The 20th century saw a great change in Christian attitudes towards contraception, which previously had been almost universally condemned. As it stands today, the majority of Christian denominations accept birth control to some degree, in one form or another.
The Church of England provides a good example of how quickly the change in teaching sometimes occurs. At the Lambeth Conference in 1908, the Anglican Bishops declared, “the Conference records with alarm the growing practice of the artificial restriction of the family and earnestly calls upon all Christian people to discountenance the use of all artificial means of restriction as demoralizing to character and hostile to national welfare.” Despite these strong words, it was a mere 22 years later that contraception was reluctantly approved at another Lambeth Conference, and today the Anglican Church unequivocally declares that it “does not regard contraception as a sin or a contravention of God’s purpose”.
The Lutheran churches and synods take a variety of positions on the issue, where they take any position at all. The United Methodist Church not only allows for contraception, but encourages its use for the purposes of family planning. The Presbyterian Church (USA) holds likewise, teaching that “contraceptive services are part of basic health care.” According to Dr. Craig Carter, an ordained minister in the Fellowship Evangelical Baptist Churches of Canada, “most Baptists in Canada would not see contraception as morally objectionable, with the exception of any method that was actually an abortifacient.”
There exists no clear consensus among the Eastern Orthodox Churches regarding the morality of contraception, except that all abortifacient methods are forbidden. Orthodox leaders seem to hold one of three opinions: that sex should be for the purposes of procreation only; that natural family planning is acceptable; that non-abortifacient forms of contraception are acceptable when used with the blessing of one’s spiritual father and for non-selfish reasons.
The only Christian Church which forbids contraception in all artificial forms is the Catholic Church. In 1968, Pope Paul VI published his controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which he made clear that the Catholic Church forbade all artificial forms of birth control and encouraged natural family planning for use as a suitable alternative. He wrote, “The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” Succeeding pontiffs have upheld this teaching without fail. Pope John Paul II embraced the message of Humanae Vitae with notable enthusiasm, writing and speaking extensively on the subject of human sexuality, eventually collating a series of lectures into an influential book entitled The Theology of the Body.
All schools of Judaism permit some form of artificial birth control, although any form which damages the sperm or prevents it from getting to its intended destination is prohibited (based on Genesis 38:9). Muslim leaders generally permit contraception as well, so long as both husband and wife (or wives) consent to it and it does not harm the body. Sterilization is usually prohibited. When Muslim leaders discourage the use of birth control, it tended to be on the grounds that such a practice is contrary to Mohammed’s order to “marry and procreate.” Hindus and Sikhs have no moral opposition to birth control, while Buddhists opposition only extends to abortifacient methods, where any opposition exists at all.