In “What does it truly mean to be pro-life today?,” I wrote that a consistent pro-life ethic encompasses more than simply opposing abortion. Additionally, pro-life issues have three distinct categories:
- issues Christians broadly agree upon
- issues Christians can rationally disagree and remain committed to orthodoxy
- issues that promote a culture of life
Questions about contraception fall into the second category. There is much debate among denominations, and even within individual denominations, as to the proper stance on family planning.
It ought to also be noted that while there are considerations to be had about the topic, contraception ultimately comes down to a matter of conscience. A couple’s decision on whether to use contraception and the type of contraception used is a matter of dialogue, rationale, and prayer.
A theological understanding of sex
Before diving into the nitty-gritty of the ethics of contraception, we must first begin with a brief exploration of how sexual intercourse can be theologically understood. (Note: The following includes medically graphic terms.)
Merriam-Webster defines sexual intercourse (henceforth referred to as sex) from a biological, mechanical perspective. While this is, in some sense, correct, as Christians we believe this definition is reductive. We believe sexuality is a gift from God (Genesis 1:28) and is meant to be enjoyed by a husband and a wife. Given the gifted nature of the action, let us then further interrogate the nature of sexuality so that our sexual ethics best represent the will and the intention of God.
For Christians, there is a dichotomy of criteria for which sexual acts ought to encompass. First, the acts must be procreative, per Genesis 1:28. Sex, as biologically understood, is the process that creates children, and God intends for humans to utilize the behavior in such a way.
The second component of sexual acts is that they are to be unitive, per the teaching of Jesus in Mark 10:8. Sex is one of the ways in which a husband and wife are bound together in the flesh.
The difference between the two majority camps of Christians is how the two qualities—procreation and unification—are related.
For some Christians, predominantly Catholics, the procreative and unitive natures of sexuality must exist in tandem with every act. Conversely, for a majority of Protestant traditions, while not all have a stated theology of sex and sexuality, most operate on the assumption that the arc of marriage is procreative and unitive. Each act of marriage can be either but does not have to be both and can slide between the two ends on a continuum.
For the purposes of this article, I take no preference on a sexual framework. The only point worth emphasizing is that the practical implications for both are significant and must be articulated and understood by both husband and wife.
Types of birth control
Birth control, in its most basic form, is the interference of the formation of a fetus at any point in its developmental stages before birth. While this would also include abortion as a form of birth control, for the sake of this article let us only consider birth control used in either the prevention of fertilization of the egg by the sperm or the prevention of implantation of the embryo within the uterine wall.
There are generally two broad types of birth control categories used to interfere with the early points of development for a fetus: mechanical and chemical.
- Mechanical forms of birth control prevent fertilization from occurring within the woman, typically by extra-body means. This includes items such as a condom, a diaphragm, a cervical cap, a sponge (loyal Seinfeld watchers will be somewhat familiar with this), penile removal before ejaculation, or spermicide.
- Chemical forms of birth control aim to prevent the pregnancy from occurring by preventing implantation (implantation is the process by which the newly formed embryo, called a blastocyst, implants within the uterine wall until it has completed gestation) of the embryo. There are two styles of chemical contraceptives: long-term and short-term applications. Long-term chemical contraceptives are primarily intrauterine devices (IUDs). Short-term chemical contraceptives include contraceptive pills (both monthly and morning after), vaginal rings, skin patches, and even injections.
Is it ethical for Christians to use birth control?
Even after our brief exploration of the prevailing theological understandings of sexuality and an overview of the different methods of birth control, is it ethical for Christians to employ birth control?
If a couple subscribes to the Catholic view of sexuality—that the function of sex is both procreation and recreation—the answer is an unequivocal no.
If a couple does not subscribe to that view, then I cannot give them an answer.
The decision on birth control usage is a question meant for a husband and a wife. It is intimate, personal, and theological, and the conclusion can alter the outcome of generations to come.
There are, however, two considerations worth offering.
What to ask when discussing birth control
The first is a consideration to the nature of birth control itself and pro-life considerations.
Given the prior discussion on being consistently pro-life, we must not let birth control be immune from the conversation. If we believe that a human baby is a life from the moment of conception, are there limitations to the methods of birth control we might employ?
However, if one believes life begins at a later moment in gestation, how does this change what we might think is ethical in use?
Again, I will decline to answer the question, but these are necessary considerations to put forward when thinking about how to live properly in the world.
What is God calling the married couple to?
The second item helpful in guiding our consideration of birth control is the question of, in a New Testament setting, what does Christ call the husband and wife to?
For that, we can turn our attention to Acts 18 and find the example of Priscilla and Acquilla.
In his commentary, History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age, A. C. MCGiffert contends the couple provides “the most beautiful example known to us in the apostolic age of the power for good that could be exerted by a husband and wife working in unison for the advancement of the gospel” (emphasis added). This is the call for each couple.
A life committed to the work of Christ may look different than Priscilla and Acquilla. In fact, it most certainly will.
However, Christ has called each unto himself, and part of our responsibilities as Christians, whether single or married, is to discern what that means in each of our lives.