I recently came across Laurie Shrage’s New York Times opinion piece, “Is Forced Fatherhood Fair?”

Shrage’s piece is an interesting take on the legal options that fathers facing unexpected pregnancies—or, as Shrage, a professor of philosophy and women’s and gender studies at Florida International University, calls them, “accidental pregnancies”—have vis-à-vis women’s options.

The article merits reading in its own right, as the structure of legal parenthood is a worthy topic unto itself, but a particular line towards the end of her piece caught my eye for different reasons:

In consenting to sex, neither a man nor a woman gives consent to become a parent, just as in consenting to any activity, one does not consent to yield to all the accidental outcomes that might flow from that activity.

The view expressed here is such an impoverished one that one scarcely knows what to say, especially to a philosophy professor.

One becomes a parent by conceiving a child. One (typically) conceives a child through an act of intercourse. So, Shrage is arguing that conception—which is the fruit of and thus can be fairly paired with fertility—is “accidental” to the act of intercourse.

Catholic moral philosophy states that the structure  of human actions derives from the intent of the agent executing that action and is not determined simply by the “natural” structure of that action itself. So in this sense, an “accidental” pregnancy is simply an unintended pregnancy.

But one gets a sense reading Shrage’s piece that she believes fertility to be truly accidental to intercourse—intelligibly separable from it and optionally coupled with it, on occasion.

She explicitly acknowledges a corollary: Parenthood—as a fruit of fertility—is also separable from the decision to sleep together.

Thus the cycle is complete: Sex, children, marriage and family are all accidentally related rather than intrinsically related through choices, actions and intentions. These things may occasionally mingle, but they bear no essential relationship to one another. There's no integrated core that unites them.

Thus the typical decision to sleep together remains a reciprocally self-directed action. John Paul II called such sexual encounters, closed to the gift of life and even fearful of it, “mutual masturbation.”

Masturbating is one of the most selfish things a person can do. America’s children suffer dearly for our adult selfishness, or perhaps more fairly, thoughtlessness; a type of thoughtlessness perpetuated by the recent push to institutionalize intrinsically sterile couples’—same-sex couples—relationships as “marriages.”

If the “object,” “point,” “design” or “nature” of intercourse doesn’t involve the conception of a child—which is exactly what does happen when a man and a woman sleep together unless they introduce truly “accidental” factors into the equation or suffer from a biological pathology—what is it about?

Dr. Mark Regnerus’s answer from his wry Public Discourse piece on the modern meaning of sex comes to mind: It’s about the recreation.

Yet it occurs to me that the widespread cultural dismissal of such an obviously intrinsic consequence of sex (conception) can only stem from a willful substitution of what Regnerus calls “the crowning glory of natural human creativity”—that is, fertility—with a vision of sex as a functionally sterile, but enjoyable, leisure activity. Like playing tennis on a warm day, or going to the spa, only more pleasurable. The same in type, but better in degree.

The underlying assumptions of Shrage’s piece raises the question: What concrete steps can society take to reestablish a vision of human sexuality that embraces, rather than seeking to obviate, human fertility?

One might begin with some reading. John Paul II wrote beautifully on this topic in his Theology of the Body addresses, and he expresses a vision of human sexuality that has been embraced by Christians and others alike.

Forced fatherhood, and a whole host of complicated legal and political problems—not to mention the truly terrifying prospects that most young children face now in our broken sexual, marriage and family cultures—could be subverted by returning to the basics.

Our discussions about absent fathers or partial birth abortions (a true misnomer, by the way) or the HHS mandate’s coercion of religious employers would be more fruitful if we included in them a consideration of the real sources of problem, rather than diagnosing and arguing about symptoms.

We need more cultural and especially religious consideration of this simple question, generally broached in so many religious circles and yet formally undermined by so many religious perspectives on contraceptives:

What has fertility to do with sexuality?