What does the Bible say about artificial means of contraception? Is it morally and biblically permissible for a Christian couple to utilize modern medical technology to limit the number of children they conceive? Or are Christians obligated to give birth to as many offspring as is biologically possible? Or is there another option?
For example, a couple in their early 40’s with 5 children come to you for counseling. Jim is a carpenter whose work is sporadic and whose pay is usually somewhat low. They struggle as a family even now to get by. Jim believes God should decide how many children they have and therefore opposes the use of any form of birth control. Susan, his wife, is physically exhausted and emotionally drained. She worries about money, clothing for the kids, their college education, etc. She can’t bear the thought of another child. What do you tell them?
A. Introductory Issues
1. The history of the use of contraception
· Egyptian papyri dating as far back as 1900 b.c. show that a variety of attempts were made to prevent pregnancy. One papyrus document recommends that the woman place crocodile dung on moistened fibers in the opening of the uterus!
· The condom first appeared in the middle of the 17th century.
· The birth control pill was introduced in the late 1950s.
2. The Roman Catholic position on birth control
· Clement of Alexandria (150-215 a.d.) said that for couples to have sexual relations in marriage “other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature” (Pedagogus 2.10-95.3). Augustine (354-430) set the course for Catholic thinking for centuries. He argued that in order to be entirely free from the stain of sin sexual relations within marriage had to have procreation in view. He believed that original sin was transmitted through sexual generation and that sexual desire had to be balanced by the positive good of procreative intent. Otherwise sexual relations, even within marriage, would be venially sinful.
· In 1930 Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Casti connubi in which he declared that “any use whatever of marriage, in the exercise of which the act by human effort is deprived of its natural power of procreating life, violates the law of God and nature, and those who do such a thing are stained by a grave and mortal flaw.” Pius did, however, open the door for the so-called rhythm method of contraception, a view that was officially endorsed by Pope Pius XII in 1951.
3. Modern methods of contraception
· The pill, the IUD, the condom, the diaphragm, spermicides, sterilization, tubal ligation, vascetomy.
4. The difference between a contraceptive device and an abortifacient . . .
· The IUD is not a contraceptive device but an abortifacient. A fertilized egg (zygote) will never become an embryo or fetus unless it becomes attached to the uterine wall. This may take up to 8 days and often does not happen at all (@ 40% of all fertilized eggs are simply washed away in the menstrual stream). The IUD, unlike oral contraceptives and the condom, does not prevent fertilization of the egg. Rather, it prevents an already fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall.
5. The principles of Christian liberty suggest that the believer is free to do anything that is not contrary to the Word of God. We are permitted to do whatever is not forbidden. Not all agree with this. Some insist that we are permitted to do only what is explicitly commanded. My view, however, is that the conscience of the Christian is obligated and bound only by what the Bible either commands or forbids, or by what may be legitimately deduced from an explicit biblical principle.
6. Whereas I will be arguing for the moral legitimacy of the use of birth control, that in no way implies the moral illegitimacy of declining its use. In other words, Christian liberty requires that those who advocate the use of birth control not condemn those who choose not to employ it.
B. Ten Arguments against the use of birth control and a Response to each
1. Genesis 1:28; 9:1
a) If this were a specific command to every individual, every man and woman would be required to marry. But clearly marriage is not a universal obligation (Jesus, Paul, 1 Cor. 7). Therefore, "the command to propagate is to the race in general and not to each specific individual in it" (Geisler/213).
b) This text does address the responsibility to bear children but says nothing about how many or for how long. Nothing in the text explicitly requires us to have as many children as is biologically possible.
c) Gen. 1:28 must be read in the light of 1:26. See Davis, pp. 40-41.
2. Deut. 23:1
The argument is that this prohibition reflects God's displeasure with any means of birth control.
a) There is nothing to indicate that these men were castrated as a means of birth control.
b) In all likelihood, this refers "not to states of infertility produced by illness or accident, but to deliberate acts of castration at times associated with pagan worship in the ancient Near East" (Davis/37).
3. Genesis 38:6-10 (Deut. 25:5-10)
a) Onan's sin was not that he violated the general command to have children, but that he violated the specific obligation in the law of levirate marriage. His action was sinful not because he used a form of birth control, but because he disobeyed a legal responsibility to raise up seed in his deceased brother's name (probably because he didn't want to assume the personal and financial obligation of raising them).
b) Lev. 20:10-21 lists specific sexual crimes punishable by death under the Mosaic Code. If coitus interruptus, such as that committed by Onan, were regarded as an abuse or sin, one would expect to see it in this list.
4. Psalms 127:3-5; 128:1-6
No one would dare disagree that children are a wonderful blessing from the Lord.
a) Why should we conclude from these texts that we are morally obligated to have as many children as is biologically possible?
b) As with all God's blessings, we must be wise and prudent stewards in the enjoyment of them.
5. "The purpose of sex in marriage is procreational, not recreational."
According to this argument, primarily associated with the Roman Catholic Church, to engage in sexual relations apart from at least the intention of conceiving children is sinful.
Although primarily a RC viewpoint, this perspective on sexual relations within marriage is advocated by a few Protestants, such as Mary Pride in her book, The Way Home (Crossway). She writes: "The Bible teaches us that sex is only legitimate within marriage. It further teaches . . . that the natural purpose of marital sex is (1) physical oneness and (2) fruitfulness. Nowhere does the Bible say that the purpose of marital sex is climax, much less climax at the expense of fruitfulness and oneness" (27). She also argues that the "natural function" of the woman in Romans 1:26, which reprobates abandon when God "gives them over" to their sin, is not heterosexual relations, but childbearing and nursing children! In other words, the act "against nature" which Paul condemns is not homosexuality (lesbianism) but women acting like men by not bearing children (27-28)!?
a) The Bible reveals at least five purposes for sex in marriage:
1) procreation (the raising up of a godly seed);
2) to enhance the experience of companionship;
3) to foster physical, as well as spiritual, unity ("one flesh"; Gen. 2:24);
4) pleasure (Song of Solomon);
5) to curb fornication and lust (1 Cor. 7).
b) "If sex were intended only for procreation, then it would be strange that nature has it that women can procreate less than half of their married life . . . and then only at a very limited time each month" (Geisler/215-16).
c) If this argument were valid, it would be sinful for a married couple to have sexual relations subsequent to female menopause or a hysterectomy or in cases where either husband or wife is sterile.
6. "Birth control is unnatural and artificial."
This argument has its origins in natural law ethics, according to which every object in the universe has a final cause or end or goal or purpose to which it aims. "When something is used according to its end, it is acting naturally. When it is used contrary to its purpose, it acts unnaturally" (Feinbergs/172). Common sense suggests that the purpose for human sexual organs is reproduction. Anything that prohibits or interrupts the sex organs from performing their appointed role is thus sinful.
At the heart of this argument is the underlying principle that we must not attempt to hinder any natural course of events, especially conception.
a) "The problem is that the natural order of things in human beings negates the argument. No woman is fertile each day of the month, nor is she capable of bearing children all her life. A woman is likely to conceive only a few days each month. This is possible from the time she reaches puberty until menopause. Nonetheless, nature also shows that a woman still has sexual passion at times during the month when she is infertile and at times in life when she cannot conceive. If the sole purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation, then why did God give women the desire for sexual intercourse at times when they cannot become pregnant? Does not the natural order of things, then, demonstrate that procreation is not the only purpose of sex?" (Feinbergs/175-76).
b) We do many so-called unnatural things that run counter to and hinder so-called nature, none of which any of us would regard as immoral or unbiblical: shaving, air-travel, mowing the lawn, etc.
c) If we consistently applied this principle we would be forced never to employ medical assistance, medication, or surgery.
d) Those who employ this argument concede the use of the rhythm method and abstinence during times of ovulation, none of which is itself natural (charting or scheluding intercourse based on body temperature, etc., is hardly natural; and abstinence runs counter to the natural sex drive).
7. "Birth control betrays a lack of trust or faith in the sovereignty of God. He is Lord over the womb. If God wants us to have children, He should be free to bestow them. If He doesn't want to, He (and He alone) should have the power and prerogative to prevent conception."
a) We must be careful that our trust in God is not simply irresponsible behavior. For example, whereas we trust a sovereign God, we do not sit at home while unemployed and say: "God is sovereign over the job market and will bring me a job in his time, according to his purpose, and without my help."
b) If this argument were consistently applied, we should never work, use locks or alarms on our homes, save money for emergencies, purchase life or health insurance, wear safety goggles when using a weed-eater, use sun-screen when outside, or support the police or national defense.
8. "Birth control has the potential to alter in a destructive way our concepts and experience of love and commitment."
The Feinbergs, although not advocates of this argument, have articulated its essence:
"Prior to the development of modern forms of birth control that are extremely effective, entering into a sexual relation always meant running the risk of conception. That fact gave the act a seriousness and importance that is lost when conception is so certainly forestalled. The level of love and commitment of the partners to one another was invariably high because of the risk they were taking. Now the gravity of the matter is obscured, because the risk is gone. Sex can mean anything or nothing. It can be mechanical; it can be casual. As a result, in many cases the act has lost the sense of intimacy it once had, and that loss of intimacy along with the ability now to treat one another as objects for personal gratification without any need of commitment or any fear of accountability represents a significant negative result of modern contraceptive means" (174).
But: the fact that birth control may yield negative consequences does not itself make birth control wrong. The absence of intimacy, promiscuity, etc., are wrong, not because one may have employed a contraceptive device, but because such things are declared to be wrong in the Bible. "Adultery and fornication would not suddenly become right just because the couple did not use contraceptive devices, experienced great intimacy, and risked pregnancy. . . . As to married couples, where there is genuine love and respect for one another, there will be appropriate intimacy even if contraception is used. On the other hand, in a marriage where there is little or no mutual love and respect, refusal to use contraceptive devices is not likely to have anything to do with increasing intimacy" (Feinbergs/177).
9. "Birth control encourages promiscuity among both married and unmarried people."
But: we must distinguish between an object and the purpose or use to which an object is put. Cars are not sinful simply because people can use them to escape the scene of a crime they've just committed. The fact that an object can be used for immoral purposes does not necessarily prove the object is in and of itself immoral.
10. "Birth control devices have negative side-effects and are detrimental to one's health. Since our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, we should not employ those things that do damage to our physical constitution."
On this point, I agree: if a birth control device is found conclusively to have physically destructive side-effects, it should not be used. But such scientific evidence does not exist for all methods of contraception.
C. Four questions
1. My conclusion is that the Bible nowhere prohibits the use of birth control. But are there any texts that suggest or imply that birth control is morally permissible?
a. 1 Cor. 7:5
"While this passage does not mention contraception, it does carry important implications for the discussion. Here it seems evident that God's will for the Christian couple is not 'maximum fertility,' i.e., the maximum number of conceptions biologically possible during the course of a Christian marriage. By mutual agreement, sexual relations may be renounced for a time in order to pursue spiritual objectives---in this case, prayer. The larger principle would be that Christian couples have the right to choose to 'override' the usual responsibility to procreate (Gen. 1:28) for a season in order to pursue a spiritual good" (Davis, 39)
b. 1 Cor. 7:26-28
Here Paul advises Christians to avoid taking on the responsibilities of family life due to the impending persecution.
c. 1 Timothy 5:8
This text not only demands that we work or in some way provide financially and physically for our family, but also forbids us doing anything that would hinder such care, even if we are employed. We are forbidden to take on obligations, no matter how well intentioned, which would lead us to fail to provide basic necessities for those who are dependent upon us.
When combined with Gen. 1:28, perhaps we should articulate the principle this way: When it comes to the bearing of children, the ideal is not as many as you are capable of having, but as many as you are capable of handling.
2. Is a Christian couple free to take steps to avoid ever having any children?
The issue here is one of motive:
Wrong motives for being childless: a) the world is over-crowded; b) the world is too corrupt; c) "We don't like kids!" d) "We want the money and time to spend on ourselves."
Right motives for being childless: a) If there is good reason to believe the parents would pass on a genetically fatal disease; b) if you are physically able to have kids but physically unable to raise and nurture them; c) if children would impede a clear call to ministry (missionaries); d) if you are financially unable to provide for them (but this is only legitimate for delaying the bearing of children, not for not having any at all, ever).
Having said this, Davis nevertheless points out that "neither Paul nor any other New Testament writer envisions any Christian couple voluntarily remaining childless for the duration of marriage" (40).
3. Is sterilization an option for the Christian?
· As of 1979, sterilization was the second most frequently used form of birth control among Americans.
· By 1976, 30% of all widowed, divorced and separated women and single mothers aged 15 to 44 in the U.S. had been sterilized.
· By 1977 nearly ten million persons in the U.S. had been sterilized.
· The difference between involuntary and voluntary sterilization:
4. Are there any non-religious arguments favoring the use of birth control?
b. Prevention of Birth Defects
Are either of these legitimate arguments?