD. Because if every fertilised egg is a clean little soul who never gets a chance to “…commit unrepentant, grave, intentional sin”, they’ll all get to Heaven. Therefore we’re really giving them the best chance for eternal bliss possible, as opposed to my sinful and unregenerate children who were allowed to be born and then do heaven knows what naughty things (I don’t know, I don’t follow everything they do on Facebook). If they’d been IUD’d before they’d had a chance to implant, they’d be golden.


Helen 02.10.12 at 1:26 am

If heaven is a real place where you get to bask in god’s glory, what are these things meant to do? They appear to lack even future basking abilities.

A lot of people seem to be convinced that potential people who are never born are able to regret never having been born (the “I’m sure you’re glad your mum didn’t abort you, hmmm hmmmm argument), so the limits of space and time and sentience are obviously transcended on the Other Side to a degree to which we godless humanists aren’t privy.


malilo 02.10.12 at 4:01 am


Why do you believe that every fertilized egg is an ensouled creature? Just curious. It’s not like god actually answered that one with any sky-writing or anything. The record for the Catholic church is all over the place historically, but generally settles around the time of “quickening” which puts ensoulment solidly in the several months-post conception time-frame.

As to IUDs-

I got one after experiencing a failure with a nuvaring. I decided it was time for something that Really Worked so I wouldn’t have to go through a (very early, medication-based) abortion ever again. I’m on my second and while I’d much rather go hormone-free, I can’t for irregularity/pain reasons. The dosage tapers from 20 mcg/day down to less than half of that by the end of 5 years, and I could tell the difference (e.g., sadness for no reason) at the beginning of each. The first one was actually a trial for a lower-dose (3year) version of mirena that I liked very well.

Final note: if you get a Mirena, the chances of pregnancy are very low. But some large (50%?) fraction of those rare pregnancies are ectopic, and thus emergency situations. Still worth it. (Especially the no periods part. So F-ing Awesome.)


Belle Waring 02.10.12 at 4:14 am

“A lot of people seem to be convinced that potential people who are never born are able to regret never having been born.”
When trying for our first child John and I used to joke that this endless array of potential babies were wearing ‘nonesies.’ Onesies for the non-existant. And then one of them would get picked. “Yay, I’m going to become actual!” And the other hypothetical ones would clap or curse as their hypothetical characters decreed. All clap, I suppose, stipulatively.


Emma in Sydney 02.10.12 at 4:50 am

As a strictly non-hormonal-contraceptive user, can I just say that the various menstrual calendar apps available for the iPhone are extremely useful, and I wish something similar had been around when I was younger and more likely to be worried more often. In fact, Period Tracker is one of the most useful apps on my phone.

And I’d like to warn younger women that menopause can happen a lot later than you expect, so don’t let your partner get out of that vasectomy with ‘Well, it’s only a couple of years till we won’t have to worry’. Ten and counting, in my case.


Joshua W. Burton 02.10.12 at 2:11 pm

Ryan Miller @38:

I really do believe that every fertilized human egg is a baby human person

Or two baby human persons, if you poke the blastocyte just right in the first 48 hours or so. (So, if you change your mind and decide not to do that, do the two souls flip for it?)


Ryan Miller 02.10.12 at 3:20 pm


I agree that many “pro-life” activists don’t share this position, but it is the basis for the Catholic Church’s opposition to direct abortion in all cases (including extremely controversial ones e.g. ectopic pregnancies).

In terms of theodicy, I won’t make light of that as a general problem for theists, but I’m not sure how this adds much to the problem in a world where basically everybody dies of dehydration, starvation, injury, or disease at some point, whether a day post-conception or 100 years post-conception.

As for the future basking, resurrected bodies are odd things–we definitely don’t know much about how they work, except that they seem to have both natural and supernatural capacities, and have had injuries brought up to glory (e.g. Christ’s wounds). How that works for those who never developed full bodily capacities, whether due to abortion of pregnancy or those born with severe developmental disabilities, is very hard to say.


Ryan Miller 02.10.12 at 3:21 pm


Except Catholics aren’t consequentialists–see Veritatis Splendor for reference to our deontic virtue ethics.


Ryan Miller 02.10.12 at 3:29 pm


The Thomistic view is that the soul is not some kind of extra-physical infusion but rather the form of the body itself. Before modern biology, I guess it was pretty unclear when the developing organism had gained its form, so “quickening” was a good guess. The modern moral view is actually a response to modern biology–we know that the zygote has its complete genome, and therefore its body has form, at conception. Ergo, it’s a baby human person.


Ryan Miller 02.10.12 at 3:32 pm


Again, the soul is just the form of the body, so once there are two bodies there are two souls. Before there were two organisms, there was only one soul. It’s all just Aristotelian hylomorphic metaphysics :)


Salient 02.10.12 at 8:21 pm

Catholics aren’t consequentialists

…which, together with the assertion that a human life forms at conception but not earlier, makes their condemnation of all forms of physical contraception all the more astonishing. (Admittedly, I don’t really understand how anyone can square in their minds defending to the ends of the earth the rights of a conceived cell once it implants, but not care about the countless cases where even in the absence of an IUD a fertilized egg is expelled from the body. Don’t those fertilized eggs have every bit as much a right to life, if they too are babies? Why are we supposed to shrug off implantation failure?)

I don’t think we should let the Catholic apologetic’s standard “we’re just looking out for the baby’s interest once the baby has formed” assertion stand unquestioned until they’ve offered a pretty thorough explanation of why this implies we all should neither ever go on the pill nor ever insist on using a condom. (That might be worded badly. Modify as needed.) Why should we make any attempt to accommodate the demands of a group to have authority over our sexuality, or more generally, over how we use our own bodies? Why should we trust them when they claim they’re restricting their attention strictly only to protecting what they see as a baby, when that conflicts with other parts of their own professed doctrine?

Anyone who wants us to take their claim to be a baby-defender seriously needs to first demonstrate they’re not in any sense anti-sexuality, and since the official formal doctrinaire Catholic position is not pro-baby nearly so much as it is anti-sex (or specifically anti-nonprocreative-sex), the Catholic apologetic will have no small amount of work to do to convince us that we can trust them to respect, defend, and uphold our right to sexuality while also defending the rights of entities they perceive as human.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t bother to bring it up if this issue hadn’t suddenly just become so, uh, salient, here in the U.S.


Salient 02.10.12 at 8:25 pm

Shorter: I’ll take Catholic apologetics’ condemnation of IUDs as baby-killers more seriously once I see them promoting condom and pill use as reliable non-babykilling alternative contraception. ‘Til then, even if they aren’t consciously adopting doctrinaire anti-sexuality, they might as well be.


bianca steele 02.10.12 at 8:35 pm

I once went so far as to read the first pages of a recent Catholic argument, IIRC intended as part of a legal brief, that “life” ought to be considered to start at conception, rather than at “quickening” which has been considered the start of life for most religions for several centuries. A significant part of the argument depended on language in the first chapters of elementary biology textbooks, which tended to use words like “miracle,” “this is where the glorious story of life begins,” and so forth. This rhetoric was used as evidence that biologists believe the (current) Catholic view themselves, and that such a view is therefore supported by science.

I find myself unable to say that such arguments struck me as being in especially good faith.


bianca steele 02.10.12 at 8:37 pm

On unborn children applauding when one of them makes it down through the chute, see The Blue Bird. (Actually don’t, really, it’s not very good.)


bianca steele 02.10.12 at 9:49 pm

Also, obviously we should keep this clean, but I assume we all know perfectly well the religious basis for the prohibition on barrier methods of contraception. Why this doesn’t apply to calendar-based methods, IIRC, is because a good marriage is important. Why this doesn’t make women 12-times a year murderesses, however, is another question. I suppose we could say it all goes back to Eve and rest satisfied with that.


roy belmont 02.10.12 at 11:03 pm

Ryan Miller-
There are twins who share more than gene-symmetries, who share limbs, organs, anatomical systems – conjoined twins. The more non-threatening versions of this naturally-occurring phenomenon are the ones most distant from each other, Chang and Eng etc., whose commonalities are minimal and individualities distinct and nearly “whole”. The closer the twinship the less comfortable consensus realitarians get, including especially theological dogmatics. It may be that the urgency toward separation on the part of surgical heroes, aside from the prowess demonstrated and some kind of compassionate remit, is from a need to eliminate living proof of the inaccuracy of consensus views of individuality. Views which saturate the theological arguments about conception and contraception.
There are twins whose conjunctions are so nearly complete as to be superficially invisible, and so close to the bilateral symmetries of singleton anatomy as to be indistinguishable from it. Parapagus diprosopus. The medical professionals who delight in separating conjoined twins, making them “normal” are of course stymied when the conjunction is so nearly complete. It’s where they stop looking. But these are real people nonetheless, neither one person nor two. Solomon’s babies.
Conjoined twins are rare enough, and the merged conjunction far rarer still. Which has meant the pontificating of theologians generally hasn’t been impeded by these examples of real humans who won’t fit in the schema. But there they are, neither one nor the other.
There are gender-mixed people as well, who aren’t one or the other, but both, physically and “spiritually”. Intrasexuals. Not homosexuals. Not an orientation. Not a “choice”. Rare, odd, unusual, but real, and no more morally determined than the color of your skin. Natural anomalies.
In the old days, they would more than likely have been treated to the educational opportunities of the stake, condemned as witches or the devil’s spawn, if they weren’t hidden by loving family from ignorant zealots whose delusional ideas were refuted by the simple though very unusual presence of people who are neither one person nor two persons. The Judeo-Christian world-view seems to have no room in it for freaks whose God-given nature is a confoundment of priestly delusions.
It seems as though the valence of conception/soul/morality founders similarly. Life begins at conception. Mostly, sort of. Though if sperm aren’t alive they sure do a great impersonation.
More accurately – “Life” “begins” at “conception”.
It’s like trying to fix property boundaries along a river. It works great on a map, but go down there and draw your line of demarcation. Bring a snorkel. It’s a convenience, a pragmatic solution to a human problem. It isn’t precise enough to determine the progress of a soul into eternity, not without essentially bludgeoning something delicate and unnameable into an ill-fitting box.
And it’s got as much to do with divine will and the true nature of human existence as the sun going around the earth did, back when the Pope thought that was what was what.


Ryan Miller 02.11.12 at 7:27 pm


I don’t know that we do shrug off implantation failure (see: opposition to hormonal birth control as an abortifacient), but in the natural case what are we to do about it?

The condemnation of contraception is part of the Catholic understanding of the marital relationship. I don’t understand the logic that Catholic stance on contraception leads to an increase in abortions–why would you keep a derivative rule if you’re going to ignore one of the first order? Again, not being consequentialists, the question is what actions are permitted, not what lesser evils we should tolerate. Evil *may never* be done in the service of a greater good.

In short, why can’t one say that abortion is murder, and that contraception makes otherwise licit sex illicit?


Ryan Miller 02.11.12 at 7:28 pm


On what grounds do you think that a fertilized egg is not a new organism?


Ryan Miller 02.11.12 at 7:31 pm

Bianca @55,

I genuinely don’t understand. Contraceptive sex is wrong, but it isn’t murder. Choosing not to have sex at a particular time is a human right, not murder. An unfertilized egg is not a person, and therefore its expulsion is not a moral problem of any kind…


Ryan Miller 02.11.12 at 7:38 pm


Conjoined twinship and intersexuality both deserve much more compassion and study than they currently receive. But the existence of hard cases doesn’t exactly make biologists stop talking about organisms and their sex, either.


Salient 02.11.12 at 8:45 pm

In short, why can’t one say that abortion is murder, and that contraception makes otherwise licit sex illicit?

You most certainly can, but others are free to deem you a moral monster for your position on what you call `illicit’ sex, and can use that as perfectly legitimate ad hominem justification to not give your opinion about abortion any particular credence or attention, and to justify not making an effort to include you in any conversation about public policy for either topic. In which case you’d be entirely free to complain about that, on some variant of “just because I happen to be [perceived as] a moral monster about contraception doesn’t mean I’m wrong about the issue of personhood” grounds. In other words, you’re free to argue that ad hominem is a logical fallacy. In which case I’d counter-argue that the declaration “we ought to consider a fertilized egg a baby person” is a declaration of axiomatic moral principle (you can’t prove a fertilized egg is a “baby person” when the whole point is to choose a definition for “baby person”), and if we’re trying to decide whether or not to take your declaration seriously, literally the only thing we have to go on is an ad hominem evaluation of your overall moral code. So your moral judgments in other contexts really are an appropriate thing to request and assess, especially your moral judgments regarding the topics of sexuality and reproduction, which are, no pun intended, intimately related to the question of when independent personhood begins.

If we were going to give weight to your opinion on the “baby person” definition without resorting to ad hominem, we need to be able to be comfortable that you’re withholding as much as possible, and expressly not advocating for, any of your other moral principles. That’s really not the case here.

On the other hand, this is all basically a technical/formal argument. Consider, I’m still around and listening/reading, so just because I can’t in good conscience take your assertions of anti-abortion arguments on good faith doesn’t mean I’m encouraging you to shut up or even ignoring you. I’m not even providing any real argument for, or description of, my own competing moral code. And I would be surprised and a little bewildered if you didn’t think my moral code is monstrous (or whatever word you’d prefer), so it’s safe to assume there’s some reciprocity in how we feel.


bianca steele 02.11.12 at 11:49 pm

I don’t want to debate your memory of your undergraduate coursework, and Belle did ask for this not to become an abortion thread.

I distinguish a fertilized human ovum from a human person in the same way I distinguish an acorn from an oak tree and a chicken egg from a chicken. It’s pretty simple, really, and I’m the argument “a person may reasonably be imagined by considering a genome” is fairly astonishing on its own, much less as theology.


Salient 02.11.12 at 11:58 pm

Longer reply having been moderation-trapped and probably for good reason, I’ll satisfy myself with the pithier response, “Declaring that ‘contraception is evil’ is evil, and that evil calls into question any other allegation of evilness that person might make.”


Peter T 02.12.12 at 11:43 am

OT I know, but my rusty and incomplete understanding of medieval theology is that they largely had no problem when there was a discrepancy between the facts of the real world and the facts as depicted in the bible. Since god made the world, and god does not lie, then the error was in human understanding of the bible – the relevant bit was not meant literally, but in some non-literal sense (this procedure was rejected by protestants, who mostly insisted on biblical literalism). So confronted with a heaven largely populated by fertilised but undeveloped ova, embryos and so on, they would have likely revised their view on the the relationship of bodies and souls. There seems to have been more theological commonsense around seven centuries ago than now.


Henri Vieuxtemps 02.12.12 at 1:01 pm

Personally, I don’t mind a heaven largely populated by fertilised but undeveloped ova. To me, their main problem is the free will paradox; the idea that the supernatural omniscient, omnipotent being somehow shares the universe with free agents that it itself created. Extremely arrogant view, I must say. But nevertheless predetermined. They should drop their ‘free will’ heresy once and for all, and then there is no problem whatsoever: anything and everything people do is fine.


piglet 02.12.12 at 4:46 pm

“Again, not being consequentialists, the question is what actions are permitted, not what lesser evils we should tolerate. Evil may never be done in the service of a greater good.”

Excuse me? I had no idea they had abandoned Just War doctrine.


bianca steele 02.12.12 at 5:54 pm

Back on-topic, one year I traveled overseas twice, and the second time the pill just stopped working, apparently, even though I think I did everything right, didn’t miss a dose, and didn’t get sick. The only thing I could think of was that the place where we were traveling maybe fed hormones to livestock.

I liked the mixed progesterone-estrogen pills, in terms of mood and weight related side effects, but more breakthrough bleeding. We found a brand and dose that seemed good, then my new insurance wouldn’t pay for them and recommended instead what seemed to be a higher dose, and it took a while to find a better one that insurance would cover. I think I may have been paying out of pocket before the insurance change, but ignoring the insurance company never seemed to occur to me or anyone else as a possibility.

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