Freedom for gifts of hope: Revisiting the ethics of contraception

This article is about the morality of contraception, and we are going to state our position up front: we think there is a place for contraception in married life. We also think that marriages should normally become open, at some point, to welcoming children.

We will not consider which contraceptives a woman should avoid. If you think a contraceptive should not be an abortifacient (that is, should not prevent the nurture of a viable embryo), then that is an important issue to raise with your doctor. But this article goes behind that question to one that Protestants rarely ask: what is the moral justification for contraception itself?

The 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae1 is one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most well-known position statements against the use of contraceptives, written by one Giovanni Battista Montini, also known as Pope Paul VI. We realize that readers of these pages do not usually study papal utterances but, interestingly, his opposition to contraception would also get the nod from Augustine, Calvin and Luther. The encyclical helps us to focus on some important issues at stake.

It relies on the concept that sex within marriage has both a unitive purpose (enabling the married couple to grow in love and companionship) and a procreative purpose (enabling the generation of children). These are two core purposes of marriage. For Montini, every sexual act in marriage should be open to the realization of both purposes, and it would therefore always be wrong to bypass one of the purposes of sexual intercourse, as occurs with contraception.

We are not used to this ‘teleological’ way of thinking. Our usual logic is consequentialist: we assume that contraception is justified because of several desirable outcomes. Our love has more time to grow; we do not want to raise children until we have enough time or money; too many children will affect their mother’s health; and so on. We will return to such future-oriented considerations below. But let us sit for a moment with the contention that we do violence to the act of sex itself when we prevent its goal (or telos) of new life.

As Montini puts it, “each and every marital act [of sexual intercourse] must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (II.11). This instruction is “based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (II.12).

This vision of married sexuality is very beautiful. We often wish we could better honour our created selves. To sleep more and well; to eat a balanced diet; to exercise properly; to enjoy the natural order in its wild state… in several ways, we often wish we could live a life more embedded in God’s creation. So also here: “to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator” (II.13). Anyone who has ever argued for the good of motherhood or for the propriety of marriage between a man and a woman, should feel the lure of Montini’s argument. He seeks for married people to find God’s ‘dream’ for their sexual life together. His reasoning is very far from Monty Python’s caricature of it, that “every sperm is sacred”. He wants us to rediscover the deep purposes of married sexuality itself. On discovering this view for themselves, the young Sam and Bethany Torode realized that “when faced with an unplanned pregnancy, couples will often ask, What went wrong? How did this happen? What has happened, of course, is that something has gone right. Making love has resulted in a baby—that’s how it was designed to work.”2

Montini’s reasoning is typical of Roman Catholic moral thought in general. It is “a teaching which is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation” (I.4). Catholics believe that the essential qualities of nature are evident to reasonable people, and are highlighted and illuminated by Scripture to guide our behaviour. So, does his opposition to artificial contraception cohere both with reason and with the illumination of divine revelation? Beautiful though his vision may be, we think not. There are some good insights in the encyclical, but its basic idea is contestable according both to logic and to Scripture.

The logical problems emerge in the encyclical itself. First, Montini knows that not every act of sexual intercourse results in a child. This fact implies that procreation is inherent to a marriage overall, but not to each and every sexual act. Yet the encyclical vigorously resists this conclusion, without making clear how. Second, Montini himself promotes the use of natural family planning, where intercourse happens outside the fertile phase of a woman’s cycle. But if a husband and wife already have this level of control in the matter of procreation, it is not clear why they should not extend it, at least a little bit. Third, the encyclical seems to rate contraception alongside abortion as equally heinous (II.14). However that manoeuvre avoids the obvious difference between the two practices. An actual third person has begun to develop in an abortion, but not in contraception. The moral issues at stake are therefore of a quite different order.

What, then, of the other part of Montini’s benchmark, the illumination of divine revelation? The Bible was written long before the pill or the condom. What illumination might it offer?

Onan has the dubious honour of illustrating the Bible’s one explicit example of contraception. In Genesis 38:8-9, Onan’s duty was to raise an heir to his brother Er by Er’s widow Tamar, according to something like the later Levirate law (Deut 25:5-10). However, Onan repeatedly and intentionally interrupted the sex act with Tamar to avoid impregnating her, and God punished him.

The text explicitly highlights the reason for Onan’s punishment. His father Judah had said, “‘raise up offspring for your brother.’ But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his,” and he acted “so as not to give offspring to his brother”. Onan is not thinking in modern genetic terms, but in ancient community terms. In its three mentions of ‘offspring’ and of who would ‘own’ this offspring, the text explicitly signals that Onan failed to honour his dead brother. His motives were sensual and selfish, agreeing to have intercourse but preventing conception, probably so that his own inheritance was not diminished by the birth of a nephew.

Yet this incident has often been pressed into service as if it represents a ban on contraception (and even masturbation!) for everyone. This conclusion ignores the threefold signal in the text that the problem concerns Onan’s family relationships, not his sexual practice. We need to look elsewhere for illumination by divine revelation about contraception.

The Bible does clearly teach that sexual intercourse is intended to be part of the marriage relationship, and that procreation is an expected outcome of marriage. Humanity’s first blessing is to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). This blessing is repeated to Noah and his sons after the flood in Genesis 9:1. We then see it worked out through the story of Israel. The promise of plentiful offspring was an important part of the covenant to Abraham in Genesis 15, and is continued through his sons. For the Hebrews in general, “children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward … Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!” (Ps 127:3-5). “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table” (Ps 128:3). The Old Testament ends with God’s reminder that he desires to see ‘godly offspring’ as a result of marriage (Mal 2:15).

Two different positions can be argued from the Old Testament’s hugely positive estimate of ‘offspring’.

The first position sees children as normal to marriage, and backs the case against contraception. Against this backdrop, how could it ever be permissible to use sexual intercourse for its unitive purpose without its procreative purpose?

The incident between Onan and Tamar highlights something easily overlooked. The connection between sex and babies is not something known only to modern scientific clever-clogs like us. Folks in the ancient world, like Onan, had a well-developed understanding of the birds and the bees. Yet even so, they did not always talk as though babies were central to sex. Passages in the Bible call the husband and wife to delight in one another without any mention of children, such as Genesis 2:18-25 when Eve is created for bodily union with Adam without mention of children. In Proverbs 5:18-19, and the entire Song of Solomon, sensual enjoyment of one’s spouse is encouraged, again without mention of children. So the unitive aspect of marital sex is celebrated without attention to its procreative aspect. This suggests that the biblical authors do not think it necessary to regard the unitive and procreative aspects of marital sex as being intrinsically tied to every sexual act.

The second position argues for contraception, using the logic of biblical theology. The whole Old Testament story works out God’s promise of a saviour for Israel through the descendants of Eve,3 culminating in the coming of Christ, so that the children of the Old Testament help to fulfil Israel’s covenant expectation. Indeed, as covenant expectations are fulfilled in the New Testament there is less emphasis on procreation, and discussions of marriage also mention the legitimate place of celibacy. Jesus’ discussion of celibacy in Matthew 19:10-12 identifies it as an alternative to marriage, saying that some were given this role whether born a eunuch, or made one, or having renounced marriage. Paul identifies deliberate celibacy as a gift that allows the unmarried, who are freed from the affairs of this world, to be concerned with the Lord’s affairs, and with pleasing him (1 Cor 7:32-35).

Given this trajectory, the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth suggests that since the coming of Christ, the propagation of the human race proclaimed in Genesis 1:28 ceases to be an unconditional command. The need for posterity has lost its decisive significance in the time of the new covenant. The Old Testament necessity to procreate the ‘holy sequence of generations’ has reached its goal in the birth of Jesus. In the Christian community, heirs do not have the same significance as they did in Israel, because all people may become children of God through their spiritual unity with the Son of God (John 3:6). Marriage remains as a possibility, but it now represents Christ and his community (Eph 5:22-32; 2 Cor 11:2). No new figure is awaited (Heb 1:2). This new state of affairs explains why it is no longer shameful to bear no children, or to be unmarried, as all the elect will be invited to the marriage feast of the Lamb (Rev 19:7-8, 21:2).4

We think that both positions have a kernel of truth, and should not be played off against each other.

The emergence of chaste singleness in the New Testament, and the trajectory of God’s covenantal purposes, supports the claim that God does not require all humans to reproduce. But to say so may only establish the honour of the single person’s vocation without clarifying what married couples should do.

Perhaps then this trajectory of Scripture is reflected in a marital practice commended by Paul—the abstinence from sex within marriage for spiritual purposes (1 Cor 7:5). It is a temporary, mutually agreed practice. “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” For U.S. theologian John J. Davis, the text implies a permission to “‘override’ the usual responsibility to procreate for a season in order to pursue a spiritual good”.5 The practice is an exception, not a rule, for a set time and a specific reason. Paul is not recommending abstinence as a regular practice for birth control. He does however acknowledge another purpose for sex (that we may assist one another’s sexual holiness). In this treatment of sex and marriage, he never presents the necessity of procreation as the primary consideration.

Montini may object that he said something similar. “The practice of periodic continence [enables] husband and wife … to be enriched with spiritual blessings. For it brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquillity and peace. … It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another. It helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity” (III.21). This is his way of commending times of abstinence during the fertile times of a woman’s period; he is not commending sexless marriage. But the point to note is that even the anti-contraceptive Pope knew that married people do not always have to work on having children.

If procreation is not always our primary consideration, and if marital sex is also for unity and holiness, then the illumination of divine revelation has given us good reasons to think that each sexual act is for a marriage, and that marriage overall has procreation among its purposes. It does not always follow, then, that each sexual act must be for children. Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan thinks that sexual intercourse over the course of a marriage has its own cumulative quality. In contrast, the encyclical reduces marriage to a sequence of discrete sex-acts, each of which must always propel a marriage toward all of its purposes. But marital sexuality does not reduce to a series of “isolated moments or one-night stands.”6 Regular physical union builds intimacy during the whole of a life that is open to procreation. The former Pope anticipates this idea: “Could it not be admitted… that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act?” (I.3) Protestants simply answer: yes, it could.

Yet, the overall testimony of Scripture encourages childbearing as the norm in marriage where possible. Just as Jeremiah encourages exiles to increase in number even during adversity (Jer 29:6), so also are widows encouraged to remarry and have children (1 Tim 5:14).

Biblical eschatology never overturns or contradicts the created order, and the burden of proof is on anyone to show why the welcome reception of this gift would no longer remain inherent to the purposes of marriage. Some couples may have particular, tragic reasons not to have children; we can respect their circumstance with compassion. But any claim that childless marriage is somehow a ‘good choice’ opposes the Bible’s high estimate of children as a beautiful and precious gift. Christian married couples agree to this purpose of marriage at their wedding, and we do not simply redesign marriage to our liking after taking our vows. God generally calls married people to openly welcome children, and the welcome of children remains inherent to the purpose of a marriage, even if not to every sexual act within it. We suggest, then, that for most married couples, it is an abuse of contraception always to remain closed to having children.

Therefore our future-oriented reasons to avoid children can simply go too far. Western couples are far more affluent than any generation before them, but the richer we become, the more we avoid new children out of a fear of having less, be it money, time or freedom. Even if there is some merit in judicious consideration of the environmental capacity of the land, that is not what is usually going on. The prospect of children becomes a personal threat to us. Rather than thinking hospitably towards these small strangers, they become our competitors.

As Kathryn Blanchard puts it, a couple’s contraceptive freedom in this milieu paradoxically “ends up being troubling (rather than a relief) to … Christian consciences, in that children are no longer seen as gifts from God but as consumer choices in need of explanation”.7 The best of intentions can actually become an anxious or selfish consequentialism, robbing us of the opportunity to welcome children.

How, then, can we find our way to the kind of contraceptive freedom that does not end up in the wrong kind of thought about the future?

Christian married couples don’t have to accept that children have priced themselves out of the market. Knowing the purposes of marriage, the gracious hospitality of God and the goodness of his gift of children, Christians learn to pray for a joyful openness in our marriages. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues that for Christians, “their children are a sign of their hope, in spite of the considerable evidence to the contrary, that God has not abandoned this world.”8

Children are gifts of God that signal hope in him. Those who oppose contraception rejoice over children in a way that deserves our respect. In a perfect world, married people would have many children. There is something beautiful in the vision of the young Torodes: “our bodies, with their fertility, were created good … Pregnancy is not a disease—why vaccinate against it?”9

But this view underestimates the difficulties of a fallen and broken world. In a much-publicized 2006 recantation, the Torodes stated that their early decisions against contraception were untenable. After having four children, they went on to experience hardships and heartbreak. The use of contraception by Christian couples walks the line between the good and hopeful gift of children, and the tragedies of a broken world. We acknowledge these difficulties while forging marriages that welcome children. If we think that the biblical authors sometimes allow the unitive aspect of sex over its procreative aspect, then there is room for contraceptive decisions to be made.

Here, then, is truly an arena of Christian freedom.10 It is within the proper authority of each married couple to discern and decide how ‘open’ their marriage will become. True freedom entails this kind of complexity. It is never a freedom simply to give ourselves all we want, but no one can tell a married couple how many children to hope for. As with all freedom, there may be more than one right answer. As with all freedom, God reigns over it—and may surprise us with more child-shaped gifts of hope.

  1. ‘Of human life’; available at www.vatican.va. For a discussion of Humanae Vitae see ‘Contraception–A Symposium’, First Things, December 1998.
  2.  Sam and Bethany Torode, Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2002, pp. 59–60.
  3.  See Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2001, p. 93, for a discussion of the word ‘offspring’.
  4. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1961, pp. 142–144.
  5.  John J. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 3rd ed., Presbyterian and Reformed, Phillipsburg, 2004, p.54.
  6.  Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 2nd ed., Apollos, Leicester, 1994, p. 210.
  7.  Kathryn D. Blanchard, ‘The Gift of Contraception’, Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 2007, 27/1, p. 243.
  8. Stanley Hauerwas, The Hauerwas Reader, edited by J. Berkman & M. Cartwright, Duke University Press, London, 2005, p. 499.
  9. Torode and Torode, pp. 32–33.
  10.  See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.xix.2–8. Calvin opposed contraception, but given the Bible’s testimony to the unitive purpose of sex, we think his view of Christian freedom applies.