The Immorality of Sterilization
Why does the
Church teach that sterilization is wrong?
addressing the morality of sterilization, we must first remember that
each person is a precious human being made in God's image and likeness
with both a body and a soul. Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on
the Church in the Modern World asserted, "Man, though made of body
and soul is a unity. Through his very boldily condition he sums up in
himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus
brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise
freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his
bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold
it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last
day" (no.14). St. Paul also reminds us that our bodies are temples of
the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19) and therefore we should not degrade our
bodily dignity by allowing the body to participate in the act of sin.
Moreover, such sin hurts the body of the Church.
are responsible to care for our bodily needs with proper nourishment,
rest, exercise, and hygiene. A person must not do anything to purposely
harm the body or its functions. For example, at times, we take medicine
— over-the-counter as well as prescribed — to preserve our bodily
health. However, we must not bring harm to our body by abusing
legitimate drugs or using drugs known to be harmful.
arise when a person may need surgery. To preserve the well-being of the
whole body and really the whole person, an organ that is diseased or
functioning in a way that harms the body may be removed or altered. For
instance, surgery to remove an appendix that is about to rupture is
perfectly moral as is surgery to remove a mole which appears to be
"pre-cancerous." However, cutting off a perfectly healthy hand, thereby
destroying not only that bodily part but also its functions, is an act
of mutilation and is morally wrong.
brief outline of principles, we can turn to sterilization. Here a
distinction is made between direct and indirect sterilization.
sterilization means that the purpose of the procedure was simply to
destroy the normal functioning of a healthy organ so as to prevent the
future conception of children. The most effective and least dangerous
method of permanent sterilization is through vasectomy for a man and
ligation of the fallopian tubes for a woman. Such direct sterilization
is an act of mutilation and is therefore considered morally wrong.
Regarding unlawful ways of regulating births, Pope Paul VI in his
encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) asserted, "Equally to be
condemned ... is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the
woman, whether permanent or temporary" (no. 14). The Catechism
also states, "Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical
reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations
performed on innocent persons are against the moral law" (no. 2297).
sterilization is morally permissible. Here surgery, or drug or radiation
therapy is not intended to destroy the functioning of a healthy organ or
to prevent the conception of children. Rather, the direct intention is
to remove or to combat a diseased organ; unfortunately, the surgery or
therapy may "indirectly" result in the person being sterilized. For
instance, if a woman is diagnosed with a cancerous uterus, the
performance of a hysterectomy is perfectly legitimate and moral. The
direct effect is to remove the diseased organ and preserve the health of
the woman's body; the indirect effect is that she will be rendered
sterile and never able to bear children again. The same would be true if
one of a woman's ovaries or if one of a man's testes were cancerous or
functioning in a way which is harmful to overall bodily well-being. The
caution in this discussion to uphold the morality is that the operation
is truly therapeutic in character and arises from a real pathological
further caution must be taken concerning the rights of the state in this
area. Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Casti connubii (1930)
warned, "For there are those who, overly solicitous about the ends of
eugenics, not only give certain salutary counsels for more certainly
procuring the health and vigor of the future offspring, ... but also
place eugenics before every other end of a higher order; and by public
authority wish to prohibit from marriage all those from whom, according
to the norms and conjecture of their science, they think that a
defective and corrupt offspring will be generated because of hereditary
transmission, even if these same persons are naturally fitted for
entering upon matrimony. Why, they even wish such persons even against
their will to be deprived by law of that natural faculty through the
operation of physicians."
Pope Pius XI
was prophetic in his teaching, since shortly thereafter the world
witnessed the eugenics program of Nazi Germany which included massive
sterilization of those deemed "undesirable." In our world, various civil
governments still toy with the idea of sterilization to solve welfare
problems. Perhaps we may reach the point where health insurance
companies pressure individuals to be sterilized rather than risk having
children which may require high care.
Paul II warned in his encyclical The Gospel of Life (Evangelium
Vitae) of "scientifically and systematically programmed threats"
against life. He continued, "we are in fact faced by an objective
'conspiracy against life,' involving even international institutions,
engaged in encouraging and carrying out actual campaigns to make
contraception, sterilization, and abortion widely available. Nor can it
be denied that the mass media are often implicated in this conspiracy,
by lending credit to that culture which presents recourse to
contraception, sterilization, abortion, and even euthanasia as a mark of
progress and a victory of freedom, while depicting as enemies of freedom
and progress those positions which are unreservedly pro-life" (no. 17).
Catholic teaching on this issue respects the dignity of the individual
in both his person and action.
Rev. William. "The Immorality of Sterilization." Arlington Catholic
is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.
Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame
Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Queen of Apostles
Parish, both in Alexandria, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight
Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father
Saunders is also the author of
a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in
Copyright © 2002