Body Narratives: Language of Truth?

Mary Shivanandan, MA, STD

The views of Pope John Paul II and Emily Martin, the feminist author of the article that forms the basis of my paper, converge in a remarkable way. Both challenge the Western liberal point of view. Both seek to present another view of reality that is suppressed by Western liberalism. Both focus on human reproduction as adversely affected by a partial view of reality. Because there is such a convergence and because Martin's ethnographic analysis offers unique insights into contemporary thought patterns, her article deserves careful analysis. While Christian anthropology and especially the theology of the body as articulated by John Paul II finds the feminist solution as unsatisfactory as the solution proposed by Western liberalism, nevertheless Martin has provided a critical method that can illuminate the Christian perspective.

This paper will review first Martin's critique of Western liberalism, then her evaluation of medical texts that describe the male and female reproductive systems. This will be followed by an evaluation of natural family planning instruction manuals which offer a different description and interpretation of men and women's procreative powers. Finally an alternative Christian view, based on John Paul II's theology of the body [1] will be presented.

Critique of Western Liberalism

As an anthropological ethnographer, Emily Martin deals with a variety of world views. Her interest lies in identifying what she calls "embryonic flashes of visions of social worlds that fly in the face of hegemonic conceptions."[2] She gives as an example the laments Chinese women sing at weddings, which express the sadness at women's plight in Chinese families and kinship structures. Martin, with some other anthropologists, calls such expressions opposing the reality of the dominant or hegemonic group "resistance." While claiming "resistance" as evidence of alternative views of reality and the power of the human spirit to resist domination, Martin notes that some anthropological critics reject this view. Rather, they maintain with Michel Foucault that forms of power instead of being repressive are actually productive. These forms of power provide the means of civilized life and their influence extends throughout the whole of society from education to the military. Any resistance can function only within the orbit of the dominant civilization and tells us not so much about human freedom as about power and power relations in the society.

Martin categorically rejects this interpretation of resistance. At the same time she notes a generally accepted view among the opinion makers of our culture of the impossibility of breaking out of the boundaries of Western liberal thought and action. She cites several articles and books that begin with the phrase "The End of... ," among them, Francis Fukuyam's The End of History and the Last Man, 0. B. Hardison's Disappearing Through the Skylight, and Bill McKibben's The End of Nature, all published in 1989. [3] Common to these books, according to Martin, is a "profound denial of the possibilities of human agency to sustain the potential for fundamental social and cultural change." Fukuyama sums it up when he claims the ultimate victory of the Western "idea" which encompasses "the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."[4] Western liberal/capitalist civilization is marked in his view by economic calculation, concern over the environment, unlimited technological solutions to problems, and gratification of ever increasing consumer demands. He predicts the "total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives."[5]

Martin finds McKibben' s perspective, especially in The End of Nature, equally distorted. It extols a view of the natural environment in North America before the arrival of the Europeans as one of "pristine beauty" that has been degraded by our civilization. Now we live in a "post-natural world" in which there is no corner that has not been transformed artificially by man.[6] No recognition is given, she counters, to alteration of the environment before European settlement.

But she reserves her severest judgment for Hardison and his book, Disappearing Through the Skylight. He, too, is consumed with environmental gloom, seeing the price of modern man's success as the spoliation of the earth and its creatures. Man, himself, will be replaced by a "silicon-based creature" of pure intellect. Hardison prophesies that this "silicon life (which he extols) will be bodiless, telepathic, immortal."[7] Martin exclaims:

"What is denied here? What is not denied! This vision denies the possibility of any form of human social life that is not voracious and destructive, it denies the body, it denies the death of the body and the coming to being of new bodies."[8]

Her response is to try even harder to discover other ways of living in the world that have existed before ours or coexist with ours and so break out of the "iron cage."

Reproductive Textbooks

It is not surprising, in light of Hardison's views especially, that Martin should single out human reproduction in her search for a sphere where alternative interpretations might surface. It embraces the sphere of the body in an intimate way; it is the source of new human beings; it deals directly with male/female relations; and knowledge of its processes has been greatly expanded by science.

Martin has specialized in studying scientific knowledge and the way it commends its particular woridview. She sees such knowledge as presenting itself as "natural fact" and in doing so imposing a particular vision of hierarchical relationships. Combined with her interest in scientffic knowledge and the way it is conveyed to the public, Martin has a narrower interest in the ways the body is depicted both scientifically and otherwise. She is particularly concerned with the effect that the magnification of internal bodily functions has on social processes. As we shall see this magnification has a direct bearing on her own feminist bias.

As a way of testing the responses to current educational materials on human reproduction, she arranged for a fIlm, "The Miracle of Life" made by Lerinart Nilsson, to be shown to a group of young men in a white, working-class community center, many of whom had dropped out of school. The test was designed both to bring out the effect of such films, especially with their magnification of internal bodily processes, on a somewhat marginal group in society and to explore any alternative responses the young men might have. Martins analysis of the young men's responses is revealing, but it tells us as much about herself and her own worldview, especially her advocacy for abortion rights, as it does about the young men's spontaneous reactions.

Martin came to her observation of the community group after surveying the main textbooks for medical students over the past few years at Johns Hopkins University. Her analysis has relevance not only for her own research but also for an alternative view of reality that she does not even consider (except negatively) - the Christian view of the body and procreation. Because it is highly pertinent, her analysis will be reviewed in detail. In these texts she discovers a consistent bias toward depicting the male reproductive system in positive language and the female in negative. From this discovery she argues that it imposes in a so-called "neutral" context a distorted hierarchical relationship between male and female. What she fails to observe is that her own endorsement of abortion presupposes its own distorted hierarchical relationship between mother and child and affects her analysis of the texts in question.

There is much to commend Martins interpretation of the texts: for example, she uncovers the troublesome tendency in these texts to exaggerate the differences between male and female, with preference given to male dominance. On the other hand, it is equally dangerous to underplay such differences, as Martin does, especially with regard to the woman's role in bearing new life. As we shall see when we discuss natural family planning (NFP) instruction manuals, there is a way to give due weight to differences without destroying the equality between male and female.

Martins first criticism centers on the reductionist nature of the metaphor used, that of "the production of valuable things." From this viewpoint, the woman's cycle is seen as designed to produce eggs and the uterus to nurture them when fertilized "to the end of making babies." Menstruation is viewed as a failure of the production system. Martin cites words ascribed to menstruation such as the "debris" of the uterine lining, "losing,""dying", "denuding" to make her point.[9]

On the other hand the male reproductive process is described in glowing terms, using phrases such as "the remarkable cellular transformation from spermatid to mature sperm;" the "amazing" characteristic of sperm production, particularly its "sheer magnitude in producing millions of sperm a day." By contrast, the female process is described as shedding only one egg per month. The female author of one text marvels at how "this feat (of producing millions of sperm) is accomplished." No such enthusiasm or awe is accorded the female reproductive system. (Again we shall note later the contrast with NFP instruction manuals.) In line with the metaphor of production, Martin notes the "marked contrast" one text makes between the continuous production of sperm in the male after puberty and the fact that the female is born with all the eggs she will ever have. While the male produces fresh sperm the female's eggs can only degenerate.[10]

Martin also discovers that the texts impute masculine and feminine stereotypes to the sperm and the egg, and that they describe the nature of their relationship as hostile. Passivity is attributed to the ovum. If the passive voice is not actually used as in the egg "is transported" or "is swept" into the fallopian tube, then it "drifts." On the other hand active verbs describe the sperm. "Streamlined" with "strong" tails they have velocity; they "activate" the developmental process of the egg by "burrowing" into its coat and "penetrating" it.[11]

Martin sees these descriptions as cultural interpretations. There is some recognition of the queenly status of the egg in describing it as having a "corona" or crown and accompanied by "attendant cells."[12] Furthermore the egg coat or protective barrier behind which the egg is hidden is sometimes called a "vestment" which has religious connotations. But the royalty attributed to the ovum Martin sees as overshadowed by the passivity imputed to it. The egg must await rescue by the sperm, which are on a "mission."

The well-known book, co-authored by Jonathan Miller, The Facts of Life, describes the "perilous journey" of the sperm through the vagina and uterus. Many of the sperm will fall back exhausted while others will survive to "assault" the egg. Miller relates the perils of the journey to the "hostile environment" of the vagina. This is to ignore the fact, well known to NFP practitioners, that the cervical mucus during the fertile period protects the sperm from the acidity of the vagina, which would otherwise kill them within one hour and nourishes them in the cervical crypts for three to five days.[13] A National Geographic photographic caption calls sperm "masters of subversion," perpetuating the image of attack and defense. Again sperm are called "foreigners in a hostile body."[14]

Martin finds many other examples in articles both popular and scientific of "virile images" of sperm and a passive egg that floats through space. This is usually expressed by strong verbs such as bombarding or drilling into the egg. She cites a cartoon on the cover of Science News showing sperm attacking the egg with a sledgehammer, a pickax, and a jackhammer.

Curiously, the most recent lab research on human reproduction reverses these images, Martin fmds. The sperm have only weak tails and tend to swim in circles rather than travel purposefully toward the egg. Instead, the egg captures the sperm with adhesive molecules on its surface, preventing the sperm's escape. Once again no recognition is given to the role of cervical mucus in nourishing the sperm and aiding motility by providing channels for the healthy sperm to swim up through the uterus to the fallopian tube. In the new lab version, according to Martin, "the egg comes to be described as an engulfing female aggressor, dangerous and terrifying." Here again we see negative adjectives used for the female)[15]

Martin is troubled by the whole thrust toward pushing back the boundaries of the body to the cellular level so that no matter what the intentions of the couple, within their bodies a "cellular 'bride' (or 'femme fatale') and a cellular 'groom' (or her victim) make a cellular baby."[16] She has hit upon a truth that is uncomfortable for radical feminists who endorse abortion. As John Paul II would say, the body has its own objective language no matter what the couple intend. Martin is only too aware of the implications of applying personhood to the human being at the cellular stage. Certainly, as a discussant of the paper later points out, in the Victorian era a tiny homunculus was pictured in the head of the sperm and Martin corroborates that the practice of picturing sperm with a complete miniature human being was common from the seventeenth century, since it was believed that the sperm provided all the human characteristics and the egg only the nurturing environment. It is one thing the sperm and/or the egg as fully human and another to disregard the personhood of the baby at conception.

Martin recognizes that modern biological texts do not make this but limit themselves only to ascribing masculine and femiaracteristics to the sperm and the egg. She appears to have even with that as well as with what she considers disviews of male and female characteristics of the egg and the One of the questions we are seeking to answer in this paper is whether the body, even at the cellular level, tells us something about masculinity and femininity and their relation to each other. If John Paul II says, the body expresses the person and body and soul are a unity, the process of human reproduction or rather procreation is likely to tell us something significant about masculinity and femininity even at the cellular level.

In showing the film The Mirade of Life to the group of young adults at the community center, Martin studied both the "ideological effect of biological images" and the possibility of interpreting the scientific images differently and so creating an alternative reality. The students while watching the film were awe-struck by what goes on inside their bodies and expressed an initial concern over "messing it up when you drink." Later as if taking a cue from the leader it is unrealistic to link wearing tight jeans with what goes on inside body (i.e., its effect on infertility). The community leader raised the issue of abortion from the effect of seeing the images of embryos. When one young woman puts up her hand, she is shot down by the leader who says she held that view before. It is almost as if the students are being guided to a specific alternative reality, one that endorses abortion. [17]

The students spontaneously pick up on the hostility the narrator the injects into the relationship between egg and sperm. When he comments that the woman's immune system attacks the sperm and they have to stick together to prevent it from being killed, one young man compares his description to "revolutionary war." Another found a discrepancy between the representation as an "invasion" and the common view of conceiving a baby.

When you think about a baby you don't think about invasion, or it coming out of an invasion, you think about it coming together. At least that's the way I always thought about it. [18]

The leader later agreed that without sound the images could be interpreted in a very different way.

Alternative Realities

Martin's conclusions on the experiment conducted at the community center, as has been mentioned, focus on the issue of the power of the dominant culture and the viability of "resistance," and she cites Foucault's analysis that resistance usually is confined within the boundaries of power. It cannot escape but takes on the characteristics of the dominant group. Certainly we can say that to endorse abortion is to take on another form of dominance. One might say that Martin is ambivalent toward the display of the images of cells inside us because on the one hand it can be a form of scientific reductionism and on the other it challenges the validity of abortion at any stage of fetal development.

Martin admits that we cannot escape thinking about the cell life inside us when viewing the images but we can frame the interpretation differently. She calls it

"redefining what counts as political and moving 'science education' from the 'exposition of natural facts' to revealing it as the imposition of a particular view of the world."[19]

She believes that is exactly what happened with the community group in their analysis of the film. Operating outside the sphere of the state school system, they could look at the images with less ideological baggage. She condudes that alternative realities are not defined solely in terms of the dominant group and that "there are many coexisting and contending knowledges of the body."

The Alternative Reality of Natural Family Planning

In reviewing Martin's article, references have been made to a different view of the reproductive process than that presented in the medical textbooks and popular media, that offered by natural family planning (NFP). Natural family planning is based on the signs and symptoms of fertility. In order for a couple, or a medical doctor for that matter, to discern the fertile and infertile phases of the menstrual cycle, they must have a map, as it were, of the reproductive system. Fertility awareness is the first step in any NFP instruction. The couple is taught the basics of the male and female reproductive system and how they relate to each other.

Martin's article provided the impetus for the author of this paper to study 15 NFP and fertility awareness instruction manuals to see how they depict male and female fertility, the sperm and the egg, and their union. The contrast with the texts discussed above is striking. Words like "harmony," "gift," "union" predominate. Chapter VII in Our Power to Love is entitled "The Symphony of Fertility" and the author says:

A woman's menstrual cycle reminds one of the score of a symphony orchestra. Body functions need to be in harmony just as the musical instruments in an orchestra.[20]

Teen Crossroads describes "our gift of fertility (as) . . . wonderful, beautiful and complex."[21] Know Your Body, another book for teens explains: "Except for life itself, our fertility is our most valuable bodily gift."[22] Again "The fine-tuning and the precise interaction of reproductive hormones in a woman s body during her years of fertility are a marvel."[23] (Recall that in the other texts, only the male production of sperm was described as marvelous.) Jean Johnson describes the woman's body as "a beautifully programmed mechanism with one event triggering off another in an orderly sequence."

Gone are the negative female images to be replaced by uniformly positive ones. Even menstruation is viewed in a positive light.

The cyde starts with a good spring dean. The old lining of the womb (the endometrium) is shed, along with the blood which makes up the menstrual flow, in preparation for the growth of a new lining.[24]


The process of menstruation has been likened to a tree shedding its leaves in winter: with the next cycle, new growth begins again.[25]

Menstruation is seen in the light of new life beginning. "Just as menstruation begins, a new cycle starts. Nature prepares a new nest inside the uterus."[26]

Hostility or Friendship

The community observed by Martin struggled to come to grips with the images of the video, the words of the narrator, and their own experience of boy/girl relations. As the leader commented and the students agreed, in conceiving a baby you think more about girl and boy meeting rather than about a hostile invasion. The leader concludes:

The girl's got one egg and the guy's got, you know three million sperm going after it. You know three million sperm are going after it, and she has all these defenses and it. . . really made it seem like the conception or the coming together was a hostile act. . . . It sure made it seem like they weren't friends.[27]

Here we fmd one of the greatest differences with the NFP instruction manuals. The title of one such manual is A Cooperative Method of Birth Control. Under a heading A Word for Love, the author writes:

I want to put in a word for love here, before we get into details of this method. This is the only form of birth control that is a cooperative venture . . The basis of this method is agreement to pay dose attention and lovingly abstain for a bit in order to not conceive at this time. This way, when you do make love, it is complete and open to all the life force energy there. [28]

Cooperation is the hallmark of natural family planning and flows out of respecting the reproductive process itself. The NFP manuals acknowledge this even in the words they use to describe the relations between the sperm and the egg. The author of the excerpt above explains conception in these terms: "In order for pregnancy to occur, a fresh, live sperm from the man must meet and fertilize a live egg from the woman."[29]

Note the use of the word "meet." There is a complete absence of aggressiveness of the sperm toward the egg. This is repeated in manual after manual. The word "penetration" of the egg by the sperm is the strongest "attacking" word used. Thus Fertility Awareness, the manual of the Human Life and Natural Family Planning Foundation (HLNFPF) says: "Although many sperm will travel through the uterus and into the tube, only one sperm penetrates the ovum. Conception or fertilization takes place at the time a sperm unites with the egg."[30] The word "penetration" is used in conjunction with "unite." "Uniting" or "meeting" are the preferred terms as in: "Conception takes place when the woman's ovulated egg unites with one tiny sperm cell from the man. The egg and the sperm meet inside the woman's fallopian tube."[31] "Love and Fertility instructs: "The time in which the ovum can be fertilized by the sperm is very short. If it does not meet with the sperm during this time, it degenerates within 24 hours."[32] "Fertilization - the union of an egg and a sperm - takes place in the outer third of the Fallopian tube. ...[33] "Fusion" is another word used. "When the sperm membrane fuses with the outer covering membrane of the egg. . ." [34]or "When the nucleus of the sperm joins with the nucleus of the ovum fertilization is said to occur."[35]

There are a few instances in which the NFP texts talk about an attack on the sperm: "White blood cells in the vagina can attack the sperm cells like bacteria,"[36] or "Normally, natural acids in the vagina will kill sperm cells within a matter of hours."[37]But that is far from the whole story as this text continues: "But mucus keeps sperm cells alive."[38] In other words there is a time in the cycle when the vagina is hostile to sperm, treating it like any other foreign body seeking to enter the woman's body. As the fertile lime approaches the mucus secreted by the cervix under the influence of estrogen changes all that. The vagina and the whole reproductive tract become friendly to sperm.

Cervical Mucus as "Helper"

Cervical mucus is the key to the joint fertility of the couple. As Dr. Evelyn Billings, the founder with her husband of the Ovulation Method of NFP states, "All the evidence indicates that unless fertile-type mucus is produced by the cervix conception cannot take place."[39] This vital fact is overlooked in Martin's description of both the medical and popular texts of the reproductive system. The body itself speaks a language of mutual cooperation that is fully realized in the NFP texts. Cervical mucus provides nourishment, protection, and transport for the sperm. All these are helping words and are frequently used in NFP manuals. "The mucus. . . nourishes the sperm so they will be full of energy and vitality when they reach the ovum in the tube. In addition, the mucus keeps some sperm alive and healthy for two to three days in the cervical crypts,"[40] or "After intercourse, a man's sperm cells can wait up to five days inside tiny cave-like crypts in the cervix. There they are sheltered by the wet fertile mucus."[41]

Nourishing and sheltering the sperm is not the only "helping" role of the cervical mucus. One of Martin's texts speaks of the majority of the sperm "falling back exhausted." The NFP texts describe the falling-away of some sperm differently. "Every time a man ejaculates, his semen contains some damaged sperm. The mucus acts as a very effective filtering mechanism, sifting out the damaged sperm so that only the healthy ones have a chance of fertilizing the ovum."[42] "The mucus filters out abnormal sperm and enables the healthy ones to enter the cervix through channels or passageways. . . as if swimming up a river."[43]

This is an important "helping" role of the mucus: to provide channels for the sperm to swim up through the uterus to the fallopian tube to fertilize the egg. Unlike Miller, NFP texts do not describe a "perilous journey" through a "hostile environment." They neither describe the sperm as "swimming in circles" with their weak tails or "streamlined" with "strong" tails. Rather they focus on the help the woman's cervical mucus provides in guiding the healthy sperm. Once again it is a cooperative venture and the words used are not primarily ones of struggle. "The sperm travel through the uterus and into the fallopian tube"[44] "This mucus gives the sperm the energy to travel the long distance to the tubes and to give them the capacity to penetrate the ovum." [45] or When this sperm is deposited in the vagina, male cells can swim up into the favorable environment of the womb "[46]

Masculine and Feminine Characteristics

This "helping" role of the mucus as well as the fact that the egg itself sends out signals to attract the sperm and travels down the fallopian tube to meet the sperm ensures that the woman's role is not depicted in a completely passive light.[47] Masculine and feminine roles are viewed as primarily equal but different. This is brought out well in the NFP manual, Love and Life Both the similarities and differences are laid out in two figures. The text reads:

The similarities of male and female anatomy and physiology make the two systems compatible; differences between the two make them complementary and allow them to combine with each other in the miracle of bringing into existence a new human being. Combined fertility is the power of a man and woman to participate in the creation of a new human life. Three things are needed in order for conception to take place sperm, ovum and cervical mucus [48]

The emphasis is not on the dominant role of the sperm ("smallest cell in the body") from the sheer power of its numbers nor on the reverse dominance of the egg from its size ("largest cell in the body") but on the combined power of both. The sperm travels the longest journey but not without the help of the cervical mucus.

The gift of fertility is a phrase frequently used by NFP and NFP-inspired instruction manuals. Teen Crossroads and Know Your Body speak of fertility as gift. Couples use the term as one husband spoke of giving the gift of fertility to his wife.[49] This category of gift applied to reproduction and procreation is important since it denotes a different view of reality and male/female relations than that discovered by Martin in the medical textbooks she reviewed where male dominance and female passivity or female aggressiveness toward weak sperm seem to be implied.

The question arises as to whether this different view of reality flows from the actual process of reproduction or whether it is imposed from outside. Martin seeks to show that a reality reflecting male/female relations in society is imposed as an interpretation on the process of sperm uniting with the egg. We have already seen that the medical textbooks and popular media appear to leave out the vital role of cervical mucus, which in itself warrants a different description of the relationship between the sperm and the egg. What seems more important than proving that a certain reality is being imposed on the "facts" is that the "facts" accord with the truth of the human person and the communion of persons.

What does calling fertility a gift say about man and woman and male/female relations? Kenneth Schmitz in his Aquinas Lectures, The Gift: Creation,[50] analyzes in detail the meaning of a gift. lie defines it as "a free endowment upon another who receives it freely; so that the first mark of a gift is its gratuity." Furthermore "a gift is meant to be reciprocated" and through the reciprocation, the gift itself is completed. This calls for receptivity on the part of the recipient. But this receptivity is not simple passivity. Rather it is an active receiving. Schmitz gives the analogy of receiving a guest into one's home. The host is attentive to the guest's needs, making him "feel at home."[51]

Purely on the physical level this giving and receiving can be seen in relations between the sperm and the egg. During the fertile phase of the cycle, if intercourse takes place, the woman receives the man's sperm into her body. It is an active receptivity where the cervical mucus protects and nourishes the sperm and shows it the way to the innermost recesses where it may fertilize the egg. The gift is only complete when it is fully reciprocated. The analogy from this process shows the man's part as one of active initiation while the woman's is that of active receptivity.

Schmitz further characterizes gift giving as an event in which first the gift is accepted, and then a return gift is made. It is the acceptance that completes the gift not the return of another gift. A return gift may be inspired by the initial gift but it "is strictly not a return gift, but a new initiative." So one might say that the gift of the egg, the woman's fertility, is not a return gift but a new initiative. "Although the original gift cannot be returned, it can make possible a gift in return," says Schmitz. [52]He sees community arising from an exchange that is founded on the original giving and receiving. And, indeed, the community of the family arises from such a giving and receiving in procreation.

The gift of fertility is understood in two ways by NFP couples.

On the one hand fertility is a gift from God to the man or the woman and on the other, it is a gift that the man gives to the woman and vice versa. As Schmitz says, the gift calls for acceptance. Fertility awareness or fertility acceptance is the first step in practicing natural family planning. Know Your Body, the manual for teenagers, advises that this "knowledge will help her to value her fertility and her womanhood."[53] This valuing of her fertility and womanhood enables her to receive the gift of the man's fertility without devaluing her own as happens in contraceptive intercourse. "Men should take pride in their manhood; women in their womanhood."[54]

Refusal of the Gift

Offering a gift, Schmitz points out, entails risks both for the giver and the recipient. The donor may abuse the gift by seeking to ensnare the recipient or the recipient can abuse the giver by refusing the gift. If the gift is refused it is rendered incomplete, is spoiled. The giver, says Schmitz is left "exposed and wounded." The rebuff to the giver is not only personal. It may offend against "the very spirit of generosity itself."[55] The recipient also undergoes risk. He or she is exposed to the intentions of the giver and the significance of the gift. Risk attaches to both parties. If there is no relationship, the gift establishes one and if one is already established it is changed by the gift.

There is what Schmitz calls "opacity" in the gift, especially if it is of a material nature. It may hide as much as it reveals of the intention of the giver. It also has an independence unrelated to the giver. If, for example, a ring is a symbol of fidelity and circumstances change, then it becomes a source of embarrassment or pain. Schmitz finds much more can be said about giving and receiving but enough has been said in relation to the risk of giving and receiving to both parties.

In sexual intercourse the initial gift is the husband's sperm. (Here we are speaking strictly on the physiological level not on the personal.) In Martin's reading of the medical texts, the sperm is not seen as a gift but as an invasion and its reception in the woman's body as defense against hostile attack. The woman's egg either hides from the sperm or seeks to entrap and engulf them. On this view contraception logically becomes part of the armor of defense on the part of the woman. In actuality it is a refusal, even a repelling of the gift. In its own way withholding the complete gift on the part of the man through contraception or sterilization amounts to refusal of the gift also. Such refusal damages both.

Martin alludes to a scene in a Woody Allen movie, Everything You ever Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask in which Allen plays the part of a sperm that finds itself reluctantly inside a man's body. It is afraid to venture out into the darkness, fears contraceptive devices, and is scared to end up on the ceiling if the man is masturbating![56] Martin interprets this as showing explicitly the connection between weak sperm and the impotence of the man in whose body it arises. May it not also show what is happening to men in our society whose gift of fertility is consistently refused?

Revelation and the Language of the Body

Martin recognizes a reality belonging to the reproductive process itself and an interpretation of that reality imposed by Western liberalism and the reductionism of scientific knowledge that becomes as it were an alternate reality.[57] We have discovered a different interpretation of reality in NFP instruction manuals. It too is based on the reproductive process but with a more complete incorporation of the "facts." It is noteworthy that the authors of the NFP instruction manuals are not all Christian. One is Jewish and another can be classified as adhering to New Age religion, so that this cannot be called simply a Christian interpretation. Nevertheless it accords with the Christian view of reality.

Since the late Middle Ages the relation between science and revelation has been a paramount issue in Western Christianity. [58] Josef Pieper notes how it was Thomas Aquinas's life's work to join the two extremes represented by Aristotle, the philosopher of the visible world, and the Bible.[59] Aquinas recognized the autonomy of created things. In fact he held that their very autonomy proves the creative power of God.[60] Furthermore he considered those to be in error "who say that in regard to the truth of religion it does not matter what a man thinks about the Creation so long as he has the correct opinion concerning God. An error concerning the Creation ends in a false thinking about God."[61] One might also add that it ends in false thinking about man.

We know that Aquinas, himself, by relying on the biology of Aristotle, came to false conclusions about the nature of man and woman accepting woman's inferiority. Prudence Allen has documented the effect of what she calls the Aristotelian Revolution on the concept of woman. [62] Arguing directly from a false notion of generation in which the man provided the seed and the woman only the material of generation, Aristotle, and following him Aquinas, regarded the woman as a defective male. It was believed that a female fetus resulted from some defect in the active principle of the male seed. [63] Aquinas described the birth of an individual woman according to Allen as "a kind of mistake."[64] Allen notes how Aristotle's philosophy of sex identity, which was based also on opposites, between form and matter, soul and body, knowledge and true opinion, and ruling and obeying with the male identified with the former of each pair of opposites, led to a hostile polarity.[65]

In spite of egregious errors in the area of generation, the principle Aquinas established on the relationship between reason (science) and faith remains valid. As Pieper affirms, it "includes the acceptance. . . of all the findings of natural reason in astronomy, evolution, biology, atomic physics, and science in general."[66] It includes also the principle of an overriding fidelity to the truths of faith "with which the temporal truths must be made to square, both on the theoretic plane and in real life."[67]

Pieper interprets Aquina's position as asserting that the theologian cannot know in advance what philosophical or natural insights may be useful to him. Neither can he know the direction in which he ought to probe. Science and philosophy may uncover insights not foreseen by the theologians that may even disturb him. All the more reason to study the secular sciences for their own sake. [68] This does not negate theology as the higher form of wisdom but it does mean that theology needs to make use of the fIndings of science. [69]

The relationship of theology to the scientific discoveries in the twentieth century of the reproductive system, it seems to me, provide an example of the union of science and faith. As I have shown elsewhere, the theological insistence on the inseparability of the unitive and procreative dimensions of sexual intercourse led directly to the development of natural family planning with concomitant scientific research on the properties of cervical mucus.[70] In turn, as I have tried to show in this paper, these scientific discoveries are revealing something about the nature of man and woman and their relationship.

The initiating role of the man in sexual intercourse is not a new discovery. But the "helping" role of the woman's cervical mucus that emphasizes an active receptivity gives new insight into her nature as well as illuminating the complementarity of both sexes. We find illustrated at this cellular level the biblical need of the man for a "helper" (Gen. 2:18). His sperm cannot survive let alone fertilize the egg from the woman without this help. They need each other to be fruitful.[71]

When we turn to theology, we find no difficulty in coordinating these findings with contemporary theological anthropology, particularly John Paul II's theology of the body. John Paul II's starting point for studying the nature of man and woman is not science but the first four chapters of Genesis. He acknowledges that the Church's teaching on sexuality and responsible parenthood was the impetus for his return to the Genesis account of creation in the Wednesday Catecheses because sexual intercourse is a "problem of the body."[72] Scripture, in other words, shows us how to interpret all reality including that of human sexuality and procreation.

Person, Gift, and Communion

In the Genesis account, John Paul II finds the categories of person, gift, and communion. A key passage for him is Genesis 2:18. "It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make a helper fit for him" (TB, 10/10/79). Adam's aloneness or solitude is both a wholeness and a lack. He is a person with spiritual faculties of intellect and will that put him in a unique relationship with God. Bodiliness is also an essential characteristic of his personhood and it is through his body that he discovers his difference from the animals. But his solitude also denotes a lack. He cannot find in creation any person like himself. So God creates Eve out of his side, which in the medium of myth, signifies that she is made of the same substance but with a different bodily manifestation. She too is a "solitude," whole but in need of a relationship with another human person. She is equal but different and it is through both their identity and difference that they are able to complete each other. Only through each other can they find fulfillment. John Paul II concludes that man and woman become the image and likeness of God not only through their humanity but even more through the communion of persons. Not only does Man reflect the solitude of a Person who governs the world "but also, and essentially . . . an inscrutable divine communion of Persons," in other words the Trinity (TB, 11/14/79). Out of this original unity comes the blessing of parenthood.

John Paul II coined the term the "nuptial meaning of the body" to indicate that the body is the medium of the gift that man and woman are to each other. He interprets Adam's exclamation on seeing Eve, "Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," as "here is 'a body that expresses the person!'" (TB, 1/9/80). The original sign of the gift is sexual differentiation and its awareness in the man and the woman. Man has a "primordial awareness of the nuptial meaning of the body from his transcendent likeness to God in as much as he is a gift" (TB, 2/20/80). The body, in addition to its procreative capacity that is common to all creatures, has the "nuptial" attribute or the capacity for expressing love. As persons man and woman are a gift to each other and fulfill each other through the gift. [73] In the original innocence of the Garden of Eden, Adam accepts Eve "as she is willed 'for her own sake' by the Creator, as she is constituted in the mystery of the image of God through her femininity;" and "reciprocally, she accepts him in the same way. . . The revelation and the discovery of the 'nuptial' meaning of the body consists in this" (TB, 1/16/80).

Man's body has a profound meaning in the whole created order. It was created, says John Paul II, to manifest in the visible world the invisible realities of God, It is precisely through their masculinity and femininity that man and woman are "a visible sign of the economy of truth and love" and they are called to live in the awareness of the gift (TB, 2/20/80). This is especially true in the conjugal act that signifies both love and potential fecundity since they are by nature mutually dependent. If through contraception the act is deprived of the procreative dimension, John Paul II goes so far as to say that it will cease to be an act of love (TB, 8/22/84). Contraception opens the door to lust and when either the man or woman through lust treat the other as an object and not a gift, the nuptial meaning of the body is obscured. He calls this the essential evil of the contraceptive act, namely its lack of the truth of self-mastery and of the reciprocity of the gift (TB, 8/22/84).

This means that the man and the woman are called to receive each other in their bodily integrity. Only the full acceptance of and openness to one another and the gift of fertility is in accord with their dignity as persons made in the image of God. This is the radical equality of the gift and it precedes any differentiation in the respective roles of masculinity and femininity. What then of the different roles? Does the initiating role of the male, the precedence of Adam in the Genesis account, accord the male a dominating position over the female?

It was original sin that disturbed the interior forces of man, giving rise to the tendency toward lust and the domination of the man in male-female relations especially in marriage (TB, 2/13/80). Redemption in Christ restored the capacity to live marriage as it was originally intended but now, says John Paul II, it is a task (TB, 11/24/82). He finds in Ephesians 5:21-33 what he calls a foundation for understanding not only man and woman in marriage redeemed by Christ but also Man in general (TB, 12/15/82). Here we shall just refer to his interpretation of the bride/bridegroom relationship.

Through his commentary on the Ephesians text, he stresses the bi-subjectivity of man and woman (TB, 8/25/82). The emphasis on the body is also highlighted, revealing its importance in the analogy of spousal love between Christ and the Church. The husband is admonished to love his wife as his own body. It is through his body that he becomes a "disinterested gift." Again the analogy with Christ's love for the Church accents the total nature of the gift. The reciprocal relationship between husband and wife is said to be one in which the husband is the one who loves and the wife the one who is loved. The submission of the wife is to be interpreted as signifying above all the "experiencing of love." This is most fully expressed in a passage from Mulieris Dignitatem:

The calling of woman into existence at man's side as a "helper fit for him" (Gen. 2:18) in the "unity of the two," provides the visible world of creatures with particular conditions so that "the love of God may be poured into the hearts" of the beings created in his image. When the author of the Letter to the Ephesians calls Christ "the Bridegroom" and the Church "the Bride," he indirectly confirms through this analogy the truth about woman as bride. The Bridegroom is the one who loves. The Bride is loved: it is she who receives love, in order to love in return.[74]


John Paul II says that Man has a "primordial awareness of the nuptial meaning of the body" (TB, 2/20/80). Martin finds in the medical texts she reviews a cellular "bride" and a cellular "groom." The students in the community center instinctively shrink from depicting the passage of the sperm to union with the egg in hostile terms. Yet the overall impression left by these texts is one of hostile attack and defense, domination, and passive submission. Martin takes them as revealing the dominant modes of male/female relations fostered by Western liberalism which imposes them on the "facts" of human reproduction. This is not unlike the meaning imposed on them by Aristotle whose theories became the basis for understanding male-female relations even in Christianity. His interpretation, as Prudence Allen has shown, is based in part on an incorrect understanding of the process of human generation.

On the other hand the NFP instruction manuals, which accept the fertility of both the man and the woman, speak of the integrity of the body, harmony, cooperation, and openness to the gift. These concepts are inspired not by religious belief as such since the NFP manual authors are not all Christian but by awareness and acceptance of bodily processes and a correct understanding of human generation. The language and interpretation accord with a scriptural account of the nature of man and woman and their relationship as a communion of persons. From the analysis of these differing body narratives, it would seem that far from imposing a religious view, Revelation illumines the truth that is inherent in the body at its deepest microscopic level. John Paul II makes references to this in Original Unity of Man and Woman when he says that "the constitution of the woman is different as compared with the man; we know in fact today that it is different even in the deepest bio-physical determinants" (TB, 3/12/80). With regard to the interpretation of these differences, he writes: "In the whole perspective of his own history, man will not fail to confer a nuptial meaning on his own body." In spite of many distortions "it will always remain the deepest level, which demands to be revealed in all its simplicity and purity, and to be shown in its whole truth, as a sign of the 'image of God.' The way that goes from the mystery of creation to 'the redemption of the body' (cf. Rom. 8) also passes here." From the Genesis texts "we are convinced of the fact that the awareness of the meaning of the body. . . - in particular of its nuptial meaning - is the fundamental element of human existence in the world" (TB, 1/16/80).


1. This article is expanded from a paper originally presented at the annual conference of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, October 23 24, 1998.

2. Emily Martin, "Body Narratives, Body Boundaries," in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula Treichler, (New York: Routledge, 1992), 409 23: 409. Further references to Martin's contribution will only be cited in connection with a direct quote from her article.

3. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Monroe, La.: Free Press, 1989); Bill McKibben The End of Nature (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1989); O. B. Hardison, Jr., Disappearing Through the Skylight (New York: Viking Penguin, 1989).

4. Martin, 410, quoting Fukuyama, 4.

5. Ibid., 410, quoting Fukuyama. 3.

6. Ibid., 410, quoting McKibben, 52, 58.

7. Ibid., 410, quoting Hardison, 335.

8. Ibid., 411.

9. Ibid., 411.

10. Ibid., 411,412.

11. Ibid., 412.

12. Obstetrician-gynecologist Hanna Klaus notes that while, indeed, the "cumulus oophorus cells which go with the ovum are called the corona radiata, the ridge at the base of the glans penis is also called the corona glandis and there are the coronary arteries and veins which supply the heart." (Private communication) In other words, "corona" the Latin word for "crown" does not necessarily have royal signifIcance here. It is applied to any anatomical part that is curved (Webster's Dictionary).

13. Evelyn Billings and Ann Westmore, The Billings Method: Controlling Fertility without Drugs or Devices (South Yarra, Victoria, Australia: Anne O'Donovan, 1993), 30.

14. Martin, 412, 413.

15. Ibid., 413.

16. Ibid., 414.

17. Ibid., 416.18. Ibid., 417.

19. Ibid., 418.

20. Ruth S. Taylor, Ann G. Nerbun, and Richard M. Hogan, Our Power to Love: God's Gift of Sexuality (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1971), 42.

21. Randi D. Shamer and Anna Walsh, Teen Crossroads: Pathways to Decisions (Baltimore, M.D.: St. Agnes Hospital, 1986), 14.

22. Charles W. Norris and Jeanne B. Waibel Owen, Know Your Body: A Family Guide to Sexuality and Fertility (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1982), 29.

23. Ibid., 17.

24. Jean Johnson, Natural Family Planning (London, England: Catholic Truth Society, 1981), 6.

25. Billings and Westmore, The Billings Method. 27.

26. Mercedes Arth Wilson, Love and Fertility The Ovulation Method, the Natural Method for Planning your Family (Mandeville, La.: Family of the Americas Foundation, 1986), 29.

27. Martin, 417.

28. Margaret Nofziger, A Cooperative Method of Natural Birth Control (Summertown, Tenn.: The Book Publishing Co., 1979), 13.

29. Ibid., 17. Italics in these and other citations added for emphasis.

30. John J. McCarthy with Mary Catherine Martin, Fertility Awareness: An Instructional Program with Charts and Text (Washington, D.C.: The Human Life and Natural Family Planning Foundation, 1979), 15. (Emphasis mine.)

31. Merryl Winstein, Your Fertility Signals: Using Them to Achieve or Avoid Pregnancy, Naturally (St. Louis, Mo.: Smooth Stone Press, 1989), 4. (Emphasis mine.)

32. Wilson, Love and Fertility, 27. (Emphasis mine.)

33. Billings and Westmore, The Billings Method, 26; see also Mercedes Arzá Wilson, Love and Family (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 241. (Emphasis mine.)

34. Billings and Westmore, 26. (Emphasis mine.)

35. J. A. Menezes, Natural Family Planning in Pictures (New Delhi, India: Catholic Hospital Association, 1980), 38. (Emphasis mine.)

36. Taylor, Our Power to Love, 45.

37. Winstein, Fertility Signals, 4.

38. Ibid.

39. Billings and Westmore, The Billings Method, 24.

40. Wilson, Love and Fertility, 30, 31. (Emphasis mine.)

41. Winstein, Fertility Signals, 5. (Emphasis mine.)

42. Anna M. Flynn and Melissa Brooks, A Manual of Natural Family Planning (London, England: Unwin Paperbacks, 1985), 52.

43. Wilson, Love and Fertility, 30.

44. McCarthy, Fertility Awareness, 15. (Emphasis mine.)

45. Menezes, Natural Family Planning, 38. (Emphasis mine.)

46. Johnson, Natural Family Planning, 9. (Emphasis mine.)

47. Billings and Westmore, The Billings Method, 26.

48. Wilson, Love and Family, 239.

49. Mary Shivanandan, Natural Sex (New York: Rawson-Wade, 1979), 115. "My fertility is a gift to Therèse and hers to me."

50. Kenneth L. Schmitz, The Gift: Creation (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1982).

51. Ibid., 46, 47.

52. Ibid., 52.

53. Norris and Owen, Know Your Body, 37.

54. Ibid., 5.

55. Schmitz, Gift, 49.

56. Martin, 413.

57. Ibid., 410.

58. Josef Pieper, Guide to Thomas Aquinas (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 132, 133.

59. Ibid., 118.

60. Ibid., 130.

61. Ibid., 48.

62. Prudence Allen, The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 b.c.- a.d. 1250 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 92.

63. Ibid., 95 97.

64. Ibid., 392.

65. Ibid., 84, 89.

66. Pieper, 134.

67. Ibid., 134.

68. Ibid., 156.

69. Ibid., 157.

70. Mary Shivanandan, Crossing the Threshold of Love: Contemporary Marsiage in the Light of John Paul II's Anthropology (Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, and Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1999).

71. Seminal fluid does provide some protection, nourishment, and motility for the sperm but it is insufficient by itself. John J. McCarthy with Mary Catherine Martin and Marjorie Gildenhorn, The Ovulation Method (Washington, D.C.: The Human Life and Natural Family Planning Foundation), 5.

72. John Paul II, The Theology of the Body (Boston, Mass.: Pauline Books and Media, 1997), 7/18/84. Hereafter, citations in the text will refer to the dates of homilies, preceded by TB.

73. Cf. Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modem World (Gaudium es Spes), Documents of Vatican II (Boston, Mass.: St. Paul Editions, 1965), #24.

74. John Paul II, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women (Mulieris Dignitatem), Apostolic Letter, August 15, 1998 (Washington D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1988), #29.

Reproduced with permission from Logos 3:3 Summer 2000

Copyright ©; Mary Shivanandan 2000

This Version: 11th February 2003