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


  1. Thanks for the quotes from the Lambeth conference -- I hadn't seen those before, and they're remarkably similar to current Catholic teaching on needing "serious" or "grave" reasons to avoid having children.

    I've posted this article to the TOB community on Google+, since we frequently discuss these issues. Please join us if you're interested in participating in the discussions!

    1. Karee,

      Yes, the Lambeth conference is similar to current Catholic teaching, except, of course, for it's allowance of contraception under certain circumstances.

      I'll check out your TOB community on Google+. Thanks!

  2. My wife and I have been married 25 years, have not contracepted. 5 kids later, we don't regret it. In fact I think it supercharged our sex life.

    1. Hey Christian, Thanks for your witness. I think there are lots of people out there like this. We need to get our stories out so people know there is another way. God bless

  3. I am enjoying this series, Brantly. You write with such conviction and I love all your research. I often write from personal, anecdotal point of view, but this sort of stuff is necessary. Congratulations on writing some great stuff.

    1. Endless Strength, thanks for the encouragement!

  4. This is a GREAT series! Another blogger friend recommended your series. As a Catholic and newlywed, it is frustrating at times when people really don't understand NFP. I'm looking forward to reading more of your posts. Love the blog title too! :)

  5. Whence arose all the horrid assassinations of whole nations of men, women, and infants, with which the Bible is filled; and the bloody persecutions, and tortures unto death, and religious wars, that since that time have laid Europe in blood and ashes; whence arose they, but from this impious thing called religion, and this monstrous belief that God has spoken to man?

    The Christian system of religion is an outrage on common sense.

  6. This is so great to read. It is awesome seeing other people realize and discover things I fully believe in because I am not surrounded by many people who agree with me on the topics you have discussed or that are even aware of the facts you have shared. I know you are writing this and illustrating your mindset as you went thought all of these revelations but I just want to scream to the world as you mention many of them because you are describing the mindset that so many other people out there have. I am not arguing with you when I mention these things but with the people who have not "seen the light" like you. For example, how dire it would have been for you to have a kid right away while still in school. There are so many people out there in way worse situations then you were in that still have kids all the time without any afterthought. And you thought having a kid while in school was the end of the world. For people that think that I just want to tell them "well wait to get married then". But noooo we can do that. I have the belief if you are not ready for kids you are not ready for marriage. I look forward to ready the rest of your story. It gives me hope for others out there who want to stay ignorant because they think it is easier. God Bless you and you family

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  8. I did not know the subject, I'd be better off having clarified the matter for me.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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