Artificial Insemination: St. Augustine’s Ideal Sex Act?

The Catholic magisterium considers artificial insemination to be wrong, even in the case of a wife being artificially inseminated by her husband.  As Donum Vitae argues, “artificial insemination within marriage cannot be admitted except for those cases in which the technical means is not a substitute for the conjugal act, but serves to facilitate and to help so that the act attains its natural purpose.”

But, in re-reading book XIV of Augustine’s City of God this week, I began to wonder whether Augustine would share the magisterium’s condemnation of the procedure.  In fact, it seems that artificial insemination bears a very strong resemblance to the way that Augustine thought sex would have occurred before the Fall.  To understand why Augustine thinks this way, we must first understand his theory of original sin’s impact on human nature.

While Augustine strongly believed that there would have been procreation before the Fall (10; 23), he thinks that sex is different after the Fall than it would have been for Adam and Eve before it.

For Augustine, the first sin was an act of prideful disobedience (13;14), the punishment of which was disobedience itself (15).  After the Fall, the subordinate parts of the human person (the passions and the body) would similarly disobey the higher part of the human person (the rational mind).   What would have come easily to the human person before the Fall–good order (that is, obedience) and internal harmony–is now difficult and in many cases even impossible (16; 19).

The effect of original sin on the human person is nowhere more evident than in humanity’s bondage to lust.   Now, it is very important to note that Augustine uses the word “lust” in a very different way than we would use it.  For Augustine, “lust” is not simply disordered sexual desire, such as objectifying sexual desire, but sexual desire itself (17).  In other words, lust is any time a person “feels” sexual desire in her body before deciding rationally to engage in sexual intercourse.  This is “evil” precisely because it is an example of the inferior body refusing to be ruled by the higher rational soul, which was the cause of sin in the first place.  Sex is a prime example of disobedience both because  during sex, “the pleasure is so intense that when it reaches its climax there is an almost total extinction of mental alterness;” in other words, “the intellectual sentries, as it were, are overwhelmed” and also because sexual desire can cause the genitals to disobey or act without the consent of the mind (16).

If you are still unsure why Augustine considers this to be “evil,” think of it as being akin to a soldier acting without being first told to act by his captain or any subordinate acting outside of the command of his superior.  Even if a soldier violates the chain of command in order to do something that seems like no big deal to a civilian, it is still a very big deal. Similarly, it is bad for the rational mind to be disabled by pleasure just as it would be bad for any person in charge to be distracted from his job as watch keeper and overseer. In other words, because both of these events violate the chain of command (rational mind over passions and rational mind and passions over body) that is a prerequiste to good moral and cosmic order, they are evil (23).

Importantly, Augustine thinks that lust, even when it occurs in the context of marital sexual intercourse, is even worse than anger because anger is an example of the higher part of the soul (the reason) failing to govern the lower part of the soul (the passions) while lust is an example of the soul failing to govern the body.  Because the body is further down the chain of command than the passions–the passions are still a part of the soul–the body’s disobedience will be inherently much more evil than the disobedience of the passions.  Importantly, since sexual desire and the orgasm are evil effects and signs of the Fall, neither would have been present before the Fall.

For Augustine, it seems also that the mechanics of the “procreative act” itself would have been different before the Fall than they are afterwards.   Before the fall, Augustine believes that “the man would have sowed the seed and the woman would have conceived the child when their sexual organs had been aroused by the will, at the appropriate time and in the necessary degree, and had not been excited by lust (24).”  Without sin, the genitals would “begin their activity at the bidding of the will, instead of being stirred up by the ferment of lust.”  It is important here to consider just how different, both in sensation and in function “arousal by the will” would be from the more usual sense of “arousal,” which refers to something more more deeply embodied and sensory that what Augustine is imagining.  In case we don’t get what he is saying, he states explicitly that  a Christian man “would prefer, if possible, to beget children without lust of this kind (16).”  Again, remember that “lust” here is not desire for immoral sexual acts, but orgasm as well as any occasion in which the rational decision to have sex came after the physical desire for it.

Moreover, in my reading, Augustine is not simply bemoaning the human person’s tendency to “think with their genitals” and therefore get themselves into all sorts of sexual trouble (ahem, Congressman Weiner).   He seems also to be condemning something intrinsic to sex in our post-lapsarian world.  To truly grasp the difference between Augustine’s sexual ideal and that of the contemporary church, think, for example, of how different most marriages would be if people never had sex in response to an embodied desire for it or if they never had let themselves have an orgasm and instead only had sex when they were trying to conceive a child.  For some couples, this might mean they only have sex 4 or 5 times in their entire marriage.

Even more, while Augustine certainly believed that procreation took place before the Fall, I am not sure that he thought sexual intercourse occurred, at least not if we consider penetration to be included in the defintion of sexual intercourse. In reading Augustine’s description of “sex” before the Fall, it is important to keep in mind that his depiction of pre-lapsarian sex is based not on his understanding of biology, but on his understanding of sin, an understanding that remains deeply influential in the modern church: he thinks “sex” should be this way because sin is this way too.

Before the fall, Augustine argues,

“the sexual organs would have been brought into activity by the same bidding of the will as controlled the other organs. Then, without feeling the allurement of passion goading him on, the husband would have relaxed on his wife’s bosom in tranquility of mind and with no impairment of his body’s integrity. Moreover, although we cannot prove this in experience, it does not therefore follow that we should not believe that when those parts of the body were not activated by the turbulent heat of passion but brought into service by deliberate use of power when the need [to procreate] arose, the male seed could have been dispatched into the womb, with no loss of the wife’s integrity, just as the menstrual flux can now be produced from the womb of a virgin without the loss of maidenhead.  For the seed could be injected through the same passage by which the flux is ejected…the two sexes might have been united for impregnation and conception by an act of will, instead of by a lustful craving (26).”

Now, I could be wrong here, but it is hard to imagine how “sex” could leave a woman’s “integrity” (by which he means hymen) intact and still be truly penetrative.  What Augustine seems to be describing is not just sex without sexual desire and/or orgasm, but also sex without penetration.

Notice what else is missing in Augustine’s description of sex: it expresses neither love nor friendship nor does it serve to unify a married couple and strengthen their marriage bond.   This is of course is very different from the way the contemporary church thinks of sex.  Ever since Vatican II (and only since Vatican II) the church maintains that sex serves both a procreative as well as a unitive function.  While Augustine thinks that friendship and companionship was one of the three “goods” of marriage, he did not think these were reasons or outcomes of sex.  Sex was only for procreation.   Moreover, even setting this difference aside, it is very difficult to imagine sex of the kind Augustine idealized–devoid of passion, spontaneity, ecstasy, and the vulnerability that accompanies loss of control–having much of an ability to bond a man and a woman together permanently in any significant way.

Moreover, that Augustine thought sex was purely procreative also makes me wonder what he would think about a woman’s menstrual cycle, since, unlike many other mammals, women’s fertility or proceptivity is hidden.  For example, in some species, females are generally only sexually active during a certain number of days per month, when they are “in heat”.  Human women, however, are both able and willing to have sex any day of their menstrual cycle and one cannot tell just from  looking at a human female when she is ovulating like we can with many species of animals.  I wonder then if Augustine would think that the particulars of a woman’s menstrual cycle are fallen in the way a man’s procreative processes are.   If a woman is to have sex only to produce a child, then it would seem strange either that she is able and willing it  to have sex on infertile days or that (at least until very very recently) it is very difficult to tell when a woman is fertile.  Note that for Augustine, our ability to track a woman’s fertility should be used not to enable married couples to have sex without conceiving a child but so that a couple can successfully have sex only when a woman is fertile.

Furthermore, in my opinion, the belief that the particulars of a women’s menstrual cycle is not fallen but deeply natural and theefore revelatory of God’s will for human sexuality is an assumption underlying contemporary roman catholic prohibition of artificial contraception.

In summary: Augustine thinks that before the Fall, “sex” would have the following characteristics: one, it would occur only for the sake of producing children; two, it would have been devoid of orgasmic or intense sexual pleasure (for men, this would be mean that ejaculation would not be accompanied by orgasm); three, it would have been the result not of sexual desire but of a rational decision; four, it would not have punctured a woman’s hymen and therefore would not be penetrative; and five, it would take place in a “tranquil state of mind.”

In light of all this, I think you can see why I think Augustine would have rather liked artificial insemination.  One, artificial insemination is for the sake of procreation in a way that sexual intercourse is not–while married couples (even those using natural family planning) have sex for reasons other than procreation, it is hard to imagine why a married couple would engage in artificial insemination for any reason except the desire to conceive a child. Two and three, while the donor male may experience sexual pleasure in the process of making his donation, ejaculation for the sake of artificial insemination is a perfect example of the body obeying the mind and is therefore much closer to Augustine’s ideal or order and obedience than the ejaculation which occurs in sexual intercourse.  In other words, in participating in artificial insemination, a man does not spontaneously feel sexual desire and then act on it, as certainly happens when married couples have sexual intercourse, but makes a decision and then gives an order which his body compliantly obeys.  In the case of the woman who is receiving her husband’s donation, she most definitely does not experience orgasmic pleasure.  And four, it is not penetrative–a woman can be artificially inseminated and still keep her hymen intact, and five it is possible for artificial insemination to occur in a “tranquil state of mind” in a way that sexual intercourse cannot.

Thus, it would seem that, if what Augustine says about sin and its effects on human nature are true, then the way husband and wife have sex (an activity highly praised by the contemporary magisterium) is not the fulfillment of God’s intentions for God’s beloved creation but is instead the punishment we have inherited from our originally sinful forbearors.  Put another way my thesis becomes a question: can we hold on to Augustine’s theory of sin and its effect on human nature while jettisoning his belief that even marital sexual intercourse is rightly considered to be a cause for shame?

6 thoughts on “Artificial Insemination: St. Augustine’s Ideal Sex Act?

  1. Well and interestingly argued Katie. Very simply put, after 3 theology degrees and (more importantly) 30+ years of marriage, I find Augustine’s view of married sexuality to be utterly divorced from any lived pastoral or spiritual reality. Maybe Augustine too needs to be read through the lens of contextual theology

  2. An intact hymen? Talk about “greatly increased pains”! How would Augustine expect the baby to come out in prelapsarian relaxation? Or did he never even think of it from the female’s point of view?

  3. Yes, Augustine was right. They did disobey. But what was the disobedience? For a surprise, do a search: First Scandal.

    • Hi Robert,
      I must confess that I am not quite sure what you are getting at. Could you explain what you mean in a little more detail please?

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