The ending to my latest piece at Christianity Today, on whether churches should advocate contraceptive use for the sexually active single people in their midst:

Beneath the issue of contraception is a question about the role ideals and norms play in our communal lives. Yes, they restrict our behavior in ways that are sometimes inconvenient. Yet in doing so, they intrinsically call us and our communities toward a life that we might not otherwise choose on our own. What’s more, they amplify the need for repentance and reconciliation, rather than watering down such a need through the “pragmatic” concession to the fallenness of the world. We may occasionally fail to meet them. But confronting our failures can be heroic and acknowledging our sins a moment of beauty. The only thing to be gained from lowering the expectations is greater secrecy about our sexual lives within our communities. And that, somewhat ironically, only stigmatizes unplanned pregnancies within our midst all the more by making them all the more rare.

At the same time, ideals can inspire. “The more transcendental your patriotism,” Chesterton once said, “the more practical will be your politics.” Communities where contraception is advocated as a solution (whether from the pulpit or in the counselors office) are communities free from the deadly burden of the cross, free from the sufferings and co-laboring that will inevitably come from caring for single mothers and their children. When I posed this idea to someone they suggested that no one would be with the single mother at 3 a.m. while the child is crying. That the possibility is ruled out before it can be considered says more about the extent to which we strive to keep our communities free from a bloodless martyrdom than it does about whether we should accept contraception.

There is no question that we need to reduce abortions, both inside the church and without. But as a church, we are not called to reduce abortions by any and every means available to us. Sin is compounding: error has a long train, and abortion is near the end of it. It is easy to turn to contraception in order to prevent abortions. But in doing so, we have not done what only the church can do: call people to repentance for our sins and exhort us toward the holiness that ought to mark us off as the people of God.

Let’s do a bit more here, though, some thinking out loud:  Can anyone name a sin that Christians commit that we would suggest, as a pastoral measure, taking preemptive action to free people from experiencing the consequences–good or bad?  Analogies are tricky business, as I’m one of those rare souls who thinks that sex is sui generis, one of a kind, within the moral landscape.  But give it a whirl:  you might be more successful than I.

Try, for instance, lying.  Deceit is a moral wrong with potentially only the most positive of consequences. Would we counsel a chronic dissembler who refuses to listen to pastoral guidance to at least do their best to avoid the consequences of their actions?  Hardly likely, despite the fact that lying is clearly corrosive to the soul of the one committing it and to the community where it is enabled.

Remember, an analogy.  Yes, a pregnancy is an incredibly grave consequence for a sin, almost certainly more so than what comes from most lies. But that alone does not justify letting go of the principle so that people can have their sex.  If anything, the suggestion seems to further engrain in our evangelical communities the notion that the kids are going to have sex anyways, so we might as well keep them safe.  That notion is not only false:  it is self-fulfilling and inherently infantilizing.

But let’s have a go at this, please.  This is all too important of an issue to simply let it drift into the ether, forgotten and undiscussed.  I’m curious to hear the feedback, pro et contra.  So let me have it in the comments:  what, precisely, am I missing?

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Hmmm. I guess (as a doctor who routinely prescribes various forms of birth control to all comers) that it’s a difference between advocating for contraception in our churches vs. advocating for contraception in our communities at large.

    The former– I agree with you absolutely. We should call for those in our churches to live in accordance with God’s Word.

    The latter– just like I think we should support needle exchange programs to reduce risks (when people suffer worse consequences of their sin, it hurts us all and rarely stops people from changing their habits.) It’s a tough issue, but in the end I think it is better for our communities.


  2. Jason E. Summers April 26, 2012 at 10:48 pm

    With respect to your analogical thinking-out-loud, it seems to me that churches are engaged in this sort of pastoral counsel with some regularity: mind your indebtedness versus temper your greed; excercise and diet versus curb your gluttony; and so forth. In conservative circles the old saw about the perfect being the enemy of the good is often heard, but there is some truth to that. An ethics of utility is no substitute for an ethics of virtue, but it is just classical liberalism to suggest deontology is better.


    1. Jason,

      I think the examples you point out are interesting, but I’m not convinced their parallel. After all, gluttony and greed are peculiar states of the soul that may be identifiable in particular actions–but might also not be. Sex outside of marriage and lying are two acts, not qualities of the soul, and as such I think your parallel is slightly off.

      As to the point about liberalism, I may not understand it. But I don’t think anything I’ve said is incompatible with Thomism, for instance. I wouldn’t say that discerning moral norms is the only consideration when we do ethics–only that it can’t be ignored or trumped by “exceptions,” either.




      1. Jason E. Summers April 28, 2012 at 8:15 am


        My apologies that writing on a tablet seems to incline me toward the role of a terse and surly curmudgeon well before my time.

        But, yes, I was aware as I wrote that there is an apparent difference in kind between my examples and yours. However, I think the actual difference is not so great.

        I’m disinclined to draw distinctions between desires and actions in terms of moral (versus public legal) considerations. That aside, my statement would be unchanged if I replaced greed with “consumeristic purchasing habits” (an action) and gluttony with “eating or buying more than is needed” (an action). Churches often tolerate those actions up to a degree, while seeking to mitigate consequences (massive debt, obesity). It would be hard not to do so and survive as an institution in American culture.

        Whether or not such accommodation is an appropriate posture is another matter. But that it is common is incontestable.

        My point about liberalism wasn’t particularly directed at you, but is more a caution: to make rules that cannot be violated the central component of one’s moral system is to accept a particular Kantian notion of the good of people that has tied up with it a liberal notion of the isolated autonomous person.

        That’s not to say it isn’t proper to think in terms of moral norms (I’m not inclined toward the natural-law tradition, but am happy to acknowledge certain norms). Rather, I’m suggesting that the primary driver of our ethics should be a teleological process of sanctification — an ethic that desires for all people that they more fully become what they are created to be by developing in character (very much aligned with Aristotelian-Thomistic virtue ethics).

        In doing so, it is not a priori clear (to me at least) that imposing maximal consequences for rule violation is always and in every case the best way to achieve that end. An ethic of virtue embraces (and more fully grounds) an ethic of care, so if enforcing a rule takes primacy to better realizing for all people involved God’s ends, the rule cannot be the ultimate arbiter.

        Steven (below) is asking this question, but in terms of the effects of the loss of consequence. This is the right frame in which to ask the question, but when advocacy for the development of virtue is considered primarily in terms of learning through consequence for action it is always dangerously close to becoming more concerned with the enforcement of rules than with the development of virtue.

        This issue of moral formation is a complex one. If we go back to Aristotle, his contention is that rewards and punishments are needed to form virtues (which is both a moral habit and a rational skill), particularly in the young, for which rational arguments hold less sway. But there is much more to moral formation than this of course—certainly if we go beyond Aristotle to engage with the end as sanctification.



        1. Jason,

          I often think that writing on the internet has made me more terse and surly than I need to be, so no worries at all. : )

          That said, really hasty thoughts in reply:

          1) I agree the difference between desires and actions is less pronounced than I made it seem. However, I do think it is in this case important. After all, I take it that sex outside of marriage is in cases justified. It is an act that is intrinsically wrong. But if you consider your restatement of the actions, it’s harder to tell when those are actually occurring as actions. That difference suggests, to me, that encouraging pre-emptive avoidance of consequences through contraception is actually unique.

          2) I guess I still don’t see how believing in exceptionless moral norms commits me to isolated autonomy. The work of learning to discern what those norms are, and how they relate to any given situation, seems to be something formation within a community. (I think O’Donovan does this well in RMO, which is largely where I take my cues for such things.)

          As to sanctification, I agree. But sanctification is partially constituted by our growth in understanding of the shape of the moral order, and our ability to conform our actions and desires to it.

          Either way, I fail to see how even if there are exceptions to the rule, the church would then be benefited by encouraging its single people to take contraception. From a pedagogical standpoint, that moves the (alleged) exception into becoming a norm within our communities.

          I’d also say that framing this as “imposing maximal consequences” is not quite right, or at least not representative of how I would argue we should think about the situation. In the case of contraception, it is the avoidance of certain (potential) natural consequences of our actions that is at stake. So I don’t think that Aristotle’s point about punishment/reward is helpful here, because these consequences seem tied to the particular action in a certain way, such that the nature of the action is potentially altered by our pre-emptive attempt to avoid them.

          All that said, I don’t think that anything I’ve written commits me to advocating for the development of virtue “primarily in terms of learning through consequence for action.” I would agree with you that such a position would be problematic. I’m not a consequentialist, and it’s possible to respond to all this along those lines.

          My argument, instead, is that the development of virtue is going to be impossible if we pre-emptively separate ourselves from the consequences of this particular action, and that part of maturity as humans and Christians requires welcoming and assuming the consequences (negative and positive) of our activities in the world.

          More to come on all this. But I appreciate the dialogue. It’s very helpful and constructive.



          1. Jason E. Summers April 28, 2012 at 12:32 pm


            Three brief thoughts:

            1) I draw a distinction between norms and rules. It is the deontological ethics of rules that grounds itself in the liberal perspective, which stands in contrast to a virtue ethics of discernment and formation toward norms. This is a subtle point perhaps, but important here. We are concerned with the latter and the former may help or hinder the development of the latter, depending on the case. That is to say, we sometimes move toward our created purpose because we experience consequences, sometimes because we avoid them, and always through grace in those experiences.

            2) I think your point about the need to experience a world that is not distorted from it’s creational norms in order to have proper moral formation is a good one. But I think it is important to consider the multiple levels here; none of us alive today experiences all the natural consequences for our actions. Common grace—as manifested through the ordering of society, technology, and other things—ensures that we all experience a great mitigation of the effects of the fall. So this exists on a continuum and the question we must ask is how our choices about the manner in which we enforce rules and teach moral norms work toward the sanctification process of all people involved.

            Which brings me to my last point:

            3) I’m always cautious of our temptation toward devotion toward individualistic pietism rather than the sanctification of the Church. If rules are the end (teleologically speaking), violation is unthinkable. But if they are not the end, we can instead properly emphasize the virtues which lead us toward living out norms. Virtue may be cultivated as a moral habit—through practice—but it’s not as though we develop sexual ethics like chastity through practice and experience of consequence. Those rules stem from norms and those norms stem (in large part) from a right understanding of our anthropology: who we are in God. Thus, our use of rules in places tasked with moral formation (churches) should be first directed toward cultivating a right view of people in *all* of the people. It is not clear to me that, in this case, that end might not be best served in some cases by mitigating the effects of sin.


          2. Jason,

            This is a ton of fun. Thanks for the reply.

            1) I’m not sure I understand the norm/rules distinction. Is it that rules are posited and norms are existant but not necessarily known? Because I take it that our “rules” within a community need to be determined by the norms, in that case. The natural law/positive law relationship might serve as a good model, despite the fact that we’re not talking about knowing norms through natural law.

            2) Because I’m still not quite clear on how you’re using “rules,” I’m not quite ready to grant the division between them and “virtue” in terms of emphasis and formation that you seem to suggest. You wrote: “If rules are the end (teleologically speaking), then violation is unthinkable.” Within how I understand what I’m trying to get at, violation is never “unthinkable.” If the community expresses the norms and doesn’t offer compromises, then violation is always a possibility. But so also is grace and forgiveness, both of which have to become more real for the advocating of moral norms within a community to coexist with hospitality and welcome for sinners like me.

            You also wrote:

            “Thus, our use of rules in places tasked with moral formation (churches) should be first directed toward cultivating a right view of people in *all* of the people. It is not clear to me that, in this case, that end might not be best served in some cases by mitigating the effects of sin.”

            I agree with your point that our rules need to be tasked with cultivating a right view of people in everyone. This is partly why I’ve advocated for talking with and listening to singles within our teaching about sexuality in recent months. But given that chastity is the ethic that is upon everyone, then I don’t see how mitigating the effects of sin in this case is buttressing it as a genuine virtue for everyone in the community. That’s simply the counterassertion, I realize, and the question at hand. But I’d be curious to hear you unpack what you see in this section: how does advocating for contraception for single people “cultivate a right view of people in *all* the people” of our churches?



  3. The persepective is appreciated in this pragmatic culture. Much to agree with here.


  4. Matt, I was thinking about your CT piece again this morning, and about consequences – which I was glad to see you bring up in this short post. Perhaps it’s not unfair to say that our generation/culture is rather obsessed with beating consequences – consequences of aging, consequences of lying, consequences of cheating (in marriage, business, politics), consequences of gluttony, consequences of sex, and so on. I wonder if facing consequences head-on and living/dealing with them is essential to building character. What happens to our character when consequences are avoided by means of contraception and abortion, or by being excused by the community around us (e.g. “What’s important is that he’s a good president”), or by generating hype (e.g. Martin Sheen), etc…? Or another way to pose the question (which I think is right up your alley): How does the avoidance of consequences affect our ability to develop virtue? These are questions that I think are relevant to the society at large, and especially to the Church. Will be interested to see what you think.


    1. I agree with Steven’s observation about our obsession with avoiding consequences. When it became clear that decades of preaching about the virtues of seat belts was falling on deaf ears, we mandated air bags, whose purpose is to save us from the consequences of not buckling up. We moderns do tend to accept as truth that technology should be able to save us from bad things, and birth control is one of those technologies we rely on to permit us the freedom to live as we wish without having to face the natural consequences of our actions.

      That mindset arises from placing ourselves on the throne that used to be occupied by God. We want to live unfettered lives, rather than submitting and yielding to God’s authority.

      That rebellion is ancient human nature, of course. Besides the possibility that Steven mentions that avoidance of consequences may subvert the development of virtue (I agree), it also does something more damaging in our view of the nature of God and his gift of grace. I suspect it leads us to believe that God is ok with us and our sin — Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace problem. That attitude surely waters down the radicalism of Jesus’ call on us (to hate father, mother, family… to sell all and follow… to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind). And a diluted Christianity is arguably a false Christianity.


      1. I agree that avoidance of consequences “does something more damaging in our view of the nature of God and his gift of grace.” I am in the middle of Bonhoeffer’s book right now, as well as Moreland’s Love God With all Your Mind – and loving them both.

        “a diluted Christianity is arguably a false Christianity” is so true because in essence, we are not worshipping the Christian authoritative God, but rather this tolerant idol to be kept privatized.


  5. I’ll give it a whirl:

    Suppose I’m a pastor and I have a parishioner who really takes great delight in socking people in the face. This parishioner typically engages in said socking with a roll of nickels firmly grasped in socking fist. Suppose despite my efforts to dissuade the socker from this activity, the socker has vowed to continue. I try a second line of argument wherein I encourage the socker to drop the nickels and put on boxing gloves, thus diminishing the damage that the socker does to the faces of his targets or to his own knuckles.

    Or suppose a parishioner struggles with gluttony through overeating. Typically, this person will eat massive amounts of cheeseburgers and fudge. Suppose despite my efforts to dissuade the eater from this activity, the eater has vowed to continue. I try a second line of argument wherein I encourage the eater to instead eat massive amounts of kale, thus diminishing the damage done to his arteries, etc.

    Do these work?


  6. Jason E. Summers May 1, 2012 at 6:31 pm


    Apologies for not getting back to this earlier…

    I should be clear that I’m not advocating for one particular viewpoint. When I wrote, “it is not clear to me that, in this case, that end might not be best served in some cases by mitigating the effects of sin,” I meant just that. This is a complex moral issue and I have not thought through exactly what the best course of action to advocate might be.

    I should also be clear that it’s quite clear to me that you are not making consequentialist arguments (by which I mean those that assess moral status in terms of outcomes, such as utilitarian arguments).

    It seems to me that the most unfortunate aspects of the public dialog over this question have been (1) the polarization of positions, resulting in two (rather artificial) camps; and (2) the unfortunate tendency of the argument to take on either a consequentialist or deontological flavor.

    With respect to the later, the consequentialists see abortion as a greater evil and therefore seek to minimize harm by advocating contraception in some manner. The deontologists, on the other hand, hold that we ought never permit or encourage behavior that is morally wrong, regardless of what outcomes it might produce. These positions and modes of moral argument are currently the dominant ones in society in general (cf. the trolley problem)—though ones I think we ought not wholly embrace.

    In this respect, I think your argument from development of virtue is commendable. But my concern is that there is a bit too much deontology in your reading of norms.

    I am reminded a bit of the strains of thinking in (neo)Calvinist thought: pietists doubtful of the intelligibility of norms because of the noetic effects of sin, and therefore committed to a sort of deontology about divine precepts; others (we can call them low-noetic-influence Kuyperians) seeing norms as highly intelligible to the point of accepting natural theology and natural law (like Plantinga in his early days at Notre Dame).

    And it’s here I am troubled by your reasoning: you seem to welcome natural law quite fully, but have a pietistic hold on obedience. It’s confusing to me how these hang together. I think Aquinas and, to a lesser degree, Kuyperians who don’t overemphasize noetic effects, understand a particularity in the application of norms. That is to say, we can reason about them.

    This is what I mean by norms and rules. If we are pietists we have only rules expressed as biblical dictates, which cannot reason about and simply must follow. But if we recognize the work of common and particular grace as mitigating certain noetic effects, we can allow the exercise of prudential judgment in translating between norms and how we might apply them as rules in the particular.

    Clearly you are reasoning about norms when you ask about the consequences for moral formation, but you are also, I think, holding norms too much like a pietist holds dictates or a deontologist holds moral requirements. But, I hold, breaking or not breaking rules is not what makes us moral or not. Ultimately to be formed in virtue and character is to come to desire and act in line with norms, but norms are not the end.

    So where does this leave us in this case? The question we ought ask is how our choices in this matter work toward the sanctification (the ultimate end) of those in a congregation. Clearly it is false to preach as a norm something that is not. But that is not the question.

    What then of providing or educating with respect to something that mitigates the effects of sin? How might this effect the development of a person who is a recipient of such into what they are created to become?

    Here we might be tempted to reason about “go and sin no more” accounts from the Gospels, suggesting that there forgiveness (or mitigation of the effects of sin) was always met with repentance. That is true, but incomplete. The Incarnation was also accompanied by a healing ministry that mitigated the effects of the Fall, but which did not always have conversion or repentance experiences attached. These are much like what the Church often used to call “mercy ministries” — serving those in need, often needy as a result of their own poor choices, and always doing so without assurance of repentance. Certainly, understood in these terms, we have much evidence (both scriptural and in church history) that such mitigations of the effects of sin can have a role in moving toward sanctification of individuals who receive them—though we cannot (and should not) justify those actions on that basis.

    This then brings up the question of the moral development of those who are not recipients. How will we who are engaged in the acts of mitigating the effects of sin be shaped toward or away from our ultimate ends? If this is seen as obeying Jesus command to offer mercy, and in so doing participating in the work of the Church as Christ’s body in being a foretaste of the eschaton, clearly there could be a positive role.

    So then, I can see some reasons to support the work of the Church it mitigating the effects of sin, even in the case of sin caused rather directly through sinful action. And I can imagine the argument by which this would be understood to be the moral choice in terms of a teleological ethics of sanctification.

    Clearly this leaves open much room for prudential judgment and in no case suggests the replacement or alteration of moral norms. Your concern about moral development still holds I think, but not as the sole guiding principle.

    Finally, on the matter of moral development, I think it is important to return to my point that moral development does not happen exclusively through consequences. We all have moral senses that are not cultivated in this way (I have not stolen a car nor killed anyone, for example, but have a moral sense about them). My moral formation has happened as much through cultivation of a right anthropology (thus we come to know it is wrong to kill because people are created in the image of God). Therefore, in this case, it is important to also reason about how exercising norms translated to rules or, alternatively, working to mitigate the effects of sin, will shape our coming more and more toward a right understanding of others.



    1. Matthew Lee Anderson May 1, 2012 at 8:02 pm


      So many interesting thoughts here. Have you read O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order? I’d be curious to hear your take on it, if so, as his work (or some twisted version of it) is lurking somewhere in the background of my thinking on this and nearly everything else.

      I’m not sure I’ll be able to address all of this in one go, but here’s a shot at it.

      You wrote: “And it’s here I am troubled by your reasoning: you seem to welcome natural law quite fully, but have a pietistic hold on obedience. It’s confusing to me how these hang together.” Well, it’s not clear to me that they don’t hang together. I take it that IF the norms have been discerned properly than they are morally obligatory and ought to be obeyed. But I’d also suggest that, whatever we make of natural law, I don’t think I’m deriving my arguments about this issue from its domain, but rather from the norms that are supposed to shape the church’s life together as the church.

      But I will say that I don’t think my position is pietistic in the sense that you suggest, namely that it precludes reasoning about norms. Some of our norms may be given in revelation: others may be discerned through rational deliberation, even in our deliberation about how the norms given in revelation relate to our particular situation. But none of that would undermine the force of authority that the norms given in revelation have over our community and our ethical deliberation (an authority that is tied to their status as norms and hence true).

      But I think the other tacit commitment I have (and perhaps a point of departure) is the Pauline principle. I can endorse the “mitigation of the effects of sin” that you suggest, provided that it does not in fact violate or incline someone to violate said norms. This, I take it, is what is at stake in the debate and where the difference lies. I have tried to make a case from something like a moral psychology that the purchase of contraception is corrosive to the will. And that is where I think the church must limit its activities of mitigating sin’s effects: they cannot incline their members toward evil that sin’s effects might not come.

      But that said, I also want to make sure that I’m clear that I don’t think moral development happens exclusively through consequences. It stems from, as you say, a right anthropology. But it is also formed by the work of deliberation about cases such as this, where we examine and test and refine our intuitions and our understanding of the shape of the moral order.

      More to come, no doubt. But I hope this clears up where some of the difference might lie.



      1. Jason E. Summers May 1, 2012 at 9:38 pm


        I have not read O’Donovan’s Ethics, but from this brief review ( it seems you and I have essentially the same difference of view he and his critic have.

        In any case, it seems to me that church advocacy of contraception is on much firmer ground for those who have already made choices versus those who are not yet in such a position. The former mitigates, the latter might incline (though whether or not is testable).

        Of course, the sad news is that the majority of young people in the church are in the former group.



        1. Matthew Lee Anderson May 1, 2012 at 9:54 pm


          Well, can’t commend it strongly enough. The objection the review poses isn’t very moving: the point is that we can only know, for instance, whether someone has the virtue of courage through the particular courageous acts that we do. And O’Donovan raises the question of how we could, in advance, decide what to do in a situation on grounds that we (say) have courage. We have to decide which virtue is needed on the basis of what the decision before us requires. In that sense, appealing to a virtue seems unhelpful for deliberation.

          That said, because this is an epistemological priority, it fits just fine with the idea of conversion as the central event of the believer’s life. After all, conversion doesn’t entail total moral knowledge–nor should we presume that it does–even while it grants us potentially new ways of understanding the moral field.

          But, more on all this in person someday. Thanks for the really fun and fruitful conversation. This is why the internet (and Mere-O) exist.



  7. The fact that we all invariably sin or simply slip doesn’t make an action right. For instance if we to take the example of lying, most Christians lie from time to time. But the fact that most people do it doesn’t make it right for it is written that all liars will end up in the lake of fire.

    Now getting back to the contraception issue…

    Man should not judge his neighbor. Fornicators and all other sinners stand before GOD as sinful. We all face the same judgment – death. But the church should by no means advocate contraception for those among them who have sex outside marriage simply because it’s not right. The church leadership should always guide their flock not using human standards (they’re pretty low) but by the standards set down by the LORD. You don’t speak on your own authority but on God’s. Either God permits it and it’s right or HE doesn’t permit it and it’s wrong.

    There’s no middle course here. Either we have one WAY or we have none. It doesn’t matter what people say or eloquently argue about. What’s the point in deceiving each other.

    Supposing I lied to protect someone, would that make the lie any less sinful? It doesn’t. So whether the church supports contraception or not, they should not do it from the pulpit. If a preacher thinks it’s OK then let him/her promote it as an individual…everyone has a right to express their own opinions, right?

    While that certainly is an unalienable right, when it comes to GODLY matters, we forfeit that right because HIS authority is absolute and for us to be citizens in HIS kingdom, we have to live by HIS standards. If we are to cling to ours then unfortunately the choices we make will lock us out of HIS kingdom because we chose not to obey.


  8. […] by country Adolescents Lack Access to Contraceptives Fight Birth-Control Battle Over the Counter The Church and Contraception for its Single Members Encyclical Letter – Humanae Vitae Catholic Education Resource Center – Ethical Treatment […]


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