4. Catholic doctors and the AMA resolutions on contraception 

Summary: Chapter 4

Catholic Doctors and the Resolutions of the AMA on Contraception

In this chapter we will study the relationship that the Catholic doctors of the United States maintained with the Report that the Committee for the Study of Contraceptive Practices issued in 1937, and the causes that originated the institutional Resolution that approved those practices.

At first, we will analyze the role played by some Catholic doctors, as members of the Committee, in the production of the Report. We will then consider the reactions of the associations of Catholic doctors and some theologians to the AMA Report.

When dealing with both aspects, it must be borne in mind that, seven years earlier, Pope Pius XI had promulgated the encyclical letter Casti connubii. There the Pontiff had confirmed with great vigor the condemnation of artificial contraception, a traditional condemnation in Catholic Church, since it had remote antecedents in the Magisterium and took for granted its general embrace by the Catholic faithful. But, as will be shown in the body of this chapter, that was not the position adopted by some members of the AMA Committee whose status as Catholics was publicly known.

In 1936, the Chamber of Delegates of the AMA published the Resolution of the Committee for the Study of Contraceptive Practices in which the institutional refusal to control births was maintained. There were two Catholics among the five members of the Committee: John Rock and George Kosmak, who were among the most prominent gynecologists at that time. In addition, two other of its five members had studied at Catholic universities, and were teaching or had taught at some of them.

Months after the Committee had presented its Interim Report in 1936, the Board of Directors decided to expand the number of its members to nine, adding another four, of whom one was Catholic, to the five already in office.

As already indicated in Chapter 3, the Committee Report of June 8, 1937, signified a radical shift in the AMA’s position towards contraception. Even though the position had been rejected as unfit for medicine, it came to be included among the resolutions adopted by the AMA.

How can one reconcile the strong presence of Catholics in the Committee with the presentation of a Report whose content and conclusions were in marked contradiction with the firm and well-known moral doctrine of the Church of Rome?

G. Kosmak, despite his asserted notoriety as a practicing Catholic, never held a position fully consistent with the Church’s teaching on contraception. On the contrary, he assumed an increasingly active role in the effort to recognize contraception as a province of medical activity.

John Rock, despite his notoriety as a Catholic, was throughout his long career an active promoter of contraception as the responsibility of the doctor. His discrepancy with the doctrine of the Magisterium never caused him problems of conscience.

It has to be concluded, therefore, that the label of “practicing Catholic” or “devout Catholic” assigned to Kosmak and Rock does not take into account their ideas about contraceptive practices.

Clearly the new attitude of the AMA represented a strong contradiction to doctors and moral theologians interested in the ethics of medicine who had embraced the teachings of the encyclical.

Two days after the approval of the 1937 Resolution by the AMA, the Catholic News Service spread the news, dated June 10, that the Federation of Catholic Medical Guilds, meeting in Atlantic City, had issued a Declaration strongly condemning the resolution. This Declaration affirmed that the Catholic doctors refused to align themselves with colleagues who subscribed to a pagan philosophy and who tried to turn them into the gravediggers of the nation or, by means of abortion and euthanasia, into the nation’s executioners. And it added that “the practice for any reason of artificial contraception perverts the moral order, causes mutual distrust in the spouses who use it; its use for medical reasons undermines the virtues on which Christian civilization is founded.” It concluded that “No human need can confer on the doctor the right to take life or prevent it … Whatever the legal rights might be today or in the future, the Federation affirms that legal rights are not necessarily moral rights, since it is not uncommon to find that they are in direct opposition to the rights of God.”

At the same time, the disapproval of moral theologians was added to the condemnation of the doctors. Among them Father Cox, SJ, Professor of Ethics at Fordham University. Besides rejecting the decision of the AMA as “a new advance of the pagan ideology on life in its origin and in all its phases, which has produced a worldwide sentiment that does not agree with reason or common sense,” Father Cox proposed the creation of a “Legion of Decency” to combat the producers of contraceptives and doctors who approve their use.

Nor did one have to wait long for the reaction of the Executive Committee of the Catholic Association of Hospitals. In its resolution of June 18, 1937, it requested the AMA to clarify the confused situation created by the discrepancies between the AMA’s report and the press headlines about the resolution and the recommendations of the Chamber of Delegates. The Catholic Hospital Association (CHA) recognized that the AMA had altered its position on contraception, but found that the Resolution was imprecise on many points, which prompted it strongly request that the AMA define precisely what its attitude was. In addition, the CHA refused to accept that the Resolution was an authentic expression of the opinion of all the members of the Chamber of Delegates. As expected, given the policy of the AMA, the request of the Catholic Hospital Association remained unanswered.

Logically, condemnations by the members of the episcopacy of the United States were not lacking either.



Author: Gonzalo Herranz, University of Navarra.  Email: gherranz@unav.es


The full chapter upon which this summary is based is available in Spanish only. Click here…