Christians and the Contraception Culture
How Dobbs provides an opportunity for reflection
C. Ben Mitchell
Progressives and proponents of Roe v. Wade have done a lot of handwringing and social media-posting in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Citizens of a democracy like ours will understand that these court decisions have both a legal and an educational role.
Roe and Doe v. Bolton, for instance, not only legalized promiscuous abortion, they also falsely taught generations of Americans that preborn human beings were merely “clumps of tissue.” Since then, education about what is going on in the womb has been crucial to the pro-life cause. The Dobbs decision provides additional opportunities for education on the profound truth that preborn human beings deserve the protection of the law. But the implications of this reality are far-reaching, providing impetus for reflecting on other, related issues.
Considering early views of contraception
Take the issue of contraception, for instance. From the beginning, and throughout its pages, Holy Scripture advances a presumption in favor of procreation. From the Creation mandate to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28), to the celebration of the psalmist that “children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!” (Ps. 127:3-5), to Paul’s indication that an example of a widow’s good deeds is “bringing up children” (1 Tim. 5:10), the Bible is decidedly pro-natal (for procreation). Children are to be welcomed, not refused.
Scripture’s presumption in favor of procreation was not because contraception was unknown in the ancient world. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) proposed using various natural oils as spermicides. Pliny (23-79 A.D.) encouraged sexual abstinence to avoid pregnancy. Barrier methods, including condoms made of natural materials, date back roughly to 1000 B.C. Despite those methods, Christians mostly avoided contraception until recently, welcoming children as a gift from the Lord and realizing that widespread use of contraceptives would inevitably lead to promiscuity.
Allan Carlson, president emeritus of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, corrects our collective memory loss about the role of American evangelicals in opposing birth control. He reminds us that American Evangelical Protestants were vocal in their opposition to birth control as recently as 100 years ago, passing laws and strong restrictions on the practice.
All the same, by 1973—the year the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the abortion laws of all 50 states—American Evangelical leaders had not only given a blessing to birth control; many would come to welcome the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade as a blow for religious liberty.1Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973 (Routledge, 2011), pp. 1-2.
In the early 20th century, at the 1934 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, messengers passed the following resolution:
The Southern Baptist Convention hereby expresses its disapproval of the Hastings Bill, now pending in the Congress of the United States, the purpose of which is to make possible and provide for the dissemination of information concerning contraceptives and birth control; whatever the intent and motive of such proposal we cannot but believe that such legislation would be vicious in character and would prove seriously detrimental to the morals of our nation. (Resolution on Birth Control, May 1, 1934, Fort Worth, TX).
Current considerations of contraception
Today, however, even pro-life Christians generally favor certain forms of contraception. Natural family planning (NFP) and barrier methods (condoms and cervical caps) are largely uncontroversial among most evangelical Christians. This seems to be the case because our understanding of the relationship between married sexual intimacy and procreation has been severed and family planning has been routinely embraced.2Blackburn, W. Ross. “Sex and Fullness: A Rejoinder to Dennis Hollinger on Contraception.” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 58, no. 1 (March 2015): 117-130. Postponing children—whether for finances, finishing school, or after a career is settled—is more the norm than the exception, even among Christians.
The use of non-abortifacient means of contraception is also less controversial because they prevent pregnancy by preventing fertilization. The reasoning is that as long as embryos are not harmed, there is no harm in these forms of contraception. Abortifacient means of contraception (some forms of the contraceptive pill, the IUD, and elective abortion) are increasingly rejected by Christians, and for good reason, namely that they allow fertilization to take place, but force a woman’s body to reject the preborn human embryo or violently remove him or her.
Although it’s right and good to focus on the harm to the preborn, there may be other harms of birth control worth consideration, including the cultivation of a widespread culture of contraception such as the one we currently inhabit. There are good reasons God made our bodies ready to parent earlier rather than later in life. Postponing procreation increases the likelihood of infertility and complications during pregnancy.3L. Schmidt, T. Sobotka, J.G. Bentzen, A. Nyboe Andersen, on behalf of the ESHRE Reproduction and Society Task Force, Demographic and medical consequences of the postponement of parenthood, Human Reproduction Update, Volume 18, Issue 1, January/February 2012, Pages 29–43, https://doi.org/10.1093/humupd/dmr040 Additionally, Mary Eberstadt’s volume, Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, makes a convincing argument that widespread availability of contraception fueled the sexual revolution and its toxic aftermath of social pathologies such as abortion, divorce, cohabitation, and pornography.
Interestingly, a search of the annual resolutions of the Southern Baptist Convention does not find any resolutions on the ethics of birth control per se. Abortifacient methods of contraception and the distribution of contraceptives without parental consent are rightly decried, but whether or not married couples should use contraception is not mentioned at all, presumably because Southern Baptist have left that matter to Christian conscience.
Important questions to consider
Perhaps while we are working out the moral and legal implications of Dobbs for abortifacient contraceptives, it’s time for evangelicals and other Christians to rethink their understanding of the relationship of marriage and procreation and what that means for being complicit in an anti-natal (against procreation) culture of contraception.
In a benchmark essay published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Christian ethicist Dennis P. Hollinger offers a helpful set of arguments both against and for contraception.4https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/56/56-4/JETS_56-4_683-96_Hollinger.pdf Several important questions to consider emerge from the discussion:
- Does the “procreation mandate” (Gen. 1:28) prohibit all forms of contraception?
- Does Scripture require that every act of sexual intimacy be open to procreation, or may married couples enjoy other goods of sexual intimacy (e.g., pleasure, union) while using non-abortifacient means of contraception?
- Can Christians be welcoming toward children and childbearing and at the same time practice birth control?
- The creation mandate to have dominion includes the command to intervene in the world and steward its resources. Are non-abortifacient methods of birth control examples of appropriate stewardship, allowing married couples to determine the number of children they should have based on the providence of God, their stage of life, and the financial and other resources they have?
- Might there be special circumstances in God’s providence where it may be dangerous to children who are born in that context (e.g., in a culture hostile to Christianity or where there is not adequate food and water)?
Praying through and answering these kinds of questions will help faithful Christians resist the pressures of the contraceptive culture while following the leadership of the Lord in their own families. As we celebrate, embrace, and care for children, may the Lord use us to contribute to a culture of life in our churches, communities, and throughout the country.
- 1Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973 (Routledge, 2011), pp. 1-2.
- 2Blackburn, W. Ross. “Sex and Fullness: A Rejoinder to Dennis Hollinger on Contraception.” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 58, no. 1 (March 2015): 117-130.
- 3L. Schmidt, T. Sobotka, J.G. Bentzen, A. Nyboe Andersen, on behalf of the ESHRE Reproduction and Society Task Force, Demographic and medical consequences of the postponement of parenthood, Human Reproduction Update, Volume 18, Issue 1, January/February 2012, Pages 29–43, https://doi.org/10.1093/humupd/dmr040