I wanted to write a blog on this issue, because I think there is a lot of misconception surrounding this issue in part because of the complexity of the argument. I’m using Edwin Hui’s work from, “At the Beginning of Life: Dilemmas in Theological Bioethics.” Hui speaks of “meanings” and not “acts” per se. This get’s a little complicated but essentially what Hui is doing here is looking at the unitive and procreative question which is important to the question of natural family planning. I put Hui’s long quote below, but if it were to be broken down into point form it would look like this:
A. The unity (between persons) and procreation are related/connected to the sex act.
B. There are unitive meanings to the sex act.
C. There are non-unitive meanings to the sex act.
D. There are procreative meanings to the sex act.
E. There are non-procreative meanings to the sex act.
F. The meanings BETWEEN the procreative and NON-procreative are not symmetrical.
G. The procreative meanings are inseparably attached to the sex act.
H. The non-procreative meanings can be expressed in other ways.
I. Whenever people express BOTH the unitive and other non-procreative meanings through the sex act, the PRO-CREATIVE MEANING is necessarily involved.
J. This does not necessaryily lead to babies.
K. To insist on the inseparability of the unitive and the procreative is not warranted.
L. This does not equally justify the use of AID and ARTs.
M. The sex act is the natural way to achieve procreation.
N. In AID and ART procreation is separated from the sex act. Hence…
O. The unitive and the procreative act are necessarily separated from the sex act by removing the procreative–one can have love making without baby making.
P. Love making without baby making is not the same as baby making without love making.
Q. Separating baby making from the sex act through contraceptives one artificially induces human life.
R. Separating baby making from the sex act through AID and ARTs on automatically creates human life a life God may not have intended.
Here is Hui’s quote.
“Unitive and Disconnecting the Unitive-Procreative Link
Most people appreciate the value of preserving the union-procreation link, but at the same time they recognize that an unqualified acceptance would entail a proscription of AID, other ARTs and even contraceptives. Some writers reason that while prima facie these two distinctions of human sexual intercourse should be preserved within the marriage, there may be situations in which it is still moral to separate the two functions. Specifically, it has been argued that even nature regulates the woman’s ovulatory cycle in such a way that procreation is not always possible while the couple can engage in “love making.” The use of the rhythm method for birth control takes advantage of nature’s scheme, and it is not seen to have cheapened love, procreation or parenthood. In response to this, I agree that the rhythm method or the Natural Family Planning method are superb examples of successful attempts to separate making love from making babies without intentionally severing the unitive and procreative link. But this is quite different from taking oral contraceptive for years to achieve the same purpose. The former takes advantage of what nature allows, whereas the latter “cheats” nature out of what she disallows.
Protestant ethicist Stanley Grenz takes a more philosophical approach and argues that there is no intrinsic connection between the unitive and procreative aspects of the sexual act. He sees in the sexual act several meanings beyond union and procreation, including a sacramental significance symbolizing God’s mysterious love and a token of the couple’s mutual submission and self-giving.
He observes that all these meanings are not inseparably connected to the pro-creative meaning of the sexual act but maintain importance apart from it. On that basis, he concludes that the unitive-procreative connection is not inseparable and that technological assistance in procreation may be welcomed as God’s gift, although he expresses reservation about any third-party involvement. I agree with Grenz that all the non-procreative meanings of the sexual act are not necessarily connected with the procreative meaning, and I also agree that even the unitive meaning may be dissociated with the sexual act and hence with procreation. This is so because all meanings, including the unitive but excepting the procreative, can be expressed in ways other than through the sexual act, although the sexual act most often brings with it the fullest unitive experience. By contrast, until the advent of modern ARTs, the procreative meaning could only be expressed through the sexual act. In other words, the relation between the sexual act and its procreative and non-procreative meanings is not symmetrical: the procreative meaning is exclusively and inseparably tied to the sexual act, yet all the other non-procreative meanings can be expressed in other ways.
This asymmetry implies that as long as people decide to express any of the non-procreative meanings through nonsexual acts, these meanings will have nothing to do with procreation. But whenever the unitive and other non-procreative meanings are expressed through the sexual act, the procreative meaning is necessarily involved. Indeed, if the sexual act is the most ultimate expression of the unitive meaning and if the couple decides to express it through the sexual act, then the unitive and procreative meanings are necessarily inseparably connected. This is not to say that all sexual acts will lead to pro-creation, for love-making acts do not always lead to baby-making—for instance, during certain periods in the menstrual cycle, in advanced age and in people inflicted with infertility. However, this does not change the conclusion reached above because in these instances, the procreative function is either temporarily or permanently disconnected from the sexual act. Hence, to focus on the inseparability of the unitive and procreative meanings of the sexual act, as some Catholics do, is certainly unwarranted; but to argue that these two aspects are separable and therefore AID and other ARTs are automatically justified is equally misconstrued. The real focus is on procreation itself. In the natural order of things, the sexual act is the only way to achieve procreation.
Making babies can only come about through making love. If AID and other ARTs are to be justified, one would have to show why procreation can be ethically separable from the sexual act, and show this not merely by demonstrating that the unitive and procreative aspects of the sexual act are separable. In this context, the contraceptive technology has artificially separated the normally connected unitive and the procreative aspects of the sexual act by removing the procreative aspect from the sexual act itself, so that it is now possible to have love making without baby making: that is a couple can express unitive meaning through the sexual act without the procreative consequence.
Some argue that if the use of contraceptives is morally justified (which has yet to be established here), then the use of ARTs should likewise be justifiable. The catchy phrase goes like this: If contraceptives can let us have love making without baby making, why can’t we use ARTs to have baby making without love making? It is true that both contraceptives and ARTs are able to disconnect the sexual act from procreation and that both are artificial technologies. But are the similarities sufficient to justify ARTs? Even if contraception is justified or permitted, it does not automatically follow that ARTs would likewise be justified or permitted, for two things that share some common features are not necessarily equivalent, either materially or morally. Indeed, upon closer inspection, the differences become stark. In disconnecting the sexual act from procreation, contraception artificially induces a state of infertility; and in so doing it artificially prevents the procreation of a human life. ARTs on the other hand, by disconnecting the sexual act from procreation, take over the procreative function of the sexual act and artificially create life. It is evident that the two artificial technologies are radically dissimilar in nature and thus in their respective moral status as well. In the use of contraception, the sexual act is impoverished by the removal of its procreative significance if undertaken within the marital bond, is abused if the sexual act is undertaken outside of the marital bond and is degraded if the unitive aspect is absent. I conclude that the use of artificial contraceptives frustrates God’s desire and will to hand out the gift of a life; but in the use of ARTs, the sexual act is rendered superfluous for procreation, and thus human procreation is degraded to the product of scientific innovation rather than the fruit of human intimacy. In this instance, God is asked to accept the child when he has not given that gift of life.”