Classic church doctrine since the time of Saint Augustine and before has condemned contraceptive practices as sinful. Is contraception really a sin, and if not, what types of birth control are acceptable for the Christian? This debate has taken on even greater significance with the recent controversy surrounding the Roman Catholic denunciation of contraceptives in poverty-stricken Africa, which some fear contributes to overpopulation, sexually transmitted disease, and perennially poor families.
Biblical Verses Used to Prohibit Contraceptives
By far the most common biblical story used to support the anti-contraceptive stance is account of Onan in the book of Genesis. According to the account:
“At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and lay with her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.
Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so the LORD put him to death.
Then Judah said to Onan, “Lie with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so he put him to death also.” [Genesis 38:1-10]
Many seem to consider this a knock-down case for the anti-contraception stance, but does this verse really demonstrate that contraception is sinful? It seems to me almost embarrassingly obvious that, in context, Onan’s sin was deliberately refusing to birth a son for his brother and his brother’s wife. There is no good reason to consider this passage as evidence that God explicitly condones contraceptive practices per se.
It is important also to realize the cultural context in which this story took place. After all, this story may seem strange to us in modern society, who would be shocked at the implication that we should have sex with our brother’s wife if she was without a child. But in ancient times, maintaining a family line was essential for survival (children took care of their parents in old age) and important to maintain honor. This is why Biblical characters are often disgraced and ashamed of being barren, and rejoice and praise God when He gives them a child (see Luke 1:24-25, Genesis 30: 22-24, and Genesis 21:1-7 for examples). Sons were needed to maintain the family line. This is why Onan had such a duty to fulfill in the first place.
Thus, it is quite clear that Onan’s sin was refusing to birth a son for his deceased brother. It remains possible that contraceptive practices are sinful, but the story of Onan certainly doesn’t prove such a thing.
Some will argue that the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ found in Genesis 1:28 argues against the use of contraceptives. However, at best this demonstrates that we have an obligation to have children, it does not prove that we should have as many kids as possible or that we should never use contraceptives. This is simply inconclusive.
Thus, it seems apparent that there are no clear instances where contraceptive practices are condemned in the Bible, and we should therefore be very skeptical of those who want to make the universal claim that birth control is wrong.
Other Arguments Against Contraceptives
Some claim that use of birth control is inherently disrespectful to the marriage union, it fails to take into account the fact that children are a blessing from God, and it separates procreation from sex (which is supposedly sinful). In addition to being speculative, these objections fail to show that contraception is always wrong. After all, some may decide to use birth control to stop from having more kids for the time being due to a financial situation or some other factor. Birth control does not necessarily entail that a couple never has kids, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to stop having kids. Obviously, a couple who use birth control within the confines of marriage are not implicitly demonstrating that they don’t believe children are a blessing from God. They may just not be ready yet, or they may already have ten children and be unable to support more.
Probably one of the most common arguments against birth control is that the Church has almost unanimously condemned it throughout history. However, this point only holds sway for Catholics who believe that church tradition is authoritative. Without such a prior commitment to church tradition, the unanimity of opposition to contraceptives is no argument against them, though we should take the views of the church’s leaders, and the evidence offered for them, into account.
There are also a slew of claims that birth control is bad for society. Supposedly, it increases abortion frequency, encourages premarital sex, leads to the spread of STDs, etc. I’m willing to grant all of this, but it clearly has no bearing on whether or not, at the foundational level, birth control is wrong. I am only contending that birth control is acceptable when it does not involve abortion and it is within the confines of a marriage. The fact that contraceptives have been misused outside of this context does not prove that contraceptives are wrong in and of themselves.
Finally, many claim that we should not use birth control because we should let God decide when we have children. Using contraceptives might interfere with His perfect will for us. Furthermore, it is better for us to trust God, and believe that he will provide for us financially and emotionally to handle as many children as we have naturally.
This objection makes the mistake of believing that God’s will is only achieved through natural causes, but can be ruined by human choices. In reality, God works through our choices to accomplish His will. Moreover, in most other areas of our life we recognize the need to make responsible choices rather than sitting back and relying on God to take care of us. Nobody waits around at home believing that God will just provide them with the amount of food that they need- they go to work, get a paycheck, and buy enough food to survive. In reality, God gives us the ability to make responsible choices for ourselves.
Arguments for Contraceptives in the Bible
Can we adduce any evidence in favor of birth control in the Bible? There are no direct verses in support, but, I believe that the Biblical testimony argues against the claim made by many opponents of birth control that it is inherently sinful to separate sex from procreation.
For example, Paul wrote;
“The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” [1 Corinthians 7:3-5]
This verse clearly demonstrates that the purpose of marriage is not only for procreation. Paul tells us that we should not withhold from our spouses. Thus, it is not merely ok to have sex within marriage for pleasure, it is actually mandatory.
Moreover, I would argue that the entire book Song of Solomon argues against the idea that procreation is the only purpose of sex. I don’t think one could fairly read the book and conclude that God only gave us the gift of sex so that we can produce children.
Other Arguments in Favor of Contraceptives
There is another major problem with claiming that it is sinful to separate procreation from marital sex- what about couples who are infertile, either by old age or by physical limitations? Is it wrong for people who are infertile to have sex? Is it wrong for old people to have sex? Almost everyone has to admit that there is nothing morally wrong with infertile sex; in fact, most would think it morally repulsive to claim that such people should never have sex. Moreover, this would also conflict with Paul’s teaching about fulfilling marital duties.
Finally, sometimes there are very good moral reasons to use birth control. A couple who wants to limit the number of children they have because they can’t support more, either for financial reasons or because they want to be able to spend enough individual time with each child, should use birth control. Doing otherwise could harm the family as a whole or the current children in particular. This is not to say that all couples should limit themselves to a few children- this must be considered on a case by case basis. I have nothing against large families- in fact, I would probably be perfectly happy having 9 or 10 kids. Obviously, however, this isn’t for everyone, so for those couples who can’t support so many children, contraceptive use may be morally justified and even morally good.
This point becomes particularly relevant when we consider the case in Africa, where some Catholics discourage use of birth control. Many argue that this has worsened problems like the spread of STDs (especially AIDS) and created families with too many children to be supported with even bare minimal needs. While the specific cases may be debatable, these problems help highlight the possible relevance of the discussion of birth control for alleviating worldwide suffering.
There are no sound Biblical arguments against the use of birth control, nor are there any convincing extra-Biblical reasons to prohibit their use. The story of Onan, frequently used to demonstrate that birth control is immoral, must be ripped wildly out of context to be thought to have any relevance to the debate. The primary natural reasoning for avoiding birth control- that we should trust God to provide for our needs and decide the number of children we have- is based on the misconception that God cannot work His will through human choices (a point which we recognize in almost all other areas of our lives).
Since I believe that abortion takes the life of an innocent human being, any birth control methods which involve or have a risk of abortion of any kind is immoral. Yet, there are several responsible forms of birth control that can reasonably be used within the context of marriage. Couples should therefore feel free to decide for themselves whether, and when, use of contraceptives is appropriate and desirable.