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An evangelical view of contraception

2012-03-05 by . 37 comments

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For my first post to the Eschewmenical blog, I have two goals: define my tradition (Evangelical) and explain our position on contraception.  But the second task will require extensive work, so I will simply point to the definition supplied by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College:

British historian David Bebbington … notes four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and “crucicentrism,” a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

For my purposes, “biblicism” stands out.  My approach follows the (unofficial) motto of The Evangelical Covenant Church: “Where is it written?”

When it comes to contraception, we Bible-thumping Evangelicals are at a disadvantage.   Until recently, contraception was unreliable, unscientific, and (among the ancient Hebrews at least) rare. Hence, there aren’t a lot of texts that address the issue. Men and women typically wanted children. (See Genesis 29-30.)  The story of Onan might provide some insight, but interpreters are uncertain about why God condemned him.

Thankfully, however, we can apply Biblical principles to the problem at hand.  For instance, we know that sex outside of marriage is forbidden by many texts, so contraception for unmarried people just doesn’t accord with the Bible’s way of thinking.  As I shared with the high school group at our church recently, the Bible warns us to avoid pre-marital sex:

   I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
        by the gazelles or the does of the field,
    that you not stir up or awaken love
        until it pleases.
        —Song of Solomon 2:7 (ESV)
I think we sometimes justify our actions by imagining the Bible didn’t really foresee reliable birth-control or social conventions that do not shame coming to the marriage bed as a non-virgin.  But in Hebrew, this verse is an oath (repeated three times in the poem) with consequences so severe that the bride dares not say them.  Given the delight the couple finds in enjoying each other, the bride seems intent on warning against premature sexual relations.  God isn’t in the business of stealing our fun; He wants us to avoid ruining the good things He’s provided us.  And that includes the deepening pleasures of sex within marriage.

When the Bible was written, the most common form of birth control (or more accurately, population control) was infanticide.  Unwanted newborns were regularly exposed to the elements, sacrificed to blood-thirsty gods, or sold into slavery.  What a brutal world it must have been when the most merciful option was involuntary slavery!  But both Judaism and Christianity reject infanticide because of the high value the Bible places on human life and its prohibitions against child sacrifice.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for his role in the German plot to assassinate Hitler, was not the first to extend the principle to the pre-born:

Marriage involves acknowledgement of the right of life that is to come into being, a right which is not subject to the disposal of the married couple. Unless this right is acknowledged as a matter of principle, marriage ceases to be marriage and becomes a mere liaison. Acknowledgement of this right means making way for the free creative power of God which can cause new life to proceed from this marriage according to His will. Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue.  The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life.  And that is nothing but murder.—Ethics (p.173-174)

For this reason, even Evangelical Christians who accept other forms of birth control, usually avoid any sort of abortifacient.  Since some forms of contraception could act upon a fertilized egg rather than by preventing the sperm and egg from meeting, I’ve known Christians, who are otherwise uninterested in science, do serious literature reviews about how these medical interventions work at a cellular level.

Christians from other traditions might find it strange that Evangelical denominations don’t usually have an official position on birth control.  The reason is simple: according to Genesis 2, the marriage covenant was instituted by God.  The role of the church and of the state, therefore, is merely to stand witness to the agreement made between the couple before God.  Thus, the church may advise, but not proscribe marriage practice.  Each couple must be free to act on their own convictions when it comes to having children, which means anything from not limiting family size to refusing to have children at all.

The first two chapters of Genesis provide us with two important considerations:

  1. The first command God gives humanity is: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”—Genesis 1:28b (ESV) Since marriage is the only institution that allows that command to be fulfilled, it’s hard to justify purposefully childless marriages as a general pattern.
  2. Sexual intercourse is not just allowed, but assumed to be a normal part of marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”—Genesis 2:24-25 (ESV) Except for limited periods of time and by mutual consent, abstinence is no more a natural form of birth control than the most invasive contraception.

Personally, this is not an empty, academic topic to mull over. Even before we were married, friends from all sides counselled my wife and I about whether and how we ought to manage our family’s size. Issues of ethics, medicine, church authority, finances, career, and so on entered into our discussions. Ultimately, we found ourselves in agreement with Bonhoeffer:

Human reproduction is a matter of the will to have a child of one’s own, and for precisely this reason it would not be right for blind impulse simply to run its course as it pleases and then go on to claim to be particularly pleasing in the eyes of God; responsible reason must have a share in this decision. There can, in fact, be weighty reasons which in a particular concrete instance will call for a limitation of the number of children. If precisely during the past hundred years birth control has become such a burning question, and if very wide circles of men of all religious denominations have expressed agreement with the principle of birth control, this is not to be interpreted simply as a falling away from the faith or as a lack of trust in God. It is undoubtedly connected with the technology in all fields of life and with the incontestable triumphs of technical science in the widest sense over the facts of nature, for example in the reduction of infant mortality and in the considerable raising of the average age of the population.—Ethics (p. 175)

In the end, it didn’t matter: our birth control method failed and we found ourselves with a son, who we love dearly, just 10 months after our wedding. God is in control! Since then, we’ve agonized, consoled, comforted, and rejoiced with our friends who have faced decisions about infertility, adoption, birth control, and raising children. Having children can entail both deep disappointments and pure joy, but it has been one of the most fulfilling experiences in my life.


Next week, we’ll hear from Peter Turner on the Catholic Church’s view on contraception. I disagree with that view for the most part, but I (and many other Evangelicals) stand with the Catholic Church against any mandate by the US government requiring religious institutions to pay for contraceptives.  Even when there is a clear and compelling public good requiring citizens to compromise their beliefs (such as drafting pacifists), the government must make reasonable exemptions for religious, ethical and moral convictions (such as conscientious objector status).  The United States may have many problems, but access to affordable contraception simply is not among them.  Unaccountably, the Federal government appears to hold that when it comes to healthcare, the First Amendment does not apply.

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  • Peter Turner says:

    abstinence is no more a natural form of birth control than the most invasive contraception.

    I don’t quite understand that. Doesn’t the fact that we are rational animals mean that it is within our nature to abstain from sexual relations for long periods of time. This is a unique argument against NFP however, most people try to claim that hormonal birth control is no better than NFP, it takes guts to say NFP is as bad as Norplant.

    • Jon Ericson says:

      First, I ought to have clarified that abstinence within marriage is not natural. It’s implied in the context, but I might as well make it explicit here. Abstinence before marriage can be a difficult, but important discipline.

      Second, there are all sorts of “Natual Family Planning” that have various consequences on the sexual relationship between man and wife. Some amount to extended periods of abstinence, which I think is unhealthy in a marriage. Of course, you left out an important qualification: “Except for limited periods of time and by mutual consent”. There’s certainly room for a couple to agree together that abstinence is required for such and such a period of time.

      Third, sex is really an amazing gift from God! He wants us to enjoy it with our spouse. The physical side of the relationship has important consequences on the mental and spiritual sides.

    • Peter Turner says:

      I left that part out because I don’t quite understand it.

      The NFP method I’m talking about (and will talk about next week) just amounts to not making love on fertile days. When you say limited periods of time, I’m not sure if you’re talking about the 5-7 day span each cycle when those who practice NFP cannot be intimate, or whether you’re talking about erecting some sort of permanent pillow wall between the would-be participants.

      Not to get too intimate, but there have been only 3 reasons my wife and I have given up sex. 1. We just had a baby. 2. Felt like giving it up for Lent. 3.) Sacrificed it for a couple in a strained marriage. In almost 7 years of marriage, we’ve only really used NFP to avoid pregnancy once or twice.

      So, what I want to know is, according to Evangelicalism, is Natural Family Planning (which is periodic abstinence over an unlimited period of time) OK?

      Reading it again, I don’t think you’re talking about that sort of NFP at all when you say “limited periods by mutual consent” – I should have just kept my trap shut :).

    • Jon Ericson says:

      Peter: My guess is that most Evangelicals would nod in agreement with #1, wonder why you misspelled “lint” and wonder what that had to do with anything on #2 ;-), and be impressed (and a little shocked) by #3. The key phrase, to me, is “my wife and I”. Most Protestants (from what I’ve read) would say that it’s up to each couple to determine what is right for them.

      Ethically, I don’t see anything wrong with avoiding fertile days. But I would say that there are consequences to taking that route which might not be acceptable for some couples. To me, “natural” is an ethically neutral attribute. Therefore, if the price of abstinence (even for an occasional week here and there) is too high for a particular couple, there is no reason they should not choose an “unnatural” contraception.

  • I (and many other Evangelicals) stand with the Catholic Church against any mandate by the US government requiring religious institutions to pay for contraceptives

    Why do you invent bogeymen to fight against? Does it make you feel all noble?

    Because of the broken healthcare system in the USA, employers are being asked to pay for employees’ healthcare. And they cannot breech confidentiality, so they cannot know what medicines employees are receiving for what reasons. Simple as. End of.

    Further, having an imaginary friend does not give you an opt-out from legislation. Nor should it.

    TRiG.

    • Jon Ericson says:

      I’m not fully up on US politics, but many people who are and who I trust do see this policy as requiring Catholics to abandon one of their important convictions. Perhaps your analysis of the situation is better than mine.

      But I think it’s quite foolish to suggest, as you seem to, that all legislation is right. No matter how a person obtains a conviction, a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”, as Lincoln called it, must be cautious about interfering with the convictions of anyone. That’s why we have the First Amendment, which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (among other things). The courts have allowed the government (not the other way around) to make such laws if there is “compelling interest” to do so.

  • So, a question for you, @Trig. Should a vegan be compelled to offer his steak to his guests? Is there really no room an opt-out clause based on belief?

    • Guest !== Employee

      Try a more apt analogy.

      TRiG.

    • @Trig Ok, should a vegan restaurant be forced to serve meat?

    • Or is the analogy:

      Should a vegan restaurant be allowed to fire an employee who eats meat?

    • Michael, that’s still not a fully apt analogy. Employment is not the same as service. There are laws around service discrimination, but they’re not really the same as laws around employment discrimination, because they’re different fields.

      Should a vegan restaurant be allowed to fire an employee who eats meat?

      Now that’s a more interesting one. Bear in mind that the vegan restaurant may merely be a business, but it’s quite possible the restaurant owner has a moral objection to eating meat. In that case, I’d say, the owner could require that employees not eat meat on the premises. I don’t think, though, that the employer should have any control at all over what employees do on their off time.

      My take on it, anyway.

      But I don’t know how much that helps us with a discussion of healthcare.

      TRiG.

  • The federal government is not requiring the Catholic Church to pay for contraceptives. It’s requiring health insurance companies to include contraceptives in the plans they offer, but not at an additional cost to employers who object for religious reasons.

    This is really no different from requiring an insurance to cover blood transfusions if the employer is a Jehovah’s Witness, or to cover non-kosher insulin if the employer is an Orthodox Jew.

    Fundamentally, insurance is a contract between the insurer and the insured–not the employer–and individuals should have the freedom to make decisions about medical services without factoring in the religious beliefs of their employers.

    • waxeagle says:

      Where does this leave employers who self insure? (I’m in general unopposed to insurers being required to cover all medical services, but if you are framing it as a contract between insured and insurer then you have to account for the common situation of the (potentially religious) employer as the insurer)

    • Peter Turner says:

      As Waxeagle says hypothetically, in reality this is exactly what’s happening to EWTN. Which is one of the reasons they need to sue the government to protect themselves.

    • There’s no easy answer in the case of self-insurance. Ultimately, the solution is probably to re-examine the U.S. laws that give incentives to supplying insurance through employers. If employees could individually purchase their own insurance under the same terms as their employer does–with the same tax breaks, the same protection for pre-existing conditions, and the ability to join into the same risk pool–individuals would have more freedom to find the insurance plan that fits their own needs.

      Realistically, though, the likelihood of such massive overhaul of the health care industry is slim.

  • Peter Turner says:

    Another solution would be for the government to step out completely and let employers continue to make health insurance what it originally was considered. A benefit.

    What does it profit a man to go into business if the government forces him to sell his soul?

    • Part of the government’s involvement is its exemption health insurance costs from taxation but only when purchased through an employer. Stepping out completely would mean breaking this employer-related incentive (either by cancelling the exemption, or by extending it to non-work-related insurance policies). I don’t see how that is any different from what I proposed above.

    • Peter Turner says:

      I was going to reply, but perhaps we ought to continue tangential discussions in chat.

  • Thank you for writing such a detailed article that clearly explains your view and the rationale behind it. You’ve brought up a number of important points and I look forward to reading the other articles on this topic that follow (though I will likely disagree with some of them).

  • [...] 3/5: Jon Ericson (Evangelical—limited contraception within marriage) [...]

  • Marc Gravell says:

    I’m unsure what right has been violated. Nobody is making you use contraception. If you mean the employer: the employer does not have a right to dictate an employee’s healthcare. Just their own.

  • Really? The employer has no right to dictate an employee’s healthcare? If they want medical marajuana, and its legal in their state, should they be forced to provide that?

    • Yes. Of course.

      TRiG.

    • Jon Ericson says:

      You don’t have to go to that extreme! Employers are free to pay or not pay for whatever they want. For instance, my dentist’s administrator has to call my insurance to check if my policy (which is heavily subsidized by my employer) covers this or that procedure.

      On the medical side, we have an HMO, which simplifies things. Even so, some procedures are “preventative” and don’t cost me a penny. Other’s are not allowed if they are “elective”. I’d have to pay the entire cost out of pocket. In talking with friends who have more traditional insurance, the situation is exponentially more complicated. When it comes to expensive procedures, many employees are at the mercy of whoever negotiated the group plan contract between the employer and the insurance provider.

      And this is the part of the debate that frustrates me to no end: there’s a big difference between access and cost of healthcare. Contraceptive pills are, according to Google, in the $15 to $50 a month range on the open market. My cost with my coverage would be (if I understand the rules) about $5 a month. So no matter who pays, contraceptives are fairly cheap and widely available.

      [Second try. My first comment got lost in space. When does the blog get moved to the SE engine?]

    • @Michael: If you think the employer should have the right to dictate an employee’s health care, how far does that right go? Does a Jehovah’s Witness have the right to forbid his employees from getting blood transfusions? Does an Orthodox Jew have the right to forbid diabetic employees from using non-kosher insulin?

      How far do an employer’s rights go? Do you think employees should have any rights regarding their health care?

    • @Jon: Why should the employer have that freedom? The only reason employers provide health insurance in the United States is that they have, as a group, lobbied for that responsibility in order to get tax breaks from the federal government. As a result, shouldn’t employers be responsive to the health care needs of their employees? If not, why should they get tax breaks that those employees can’t get from purchasing insurance elsewhere?

  • @BruceAlderman Thomas Jefferson said the most onerous injustice was to force a man to pay for that which he finds contemptable. All I’m saying is that no one should be compelled to purchase for another that which they find reprehensible. As Jon Ericson is pointing out, there is a difference between restricting one’s access and compelling another to pay for it.

    I hate abortion – that doesn’t mean I thinking making it illegal is the best strategy for reducing it. But if my daughter came to me and said, “Daddy, would you pay for it?” Well, no, dear, I wouldn’t. I will not give you money to kill my grandchild. Will I be “paying for it” by probably needing to be the primary caregiver? Quite possibly. But how dare you force me to use my money to do that what I hate.

    Would I disown her for using her own money? No. Would I do everything in my power to disaude her? Yes. Is part of that disuasion witholding that which I could give her? Bet your bottom dollar it is.

  • But it’s not the employer’s money. An employer-based health insurance package is legally considered to be part of the employee’s compensation. That’s why the employer can take a tax deduction on the full amount they’ve paid toward health insurance.

    Again I ask, how far would you take it? Which of the following are OK with you?

    • “It’s nice that your medication helps keep your bipolar disorder in check so you can work. You just can’t work here, because the CEO is a Scientologist.”

    • “I don’t care if you need your insulin to regulate your blood sugar; I find it detestable because it’s made from pork products.”

    • “I don’t really have religious reasons, but I think colonoscopies are disgusting. So you’ll have to pay out of your own pocket for your screening.”

    • “I’m not going to pay my workers if they’re not here. If you get sick it’s on your own dime.”

    What I’m trying to understand from you is just how much control do you think employers should exert over their employees?

    The Old Testament prophets had a lot to say about employer-employee relationships, and they never had anything good to say about employers who skimp on employee compensation.

    • it’s not the employer’s money

      The main point, thanks.

      TRiG.

    • It is the employer’s money. The employer is paying for a service. The service is what is being transferred to the employee as compensation.

      If an employer purchases an asset on behalf of an employee, it remains the employers until such time as the right is transferred to the employee.

      You may as well say that the 6.2% Social Security contribution that an employer must make (in addition to the 4.2% the employee contributes) is then also the employee’s money. It is not. It is a tax that the US Government imposes on employers as a function of doing business.

      If we are going to persist in the myth that somehow an employer-funded health care scheme is the best that the US can do (and I agree, its stupid), then we need to be up front and say, it is the employers who are funding this.

      If you are going to compel employers to actively participate in that which they find anaethema, don’t be surprised if you get push back!

    • If we are going to persist in the myth that somehow an employer-funded health care scheme is the best that the US can do…

      And there’s the rub. We shouldn’t persist in the myth that an employer-based (employer-funded is a misnomer because not all employers actually fund their insurance plans) health care scheme is the best we can do.

      And once again, nobody is compelling employers to pay for health insurance. This system only exists because large employers lobbied for it. And they have consistently lobbied to keep it. During the 2010 health care debate, the Chamber of Commerce was one of the strongest advocates of keeping the current system intact.

      If employers don’t want to guarantee that their employees can get needed medical services, then they should get out of the insurance business and start supporting a system that allows individuals to make their own choices. (I don’t know what that system would look like, but the focus of the discussion needs to be what we could have rather than what we do have. Anyone who thinks the current U.S. health insurance system is not completely broken, is delusional.)

      If mandating services that the employers find onerous is what it takes to get them on board for reform, then that’s what needs to happen.

    • Peter Turner says:

      Bruce,

      nobody is compelling employers to pay for health insurance

      I think that’s exactly what the new healthcare bill is doing. If you’ve got a company of >50 employees, you have to pay for healthcare or pay a 2,000 dollar fine.

      I heard this from Sen. Ron Johnson on Wisconsin Public Radio yesterday, the speculation (from the right at least) is that most employers will opt to pay the fine and let individuals go and purchase their own subsidized insurance through the state run exchanges, putting us on a slippery slope to socialized medicine.

    • Yeah, I should have clarified that under the current system no one is compelling employers to provide insurance. The reform bill does contain mandates and fines beginning in 2014.

      As for socialized medicine, we’ve had it in the U.S. since 1965. It’s called Medicare, and it is available to everyone over the age of 65 as well as people with disabilities. It costs about 1/3 to 1/2 of what private insurance does, and its beneficiaries rate it much better than private insurance. If more Americans could get that kind of coverage, that wouldn’t be so bad.

      But I suspect most employers, if they are offering insurance today, will continue to offer it rather than pay a fine of $2000 per employee. Buying insurance would be cheaper than paying the fine.

  • [...] as a historical event 04-09-12 by Jon Ericson. 0 comments Last month, I gave a definition of Evangelicalism that mentioned one of our four core values: [...]

  • [...] Church struggle 05-21-12 by Jon Ericson. 0 comments Previously in this space, I noted four characteristics of the evangelical movement. George M. Marsden, a [...]

  • Jon Ericson says:
    In the end, it didn’t matter: our birth control method failed and we found ourselves with a son, who we love dearly, just 10 months after our wedding. God is in control!

    And He still is! Last week, my wife and I found out that she is pregnant (with twins) even though we have been using a fool-proof form of birth control. Frankly, this disrupts our plans (my wife is starting the third of four semesters of nursing school), but we are already getting glimpses of God’s greater plans for our family. We both thought we were done at one and now it seems we will have three children instead.

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