Thursday, February 23, 2012

God and "The Pill"

Contraception has been in the news quite a lot lately, as the social conservative Rick Santorum tries to fight against front-runner Mitt Romney. According to Santorum,

“One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country. It's not okay. It's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

Now, Santorum is a Catholic, and Catholics traditionally hold much more conservative views on contraception than other Christians. I largely disagree with his view of contraception. However, there are some keys ways in which I think I could sympathize with his personal reluctance to use contraception.

Rick Santorum and his trademark sweater vest
But first, let me explain what we are and aren’t talking about today. We ARE talking about condoms, the Pill, and other methods that prevent sperm and egg from joining. We ARE NOT talking about abortion or abortifacients, which either kill the fertilized egg or prevent it from implanting into the uterus so that it dies, something most Christians do think is at least somewhat morally wrong. [However, to complicate matters for Christians, science shows that more than 50% of fertilized eggs fail to implant into the uterus or otherwise develop. Thus, God or Nature kills more than half of all the babies that are ever started—assuming you believe that an unimplanted, fertilized egg does indeed count as a baby. Maybe Plan B “abortion” pills that merely prevent implantation of a fertilized egg aren’t so morally bad after all! After all, that’s what happens more than 50% of the time due to natural causes….]

Also, while we ARE talking about contraception in moral terms, we ARE NOT talking about it in legal terms. Although Santorum thinks states should be allowed to ban the sale of contraception, even he doesn’t argue they actually should do so. He may personally think so, but probably realizes how controversial that would be. Thus my discussion today is purely on the moral status of contraceptives, from a Christian perspective.

Why exactly do Catholics such as Santorum think contraception’s so wrong? According to their logic, God commanded sex purely for the purpose of procreation. Thus, contraception is immoral because it means that sex would be only for fun without the possibility of having children.

This is completely wrong. While God does encourage childbearing, in the Bible there is a clear support for sex for many other reasons. Sex cements and reaffirms the covenant of marriage. Sex brings a union of male and female in a way that reflects the image of God (Genesis 1-2). Sex is to be practiced by both young and old, regardless of whether or not children are a possibility (Abraham & Sarah and Zechariah & Elizabeth are two couples who are still making love at 80+). Sexual desire is even made explicit in the Song of Songs, in which the lover describes his beloved’s breasts as perky “fawns, the twins of a gazelle.”

The one time contraception is described in the Bible, admittedly, it is described negatively: Onan “spilled his semen on the ground” in order to not impregnate his dead older brother’s wife (Genesis 38). God, out of anger, killed him. However the anger was due to his not fulfilling his duty to continue the line of the firstborn. Onan selfishly messed up the family tree. However, such guidelines are part of the Old Testament guidelines that the New Testament overrules: nowadays, if I had an older brother and he died, no church in the world would insist I impregnate his widow to continue his family line.

Thus, I am totally ok with the use of contraception in the context of marriage. It should definitely not be banned.

BUT! I do think there are some potential reasons that Christians may want to consider not using contraception, reasons that I have not yet really heard from Catholics.

First, contraception means Christians are less reliant on God in yet another area of their life. Already, technology and prosperity mean that most Americans can get along just fine without God. We do not need Him for our daily facebook, Internet, and cell phone service, let alone our daily bread. Contraception is just another area of claiming control over an area of life that God used to control: I’m going to decide when I get pregnant and when to have children. A choice to not use contraception in marriage might make a Christian depend more on God: life plans get disrupted, but that happened to the early Christians too. A life of radical discipleship requires the willingness to let go of our own plans and to willingly follow God in His.

Secondly, contraception limits family size. Having a larger family is very counter-cultural in the West; people think it’s too chaotic or costly. But in reality, cost per child goes down the more children you have: buying bulk foods makes more economic sense, hand-me-downs limit new shopping…the difference between having two children and three is really not that much. There’s a lot of joy in having a slightly bigger family, and stepping away from contraception might enable some Christian families to experience and be a witness to this in a radical and life-giving way. 

Thirdly, in the absence of contraceptives, couples can still practice the rhythm method of birth control: only having sex during the two weeks per month when the woman is not ovulating. While less effective than actual birth control, the rhythm method would have an interesting and really cool result in marriages. Couples would now have a time of rest, of Sabbath, of being apart, and then a better, more glorious joining together during the next two weeks. There’s this idea in American culture that sexual tension always has to be gotten rid of immediately, that we can’t live with it. I think that’s totally wrong, and thus part of why I’m living in that tension now. A time of tension can be very fruitful and productive. Couples would learn to appreciate each other, and sex, more.

In conclusion, where do I fall? I do think God gave us a ton of free will. That’s a separate blog, but something I believe very strongly in. I think he often gives us a large degree of complete freedom in choosing occupations, spouses, and whether to have children. Sometimes he might prefer one option over another, but other times the choice is entirely up to us. Thus I think I would affirm contraceptives for Christians who prayerfully choose that option. Perhaps they are missionaries in North Korea and cannot afford to have a kid, or perhaps they want to limit the environmental degradation to God’s creation that a large population causes. Whatever the case, if the issue is prayerfully and mutually decided upon in the context of marriage, I think they make the right choice.