Over the past few months, several things have happened to form the way Emily and I think about birth control. From a mostly ambivalent “what could possibly be wrong with it?”, Em and I are now more or less in line with Roman Catholic opposition to contraception1. The event that really started Em and I on this path was her bringing home a book by an über mom of 8 (see here). That first got me interested in welcoming children as a blessing from God, and having a large family. Em thought I was nuts. A few months later, we subscribed to Touchstone. Our first issue was devoted to the family, with an emphasis on the traditionally Christian opposition to contraception. I was intrigued; Em was unconvinced. A few months later (admittedly at my prompting), we discussed birth control at white martyrs, a group of young married couples we are a part of. During the course of the discussion Em wound up persuading herself to be opposed to birth control. By the end of the evening she was more convinced than I was. At this point both she and I were more convinced that large families were a very good thing than that we ought to strictly avoid artificial birth control. There are lots of good reasons to space babies for the health of the mother, and Em and I were planning on using birth control for that purpose. But when it came down to it, we just couldn’t. It felt wrong somehow, despite all our theoretical justifications. Before we had Jonathan it never bothered us, but somehow after experiencing the life-giving aspect of sex, we just couldn’t intentionally sterilize ourselves.
So our theoretical objections to contraception post-dated our feeling that something was wrong with it. For me, the theoretical framework was solidified by another Touchstone article on the purpose of sex, and the late Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Humane Vitae.
You may be suspicious that my objectivity was compromised by the fact that a gut feeling preceded my reasons for thinking birth control was wrong. I do not think this is the case, but you will have to judge for yourself.
There are two distinct issues at stake: whether (and under what circumstances) it is ever right to intentionally prevent a marriage from being life-giving, and if so what means are appropriate to that end. The argument I am about to present is based primarily on natural law rather than the Bible. It is premised on the belief that we can draw valid conclusions about nature (our bodies in particular) by reasoning from how God has created them. In particular, the following assumes that the way God designed our bodies to function is the way they ought to function, and that it is therefore wrong to intentionally alter this created function. If you disagree with this, you are unlikely to find the following very convincing.
The first issue is whether (and under what circumstances) it is ever right to prevent/postpone pregnancy. To this, the answer must be a reserved yes. God has given us reason so that we may exercise control over our bodies. None of our body’s functions and desires are bad, but they must be ruled by reason – in fact, our ability to do so is one of the things that distinguishes us from animals.
Nevertheless, temporarily preventing a marriage from being life-giving is a serious decision. Children are a blessing from the Lord, and having lots of them (by contemporary standards) is a good thing, as Hebrew and classical Christian culture realized. It is true that our society makes it difficult to have a large family, but this is a bad thing. John Paul II warned the world against embracing a “culture of death”, and I think you can see just that in the declining birth rates in developed nations. Insofar as the culture we live in is imperfect, living rightly in it is an act of counter-culture. I think large families represent just that kind of appropriate cultural rebellion2.
The next issue is what means are appropriate to the end of controlling births, to which the catholic (and my) answer is that only those methods which work with the woman’s natural periods of fertility (usually called natural family planning or NFP). This flows rather naturally from my starting premise that the way God designed the body to function is the way it ought to function. NFP, rather than altering the way God designed sex to function, instead works with the body as designed. The Catholic church has been widely criticized for inconsistency in allowing NFP but not artificial methods, but this criticism misses the fundamental reasoning behind catholic opposition to birth control. There is a world of difference between using reason to control one’s body and altering the way God designed the body to work. Allowing couples to space/limit their children by not having sex does not sunder sex from procreation in the manner that contraception does.
There are, of course, downsides to NFP. It has a somewhat higher failure rate than artificial methods, and it has the obvious downside of celibacy for several days a month. Nevertheless, this is the cost that God has ordained (through the function of the human body) for spacing children. The fact that it is difficult and inconvenient highlights the fact that God meant us to have children, and any decision to limit them is a serious one that must be made for equally serious reasons.
In the process of changing my mind about this issue, I wound up answering several of my own objections to the practice, which are standard enough that they might be your objections, too. The first of them is that the catholic position is just a holdover from Augustine’s stodgy view of sex (roughly summarized: “sex is bad. It’s just barely ok if it’s for procreation and you don’t enjoy it”). Sex, the argument goes, is not just for procreation – it is also for spousal unity, and is valid in that context regardless of whether or not it is live-giving.
It is certainly true that procreation is not the only purpose of sex, but the position I am defending has never claimed that it is. Instead, we hold that all the purposes of sex (pleasure, spousal unity, procreation) are important and necessary components of a sexual relationship. In fact, this objection falls back on itself. It is not the NFP position which exalts one purpose of sex over another, but the artificial birth-control position. If it is obviously wrong to have sex for pleasure to the exclusion of unity, and to have sex for procreation to the exclusion of unity, why is intentional sterilization, which allows a couple to have sex for unity and pleasure to the exclusion of procreation, not wrong?
The second objection is that, since the fall has damaged our bodies, it is not valid to reason from how our bodies ought to function because they no longer function that way. However, the fact that our bodies are fallen is not a blank check to ignore their design. I don’t know of any good reasons to think that we aren’t capable of reasoning faithfully about what was and what wasn’t affected by the fall, and it seems obvious to me that the relevant features of the reproductive system were unaffected – although they do not perform their function as well as they were created to.
But, it may be argued, this is precisely the point. Because childbirth is very hard on the body, we are justified in utilizing artificial birth control to counter the effects of the fall. The number of couples who utilize contraception to space or limit births based on an objective analysis of the woman’s physical health is, I suspect, rather small. Nevertheless, it is a possible use of contraception.
Implicit in this objection, however, is the assumption that in order to compensate for an alteration of the body’s function caused by the fall (pain in childbirth, wear and tear, etc.) it is acceptable to further alter the body’s created function. This seems backwards to me. Why should one violation of the body’s created function be an acceptable cure for another? It is a good thing to utilize science and medical technology to alleviate the damage the body incurs because of the fall, but artificial methods of birth control do not do that. Instead, they replace one imperfection with another.
The traditional Christian opposition to birth control is as relevant today as it has ever been. It is tempting to think that the classical Christian opposition to birth control was an artifact of the particular methods available at the time, and that as such it is an antiquated position which ought to be discarded. I have argued that this is not so. The opposition of Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, et al. (four names you do not usually see together!) to birth control, which I have attempted to defend, is just as relevant today as it was five hundred or a thousand years ago. The discovery of new methods for controlling births and the cultural embracing of the practice has no effect on the reasons Christians have traditionally rejected it, and they do not constitute a justification for discarding the Church’s teaching on this point.
1I say Catholic because they are currently the most outspoken advocates of the position, but in fact it is just as classically protestant as it is Catholic. Until the 1930’s opposition to birth control was practically unanimous among all Christians. The Anglican church was the first to allow it, and the rest of the protestant churches followed suit soon after. It is interesting that the protestant churches embraced birth control right as it was culturally convenient to do so, and that the move was spearheaded by the liberal wing of the Anglican church. Whenever church leaders “discover” that a traditional Christian teaching can be safely discarded just in time to keep pace with the culture, I raise my left eyebrow in suspicion.
2Please do not misunderstand me. I am not accusing everyone who has a small family of being worldly. I am suggesting that the tendency toward small families is a product of the culture of death rather than Christian values, and that furthermore a good way to counteract this tendency is to have large families.