Digest of terms
across civilisations interventions to control birth go back hundreds if not thousands of years, with the use of special potions, compilations of leaves, and animal bladders, but it is only in the course of the last century that the means of doing this have become consistently reliable. They include preventative barriers to conception such as the male condom, the female coil, or the hormonal pill for male or female. They also include post-coital aids such as the 'morning-after pill', which are in effect abortifacients (abortion). Ethical debate generally, even across religions, favours the availability and use of contraception for the many reasons of limiting family size, avoiding unwanted children, reducing risks of infection from sexually transmitted diseases, and controlling population increases.
The conspicuous exception is the Roman Catholic Church, whose strict ban on the use of contraceptives, even as a means of combating the spread of AIDS, is seen by critics as morally outrageous, and a blight on the prospects of poorer countries and communities. The ban derives from a worldview which affirms the distinctive moral worth of a life once conceived, so exclusive emphasis is placed on methods of pre-conceptual birth control. However, among the richer populations of Western Europe and the United States, for example, the ban is widely disregarded as Catholics exercise their individual conscience.
Globally, the challenge of overpopulation is widely judged to be a greater challenge than the timing of an intervention. Similarly, concern to avoid the distress and cost of foetal abnormality being brought to full term weighs heavily given that monitoring and detection of such is so much more feasible. Even so, the issue of the absolute or relative integrity of the fertilised embryo has not gone away.