Part II: Christians called to courage and sacrifice
This is the second part of a two-part article making a case against the legitimacy of birth control. Today, the argument is made almost exclusively by Catholics, but the reason I was asked to write this article is because I am a Protestant “evangelical” advocate of this position. As an evangelical, speaking to a large degree to other Protestants, I am trying to avoid the criticism often thrown at others for arguing primarily from historical, pragmatic, and sociological angles; I am attempting, rather, to make my case from a biblical, theological perspective that recognizes the special authority of the Bible.
In the first part of the article, I noted that the Old Testament model for family planning—taking into consideration those times when a woman is “clean” and “unclean” due to her monthly period—ensured that sexual relations, if they took place, did so over the period of time when the wife was most fertile. Though the command about sexual relations associated with this cycle may not be binding today, it should be considered instructive, since the New Testament does not abrogate the principle that there is a direct relationship between sexual relations and the time when a woman is fertile.
I also addressed the biblical view of children as a blessing, and I refuted the claim that the fact that children are a blessing does not mean that we are expected to seek as much of that blessing as we can get.
There are several other points I want to make on the contraception issue.
Some people argue that because contraception is wrong, there should be a criminal sanction against it. Christians need to understand, however, that the Bible does not require criminal legislation against all sins. It defines the realm of church authority, family authority, and individual privacy, and in this model for society, provides for some offences to be dealt with in these realms without state interference. Perhaps the most obvious example is parental discipline of children. There is not a requirement in the Bible for the church or the state to be the final arbiters of every parental use of discipline.
We must remember that the Bible, if it ever condemns contraception directly, does so only once, in the narration of Onan spilling his seed. But it does not indicate there or anywhere that a criminal sanction should be made against contraception, so I believe it would be wrong to take this step.
There may appear to be room to debate this point in theory, but when we examine the practicality of the issue, I think it becomes evident very quickly how impossible it would be to try to police this issue. You cannot assume that simply because people aren’t bearing children that they are obstructing the process. Policing a contraception law would, therefore, require such a direct invasion of the biblically sanctioned private realm of the family that one would be all but negating the family as a distinct social institution.
I believe that God has chosen to maintain exclusive jurisdiction as judge over this issue, and that we need to be content to leave it in his hands knowing we have done our duty by teaching people the truth.
One of the common comments in defence of birth control is the need to take into consideration one’s external circumstances, in particular a family’s income level. It is remarkable that this argument has become so entrenched considering the popularity among evangelicals of clichés about living by faith. The fact of the matter is that we are to live primarily by faith; economic survival is not, in the biblical economy, an end to justify all means.
For example, people are not free to engage in immoral enterprises—such as exotic dancing or burglary, for example—simply because they have run out of legitimate alternatives for generating income. In other words, there are other biblically mandated parameters to the kind of behaviour we may exercise to ensure a satisfactory standard of living. Biblically speaking, therefore, it is not possible to sustain the argument that external circumstances, including financial considerations, should be taken into consideration in determining the number of children one wants.
Interestingly, research has indicated that families tend to have a higher income the larger they are, and the observation has been made that responsible parents tend to make the necessary changes to generate a higher income to accommodate more children. This phenomenon should actually be expected by Christians. The Bible teaches that slothfulness, or the desire to do as little work as is necessary to accomplish one’s goals, is a natural tendency due to our sinful natures. We need incentives to motivate us to work hard (and I would venture to say that none of us is so virtuous that we are free from the need of external incentives) and earn a living. A wife and children are probably the strongest incentives a responsible, loving husband and father needs to be successful.
I have heard it said that the experience of mothers during previous pregnancies, in particular the amount of pain and discomfort she experienced during pregnancy as well as her ability to recuperate after giving birth, provide legitimate reasons for preventing additional pregnancies. The pain and difficulty that some women experience during pregnancy and child-birth is very real and should not be dismissed carelessly, but nor should the response be a knee-jerk escapist proposal. Instead, women should be offered constructive, practical and legitimate solutions to their difficulties.
As medical knowledge has advanced, so have the number and efficiency of tools for relieving pain and suffering. Many women can attest personally to this fact. Statistics for maternal mortality confirm the benefits of modern medicine.
In many cases, unfortunately, pain is not completely eliminated. Christians, however, based on what God tells us in the Bible, do not expect total pain relief. God explicitly told Eve that one of the consequences of the rebellion in which she participated with Adam was an increase in pain during child-birth. In other words, pain due to child-birth is a natural experience in the unnatural, or imperfect, world we live in.
Nothing in the Bible suggests that it is wrong to mitigate pain and suffering. Trying to avoid it altogether, though, is an attempt to escape God-ordained reality. Since it is God’s will for child-bearing to include a measure of discomfort, avoiding pregnancy to avoid the pain amounts to running from the will of God.
To put this into perspective we can look at God’s curse as it was applied to men. God cursed men in the area of work: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.” As in the case of pregnancy, work is hard and sometimes dangerous. People get injured and even die as a result of their work or employment. As a result, the improvement of safety standards is a leading priority for workers and ethical employers. Mitigating harm is good, but choosing to be a waif and to lead one’s family into a life of squalor instead of being involved in productive work is not a legitimate way to avoid work-related harm.
If a person is not satisfied with the level of safety at his present place of employment, he can look for work elsewhere, but he cannot choose to avoid work.
If we are to approach the concerns of women effectively, we must also acknowledge that our humanity includes imperfect knowledge and a natural tendency to be attracted to any solution that mitigates pain. In terms of the latter point, we must refrain from making decisions while in the midst of suffering. In terms of the first observation, we must consider seriously how much we can infer from what the Bible does say about child-bearing because if it does teach that we should not prevent pregnancy, then we can expect other forms of harm to be associated with such choices. In fact, it is rather surprising that, despite the long list of potential side-effects which accompanies most chemical contraceptives, so many people still do essentially consider the obstruction of pregnancy to be a risk-free choice.
What has been said here is by no means the final word on the issue of women’s health as it is impacted by pregnancy and child-birth, but hopefully it offers constructive responses to those who might feel that obstructing pregnancy is the best choice available to them due to less-than-ideal physiological circumstances.