I am a family practice physician who stopped prescribing any form of birth control two years ago. What a relief that was! I was finally able to go to work each day without feelings of anxiety and guilt, which had been my constant companions for many months. Still, it took several trips to the confessional before I felt forgiven for the years that I had ordered contraceptive shots and written out prescriptions for “the pill.”
I have to admit I have also struggled with taking full responsibility for the decision to start prescribing contraceptives in the first place. While always believing that it would be wrong for me to personally use birth control, I never really thought prescribing it was an evil.
I was trained amid a culture that specifically instructs medical providers to keep one’s personal beliefs and opinions out of the patient encounter while offering all medically reasonable options; the abortifacient activity of these agents was downplayed; I didn’t encounter any physicians pointing out that contraceptive use was wrong; there was no Catholic Medical Society for students; I don’t recall any homilies teaching about the Catholic position on birth control.
And so, I would like to place some of the blame elsewhere, but that too would be wrong. Ultimately it was my duty to educate my conscience. However, we are told in the catechism that this education is aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the church. We need that witness. We need that teaching.
I won’t tell you what to do — that is for you to decide. But I will tell you this: You cannot materially cooperate with evil. These paraphrased words of my parish priest were instrumental in my finally choosing to do the right thing.
Prior to that discussion, I had not considered myself truly cooperating with evil, but I was. Immediate material cooperation is a positive action that is essential for the performance of the evil act, while not in agreement with it. Writing the prescription that enables the patient to obtain the contraceptive is immediate material cooperation.
While it is true that I never agreed with the sinful action, I was a key participant in it. I was not under duress (though that may come with the federal Health and Human Services mandate), and it would be wrong to justify my actions by arguing that if I didn’t write the prescription someone else would.
I am encouraged to see the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and our local archdiocese promoting natural family planning this week. I am happy to hear that The Catholic Medical Students’ Association of the Twin
Cities was established last fall. I hope that more of our priests will be willing to tackle tough issues in their homilies.
Perhaps I would never have started prescribing if I had priests, teachers, medical faculty or other mentors speaking out about Catholic values and teachings. Then again, maybe I never would have stopped prescribing if it hadn’t been for one priest who was willing to tell me that it was wrong.
Schimnowski is with the Stillwater Medical Group.