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  • Larry Payne

Baby Yes? Baby No? Ethics of Birth Control

Updated: Apr 5

Have you attended a gender reveal party? It’s a gathering where the expectant Mom and Dad learn for themselves or tell the world the gender of their baby. It can provoke delight or brief disappointment. It can also cause disaster. In 2021 a giant pyrotechnic display ignited a wildfire that burned thousands of acres in the San Bernadino Forest and killed a firefighter. Other epic failures have brought injuries and even deaths. The woman who is credited with starting the gender reveal party trend, Jenna Karvunidis, is now seeking to stop the movement, blogging “Could we just stop having these stupid parties?”[1]

The couples at reveal parties have one thing in common: they said “Yes” to a pregnancy. On the other hand, millions of other women are saying “No” to a pregnancy by utilizing birth control. Is that a moral choice? Let’s explore the ethics of birth control from an ethical and theological viewpoint to build well-being at every stage of adult life.


Family of 5 holding hands
Photo by kalhh on pixabay.com

Making efforts at family planning is not something new. Around 1850 B.C. Egyptian women mixed acacia leaves with honey or used animal dung to make vaginal suppositories to prevent pregnancy. The Greeks in the 4th century B.C. used natural ointments made with olive and cedar oil as spermicides.[2] Various other substances have been used as a spermicide, including wads of wool, sponges, or soaps. Lysol was the bestselling soap in the 19th century USA because it was believed to be effective, though painful.[3] Men have always made efforts to avoid pregnancy by withdrawal, as in the Bible story of Onan.[4]

The modern revolution in effective birth control came from the invention of the rubber condom, patented by Charles Goodyear in 1844. By 1855 it was in mass production in the US and UK. A moralistic backlash occurred, leading to the passage of federal laws banning the sale and distribution of them as obscene materials. The next phase of the birth control revolution came when the latex condom was marketed, bringing by the mid-1930’s a more effective and pleasurable product to the masses. The military made condoms a standard issue at that time to lessen venereal disease. During the Depression condom sales soared as millions of families evaded the harsh economic reality of additional children.[5] The ultimate revolution in birth control came in 1960 with the introduction of a pill that prevented conception. It was quickly adopted by millions of women around the world who felt safe and empowered in effective family planning. Today half of all women of childbearing age in the world, about 950 million, use some method of birth control for family planning.[6]

My wife and I have shared the joy of bringing four children into the world. We have known the ups and downs of planning, pregnancy, birth, and parenting. We celebrate January 21, May 5, June 29, and July 13 as red-letter days every year. We believe, as according to the Bible, each child is a gift of God. Of course, grandchildren make it even better! From the earliest days of our marriage we used the pill, condoms, and spermicides to prevent conception. It was not fail-proof! But our choice led to a family that was right for us in living out what we understood as God’s best for us.

Ethicist David Gushee points out that modern technology like the pill, IUD’s, simple surgeries, and effective over-the-counter drugs have radically changed the ethical landscape in just 60 years. We live in a completely different sexual era than at any time in human history. He writes, “The crucial weakening of the perceived link between nature and fertility opened the door to a sense of entitlement to manage human fertility… People expect to be able to exercise full agency either in preventing, or having, children, regardless of their sexual behavior. This was unimaginable for 200,000 years—and now taken for granted.”[7]

A radically new era of technology impacting billions of adults needs solid bioethical framing. The Gallup Survey finds the 92% of Americans believe birth control is morally acceptable.[8] What theological and ethical principles support the use of modern methods of birth control? I offer these four ideas.

The first principle is the purpose of sex to build the unity of a couple. Couples know instinctively that sex brings bonding emotionally and unique pleasures. This unitive purpose begins long before the desire to have a baby and continues long after that is biologically possible. Sex is okay with God in-and-of-itself for pure pleasure and for building a caring relationship. Unfortunately, the Church has not endorsed unity as the primary purpose for most of history. From the 4th century the Church taught the only reason for intercourse was to produce children. Any interference with that possibility was immoral. In fact, pleasure was immoral. The modern Catholic stance emerged in 1930 when Pope Pius XII reinforced the teaching that all forms of technologically assisted birth control were immoral because they interfered with conception. To this day, except for abstinence and rhythm methods, all methods of preventing conception are de facto immoral and forbidden.[9]  

The assertion that procreation is the primary purpose of intercourse, more important than relational bonding, is not apparent. The construction of the human sex organs that magnify mutual pleasure offers a physical indication that unity of the partners is the greater purpose of sex in the modern world. Pleasure bonds a couple in profound biochemical and emotional ways. An entire book of the Bible, the Song of Solomon, highlights this purpose. Looking to the metaphorical Garden of Eden with a wink, we might say that Adam and Eve were naked, active, unashamed for a long time before Cain was born and God said that this was good! It is normal and ethical to honor this God-given capacity for pleasure and emotional bonding. It is not problematic that procreation is a lesser motivation in modern society.

A second reason that supports birth control and family planning is the right of a woman to determine her future. Until modern times, women were the property of men. A patriarchal society gave no consideration of a woman’s rights as an individual moral agent. Jesus taught a different way, promoting equality, and women were central to the life of the early church. Now the full rights of women are universally recognized. In relation to family planning, for the first time in history, a woman has a unique moral agency about the life-altering reality of pregnancy and motherhood. It must be recognized that pregnancy is a dangerous experience across the world and the ongoing acts of motherhood last until the final days of life. The physical and emotional experience of pregnancy and motherhood is inseparable from her inherent right of conscience, self-determination, and autonomy.

The primacy of an adult woman’s health and self-determination above the embryo, zygote, or non-viable fetus is a foundation of family planning. However, some lawmakers are defining legal personhood from the moment of conception over any consideration of a woman’s health. This defies common sense. A cake mix is not a cake, a tadpole is not a frog, a blueprint is not a building, and a zygote is not a person. It is unconscionable for restrictive laws such as these to remove the right of choice about reproduction. Writes ethicist Beverly W Harrison, “the strongest moral grounding… rests in the claim that any society has a positive moral obligation to support the conditions for women's well-being… The inability of many people to see that procreative choice is conditional to women's social well-being reflects a failure of moral imagination and empathy. No concern for social justice is genuine if it does not lie close to concrete historical consequences. To enhance the "quality of life" of a society by adopting policies whose consequences deteriorate the life conditions of ‘the fifty-one percent minority’ is bizarre. ”[10]

Another ethical and theological consideration I believe supports birth control and family planning is the collaborative nature of divine and human interaction. Open Theism teaches that God’s essential Love equips and inspires all creatures to cooperate with divine purposes. God’s will and work is not done unilaterally by controlling events with some supernatural intervention beyond natural laws. If God wants a hole dug, the farmer knows he must use a shovel to do God’s work. Unfortunately, some insist that only so-called “natural methods” of birth control comply with God’s sovereignty, while medical and mechanical methods are disobedient, selfish efforts to thwart the Divine. But logically, any method of controlling conception is a choice of human behavior that might be in line with God’s will or not. The motivation, not the method, is the vital factor. We can be grateful that God has given humankind wisdom for advances in tools for all manner of endeavors. Using the Pill, a condom, or abstinence is simply a wise choice of the method for a couple who is seeking to cooperate with God for their best.

One couple with three children experienced an insight into this collaboration. The lack of the woman’s normal cycle brought a suspicion something unplanned had happened. They had practiced the normal methods that had been effective for years. She rose early and used a home test. The husband heard her say, “It’s positive!” He groaned loudly and stumbled back to bed in silence. It was time for a different collaboration with God for the next nine months and decades that followed. Decades later, bouncing the grandchildren born of that surprise baby-now-grown-woman, the wiser couple felt glad for the twist of life in the Divine-Human dance.

A final consideration is the ethics of stewardship. A family unit has only a finite amount of time, energy, and resources. Responsible stewardship is a God-given assignment for each person and family. It is right and reasonable for a woman or couple to set the boundary of child-bearing in line with their life circumstances. Considering birth control as an isolated, singular act is inadequate. The true frame of reference is family planning that involves the totality of life. Being pregnant is not a mere physical event of nine months, instead it brings a profound change for the entire life of a woman, couple, and extended family. The mission, purpose, pleasure, and achievements for the future of everyone is in the balance. The word of God to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply,” born from a struggle of the Hebrew nation to survive, is not a command for every modern family to produce a tribe of children. This stewardship also has a planetary aspect with the world population now exceeding eight billion and our climate approaching a crisis stage. It may already be instructive that the birthrate in advanced nations is now below the replacement level for the first time in history.[11] Having large families made sense in the past, with limited medical knowledge and primitive farming techniques. But I don’t think that is a wise choice for families today in the stewardship of 21st century life.

I’ve brought four ethical considerations that support birth control and proactive family planning. I recognize other interpretations are possible. The support provided by the primary purpose of unity, the rights of a woman to control her body and future, the collaborative truth of divine and human behavior, and the stewardship of finite energy builds a strong case for family planning. Wherever you are in the family life cycle, I hope you will find a path that brings greater well-being!


[1] Christina Morales and Allyson Waller, “A Gender-Reveal Celebration Is Blamed for a Wildfire. It Isn’t the First Time.” New York Times, September 7, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/07/us/gender-reveal-party-wildfire.html

 

[2] “Birth Control Before the Pill.” Public Broadcast System, American Experience Show. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pill-birth-control-pill

 

 

[4] Genesis 38:9

[5] “History of Condoms,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_condoms

[7] David Gushee, Introducing Christian Ethics. Front Edge Publishing, 2022

[8] Meghan Brenan, “Americans Say Birth Control, Divorce Most 'Morally Acceptable.'” https://news.gallup.com/poll/393515/americans-say-birth-control-divorce-morally-acceptable.aspx

 

[9] “Humanae Vitae.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. https://www.usccb.org/topics/natural-family-planning

[10] Beverly W. Harrison, Our Right to Choose. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011 (reprint of 1983 Edition)

[11] “9.7 billion on Earth by 2050, but growth rate slowing, says new UN population report.” United Nations Reports. https://www.un.org/en/academic-impact/97-billion-earth-2050-growth-rate-slowing-says-new-un-population-report

 

Photo by alisa dyson on pixabay.com

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