Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why We're Contraception-Free, Part 2: Flipping the Switch

Me and Krista the Christmas
before we got engaged and married
Discussing it with Krista didn't help. To her surprise and mine, she had found Humanae Vitae very compelling as well. We acknowledged its practical ramifications and agreed to give the issue more thought and prayer. Deciding that contraception was immoral and therefore impermissible was too big a decision to make quickly.

In my separate consideration of the Catholic Church's claims to authority, I had already accepted the basic premise that the historic Christian belief on a particular issue is much more likely to be the correct one than a view that appeared more recently (with an acknowledgement of legitimate development in our understanding). The Truth is what was revealed by Jesus 2000 years ago, not what we just made up in the last few years. Further, Jesus himself promised to be "with [us] always, to the very end of the age," (Mt 28.20); he said that, since He would build His Church on the rock, "the gates of Hades will not overcome it" (Mt 16.18); and he said he would send us the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of Truth” (John 14.16-17, John 15.26, John 16.13). In other words, even for me as Protestant, the Christian tradition carried weight: it was hard for me to believe the Church could err on fundamental doctrines for extended periods of time if Christ's promises were to have any real meaning.

Early on in my research, I came across the claim that although virtually all Protestant denominations today hold that the use of contraception is morally permissible, all Protestants had been against the use of contraception until the mid-20th century.

My first thought about this claim was, Wasn't contraception a new thing in the 20th century? If contraception was new, then there couldn't be a traditional teaching and different Christian ideas would be on a level playing field in this regard. Wasn't the Catholic Church just ignorantly rejecting new scientific and technological breakthroughs as it had supposedly done in the past?

Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that various contraceptive techniques have been around for thousands of years. No, Americans in the 20th century weren't the first to try to have all the pleasure while suppressing the natural purposes of sex.

And regarding the history of Protestant teaching on contraception, I confirmed what I had heard: until the 20th century, all Protestant denominations had held that the use of contraception was gravely perverse and immoral.

In addition to the natural law argument (the premises of which are reflected in Scripture), I learned there was another key biblical argument against contraception. Both Catholics and Protestants traditionally interpreted the story of Onan in Genesis 38.8-10 as a condemnation of coitus interruptus and, by extension, all forms of contraception. Though many modern commentators try to argue that Onan was punished by God only for failing in his obligation to his brother and not also for sexual deviancy, here is what Martin Luther had to say about Onan:
Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes a Sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed. (Lectures on Genesis)
Atheist and racist eugenicist Margaret Sanger
founded  in the early 20th century what
is now known as Planned Parenthood
A similar position was held by other major Protestant leaders like John Calvin and John Wesley. This opposition to contraception among Protestants lasted long enough that anti-contraception laws were passed in the largely Protestant United States in the 19th century.

But things changed. Atheist Margaret Sanger, worried that poor people and minorities were having too many children and polluting the gene pool (she was a racist eugenicist) in addition to concerns about the role of women in society, founded in the early 20th century the American Birth Control League (later renamed Planned Parenthood). She campaigned for years against contraception laws, and, though all Christian denominations were officially opposed to contraception, she tried to win over Protestants by framing contraception as a "Catholic issue" - and succeeded. (Co-founders of NARAL Larry Lader and Bernard Nathanson successfully used the same tactic to legalize abortion in the late '60s and early '70s.)

G. K. Chesterton argued in the 1920s that another major driving force of the birth control movement was that wealthy business owners didn't want to have to pay their workers with big families a just wage: "The landlord or the employer says in his hearty and handsome fashion: ‘You really cannot expect me to deprive myself of my money. But I will make a sacrifice, I will deprive myself of your children.’"

The Anglican Church was the first to buckle. At its 1930 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Church became the first denomination in the history of Christianity to approve the use of contraception under any circumstances at all. And even then, its accommodation was much stricter than virtually any current Protestant view:
  • the limiting of children was permissible only when there was a "clearly felt moral obligation"
  • when children should be limited, the "primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit" (notice that abstinence is considered the "primary and obvious" go-to method)
  • contraception may be used, but only when "there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence" (what could that possibly be?)
  • and "the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience" received a "strong condemnation".
Obviously, the Anglican Church has come a long way pretty quickly from that view! Virtually all Protestant denominations followed suit in the following two to three decades, just in time for the advent of the Pill in 1960.

Mahatma Gandhi opposed contraception
I also learned that major non-Christian figures had voiced opposition to the use of contraception when it was starting to gain cultural acceptance in the 20th century. Though not relevant to establishing the Christian tradition, I nonetheless found their reasoning insightful. For example, Mahatma Gandhi vigorously opposed contraception:
The [sexual] union is meant not for pleasure, but for bringing forth progeny. And union is a crime when the desire for progeny is absent. It is wrong and immoral to seek to escape the consequences of one’s acts. [...] Nature is relentless and will have full revenge for any such violation of her laws. [...] Artificial methods [of birth control] are like putting premium upon vice. (Young India, 12-3-25, pp. 88-89)
Gandhi anticipated Pope Paul VI’s concerns about the consequences of widespread acceptance of contraception:
I urge the advocates of artificial methods [of birth control] to consider the consequences. Any large use of the methods is likely to result in the dissolution of the marriage bond and in free love. (Young India, 2-4-25, pp. 118)
Finally, I learned that Christians have been against contraception from the beginning. For example, Clement of Alexandria wrote in the second century:
Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted. [...] To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature.
And in the fourth century, Lactantius anticipated natural family planning:
[Some] complain of the scantiness of their means, and allege that they have not enough for bringing up more children, as though, in truth, their means were in [their] power . . . or God did not daily make the rich poor and the poor rich. Wherefore, if any one on any account of poverty shall be unable to bring up children, it is better to abstain from relations with his wife.
Indeed, Humanae Vitae was not the narrow-minded reaction of a few old celibate men against progress; Humanae Vitae represented the sound, well-reasoned Christian thinking of two millennia. The Church hadn't changed; she was simply maintaining what Christians had always believed based on Scripture and reason. It was Protestants who had made up something new.

That was that. For me, the history was the nail in the coffin. Though I had found Humanae Vitae's moral arguments persuasive on their own, there was no way I could honestly hold that all Christians were fundamentally wrong in their understanding of marriage and sexuality for two thousand years only for Protestants to change their mind under secular pressure in the mid-20th century. The whole idea was, and remains, completely absurd to me.

The Holy Spirit's descent on the Church on Pentecost
And yet the question of whether I would still want us to use contraception was not settled in my mind. Though I could no longer honestly argue that the use of contraception was morally permissible, I was still heavily weighed down by the seemingly insurmountable practical problems of possibly conceiving a child right at the beginning of our senior year of college. My growing certainty that the use of contraception was immoral simply built up pressure against my seemingly immovable practical concerns. I knew that a moral principle should always trump any perceived hardships in following the principle, but how great the hardships seemed!

I remember kneeling in prayer, deeply engaging my conscience, desperately trying to find a way to get it to say that using contraception was acceptable. Was there any way I could rationalize the use of contraception given what I now knew? There were moments, flickers, in which I was able to bury the voice of my conscience enough that it seemed like any concerns about the use of contraception were gone. But I knew such tactics would only work if I lied to myself that I wasn’t purposely burying it.

Discussing it again with Krista, it was obvious we both were convinced of contraception's immorality. Yet, I proposed that we use it for our marriage's first four months - just enough time to ensure that any child conceived would be born a few months after we were both done with school - and then never use it again. The proposal was of course completely illogical, and Krista called me on it: "Brantly, this makes no sense. Either it's ok for us to use, or it's not."

And I was forced to admit she was right. Krista's words penetrated the weak rationalizations I had built up in my mind and they all fell apart. In that moment, I relented and let my mind flip the switch to fully acknowledge and accept what my conscience had been quietly but persistently telling me for some time: the use of contraception is always immoral.

I let out a sigh of relief. It was as though all the pressure built up between the moral principle and the heavy practical concerns had dissipated. Not that my practical concerns were answered or solved - not at all. I still didn’t know if I’d want us to allow ourselves to be open to a child right away and, if we did, how we would possibly get by. But I no longer allowed the two forces to act against each other. Though we hadn’t solved any of our practical concerns, right there, Krista and I both agreed that any use of contraception was immoral and that therefore we would not be using it. Whatever the practical concerns were, we’d have to find a way to navigate them without contraception.

Keep Reading: Part 3: No Longer Afraid
This is Part 2 of a six-part series:

Part 1: Asking the Question
Part 2: Flipping the Switch
Part 3: No Longer Afraid
Part 4: Hey Baby
Part 5: Tested Twice
Part 6: No Regrets
Post Script

Humanae Vitae
Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan
Children of the Reformation: A Short and Surprising History of Protestantism and Contraception
Sanger's Victory: How Planned Parenthood’s Founder Played the Christians—and Won
Birth control is moral (but not all methods)
Organic Sex, Organic Farming
The Vindication of Humanae Vitae
Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution
Find an NFP class

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Why We're Contraception-Free, Part 1: Asking the Question

Newly engaged at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
It was nighttime and we were at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France when I knelt down on one knee, pulled out the ring box, and asked Krista if she would do me the honor of marrying me. The reply: "Yes with all my heart!"

What can I say? We were young and in love, and Krista, my then-girlfriend, was studying abroad in France. Of course I had to fly out there to propose! I'd have been a fool to pass up such an opportunity.

It was the Spring of our Junior year at Wheaton College and we had the plan to get married that summer just before our Senior year. Before deciding to propose, I had done a lot of work figuring out how we'd get by for the year while we both finished our degrees, looking into everything from financial aid and health insurance to housing and making a budget. But there was one thing that neither of us considered in the least bit: children.

And why would we have? We were just wanting to get married, not start a family. Two entirely distinct choices, right? Marriage was just about us. As Christians, it was what would let us legitimately express our affections sexually.

Of course, we knew - more accurately, assumed - we wouldn't want a child right away. Not only were we both going to be still in school, but we just weren't ready for that yet, even if just mentally. We needed time for ourselves, for our relationship.

This all meant that we would need to use some sort of contraception. Not using contraception wasn't even a relevant option in our minds. Everyone used contraception. It was the responsible thing to do. The question for us, then, was what kind of contraception we would use. We were aware of the general kinds of contraception but since neither of us had been sexually active we were unfamiliar with all the details. Research needed to be done. We were both pro-life, and so we knew we didn't want to use anything that was abortifacient (including anything that prevents implantation).

Research led to a snag right away: reading about various types of contraception online, I was uneasy about all of them. While I had no objections to the idea of contraception in the abstract, all of the actual options seemed unappealing, even perverse. Have Krista take unnecessary hormones to make her body dysfunctional? Nope. Have some device implanted in her? Seems extreme. Or make sure we're always wearing plastic or using chemicals to protect ourselves from each other? Seems wrong to bring any foreign object into our most intimate expression of love for each other.

I didn't want any of that. Even at that point, I remember thinking, Why would we go so out of our way to disrupt what is so obviously just the natural process? The whole thing seemed a bit ridiculous to me. Why was it so important to be able to have sex and yet intentionally disrupt for what the act is clearly directed? Besides, most types were either known to be abortifacient or were suspected of it (though concerns regarding some forms of contraception being abortifacient have been challenged by newer research). There didn't seem to be many options for people who respect human life and didn't want to take any chances.

And yet, I knew that we couldn't possibly allow ourselves to conceive a child right away. Using nothing was out of the question.

Enjoying Paris the day after getting engaged
While thinking all of this through, I remembered from my time in Catholic schools growing up that the Catholic Church taught that the use of contraception was immoral. I basically had no idea why - it had something to do with the purpose of sex? - but something about the idea had always sort of rung true for me. Though I was still an evangelical, by this time I had a growing interest in the Catholic Church. I had come to respect the Church's theology as being well thought-out, consistent, and representative of historic Christianity, even if I wasn't sure I agreed with everything. Since most of my research into the Catholic Church had focused on the more central issues of authority and justification, I hadn't studied their sexual ethic at all.

In the least, I was intrigued, and since we were looking into the matter, I figured it wouldn't be a bad idea to see what the Catholic Church had to say. I didn't think I'd be convinced to not use contraception at all - given our situation, such an extreme position would have been irresponsible - but I wanted to be informed about the different sides of the issue, and I knew reading the Catholic view would be worth my time.

I'm not entirely sure how I knew about Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical on proper and improper types of birth control, but I found it on the Internet and asked Krista, who was still in France, if we could both read it and discuss it. Krista agreed, though she has since told me that she wasn't expecting to change her mind about using contraception and read it only because I asked her.

Pope Paul VI begins Humanae Vitae by reminding Catholics that he, as Pope, is in a position to teach authoritatively on moral matters. I wasn’t Catholic and didn’t believe that the Pope had any authority, so I skipped down to section two. I was interested in his arguments.

Section two gave an argument from the natural law. ‘Natural law’ refers to the moral law that all people can know via their consciences. God has created the universe with a reasonable order. That order can be discerned by way of reason and must be followed. Morality, then, is simply acting in accord with reason and the way things are supposed to be. The natural law is "natural" in that it exists in nature and is prior to and independent of any civil law. It’s a ‘law’ in that all humans are obligated to follow it. The idea of natural law has been standard throughout the Church’s history and is reflected in passages from Scripture like Romans 2.14-15, Romans 1.26-27, John 1.1-3, et al.

So the starting point of the natural law argument of Humanae Vitae is simple: we have been made by God with purpose and this purpose must be respected. So what is the purpose of the sex act? We can discern its purpose by reason and examining the act itself.

In the sex act, the man and the woman express their love for each other by giving of themselves in total to each other as male and as female, and in doing so consummate and express their marital unity ("and they shall become one flesh" Gen 2.24). In this complete openness and self-gift, the couple is at the exact same time engaging in the procreative act. The unitive act is the same thing as the procreative act. So the sex act has two natural purposes or ends towards which it is ordered: the unity of the couple and the procreation of children. Both aspects are part of the natural purpose of sex and, since we are "not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design" (HV, 13), both must be respected. Any attempt at frustrating either purpose is contrary to the nature of the sex act and therefore immoral.

It’s obvious that contraception frustrates the procreative aspect (that’s its explicit, intended purpose), and by that fact alone contraception is contrary to nature and therefore immoral. But contraception also frustrates the unitive aspect. The only way for contraception to close the sex act to procreation is by preventing the man or the woman from giving of themselves as male and as female to the other in total, which is a frustration of the unitive purpose. Thus, since it frustrates both of the natural purposes of the sex act, the use of contraception is immoral.

Pope Paul VI, who promulgated Humanae Vitae in 1968
Pope Bl John Paul II later put the same idea this way:
[T]he innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality. (Familiaris Consortio, 32)
In trying to frustrate the natural procreative aspect of sex by the use of contraception, one is necessarily - even if unintentionally - frustrating the unitive aspect as well.

So, sex is ordered toward the unity of the couple and the procreation of children. That may sound fairly simple, but life is never that simple. What if someone needed to, say, take the Pill for medicinal reasons? Pope Paul VI makes it clear that the Church does not intend to limit the use of legitimate medical treatments:
[T]he Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever. (HV, 15)
And what if a couple honestly cannot handle another child?
If...there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth... (HV, 16)
This technique is known as natural family planning and is based on how our bodies already function naturally. It requires no hormones that mess up the woman’s cycle, no implants, no barriers between the husband and wife - there is no need for anything artificial to distort the sex act. It requires only a knowledge of the woman’s monthly fertility cycle and the self-control and mutual respect to act accordingly. Thus, natural family planning works with the order of nature rather than against the order of nature as contraception does.

Before closing with some pastoral directives for the application of Humanae Vitae - including a call for scientists to develop easier methods for couples to determine when a woman is fertile and thus when to abstain when they want to avoid conceiving a child - Pope Paul VI makes one last argument against the use of contraception by predicting the negative consequences of its widespread use. He warns:
(1) "[F]irst consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards...and especially [for] the young...
(2) "[A] man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
(3) There is "danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? [...] Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone." (HV, 17)
Overlooking the Seine in Paris
Has contraception encouraged sexual promiscuity, particularly among the young? Definitely. Now that the use of contraception is expected, are men more likely to view women as mere sex objects to whom little responsibility is owed? No question. Have governments used contraception against their own populations? China’s brutal one-child policy is just one example of many in the last few decades. It seemed Pope Paul VI was right.

My first time through Humanae Vitae left me rocked. I found it well reasoned, nuanced, and - most unexpectedly - very compelling. But I honestly did not want it to be right. I had read Humanae Vitae just to be more informed, not to have my plans turned upside down.

We were going to be in school. I'd have no way to provide for a wife and child if we were to conceive right away. Of course, it would be possible to not consummate the marriage for a few months, but that didn't seem to make any sense. If we were going to get married, we were going to be having sex, which meant it would be possible to conceive a child right at the beginning of the school year. I figured out that if we were to conceive right away, Krista could be going into labor during finals week. It was also very important to me that Krista was able to finish her degree. Another option would be to put off the wedding for a year. But we had already gone through a long process of thinking through when we wanted to get married, and we had already gotten engaged, set a date, and made the announcement - it would be embarrassing and disappointing to change it all now.

But my conscience had been twinged.

We still had several months to work it all out, though. I had time to give it more thought. And besides, the question wasn’t mine to settle alone. Krista and I would discuss Humanae Vitae in a few days and we would think it through together. I was sure she’d bring me back to my senses, that of course it was the right thing for us to use some sort of contraception.

Keep reading: Part 2: Flipping the Switch
This is Part 1 of a six-part series:

Part 1: Asking the Question
Part 2: Flipping the Switch
Part 3: No Longer Afraid
Part 4: Hey Baby
Part 5: Tested Twice
Part 6: No Regrets
Post Script

Humanae Vitae
Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan
Children of the Reformation: A Short and Surprising History of Protestantism and Contraception
Sanger's Victory: How Planned Parenthood’s Founder Played the Christians—and Won
Birth control is moral (but not all methods)
- Organic Sex, Organic Farming
The Vindication of Humanae Vitae
Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution
Find an NFP class