What does the church say about birth control? Does the Bible provide any guidelines? What forms of birth control are acceptable for a Christian couple to use?
CONTRACEPTIVES & BIRTH CONTROL
The ancient Egyptians were among some of the first to create effective contraception using just honey and crocodile dung to create a barrier to sperm. A couple of centuries later Casanovas memoirs record animal intestines being used as primitive condoms. In 1839, Charles Goodyear discovered how to vulcanize rubber and put it to use in the manufacture of condoms, intrauterine devices, douching syringes and “womb veils.” In 1950, clinical trials begin on the pill, and by 1965, six and a half million US women were taking the pill like they would vitamins. Less than half a century later, a male pill looks to be only a few years away, and women have more options available to them in birth control than ever before.
Despite all the technological advances available, no birth control is 100% effective. The fact of the matter is if a woman is having sex she may become pregnant no matter what she does, which is why even in this day and age some couples still choose abstinence as was discussed in the first part of this series (New Identity Magazine, Issue 11). In this second part of New Identity Magazine’s series on contraception, the focus will be on birth control. Does the church condone it? What are the biblical grounds for birth control and what are your birth control choices?
CONTRACEPTION AND THE CHURCH
A lack of consensus about the use of birth control across denominations in the Christian arena has left many Christians unsure about which birth control honors God and which doesn’t. On the one hand, the Roman Catholic church declared birth control a violation of natural law in the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1965 and on the other hand, most Protestants have considered some forms of birth control morally acceptable. So where did the confusion all begin?
In Genesis 1:28, it says, “And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply…” This verse among others in Genesis 9:1 and 35:11, shaped the early church’s view of the purpose of intercourse. In the first two centuries of Christian history, the early church leaders found themselves having to defend the value of procreation and children in a society who accepted abortion as a way of life and who saw biblical counsel about virginity as commandments to abstain completely from sex. As a defense against these two early views of sex which the early church saw as unnatural, they turned to the Stoics who defined the nature of something by its purpose which resulted in the belief that if the ear is for hearing then reproductive organs are for reproducing. As John T. Noonan Jr. records in his book, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, by the end of the second century early church leaders like St. Justin Martyr were declaring, “We Christians marry only to produce children.”
The middle ages reveal much the same attitude towards sexual relations; many people still condemned marriage itself and had a poor view of sex in marriage and the value of children. Thus, the church’s stance on birth control remain unchanged. Martin Luther, who lived between 1483 and 1546 wrote in his Lectures on Genesis, “…fertility was regarded as an extraordinary blessing and a special gift of God, as is clear from Deuteronomy 28:4, where Moses numbers fertility among the blessings. ‘There will not be a barren woman among you,’ he says (Ex.23:26). We do not regard this so highly today…Thus someone recently called his wife a sow, since she gave birth rather often. The good for nothing and impure fellow! The saintly fathers did not feel like this at all; for they acknowledged a fruitful wife as a special blessing of God and, on the other hand, regarded sterility as a curse.”
Up until 1930, no Christian church, Catholic or Protestant, accepted contraception, sterilization or abortion. It is unlikely that this would have changed if it were not for zealous efforts of Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) acclaimed by TIME Magazine to be the “mother” of Planned Parenthood and a key figure in the creation of the pill. After having been forced to flee from the United States to England under the threat of being convicted on charges of distributing pornographic materials (much of which was in reality, information on birth control and abortion), Sanger put the thinking of Thomas Malthus into practice.
Thomas Malthus believed that population control was the key to solving poverty, hunger, sickness, and crime. His theory held that for Western civilization to survive, the physically unfit, racially inferior, and mentally incompetent had to be eliminated. Dr. George Grant, author of Killer Angel: A Biography of Planned Parenthood’s Founder Margaret Sanger, notes after returning to the states and clearing her name, Sanger put theory into practice by opening her first clinic in an area primarily inhabited by Slavs, Hispanics, Italians, and Jews. In her first newspaper, The Woman Rebel, Sanger wrote, “Birth control appeals to the advanced radical because it is calculated to undermine the authority of the Christian churches. I look forward to seeing humanity free someday of the tyranny of Christianity no less than Capitalism.”
In 1930, the Anglican Church approved the limited use of birth control in a context where many churches still saw contraceptive devices as “immoral” and “impure.” Over the next two decades, as birth control gained widespread acceptance most Protestant churches changed their stance and left the choice of birth control up to each couple. When the pill was introduced in the 1960’s only the Catholic Church continued to prohibit all forms of contraception, except for natural methods under certain circumstances, and abstinence.
The struggle wasn’t over for the Catholic Church however; a 2005 Harris Poll found ninety percent of adult Catholics support contraception, just three percentage points lower than the general adult population. An interview in 2010, with Pope Benedict XVI recorded in the book, Light of the World, caused much furor when it appeared that the Catholic Church had relaxed their standpoint on contraception. In the book, the Pope answered when asked whether the Catholic Church was not opposed in principle to the use of condoms: “She [the Catholic Church] of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” The Catholic Church later released a statement which can be found at www.bbc.co.uk, clarifying the quote, “The idea that anyone could deduce from the words of Benedict XVI that it is somehow legitimate, in certain situations, to use condoms to avoid an unwanted pregnancy is completely arbitrary and is in no way justified either by his words or in his thought.”
A LOOK AT BIRTH CONTROL IN BIBLICAL TEACHING
Like many other areas of modern life, birth control is not specifically addressed in the scriptures, which as can be seen from the various standpoints of Christian churches across the ages, leaves plenty of room for different conclusions to be drawn. Perhaps the best place to start when trying to develop a biblical view of birth control is with what the Bible says about children.
In today’s modern world, it sometimes seems that children are often seen to be an inconvenience or financial burden that keeps people from achieving their goals and desires, but the Bible views children very differently. The Bible teaches in Genesis 1:27, James 3:9 and Malachi 2:10 that human beings are valuable because they are made in the image of God, and have been personally created by him. Thus, we are to believe that every child has value regardless of age, stage of development, or mental, physical, or social skills (Exodus 4:11).
Further, in Psalm 127: 4-5, the Bible says that children are a blessing from the Lord. The Bible also notes in Hosea 9:10-17, Exodus 23:25-26 and Deuteronomy 7:13-14 that barrenness and childlessness are unfortunate. Author Randy Alcorn, often asks his Bible college ethics classes, “If we believe the Bible when it says children are a blessing from the Lord, why are we so determined to be sure we don’t get too many of those blessings? Financial provision is also a blessing of God—which of us is trying desperately not to get too much of that blessing?”
This view of children as a blessing may be why God commanded Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28 to go forth and multiply. In the Old and New Testament, married couples are given a number of guidelines for abstaining from sexual relations. In the New Testament, Paul cautions in 1 Corinthians 7:5, against married couples who avoid sexual relationships with their spouses for any reason other than for short periods of religious devotion.
But how does this pertain to birth control which does not necessarily inhibit intercourse but rather the consequences of intercourse? In order to answer this question scholars often use the story of Onan found in Genesis 38:8-10. After Tamar’s husband dies her father-in-law, Judah speaks to his son Onan, “‘Lie with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother.’ But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so he put him to death also.”
These few verses have sparked much controversy in the debate for and against birth control. Those for birth control claim that Onan was put to death because he did not fulfill the obligation to marry and bear children for Tamar. Other proponents for birth control interpret these verses to be about rebellion and not birth control saying that Onan was killed by God for disobeying his father, not for wasting his seed. On the other side of the argument are those who say that Onan was put to death because whenever he had sex, he removed the means to have children and was therefore put to death because of this contraceptive act.
Whichever side of Onan’s story you take, it is clear that God does want to be involved in the choices we make regarding our sexuality and contraception. Added to this is that while there is no specific guidance in Scripture about how birth control can be approached, the choice to use contraceptive should be prayerfully determined by each couple and choices made that allow for both the husband and wife to have a clear conscience before God.
WHAT TYPES OF BIRTH CONTROL ARE OKAY FOR CHRISTIANS TO USE?
Out of the world’s one billion married couples, some 650 million plan their families. However, when it comes to decisions about which birth control Christian couples should use, it appears that not all birth control methods are created equal. Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and author of the book, Religion Saves: And Nine Other Misconceptions, which among other topics, answers whether Christians should use birth control, suggests that in order to understand the variety of today’s birth control methods, one should view them in five different levels which range from no birth control to abortive contraceptives. Levels one and two are considered acceptable by all churches including the Roman Catholic Church. Level three is considered acceptable in most Protestant churches. Level four is more complicated and requires careful consideration while level five is generally not condoned by churches.
LEVEL 1: NO BIRTH CONTROL
Not all couples choose to use birth control. Some couples choose to allow God to determine the size of their families and enjoy sexual relations trusting that if God desires for them to have a child they will. At the extreme of this level is the Quiverfull Movement who take their name from Psalm 127:5, “Happy is the man who has a quiver full of [children].” Quiverfull followers believe that all forms of contraception, all forms of birth control and any form of family planning goes against God’s plan. While this form of family planning is not for everyone there is no scriptural problem with it especially if proponents feel no obligation to impose their decision on others.
LEVEL 2: NATURAL BIRTH CONTROL
Natural birth control refers to any method which requires a couple to abstain from sexual intercourse on days when the wife is possibly fertile. Unlike men who are fertile 365 days a year in most cases, women are only fertile for between 5 – 10 days a month depending on the women’s individual cycle. Natural birth control seeks to help couples understand these patterns so that they can make decisions about whether to abstain from sexual relations or not. Advances in medicine and technology in the last few decades mean that couples now have more effective natural birth control choices.
One of the simplest and cheapest methods of natural birth control is the Billings Method which requires that a woman check her visible cervical mucous as an indicator of fertility. While it is possible to learn this method from books or the Internet, a greater success rate, as high as the pill, can be reached when an instructor is consulted. For the more technologically-minded, fertility computers like Lady-comp and Ova-cue, help track your fertility symptoms in a minute or two each day telling you when intercourse will most likely result in pregnancy.
Unlike most forms of birth control, natural birth control methods involve both the husband and wife, have no side effects and are easily reversible. On the downside, natural birth control does require 100% commitment from the couple and they require discipline and planning. In order to overcome this, many couples practices natural birth control along with other level 3 methods during fertile times.
LEVEL 3: NON-ABORTIVE BIRTH CONTROL
Non-abortive birth control works to prevent the egg and sperm from coming into contact with each other during intercourse and by so doing removing the opportunity for fertilization to occur. Temporary non-abortive birth control for husbands consists of condoms while for wives, it includes the diaphragm, contraceptive sponges, cervical caps and female condoms. Some couples may choose permanent non-abortive birth control which can be achieved either by female sterilization, also called tubal ligation, or vasectomy for men.
Driscoll suggests married couples need to consider two things when considering permanent non-abortive birth control methods. First, they need to examine their motives on the issue and not use it as a means to abandon the blessing of children. Second, Driscoll counsels that the decision should not be made too early in life as a couple may desire to have children later.
LEVEL 4 — POTENTIALLY ABORTIVE BIRTH CONTROL
This level of birth control pertains to all contraceptives which use hormones to override the women’s normal cycle and trick the brain into believing she is pregnant which aims at preventing an egg being released from the ovaries. The most common form is the pill but it can also be administered through patches, implants and injections. The pill is the term used to refer to more than forty types of oral contraceptives taken by more than 100 million women worldwide.
The pill has essentially three mechanisms of birth control. Randy Alcorn, author of the book, called Does the Birth Control Pill Cause Abortions? summarizes these actions as follows. In the first instance, the pill works to inhibit ovulation, which is its primary means of birth control. Secondly, the pill thickens the cervical mucus making it harder for sperm to reach the egg if ovulation does occur. Third, the pill thins and shrivels the lining of the uterus so that it is unable or less able to facilitate the implantation of the newly fertilized egg.
It is this third action, that requires, careful prayer and consideration for the Christian couple because while the first two actions are contraceptive in nature, the third is potentially abortive as it works to disrupt the life of a newly fertilized egg. Alcorn examined medical research on hormonal birth control and determined that scientific papers suggest that even while on the pill, ovulation occurs in 4 – 15% of all cycles. As a result there is a high chance that eggs may be fertilized but aborted early without a woman ever knowing she was pregnant due to the inhospitable environment in the womb. However, even amongst the medical fraternity there is wide debate about whether or not the inhospitable womb lining leads to less fertilized eggs being implanted than would usually be the case. As a result, each couple needs to decide for themselves whether they are at peace about using the pill.
Despite this controversy, hormonal contraception has become popular over the last half century largely because it is convenient, couples can have sex without planning and if in a committed relationship no barrier methods need to be used. However, many couples find the common side effects of the pill such as uncontrollable mood swings, headaches, weight gain and dizziness ultimately become unmanageable in their relationship and have to look for other forms of birth control.
LEVEL 5 — ABORTIVE BIRTH CONTROL
The final level of birth control refers to those methods which act on a fertilized egg. These birth control measures include medical procedures of various kinds such as abortions, as well as the morning-after pill. Other items that cause abortion are the intrauterine device (IUD) and Norplant, which do not prevent conception but prevent implantation of an already fertilized ovum. Almost all Christian churches agree that this is not an acceptable method of birth control since life begins at conception and that destroying a fertilized egg means taking a human life.
Ultimately, each couple must decide for themselves, after careful prayer, if they want children, if so how many would they like and how, if at all, they would like to space these children. These questions are not always easily answered and there is no one answer that suits all couples. The same can be said for a couple’s choice of birth control. What works for one couple might not work for the next couple and vice versa. Staying open to further conversation, talking to God and friends, and considering children a blessing, are all good steps in choosing a birth control plan that involves God in the choices we make regarding our sexuality and contraception.
Next we’ll take a look at the various Christian perspectives on Contraceptives & Disease Prevention in our Part 3 and final installment of our Contraceptive Series. What do you think about birth control? Join the conversation below!