Saturday, August 18, 2007

Nothing to report

Sorry to keep everyone hanging. I've seen a couple of comments wondering about what's happened since I last posted.

I didn't have anything more to say. Nothing has changed. We had a busy end of school year and a fun summer and now we're gearing up for the start of the new school year.

Thanks for praying and caring.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A response to Peter Fournier, part 2: "The urge is too strong!"

Going further into Peter's essay:

Doing that [loving your wife in sickness and in health] requires that you, the man, are able to love her, and love her truly, according to that promise, while abstaining. You have to say no to sexual intercourse, even when she wants it desperately, if you have, as a couple, decided to delay or indefinitely postpone another pregnancy.

This can be a challenge, especially when she wants to take a risk. It is of course a challenge when you want her in a sexual way and the timing is not right -- you have to learn not to pressure or pout. You have to learn to abstain in good cheer.

Oh but I can't do that! The urge is too strong!

Actually, I have been abstaining in good cheer. I haven't refused to take out the garbage or to change the baby's diaper. I'm at home nearly every evening. I don't sulk, I don't snipe at her, and I don't pressure her in the least. She has made her decision, and I respect it.

As for the urge, the urge is there, but I'm well trained in how to resist it. As I said in my initial post, we were both virgins on our wedding night, and we've never strayed. While some young men have the attitude that any woman is potentially sexually available to them -- an attitude that must be hard to shake when they finally get married -- I was inculcated with the idea that no woman was sexually available to me, except, some day when I'd be married, my wife. Assuming that there were 2,000,000,000 adult women in the world, even as a married man I still wouldn't be allowed to have sex with 1,999,999,999 of them. Adding one more (my wife) to that enormous number is not a major adjustment.

This was reinforced in church youth group and the campus Christian ministry. My closest friends were Christians, and they at least professed to live according to that precept. (If they didn't, they weren't bragging about it.) The girls I went on dates with were all chaste Christians, too, belonging to the same fellowships, and they lived by the same standard.

So I'm very comfortable with the idea that the women I work with, the women in Sunday School class at church, the women in my civic club, the women I am around for one reason or another, are nevertheless off limits, even if I am attracted to them and they are (improbably) attracted to me. Accordingly I maintain physical and emotional boundaries with these women. I don't flirt with them, I don't spend time alone with them, I don't confide in them, I don't fantasize about them, I don't get touchy-feely with them, and I steer clear of any emotional entanglements with them.

Therefore, it's not a stretch to treat as off-limits the woman I work most closely with and spend the most time around -- my wife. In fact it's easier in many ways, because while I see my coworkers only when they're wearing their public faces and attitudes, I see my wife not just at her best, but also when she's tired and cranky and not very pleasant to be around. (And of course she sees me when I'm least attractive, too.)

Indeed, abstaining only gets easier over time, as memories of the pleasures of sex fade, and we grow accustomed to not think of each other in a sexual way.

So the strength of the urge is not a problem, but I don't think my ability to control my urges communicates love to my wife. I think she reads it as indifference.

I also find myself applying the same boundaries to her that I have used since high school to avoid getting entangled inappropriately with other women. Sensual touching, passionate kisses, flirting, deep emotional sharing -- these hardly ever happen now, because (just as with a high school date) they would lead somewhere we can't go right now.

And to be crystal clear -- I do not think this is a good path we are on. I do not think it is a good thing for a husband and wife to lose their sexual attraction for each other.

I think the only thing that would communicate to her that I am devoted to her in a romantic way would be for me to get the vasectomy so that we can be sexually available to each other without a significant risk of pregnancy and the resulting medical risks she would face.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A response to Peter Fournier, part 1: Terrified of whom? or of what?

As I begin to respond to what Peter Fournier has written regarding my dilemma, I want to say again that I appreciate the time he spent thinking through the issue, taking my concerns seriously, and setting out a response. I intend to show the same kind of respect to his thoughts that he has to mine. I am going to depend on you, dear reader, to reread his piece as necessary. I won't try to recapitulate the whole thing here.

He begins his essay with the issue of terror, which he calls the elephant in the room. He quotes this comment from PerpetualBeginner on an earlier post:

My simplest argument is that loving one another is high on God's list of priorities, and as I stated above, terror is not conducive to love. I am terrified of what an additional pregnancy would mean (much like your wife), with contraception, this terror has little to no effect on our marriage. Without it, I would be living with it constantly. Every time he gave me a hug, I would be thinking "what if he wants more?"

In the first section of his essay, Peter correctly assumes that my wife and I made promises to one another when we married, including the promise to love and honor one another in sickness and health. (We used the traditional Church of England service and vows -- the one that begins "Dearly Beloved," albeit the slightly modernized version that appears in the Episcopal Church's 1978 Book of Common Prayer.) Taking this promise and PerpetualBeginner's comment together, he writes:

If your wife is terrified of you, surely this is a symptom of not living out the promise to love and honour in sickness and in health. Having a wife/lover/cohabitation partner/whatever, terrified of you does not indicate that she is being loved and honoured in sickness and in health. It means precisely what is obvious: she is terrified of you, terrified to the point of not being able to accept a hug for fear of the possible consequences.

Now, hold the phone: My wife is not terrified of me. She's afraid of certain consequences of becoming pregnant. Most particularly, she's worried about the risks of enduring yet another abdominal surgery in her mid to late 40s. (I'm worried about that, too!) She's also concerned about other health risks to both mom and baby which increase as a woman ages.

While a fourth C-section is not the only issue, it's a significant one. Vaginal birth would not be an option -- it would be foolish and dangerous to try. The first C-section was an emergency C-section due to fetal distress -- cord prolapse. The second time around we went through the LaMaze classes for VBAC, but the baby was late and big and the doctor advised us to schedule a C-section. The third time the baby was even bigger (10 lbs!) and there was never any question that it would be a C-section.

The bottom line is she's not terrified of me. She's terrified of my sperm reaching her egg. She's afraid of what can make her pregnant and put her in risk of uterine rupture and possibly death.

If the sperm can't reach her, the terror goes away.

Part 2 tomorrow or over the weekend.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Peter Fournier: Terror as "the Elephant in the Room"

I appreciate those who continue to read and comment during my hiatus from blogging. Some work-related travel and a child's illness at home kept me from the keyboard. I'm home again, things have settled down a bit, and, praise God, everyone is healthy.

I've tweaked the template slightly, with help from Blogger University to make distinguish blockquotes from my own words. Hopefully the color isn't too dark.

Peter Fournier, a Catholic layman, advocate of Natural Family Planning, and webmaster of, offered the following essay as a comment in an earlier entry. I thought it should be placed more prominently than a comment box, so I am reproducing it below, slightly reformatted. I thank Peter for taking my dilemma seriously and for trying to identify other aspects to my dilemma that may point to a resolution.

Sometime soon (I still need to get my taxes done) I will post my reply, but for now I will simply present Peter's essay without further comment.

Well, just one comment: The notion that sexual abstinence within marriage over a long period is a sin comes from I Corinthians 7:1-5. In addition, if you take the line, as I think the Baylys do, that "be fruitful and multiply" is a command to every individual rather than mankind collectively, abstinence for the sake of avoiding further pregnancy would have to be regarded as a violation of that command.

Dear Contraskeptic: The Elephant in the room

I've read all the comments you've posted. I think there is an elephant in the room that is frequently touched on but never faced square on. The issue I'm referring to is summarized quite well by PerpetualBeginner.

In one of her responses (found here: ) she said...

... terror is not conducive to love. I am terrified of what an additional pregnancy would mean ... with contraception, this terror has little to no effect on our marriage. Without it [contraception], I would be living with it constantly. Every time he gave me a hug, I would be thinking "what if he wants more?"

This theme is so pervasive in the pro-contraception comments that I have to admit that this is a very common way of looking at the issue.

You are looking for advice specifically from the Christian point of view, the Christian point of view relative to "the sin of contraception and the sin of abstinence".

Before contraception, a promise

I think there is another layer here, a layer on which all the commentators, Christian, Non-Christian, anti-Christian, and "Feminist" might be able to develop a useful conversation. That layer is: "What did you promise, both of you, when you married?".

I presume you married in a Christian context, that is you have a more than civil marriage. So, presumably you promised to "Love and Honour", you promised to do this in "Sickness and in Health".

Now you are facing a hard time: 15 months, no sex, your wife is terrified of getting pregnant again. But, I think that all commentators can agree that a promise is, after all, a promise, that is if we ignore the civil side of the arrangement. Civil marriage can easily be seen as purely contractual, and a weird sort of contract at that -- either party can breach the contract with "no-fault".

So let's ignore civil marriage (I have no idea at all what it is) and stick with the promise. I'm not sure about the theological implications of marriage for Evangelicals, whether marriage is "sacramental" or not, but no matter. For sure a promise made before God and before the Christian community is a serious thing.

Let's leave it at that for now: the promise made at marriage is a serious thing. Furthermore it involves "loving and honouring" in "sickness and health".

Before contraception, love

Now back to the quote from PerpetualBeginner , specifically this: Every time he gave me a hug, I would be thinking "what if he wants more?".

I think it's fair to restate that quote, given the context as follows: Every time he gave me a hug, I would be terrified that he might want more."

Given the tone of the majority of the comments, I think that many, if not most, of the commentators will be able to agree that this terror is one the of the real problems addressed by contraception. "I/we are terrified, therefore contraception is necessary."

But, before we jump to contraception as a solution, let's go back to the promise. If your wife is terrified of you, surely this is a symptom of not living out the promise to love and honour in sickness and in health. Having a wife/lover/cohabitation partner/whatever, terrified of you does not indicate that she is being loved and honoured in sickness and in health. It means precisely what is obvious: she is terrified of you, terrified to the point of not being able to accept a hug for fear of the possible consequences.

This terror is surely more fundamental than any question of "should I or should I not contracept" or any religious teaching on the matter (but I'll get to that later).

It's more fundamental because even if you as a couple use a contraceptive technique, the contraceptive does not address the problem of terror directly.

The contraceptive can only make a situation in which the wife is terrified somewhat bearable by removing the consequence of, what has to be, a lack of love. The contraceptive cannot, by itself, address the source of the terror. The contraceptive can, at best paper it over. With or without contraceptives you remain yourself, the man who terrorizes your wife. (I apologize right now for neglecting the vice/versa of the terror -- men are equally terrified of their wives, but there is not enough time or space here to address this).

Bluntly, resorting to contraceptives is an acceptance of a lack of love, an acceptance that the best we can all hope for is to deal with the implicit breaking of the promise made before God and the community, the breaking of the promise to love, by covering it over.

Now many of you who are pro-contraceptive will want to stop reading at this point because, after all, that last paragraph was too harsh, too judgemental. I urge you all to read on, most especially those of you who still have some good will. I hope that you will at the least gain some insight of the basis for the religious opposition to contraception.

After thirty years of NFP/NFA

Thirty years ago my wife and I were both outside of any organized religion. We were part of that vast number of un-churched, pro-contraception, pro-abortion crowd who really did think that we were, after all, intelligent enough to make decisions about these matters on our own. We weren't going to let some dogmatic formulation rule our intimate lives.

That stage did not last very long. We were faced very early on with a few observations that turned out to be seriously awkward, given that we were very serious about the promises we had made when we were married.

First, from a scientific point of view, I see no evidence that fertility can be anything other than a sign of health. A man with a prize winning bull will think something is wrong, something is broken if the bull is sterile. The same can be seen when a couple discovers that they are infertile: how much are they willing to spend in order to 'correct" the problem? Yes, I know all the objections re: overpopulation, women's rights etc. etc. Even if any of these objections are in some way valid, they cannot be wholely valid if they deny that fertility is healthy --- 'cause it just ain't so.

So fertility is healthy, and I promised to love her in sickness and in health. So we went with that conclusion and started living as though the promise made really was the deal between us: no contraceptives because that violated the promise to love. Anyway, it struck as as reasonable at the time.

But, just like any other couple, terror of the consequences did, for sure, intrude. All of the consequences of fertility can (oh how I know they can!) be terrifying!

But, unlike most of the pro-contraceptive commentators, we for some reason did not paper over the terror with contraceptives. We faced it square on and overcame it. My wife is no longer terrified that he might want more." and neither am I terrified that she might want more.".

We decided to limit our family to the six we already had, 17 years ago, about 250 periods ago. Before that spacing with NFP/NFA was effective. Contraception was never at any time required. Getting over the terror was, absolutely, required.

Getting past the terror, largely the man's problem

So, how do NFP/NFA couples get past the terror? I think, based on my experience, that this is largely the man's responsibility. Inevitably, because of biology, a fear of pregnancy will be more immediate and pressing for the woman than the man, especially where there are medical concerns.

This where the commitment to love her in sickness and in health becomes a challenge. You have to get beyond loving her when you have access to sexual intercourse and get to a place where you can love her, and cherish her for who she is and what she is, with or without the sexual communion.

Doing that requires that you, the man, are able to love her, and love her truly, according to that promise, while abstaining. You have to say no to sexual intercourse, even when she wants it desperately, if you have, as a couple, decided to delay or indefinitely postpone another pregnancy.

This can be a challenge, especially when she wants to take a risk. It is of course a challenge when you want her in a sexual way and the timing is not right -- you have to learn not to pressure or pout. You have to learn to abstain in good cheer.

Oh but I can't do that! The urge is too strong!

That is precisely the point. Abstaining, embraced as a sign of love, is the foundation of getting over the terror. Only by abstaining, FOR THE LOVE OF HIS WIFE, only in this way can a man overcome the terror. Of course you, the man, can do that, can resist the urge, even the strong urge, IF YOU LOVE YOUR WIFE AS YOU PROMISED.

I know this is a strong claim I make. I'm saying that abstinence, the man's embracing of abstinence is not a problem if he loves his wife truly (more precisely if he perseveres his whole life in leaning to love his wife truly). Is it hard, very very very hard? Yes, but no more so than many other things mature, adult men are expected to do.

Of course the woman has to accept that perseverance ... which is a whole other letter.

A religious perspective, finally

So far I've mentioned that the promise you made when you were married is a serious thing. It was, I hope, a promise made freely, a promise to be faithful, a promise made with no reservation and a promise that was hoped to be fruitful. That is what Christian marriage is: free, total, faithful, and fruitful.

The promise was an offering of yourself to the other, of yourself as a complete person, and the acceptance of the other, the complete person.

The promise was made before God and before the community.

It was a promise to love your wife.

All of these things have a heavy religious significance. It is directly related to the two commandments to, first, love God with all your heart mind and soul, and to love others as you love yourself. It is also related to Saint Paul's admonition that husbands should love their wives, as Christ loved the Church. The cross is a symbol of sacrifice, I admit. But it also a symbol of love (for he so loved ... etc.).

From a Christian perspective, love and sacrifice are inseparable. This is the context in which abstaining should be considered -- not as rule to be followed, but as a natural consequence of loving your wife rightly. Just because it involves sex does not mean it is in essence any different from any other sacrifice you make for your wife or children. It is simply not possible to love without sacrifice. Because this sacrifice involves sex makes no difference, if love is what drives the decision to sacrifice.

I'm Catholic, you are Evangelical. I'm not familiar enough with the Evangelical teaching on marriage to comment any further on the religious aspects, in an Evangelical context. But I believe that my comments so far can be generally applied to "Christian" concepts of marriage.

Getting past all the denominational issues, it comes down to this: contraception has to be evaluated in the context of Love, with the capital "L". If God is Love, all religious statements about contraception have to be clearly linked to Love, and love -- the love we try to make real, to incarnate, in our lives.

Papering over the terror doesn't fit in this scheme.

And now a non-religious perspective

Now let's back up a bit and assume that religion is not involved in the decision to, or not to, contracept.

If, as I paraphrased PerpetualBeginner , Every time he gave me a hug, I would be terrified that he might want more." we have still have a problem.

I do not believe that contraception actually solves the problem of being afraid of each other. It especially does not address the problem of the woman being afraid of the man.

As you have all guessed by now, I think that the contraception institutionalizes or formalizes the acceptance of the woman fearing her husband. And this, quite apart from any religious perspective,is a serious problem for anyone advocating contraception, and most particularly for anyone claiming to be feminist. How is a benefit to women to institutionalizes terror directed at women? Even if the woman acquiesces to the terror and chooses to contracept, is the decision truly free? Can it be a true reflection of her will, her free will?

It is very common to say that what I am advocating, a rejection of contraception, is unrealistic. But so was advocating the extension of the vote to women. And, as universal suffrage was seen to be necessary because women, as they are, are PERSONS, I believe that there will come a time when contraception will be seen in the same way, women will demand that they be taken as they are, body soul and personhood.

Only with a feminist rejection of contraception will we arrive at that point where we can get past the idea that "My urge is so strong, you will just have to bear the consequence, you will have to get pregnant against your will. I will be satisfied, I will use you.".

But this unrealistic! Yes, but it is scientific ...

I'm at a loss to respond to this objection. I am after all real, and my wife does not live in terror of my sexuality, does not live in terror of her sexuality, and most importantly does not live in terror of our sexuality.

But this is easily dismissed with "Yes, well if I were as much of a religious fanatic as he is, then maybe it is possible, but for not John and Jane Doe!"

It's hard to respond to that objection except to point out that the objection is itself an expression of religious fanaticism, and that religion is the religion of despair.

We despair that men and women can ever respect each other, we despair that teenage boys can want life long love, so we train our young women to abandon the hope for life long love as well. We teach our children to plan for divorce, as though this were somehow more "realistic". I admit, it is more realistic, if we despair of our society and of ourselves.

More curious to my mind is the phenomena that as soon as we touch on "sex" even the materialists among us abandon science without so much as a backward glance.

Evolutionary biology has a lot to say about kinship structures in human societies -- and how are they supposed to work, in a practical sense, without a life long commitment to marriage -- one woman and one man for life? Why would be expect the availability of contraception to change, in any way, our inherited evolutionary development? But we do.

Babies like their mothers, they like their smell, their skin, their voice. They recognize their mothers immediately after birth. That link, that baby/mother love/attachment is natural is a fact. How can we suppose, scientifically that it does not extend into adulthood and the attachments formed there? Of course it must, and it must presume that "terror" is a deviation from the natural state of affairs, or at least it seems reasonable to me that this should be so.

Sociology points to problems with broken down families, families often broken down because men can't say "I abstain for love of you."

Young men want to get married and have children and love them and their wives. As far as science can determine this is built in, hard wired.

Scientifically, abstinence is not physically damaging, and need not be psychologically damaging. (A speculation: A little more development in that area will show that abstinence is only psychologically damaging if you start out damaged.)

Scientifically unrestricted promiscuous sex leads to disease, and it seems this will always be so -- it's how disease works.

All of these things weave together and at least support the idea that marriage is normal, indeed very normal biologically, as are all the other facets of our lives that are touched by marriage.

We can list these facts for many many pages. We all have our favorites. Only a culture of despair can lead us to abandon all the facts supporting marriage and the appropriate place of abstinence in affective relationships (every marriage will have them, contracepting or not, scientifically speaking) and focus solely on the "me", and even then not on the complete me, just the sexual me.

Scientifically the idea of "How's your sex life?" is nonsense. Psychology shows that sex and the rest of your life have to be an integral whole. Terror h
as no place in the psychologically healthy person. I believe that eventually psychology will conclude that contraception, insofar as it masks terror, but does not address it, is a symptom of psychological ill-health.

Oh well!

A final religious word to Contraskeptic

You mention somewhere that "abstinence is a sin". I'm not familiar with that formulation. However, if it is Christian, then it has to conform with Ephesians and the expectation that husbands must be willing to sacrifice in order to love their wives. If it doesn't, I cannot see how it makes sense in a Christian context. Please explain.

Also, when depending on quotes from the Bible, it is, I believe, necessary to understand any particular quote in the context of Christ's commandment to love, in all it's various expressions. "I came not to replace but to complete the law" is something to be considered very carefully as well.

As for any argument based on scripture of the type "The bible says nothing about such and so, therefore it says nothing at all."-- these ideas have to be tested against the commandments to love, otherwise nothing has been said. The bible says nothing about titanium dioxide? So what.

As for using NFP/NFA because it is the right thing to do, it is the rule to follow -- your chances of success in following the rule, because it is a rule, are minimal. That it is a rule, or dogma, is not the point. Love is the point. From that comes the rule, and from that the dogma, available to you to be freely embraced. So I agree with one of your commentators on the pro-contraception side: to impose a rule on you and your wife is not fair. On the other hand, to use the "rule" as part of loving her is very practical. Of course, viewed this way it is not a rule at all.

And finally, in the situation you find yourself in, with your wife, love will be, in the end, the answer. It's hard, it's largely up to you as the husband, and it will be long.

As for the question of methods, NFP/NFA is apparently 99.4% effective (recent study in Europe, see ) very similar to the birth control pill. As well, both vasectomy and tubal ligation have a failure rate, so your wife cannot feel completely "safe" even with these. In our town there is a couple who decided to stop at one child so he got a vasectomy. She got pregnant. She decided to get a tubal ligation. She got pregnant.

So, nothing is certain, except, perhaps, if you dare, Love.

Yours however inadequately in Christ
Peter Fournier,

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"The High Stakes of Determining God's Will Concerning Birth Control"

Briefly noted for further reading and comment later: Jess, a new commenter to this blog, has a blog of her own called Making Home, and she has written a couple of posts on the topic of Christians and contraception:

Birth Controlled

The High Stakes of Determining God's Will Concerning Birth Control

She asks some tough questions of those who insist that contraception is wrong for Christians and of those who believe the Christians have freedom to decide. Some examples:

Is it then God's will for someone like Andrea Yates to have continued having children, regardless of her own personal health and mental stability? What about someone who has extrememly difficult pregnancies (say, with gestational diabetes), where symptoms must be monitored and medication is requred, must that woman then endure a possible 10-15 pregnancies over a lifetime of fertile years just to be in the will of God?

How do we KNOW when [contraception is] acceptable? Even if we "feel peace about a decision", the Bible says that, "the human heart is deceitfully wicked, who can know it?" So how do we really evaluate our own motives and opinions on the issue?

I appreciate her approach to the issue. I especially appreciate the fact that here's another Christian who's not ashamed to laugh out loud at Monty Python's take on birth control.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A brief response

Thanks to all who posted comments to my previous entry -- even to those who had some harsh things to say. I have been ill the last few days, which is why I haven't updated until now.

I do want to emphasize a point that several commenters seemed to have missed. My previous attitude about having another child -- that it wouldn't be a disaster -- did change after our third child was born. I agree with my wife in her desire not to have another child, particularly (but not only) because of the physical risks she would face, having a fourth C-section in her mid-forties.

Several commenters asked if we'd considered tubal ligation. The moral issues are the same as for a vasectomy. Setting moral issues aside, it makes more sense for me to get a vasectomy than for my wife to get her tubes tied -- less invasive, less risk of complication, less costly. Getting her tubes tied during the last C-section wasn't an option, as the delivery was at a Catholic hospital. (It's the best hospital in town, and it's where her obstetrician -- the same one she'd had for the first two -- did all his deliveries.)

One commenter says we should discuss NFP. We have discussed NFP, but it has a significant drawback -- it's not 100% effective. That's also the drawback with barrier contraception (again aside from the moral issues). Hormonal contraception is not an option because of genetic risk factors for breast cancer. In any case, my wife has ruled out everything except sterilization.

While I'm grateful for the link from Feministe, it has brought a very different audience than I originally had hoped would respond to my request for advice. As I wrote in my initial entry:

If you don't believe that there is a God to whom we owe worship and obedience and that what we do with our bodies matters to him, this whole topic will seem silly and pointless to you.

If you take God out of the equation, there's no dilemma at all. I get a vasectomy, and my wife and I get to enjoy lots of non-procreative sex.

But I believe that when God forbids something, it isn't because he's a colossal killjoy, but because, as our Creator, he knows what is best for us, both in the physical and spiritual dimensions.

God forbids long-term abstinence in marriage. The negative consequences are apparent -- estrangement, temptation to stray.

As I've detailed in previous entries, many Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, believe that God also forbids contraception. Contraception, they say, is a refusal of God's blessing of children, a withholding of one's self from one's spouse, a perversion of the marital bed. They say that contraception has spiritual and emotional consequences as well, such as estrangement and divorce.

The people who say these things are people I respect, people whose views I take seriously. I had hoped to hear from some of them in response to my request for advice. So far, I've had only one commenter from that perspective offer advice: Andy, who suggested NFP, which, as I explain above, is an option that has already been ruled out.

I'd like to reserve the comment box for this entry for those Christians who believe that contraception is a sin, to suggest solutions to my dilemma: How do I protect my wife from a dangerous pregnancy while avoiding the sin of abstinence and the sin of contraception?

If you don't fall into that category, you're welcome to post a comment on the earlier entry.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A request for advice (bumped)

As the cowboys say every spring, "It's nut-cutting time." Time to get down to business.

This is where the rubber meets the road. This is going to be a tough Pill to swallow, but it's time to tie up loose tubes ends. Time to sit up straight and tall and use that diaphragm, so as to be heard clearly. You can't just soak up information like a sponge. It would be wrong to pull out before bringing this discussion to a climax.

Enough bad puns. I have been gathering all these links and sifting through all these perspectives because I face a serious decision. This isn't a hypothetical discussion for me.

I'm sympathetic to the arguments against birth control, but if I followed them to their logical conclusion, they would put me in a serious, and to my mind, unresolvable moral dilemma.

I ask those Christian bloggers who have written passionately against contraception -- the Bayly brothers, Peter Fournier of, Dawn Eden and her commenters, and the people at No Room for Contraception and Lutherans and Contraception, Deb (one of my few commenters), and anyone else who cares to weigh in -- to read what follows, consider my dilemma and tell me, given your belief that contraception is a grave offense against God, what would you do in my situation?

Even though I've used contraception in the past and am still not totally persuaded of the arguments against all contraception, I can see that those who argue against it are serious believing Christians who seek to submit to Christ's lordship in every aspect of life. So I take what they say on this issue very seriously. I'm not going to dismiss it out of hand, particularly when I'm considering an irrevocable decision.

As I said in my introductory entry, I am a married father of three children. The youngest isn't walking yet. My wife and I are both in our mid-40s.

A couple of years after our second child was born, my wife, just about to turn 40, asked me to consider getting a vasectomy. Her arguments were almost identical to those of the hypothetical husband in Tim Bayly's post about faith and contraception. She was looking forward to our then-youngest being in school full time, so that she could re-enter the work force at least part time, for the sake of our finances and her own mental health. She had had two C-sections and didn't want to go through another one. And after our second child she went through what I believe was post-partum depression, exacerbated by problems with nursing, although she never sought help for it. To her thinking, having another child would be a "disaster."

I didn't share her fear of having another child. While I didn't have any qualms about contraception, which we used to time the births of our two children, I didn't have a controlling attitude about it. If the children didn't arrive according to plan, or we wound up with more than we planned, it was OK. A pregnancy within marriage is never a crisis pregnancy, never a "disaster," as I saw it. Therefore, achieving 0% probability of conception wasn't a concern of mine. I wasn't insistent on more kids, but if God should send more our way, that was OK. Our first two were both intelligent and beautiful and gifted with musical ability and a sense of humor. We made good babies, and it wouldn't be a bad thing if we made more, but I was content with the two we had.

At first, after our second child was born, we used condoms. I even made a special trip into Canada, when I was nearby on business, to buy spermicidal sponges, which were available again after several years off the market.

Alas, my wife did not deem me spongeworthy. She decided to restrict our lovemaking to one day a month, the day after her period ended, the day she felt most confident that she wouldn't be fertile. Because of that confidence, she didn't insist on using any other means of contraception on those days. Even when we were using barrier methods, that was the one "free" day when she'd let us make love without a condom. But by now, she didn't want to risk pregnancy at all. 1% was too great a chance to take.

If we happened to be too busy or tired on that one day a month, we'd just miss sex until the next cycle.

One night, just moments after concluding our monthly roll in the hay, she snuggled up to me and said in a cheery voice, "Just think, when you get your vasectomy, we can do this every night!" I rolled away from her, offended at the timing of her sales pitch.

She began to "accidentally" fall asleep on the couch most nights. She told me later she didn't want to risk getting turned on and having sex. Even cuddling and caressing were severely restricted, for the same reason.

Then one afternoon she came to me in my home office in tears. She told me that she had missed her period and her home pregnancy test was positive. Evidently that one day a month wasn't as infertile as she thought.

She was devastated. Her hopes for getting out of the home and back to work were dashed. She projected her own dismay on our oldest child, predicting that he would be angry about having to compete for attention with another child, and on her own mother, predicting that she would scold her for her irresponsibility. She was fearful of the greater chance of Down Syndrome or some other birth defect that becomes more common in pregnancies of older women.

She found out just days before going for a consultation about a tubal ligation; she had given up on me consenting to a vasectomy.

As the pregnancy progressed, her attitude improved. Her fears about the reaction of our older children and her mother were not realized. The kids were very excited about having a baby in the house. Our extended families were very supportive.

One woman in our church who had a surprise pregnancy at age 47 was especially supportive, reaching out to encourage my wife. Her doctor had advised her to abort, but she carried to term, and her daughter grew up to be a healthy, beautiful, and intelligent young woman.

My wife had an amniocentesis, at her insistence, so that if there were signs of genetic problems, we could begin educating ourselves and preparing for the adjustments we'd need to make. Everything looked good on the test and the ultrasound, which lifted a great weight of concern off of her. I want to emphasize that despite my wife's distress at becoming pregnant, there was never any consideration of abortion on her part or mine, even if the amnio had indicated a problem.

The baby came on schedule -- a big, beautiful fellow. He seems to be as smart as his older siblings, who dote on him. We are all happy to have a little one around the house again.

But my wife doesn't want any more, and I can't blame her. This was necessarily another C-section delivery, and the recovery period was slower than the first two. Several years older than the previous two C-sections, she doesn't heal as fast. If she were to get pregnant again, she'd be having a fourth C-section in her mid-to-late 40s, with an increased danger of uterine rupture. Even in a successful delivery, recovery would be even longer and more painful than before.

So she has laid down the law: No sex until I get a vasectomy. Period.

I made an appointment for a vasectomy. When I went in for my initial consult, the urologist asked me why I wanted to get a vasectomy. I said, "Because my wife wants me to." He told me that was the wrong reason.

I rescheduled my appointment for the actual surgery a couple of times for various reasons. At this point, I have no appointment.

So it has now been 15 months since we have had sex or even done much in the way of snuggling. It's not that we don't want sex. She has said several times that she didn't sign up for a sexless marriage. But even more than she wants sex, she doesn't want another pregnancy, another delivery, and resetting the clock for being a stay-at-home mom.

The lack of sex has been a wedge between us. The chemical thing that happens to your brain during sex to boost the emotional bond between a couple -- that's supposed to help sustain a couple in through the stresses of living together, but it's not available to us.

Here is the dilemma I face:

If I get a vasectomy, we'll be sinning if we have sex, and unlike using a condom, the sin will be permanent (or extremely expensive if not impossible to reverse). Practically speaking, there's no repentance if indeed contracepted sex is a sin.

But if I don't get a vasectomy, and we have to abstain until my wife reaches menopause, we'll be sinning by not having sex. Couples are only supposed to abstain briefly but to come back together to avoid temptation (see I Corinthians 7). And it seems that the NFPers and the Quiverfull folks would agree that abstaining for the purpose of avoiding children is also a sin.

Beyond the concern about offending God, if I opt for abstinence over a vasectomy, our marriage will suffer. Love will diminish because we'll be avoiding physical affection and because my wife will be offended that I am not complying with her wishes.

This is not a trick question, this is not a hypothetical, this is not a rhetorical trap. This is a real-life dilemma. I have a real-life decision to make.

What would you do if you were in my shoes?

Vasectomy causes dementia?

A medical journal article links vasectomy to two different types of dementia:

Men who have had a vasectomy may face an increased risk of developing a rare type of dementia marked by a steady loss of language skills, researchers said on Tuesday.

Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois, writing in the journal Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology, linked this male sterilization surgery to a neurological condition called primary progressive aphasia, or PPA.

They surveyed 47 men with the condition being treated at Northwestern's Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center, as well as 57 men who did not have PPA. Their ages ranged from 55 to 80.

Of those with primary progressive aphasia, 40 percent had undergone a vasectomy, compared to 16 percent of the others. Those with PPA also suffered the ailment an average of four years earlier than the others.

Preliminary data also linked vasectomies to another form of dementia involving behavioral changes. Among 30 men with frontotemporal dementia, more than a third had undergone a vasectomy, the researchers said.

How does this happen?

The study did not look at the mechanism behind any link between PPA and vasectomies, but Weintraub said it may be because the surgery allows sperm to leak into the blood. Antibodies produced by the immune system in response to the sperm might trigger damage that causes dementia, she said.

But given the following paragraph, perhaps I ought to take the whole article with a granuloma of salt (emphasis added):

A vasectomy is an operation in which the tubes through which sperm travels are cut, leaving sperm unable to reach the testes and making a man unable to impregnate a woman.

(Via BaylyBlog.)

Monday, February 5, 2007

Dawn Eden: Contracepting married couples don't really love each other

In searching the web for Christian opinions on contraception in marriage, I came across some posts on the topic by a Catholic blogger, posts which have achieved a degree of infamy among her antagonists and yielded a bumper crop of comments.

Dawn Eden is a recent convert to Catholicism, and she is an enthusiastic evangelist for the "Theology of the Body," a sort of rationale for the Roman church's rules on sexuality developed by the late Pope John Paul II and popularized in America by Christopher West. On her blog, she upholds the Vatican's ruling to prohibit the use of artificial means of avoiding conception, while permitting the use of thermometers, charts, and mucus monitoring to avoid conception.

She's not a theological authoriy, but her views are worthy of attention here because of her role as an apologist and popularizer of Catholic sexual morality, through her blog and a book called The Thrill of the Chaste, which is about her conversion from sexual promiscuity to Christian chastity.

It is interesting that, as many cradle Catholics have left the church over rules on sexuality that they consider too narrow, and others remain in the church but ignore those rules, those very rules and principles have been a major source of attraction to Rome for some converts. Eden seems to fall into that latter category, as do many of her commenters.

In one notable blog post, she uses a strange and arresting analogy to communicate the idea, central to Roman teaching on sexuality, that artificial means of birth control fundamentally change the nature of the sex act:

. . . suppose you could French kiss your beloved boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse without exchanging spit?

No, seriously. Suppose exchanging spit greatly increased one's fertility at certain times of the month and was hence something to be avoided at all costs by those wishing to be childless.

You could take a pill that would dry up your saliva glands and prevent your own mouth from absorbing your partner's saliva.

To preserve that nice gushy feeling, you could swish some prefabricated spit substitute, just like the real thing, between your teeth before locking lips. But neither you nor your partner would be capable of transmitting any of your own natural wetness to the other.

Physically, it would feel just like a real French kiss. But would it be one?

Is a kiss still a kiss when it's only sensation, with no substance shared? Is it still a soul kiss when you're purposefully withholding part of yourself — something that's always been an essential element of a smooch?

I wonder . . .

In a follow-up post, she explains what she was trying to get at:

I wrote an allegory about kissing, insinuating that true sexual freedom is accepting sex in all its meanings — pleasure, emotional union, and the possibility of procreation. To be truly sex-positive, one must be life-positive. Anything else stunts one emotionally and physically.

In the comments to the first post, it becomes clear that, for Eden and others, those three meanings aren't independent variables. Emotional union isn't possible unless procreation is.

You will find it worthwhile to read the entire conversation, but I'm going to quote rather a lot of comments here, as they illuminate the attitude of devout Catholics, following official church teaching, on the topic of contraception.

Kate B.:

I say it's still a kiss. It is also a deception: your bodies have been altered, and you are trying to pretend they haven't been. Thus, each member of this hypothetical couple would be lying to the other, as well as being complicit in the other's lie.

Dawn Eden, responding to an objection to her comment that seems to make "contracepted sex" and love mutually exclusive:

I don't believe our choices disable us from being capable of love. I do believe that our choices can put us in situations where, by closing ourselves off physically, we close ourselves off emotionally as well.

Dawn Eden, in response to a married commenter who speaks positively of sterilization:

Vasectomy brings in a different kind of barrier, Ledasmom — a barrier of refusal to accept the possibility of life. One doesn't love a man completely if one hotly desires to damage his properly functioning body by making him sterile.


Also, it's perfectly obvious that the amount of love is less in contracepting marriages. Maybe not zero (I should certainly hope not!), but definitely lower. As evidenced by the higher rate of divorce.


Non-contracepting couples love all of each other. Contracepting couples say to each other, 'I love this part of you (your body) but not this part (your reproductive capability and life-giving purpose).' Thus the contracepting couple lies in their wedding vows, partially, because your wedding vow is 'I take you to be my spouse,' not 'I take part of you, but not this part.' A contracepted marriage is a cafeteria marriage. The love is limited and the woman isn't valued for her lifegiving capabilities and femininity.

Further in the conversation, Cynthia Wood responds to Biddy's suggestion that vanity and ambition are what motivates the desire for no more children:

I don't want another pregnancy because it means 5-6 months of pubic symphis dysfunction, up to two years of hip pain, a new crop of moles (this is not vanity, at least two have been pre-cancerous), a high risk of life-threatening hemorrhage (not fun, even when you don't die), and a few other un-fun things.

It's pretty strange to me that someone would think it more loving, and better for the marriage to be celibate until menopause than to use contraception and maintain a loving physical relationship. I should reject my husband's body out of fear when it's not necessary?

Dawn Eden has a quick rejoinder:

Sorry about your illness, Cynthia, but natural family planning is a highly effective method of avoiding pregnancy that has no side effects.

Even if you wish to "play it safe" and use the most effective method known to you, which is oral contraception, you're giving up something valuable in terms of emotional intimacy. What you're giving up is much more than if you simply refrained from having sex, because you're physically withholding your fertility within the context of the sexual act. That will affect you emotionally and spiritually. I'm sorry if this offends you, but this is what I believe, not just for you personally, but for everyone who uses contraception.

Cynthia Wood responds:

But if NFP is as effective as BCP, then aren't I withholding my fertility from my husband if I use it? And if it's not as effective, I don't find terror particularly effective at promoting a loving relationship. I've already commented on the poisoning aspect. The "side effects" the pill causes me are, for me, highly desireable, and I would be likely to remain on it for that reason even if I were celibate.

I'm sorry, but I have a 14-year marriage that still going strong, and I haven't noticed any negative effect from the use of contraception. For you to tell me that I'm doing my marriage harm with no knowledge of our relationship except that we use contraception seems - premature at the very least. I don't see that I should start making major unilateral alterations to a strong working marriage because somebody far, far away feels we might be doing better. Far less that we should be forced into such a position against our will.

In her rebuttal, Dawn Eden turns to the effect she claims contraception has on one's attitude toward children:

Cynthia, I'm not going to try to convince you or anyone arguing against NFP why you should use it, because you're clearly not interested. The short answer to your question about whether it withholds fertility is that it depends upon your motivation.

There's nothing wrong with a couple's wanting to space births or refrain from having additional children, and using NFP to do so. The problem with contraception is that it treats the child as a "mistake." That leads directly to the mentality that considers the unborn child an "invader" or "unwanted tenant" who must be killed.

The premise of NFP is that one must be open to the possibility of children even as one attempts to avoid having them. Beyond that, I'm not going to argue with you because, again, your mind does not appear to be open.

A few more quotes:

Dawn Eden again:

But I don't think that NFP by definition consists of withholding fertility. It in no way alters the body's natural processes. When an NFP couple has sex, they really have sex.


When a couple uses NFP, they aren't withholding their fertility in anything like the same way as they are if they contracept. Contracepting couples seek consequence-free sex, so they do not give their whole selves freely to one another. Couples using NFP abstain during the fertile period, but if that is just more than they can handle (as an above commenter suggested), they can still enter the marital embrace (with the knowledge that they may be likely to conceive). Every time they have sex, they do so with all parts of themselves. The contraceptive mentality knocks sex down to mere feelings or sensations, rather than the perfect unity that is supposed to be present on the marriage bed.

The rhetoric gets even more forceful in the comments to her followup post.


Josh asks about "the moral distinction, if any, between NFP and artificial contraception." Well, if NFP is used with a contraceptive mentality, then no, there is no moral distinction -- they are both a corruption and distortion of human sexuality. Contraception, whether physical or mental, is a barrier between a man and woman -- literally. Such a barrier obviously prevents a man and woman from becoming "one." Indeed, it prevents any real or authentic intimacy at all. Contraception presents both a wall -- of rubber, chemicals, or otherwise -- and a withholding of a part of yourself from the other.

Because of this barrier and this withholding of self, sex is no longer an act of mutual giving, that is, an act of love. Instead, it becomes an act of taking; an act of exploiting; an act of using the other as an object, as a sex toy. By this use of contraception, couples no longer see each other as a subject or even a person -- they see the other as object, a thing. Nothing much more than a flesh and blood blow-up toy or vibrator.


Saying a couple can be open to children throughout the course of their marriage without every sexual act being fertile (at least having the possibility of conception) is like saying that you can be faithful to your spouse throughout the course of your marriage without every sexual act needing to be with him or her.

I don't think Dawn Eden and her commenters mean what they say about love and contraception in a personal way, as a personal attack on the relationships of their interlocutors who admit to using contraception. They are speaking dogmatically -- that is, they are asserting that the relationships of married couples who use contraception must be defective because the dogma of the Roman Catholic church teaches that it is so.*

It is interesting that most of the commenters in that thread who defended the use of contraception mentioned being married and already having children, while I didn't notice that any of those attacking the use of contraception mentioned being a spouse or a parent.

If you're wondering why I am quoting more than commenting, at this point I'm just trying to gather all the information in one place, so that I can easily refer back to it. I am planning one or more posts that tie all this together, in the context of my own life.

UPDATE: I have converted all the quotes to blockquotes for the sake of consistency and readability. Also I corrected a term ("Roman church") that gave unintended offense. I wasn't trying to channel Ian Paisley, I promise. (But as someone pointed out, there are denominations, such as the Eastern Orthodox, regard themselves as truly catholic -- holding to "that which ought to be believed at all times in all places by all people" -- and regard the church headed by the Bishop of Rome as schismatic.)

Also, in saying that these assertions about the effect of contraception on the nature of sex are "dogmatic," I wasn't meaning to say that they were pulled out of thin air (or some place darker) by the Magisterium, or that these faithful Roman Catholics were robotically regurgitating them in the linked comments. What I meant was that when, for example, Dawn Eden says, "One doesn't love a man completely if one hotly desires to damage his properly functioning body by making him sterile," that statement isn't grounded in personal observation of my wife's heart attitude toward me. She is applying the principles that she believes are true to the specific situation -- and thus the statement is grounded in church dogma -- its profession of its understanding of God's creation, both seen and unseen, its weltanschauung -- not in personal observation and experience. That's not a bad thing, in my view.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

A non-believer in contraception accepts sterilization

I found a page of questions and answers about birth control on Tony Capoccia's Bible Bulletin Board. Mr. Capoccia seems to be a fan of John MacArthur, Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Watson, and J. C. Ryle. I gather that he would consider himself a Reformed Baptist.

In answer to the question, "Is contraception at all Biblical?" he gives five principles:

God said, to Adam and Eve, and to Noah's and his sons, (which would be a command for all generations after them), "Be fruitful and multiply" and He never rescinded the command.

God wants Christians to have lots of children because he was seeking "godly offspring"

God considers children a blessing from Him (something that will make us happy!)

God has the ability to "open and close" the womb causing conception or not.

God has commanded that all Christians, to include the Christian couple to live by faith.

Capoccio explains that the use of birth control is a matter of faith in God. Those with great faith will trust God with the timing and number of children. He explains how different methods of birth control show a lack of faith in God. In particular, the "rhythm method" involves abstinence, which is "prohibited in the Bible, except for special times of 'prayer' and then both must be in agreement."

People of weak faith may use birth control, but Capoccia tells us that he and his wife had great faith:

My wife and I both had great faith in God before we met. After we dated for almost a year we decided on marriage and both agreed that God could be trusted in the control of births. We let Him decide on the right number of children. A year after our marriage we had our first child, and then about every 14-18 months. We ended with six children, three boys and three girls. All are precious and very close friends. They range in ages from 13 to 20. Because of our great faith (a gift from God Himself) we have and are passing that faith onto our children, and they are growing rapidly in faith.

Evidently, that faith has limits:

After the sixth child (three C-sections, and three vaginal deliveries), the doctor said that another pregnancy could cause a great danger to my wife and the child. At that point, we felt it would be testing God to continue on with that new information. So we agreed to the tubal ligation, and felt this was from the Lord. We have seen that with each child, our income continued to rise to meet the new expenses. And now that the older ones are reaching the college age, it is amazing to see how God is meeting those needs.

Actually, the decision they made seems prudent to me, but the cynical part of me says if they really trusted God, they wouldn't engage in contracepted sex, and they would trust God to prevent a pregnancy. What they are saying, even if they don't realize it, is, "We trust God not to give us any more children, and we are going to trust him to work through the means available to us (tubal ligation) to bring this about." As a fan of Puritan and Reformed authors, I would think Mr. Capoccia would understand the doctrine of providence, that God accomplishes His sovereign will working through "second causes," including the decisions we make about contraception.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Wikipedia entry: "Christian views on contraception"

Wow. I could have saved myself a lot of time.

I just came across the Wikipedia entry, "Christian views on contraception." Because of the way Wikipedia is created, the articles aren't always reliable or authoritative, but this one is well-researched and annotated. It looks like a user nicknamed CyberAnth has done most of the work on it. Very impressive.

The article covers Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant (mainline, evangelical, Reformed, Lutheran, Anabaptist -- you name it) views on the topic and does a good job of explaining the main points of contention. It's given me many new links to articles I plan to read on the topic.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Marriage Bed

I came across this evangelical Christian website on marital sex, called The Marriage Bed, which has a page called Birth Control: A Christian Perspective. It covers the different methods, how they work, and what the ethical and moral considerations are for each.

They make this interesting comment about Natural Family Planning:

We have theological problems with NFP because it violates the Biblical command to only abstain from sex for the purpose of fasting and prayer (1 Cor 7:5).

LCMS: "No objection" within a fruitful union

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the most conservative of the major Lutheran denominations in the U.S., doesn't have an official position on contraception, but a 1981 report on sexuality by the Synod's Commission on Theology and Church Relations was "commended to the Synod for study and guidance" by the Synod in 1983. The report contained the following statement:

In view of the Biblical command and the blessing to "be fruitful and multiply," it is to be expected that marriage will not ordinarily be voluntarily childless. But, in the absence of Scriptural prohibition, there need be no objection to contraception within a marital union which is, as a whole, fruitful. Moreover, once we grant the appropriateness of contraception, we will also recognize that sterilization may under some circumstances be an acceptable form of contraception. Because of its relatively permanent nature, sterilization is perhaps less desirable than less-far reaching forms of contraception. However, there should be no moral objection to it, especially for couples who already have children and who now seek to devote themselves to the rearing of those children, for those who have been advised by a physician that the birth of another child would be hazardous to the health of the mother, or for those who for reasons of age, physical disability, or illness are not able to care for additional children. Indeed, there may be special circumstances which would persuade a Christian husband and wife that it would be more responsible and helpful to all concerned, under God, not to have children. Whatever the particular circumstances, Christians dare not take lightly decisions in this area of their life together. They should examine their motives thoroughly and honestly and take care lest their decisions be informed by a desire merely to satisfy selfish interests.

With respect to voluntary childlessness in general, we should say that while there may be special reasons which would persuade a Christian husband and wife to limit the size of their family, they should remember at all times how easy it is for them simply to permit their union to turn inward and refuse to take up the task of sharing in God's creative activity. Certainly Christians will not give as a reason for childlessness the sorry state of the world and the fear of bringing a child into such a world. We are not to forget the natural promise embedded in the fruitfulness of marriage. To bear and rear children can be done, finally, as an act of faith and hope in God who has promised to supply us with all that we "need to support this body and life."

This is pretty close to the view expressed by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

And it seems to me that the reasons cited here for the use of contraception are very nearly the same as those that Catholics cite as grave reasons for using Natural Family Planning to avoid conception while having sex.

“Use NFP: It Doesn’t Work!”

Tim Bayly links to a funny Catholic take on Natural Family Planning: The best thing about it, says H. W. Crocker III, is that it doesn't work, and you wind up with a big family, just as God intended.

Crocker makes the case for his marketing method:

As a slogan, "Use NFP: It Doesn’t Work!" has many strong arguments in its favor. First, it is true. NFP proponents tout its 99 percent effectiveness rate, but they neglect to mention that this is true only if the husband is in the Navy and assigned to extended, uninterrupted sea duty of three-year tours or longer. Otherwise, for most Catholics I know, NFP means a baby every two years or so, though the rate can slow with age, as the couples learn a proper respect—that is, fear—for each other and are too tired in any event for what Catholics call "the conjugal act."

Then he comments on an enthusiastic NFP advocate:

As a slogan, "Use NFP: It Doesn’t Work!" puts the focus where it belongs—on babies—and away from a technique, a technique that wrongly strikes most lay Catholics as medieval. If only it were medieval, then it would be effective: a sturdy, padlocked, handsomely designed, pewter chastity belt.

Instead, NFP is shiny, modern, and scientific, as its advocates are always quick to emphasize. In his book The Truth of Catholicism, George Weigel approvingly quotes several paragraphs from a woman in love with NFP. She reminds us that:

Natural Family Planning is not the justly ridiculed rhythm method, which involves vaguely guessing when the woman expects to ovulate and abstaining for a few days around day fourteen of her cycle. The full method involves charting a woman’s waking temperatures, changes in cervical fluid, and the position of the cervix.

Nothing unnatural or artificial about that, is there? Her raptures climax with NFP apparently transformed into "Narcissism For Pleasure":

But the turning point came for me as I watched, month after month, as my temperature rose and fell and my hormones marched in perfect harmony. I had no idea I was so beautiful. I found myself near tears one day looking at my chart and thinking, "Truly, I am fearfully and wonderfully made." My fertility is not a disease to be treated. It is a wonderful gift. I am a wonderful gift.

Er, if you say so, missy. If my wife talked like this, I’d have her committed. Happily, my wife, bless her heart, takes a more robust line: "Barefoot and pregnant is better than high-heeled and professional!" That’s the spirit!

Crocker's plain-spoken humor is a refreshing contrast to the types who will go on and on in the vein of the NFP advocate he quotes, the kind who sell NFP as a cure for every marital, spiritual, and physical ill, including dandruff and toenail fungus.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Et semini eius: The problem with arguing from natural law

If I understand the Catholic teaching on contraception correctly (and I'm sure I'll be told if I don't), it isn't derived solely from Scripture, but depends on natural law. The idea behind the "Theology of the Body" -- it seems to me -- is that we should look at the workings of the body, particularly the interaction of male and female bodies in sex, and discern the Creator's intent in His design. From that intent, we deduce what we must do to be in harmony with the Creator's intent for our use of our sexual capacity. Thus we discover laws of God that are not set out in Scripture, are not deduced by good and necessary inference therefrom, but are written in nature.

The danger I see in this approach to discerning God's moral will is that it is not solely dependent on the Word of God, which is God-breathed, or even (if you Catholics will feel more comfortable with this) on the Word of God and the Tradition of the Church, but is instead dependent on some theologian's perception and understanding of nature, at the point in time when he wrote. That understanding of nature is not God-breathed, infallible, or inerrant.

Consider the English words we use for the contents of male ejaculate: semen and sperm. semen is the Latin word for "seed." Sperm is derived from sperma, the Greek word for "seed."

("Contents of male ejaculate" is an awkward phrase, but for the purposes of this discussion, about the derivation and use of the words "sperm" and "semen," it's the only way to be clear.)

In Matthew 13:24 -- "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field." -- "seed" is a translation of the Greek word sperma. Jerome in the Latin Vulgate Bible renders the word as semen. This is the literal use of the word sperma -- the seed of a plant.

In Luke 1:55, the end of the Magnificat, sperma is used to refer to the descendants of Abraham, recipients of God's promises. Obviously, it isn't literal here. Again, the word is rendered in Latin as semen (actually, it's dative case, semini), and in English, it's "seed" or "descendants" depending on the translation.

In Genesis 38:9, the story of Onan, the Vulgate has Onan spilling his semen on the ground, while in the Septuagint, the word sperma is used to refer to Onan's late brother's descendants, but isn't there explicitly as the object of execheen (spill), although it seems intended to be understood, which means that sperma is used here to refer to male ejaculate and metaphorically to refer to someone's heir or descendant.

The fact that these words are treated as equivalent indicates the understanding of human reproduction throughout all but the last 180 years of history. The contents of male ejaculate was thought to be equivalent to a seed, and we know now that that isn't true.

A plant seed needs only nutrients and protection to reach maturity. All the necessary genetic information to make a new plant is already contained in the seed.

That isn't true of the contents of male ejaculate. In order for a new human to develop, a male gamete has to unite with a female gamete. At that point, and only at that point, you have the human equivalent to a plant seed -- the necessary genetic information is complete and only nutrition and protection are required for it to develop into a full-grown human.

But Augustine and Aquinas didn't understand that, nor did Luther and Calvin. They thought the male ejaculate itself contained the seed, complete in itself, needing only the hospitable environment of the womb -- the soil for the human seed. Given that view of reproduction, it's no wonder that ancient and medieval theologians regarded "spilling the seed" as a monstrous act, the destruction -- not the prevention -- of precious souls.

If you have that kind of mistaken understanding of the mechanics of reproduction, it would lead you to draw wrong conclusions about the divine purposes behind those mechanics, which would in turn lead you to wrong conclusions about what God expects us to do in light of those purposes.

So if natural law is the basis for your case against contraception, it isn't unreasonable that in 1930, for the first time, a Christian denomination would conditionally approve the use of contraception, because it had only been 100 years since the human ovum was discovered and only 55 years since the necessity of the union of sperm and egg for reproduction was confirmed.

I wonder what, if anything, orthodox Protestants who lived in this period of discovery, men like Spurgeon, Hodge, and Warfield, had to say on the issue of birth control.

Addendum: After re-reading this, I feel I should clarify a couple of points.

In citing the way the words sperma and semen are used in the Greek New Testament, the Septuagint, and the Vulgate, I'm not meaning to suggest that the Bible is mistaken in its presentation of human reproduction. The words were used by the original author (or by the translator, in the case of the LXX and the Vulgate) in the ordinary way that they were used by their contemporaries. The Bible isn't a textbook on reproductive microbiology.

John Calvin wrote often about God's accommodation to human limitations. "God's accommodation, as Calvin explains, does not so much comprehensively express who or what God is, but rather, puts who or what He is in language and types that we fallen creatures can understand." So just as parents adjust our vocabulary to suit the understanding of our children, so God communicated His word through His prophets and apostles in the language the people of the time and place understood, using words in ways that were meaningful to them.

God makes plain His expectations of His people in Scripture. We should heed and obey what is taught there, but I don't believe we should enslave ourselves to uninspired and inaccurate views of nature and science and the uninspired commandments derived therefrom.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tim Bayly: Contracepting couples lack faith in God's promises

In an entry from last October, PCA pastor Tim Bayly says that our use of birth control demonstrates a lack of faith in God's promises. (Tim is the brother of David Bayly, whose sermon on contraception was discussed in an earlier entry.)

He draws a parallel with God's call in Malachi 3:

Again, the principle: Man refuses to use the gifts God has given us to worship Him, and instead we take and use them for our own selfish purposes. We spend the money He gave us but refuse to tithe. We make love with the woman He provided as our helpmate but refuse to allow that love to be fruitful.

He suggests that those Christian couples who deliberately limit their fertility are just like the unfaithful servant in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, who, out of fear, buried his master's money in the ground, rather than putting it to use and making it multiply.

What a perfect picture of Christians’ stewardship of the womb today. Walking by faith is risky and it’s clear that God will hold us accountable for the instruction and discipline of our children. So out of fear we block the womb, sheath the rod, and claim we’ve done it all for our Master.

The ironic thing is that no people across history have been blessed with the wealth God has poured out on us, but no generation of the Church has been more stingy in its use of that wealth for fruitfulness and multiplication. Twenty-five hundred square foot homes that are heated and cooled; food in the dumpsters behind our supermarkets that would make our ancestors shake their heads in disbelief; automatic washers and driers; stoves, refrigerators, and freezers; educational opportunities unheard of across history; disposable diapers, high chairs, and car seats; what more do we need?

But we look at prior generations of Christians and shake our heads in disbelief. "Susannah Wesley had fifteen children. Can you believe it? The poor woman."

Poor woman nothing. God blessed her with children and those children were her glory, each of them being a gift from God. We stand gazing at her with our own children holding their soccer trophies and SAT scores in their grubby hands, and we dare to claim we have been fruitful, too? We have helped in the multiplication and filling of the earth?

No, we have hidden our lights under a bushel; we’ve buried our talents in the ground. Instead of asking God to pour out His blessings on us, we’ve asked Him to overlook our stinginess, to spare us from stretch marks, to deliver us from the evil of a fruitful womb.

Bayly then depicts how this attitude works out in the home:

Our wives plead with us for more children but we’re the boss and we know the meaning of responsibility and good stewardship. "That’s it honey, we’re done. No more rewards. No more blessings and fruitfulness. We’re going to do something for ourselves. Finally we’ll be able to get ahead and save for our retirement. I’m tired of messy diapers and kids crying at night. Our last will be in all-day kindergarten soon. You’ll be able to get a job and help out with setting up their college funds. Call the doctor and set up an appointment for me to have a vasectomy, would you? Won’t it be nice to make love without worrying about an accident?"

(Around my house, it's my wife who has been making that argument.)

In a more recent post on the topic, Tim Bayly addresses the possibility of exceptions:

There may be extraordinary circumstances in which a Christian man and his wife would consider intentionally circumventing the fruitfulness God placed at the heart of marriage. If so, they should understand that such circumvention bears a heavy burden of proof when one stops to consider the one-voiced witness in this matter of both Scripture and the Church through the ages. To be more specific, as a pastor I am not prepared to say such circumvention is always wrong. But I don’t hesitate to say that most couples who have chosen to limit the fruitfulness of their love have done so in ignorance of this biblical teaching and command, and are unlikely to have been doing so by faith. And whatever is not of faith is sin.

Monday, January 22, 2007

David Bayly: Birth control "is a form of abortion"

The excerpts from Augustine, Calvin, and Luther were previously published on BaylyBlog, a joint venture of Tim Bayly and David Bayly, two brothers who are both PCA pastors in the Midwest.

Here is a link to the text of a sermon on birth control by David Bayly. He begins with a few implicit arguments from Scripture -- that children are a blessing from God, and as such are not to be limited; that we are still under the command to fill the earth and subdue it; that the Levitical laws concerning uncleanness after menstruation practically guarantee intercourse in the most fertile time of the month. Bayly says that these passages point toward God's will with regard to birth control.

He then deals at length with Genesis 38:1-11, and the account of Onan's wickedness and death. Specifically, the question is what is the sin for which God punishes Onan. Bayly writes:

Because we're not given an explicit answer in our passage, two theories have come to dominate thinking about this passage today: one a modern explanation and one the explanation of the Church universal for 1900 years up till the mid-20 th century. In recent years, many have suggested that the sin of Onan was his failure to provide offspring for his dead brother. This is not the classic view of this passage, but if you have spent your life within evangelical Protestant circles, it's likely that this is the only explanation you have ever heard for the wickedness Onan committed in the sight of the Lord.

The second explanation is the one which has dominated church history, yet it is almost unheard-of in Protestant circles today. By this explanation, what Onan did which was wicked in the sight of the Lord was his specific method of denying Tamar a child. This explanation says that it was Onan's practice of coitus interruptus, the only common and universally available form of birth control in ancient times, which lies at the root of his sin. By this view, God punishes Onan with death not for denying his brother offspring but for spilling his seed upon the ground.

Bayly points out that this is one of the rare occasions where God directly puts someone to death for his wickedness, which puts Onan in a league with Ananias and Sapphira and Nadab and Abihu. What follows is a methodical account of the flaws in the first explanation (and a third as well), leaving us with only the classical view of Onan's sin.

He brings his argument to this conclusion:

Is birth control permitted? I am increasingly persuaded by God's Word that it is not, that, as Calvin suggests, it is a form of abortion.

He acknowledges that one's situation may make this an especially hard teaching, but dismisses the importance of circumstances:

But may I say to you that our sensitivities cannot become our hermeneutic: we cannot let our personal situations and reasons for feeling a certain way about any passage be the decisive filter through which we view that passage. This is not faithfulness to the Word of God.

To date, the PCA, Bayly's denomination, has not issued a statement regarding contraception.

Anglicans in 1930 for and against contraception

According to many sources, this is the first official statement from any Christian body stating the permissibility of contraception under any circumstances. It was approved at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, the quadrennial meeting of the worldwide Anglican Communion, including the Episcopal Church USA:

Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, in those cases where there is such clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the conference agrees that other methods may be used provided this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The conference records strong condemnation of the use of any methods of birth control from selfishness, luxury or mere convenience.

Charles Gore, Bishop of Oxford, published a pamphlet expressing his dissent:

Now it is true that the sexual intercourse of married people has other recognized ends than the production of offspring. The Church has always declined to say that this is the only end. And it has never prohibited such intercourse when the laws of nature make generation improbable or impossible. But it has said steadily or constantly that this is the primary end of marriage, and it has condemned as unnatural and as a sin the attempt by any devices to separate absolutely the satisfaction of the physical desire from its chief end. The methods provided by Birth Prevention are not wrong because they are mechanical. But legitimate mechanism should tend to promote the ends of nature not to obstruct and defeat them. The Church has regarded Birth Prevention as sinful because, like other sensual practices commonly called unnatural, it is a deliberate enterprise taken in hand to separate absolutely the enjoyment of the sexual act from its natural issue. It is thus to be reckoned among the 'unfruitful works of darkness.' I must add that the Church has always and rightly bidden us have regard in our individual conduct to the general effect of what we are proposing to do. We are not allowed in judging of any matter to isolate our private interest from the general interests of the kingdom of God.

And further on, Gore writes:

But what I wish to say emphatically is that for one who is living a life surrendered to Christ and in the power of His risen life, I am absolutely convinced that no question of using contraceptives will ever arise. He gives one the power of abstinence and self-control, and other methods do indeed appear as a deadly sin and a hateful offence to His purity and that of His Mother; and I cannot believe that a life guided by the Holy Spirit will ever be led to find a 'grave moral reason' for using appliances.

Not quite to the point of this blog, but Gore also says some interesting things about private confession in the Anglican Church and preaching on sex:

But the result is this, that most of our members do not seek the judgement of the Church upon their lives, but are content to trust their own consciences; and we must leave them to the judgement of God. But this is only tolerable if we are doing our best to instruct their consciences and let them know what the mind of the Church is, as on other matters, so on the sexual relation. It is both foolish and sinful, now that sexual mysteries are matters of common conversation in all classes, to avoid plain speaking in religious instruction. We must strive to see that those who are married in church have received a letter of instruction, when notice of the marriage is given—a letter which should be sympathetic as well as firm, but not familiar or sentimental: and the questions for self-examination, which all Churchmen should use occasionally before Communion, should be quite explicit; and sermons and instructions should be in great part ethical and should not shrink from topics which every one outside the Church is discussing.

I've been attending evangelical churches all my life, and I don't believe I've ever heard a sermon about contraception.

Augustine: Spouses who use contraception aren't really spouses

This time not a Reformer, but a Catholic, albeit one beloved by the Reformers -- Augustine of Hippo, as found on BaylyBlog:

And why has Paul said: 'If he cannot control himself, let him marry?' Surely, to prevent incontinence from constraining him to adultery. If, then, he practices continence, neither let him marry nor beget children. However, if he does not control himself, let him enter into lawful wedlock, so that he may not beget children in disgrace or avoid having offspring by a more degraded form of intercourse. There are some lawfully wedded couples who resort to this last, for intercourse, even with one's lawfully wedded spouse, can take place in an unlawful and shameful manner, whenever the conception of offspring is avoided. Onan, the son of Judah, did this very thing, and the Lord slew him on that account. Therefore, the procreation of children is itself the primary, natural, legitimate purpose of marriage. Whence it follows that those who marry because of their inability to remain continent ought not to so temper their vice that they preclude the good of marriage, which is the procreation of children.

And elsewhere (cited in the comments):

It is, however, one thing for married persons to have intercourse only for the wish to beget children, which is not sinful: it is another thing for them to desire carnal pleasure in cohabitation, but with the spouse only, which involves venial sin. For although propagation of offspring is not the motive of the intercourse, there is still no attempt to prevent such propagation, either by wrong desire or evil appliance. They who resort to these, although called by the name of spouses, are really not such; they retain no vestige of true matrimony, but pretend the honourable designation as a cloak for criminal conduct. Having also proceeded so far, they are betrayed into exposing their children, which are born against their will. They hate to nourish and retain those whom they were afraid they would beget.

Calvin: Contraception "kills the son"

From John Calvin's Commentary on Genesis, as found on BaylyBlog:

I will content myself with briefly mentioning this, as far as the sense of shame allows to discuss it. It is a horrible thing to pour out seed besides the intercourse of man and woman. Deliberately avoiding the intercourse, so that the seed drops on the ground, is doubly horrible. For this means that one quenches the hope of his family, and kills the son, which could be expected, before he is born. This wickedness is now as severely as is possible condemned by the Spirit, through Moses, that Onan, as it were, through a violent and untimely birth, tore away the seed of his brother out the womb, and as cruel as shamefully was thrown on the earth. Moreover he thus has, as much as was in his power, tried to destroy a part of the human race. When a woman in some way drives away the seed out the womb, through aids, then this is rightly seen as an unforgivable crime. Onan was guilty of a similar crime, by defiling the earth with his seed, so that Tamar would not receive a future inheritor.

In the comments, David Bayly, a pastor in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, writes:

May I suggest that it's a frequent misunderstanding of our position to think that we believe all sex must lead to procreation or else be sinful. Tim is using Roman Catholic terminology when he speaks of "separating the unitive from the procreative" in sexual union. Roman Catholicism has thought more deeply and accurately about birth control than most Protestant churches and this is their way of saying that we sin when we seek to separate intimacy and pleasure as a result of sexual union from procreation as a result of union.

Thus, man does not have the right to say, "Today I am having sex for pleasure and intimacy, but not for children. In another year I will do it for children."

We must not separate the unitive from the procreative. We must not seek to preclude the gift of children from the act of intercourse--either by birth control prior to the act of intercourse or by abortion following conception.

Luther: Contraception a "most disgraceful sin"

The first of several voices from church history, from Martin Luther's Lectures on Genesis, on Genesis 38:

Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed. Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime to produce semen and excite the woman, and to frustrate her at that very moment.... He preferred polluting himself with a most disgraceful sin to raising up offspring for his brother.

As found on BaylyBlog.

Free contraception for the mature couple!

Prevention is easy when you're old -- see this bit of tongue-in-cheek, which includes online shopping, a dog in the middle of the bed, and smart-alecky comments as safe and effective methods of preventing conception.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Does "The Pill" cause abortions?

Even if you believe that non-abortive birth control is an acceptable option for a Christian, there is a big debate about whether the birth control pill -- the oral contraceptive -- is truly a contraceptive or if it can sometimes act as an abortifacient. Imago Dei has a very helpful post outlining the scientific issues involved and drawing some conclusions. The pill acts to prevent the ovary from releasing an egg and also can thicken cervical mucus to create a barrier to sperm; in those two ways of acting, it prevents conception from occurring.

The question is, if fertilization occurs anyway, and a new life comes into being, does the Pill create a hostile environment for the embryo, preventing it from implanting. In such a scenario, the Pill would cause the death of an unborn child. In other words, it would act as an abortifacient. The problem is that we don't have direct evidence establishing that that can happen or definitively ruling it out. There are theoretical arguments made for both sides, and some Christians would argue that any possibility that this could occur is reason enough not to use the Pill.

I encourage you to read and respond to the post on Imago Dei.

Albert Mohler: Birth control OK, not deliberate childlesness

Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a leading Calvinist voice in the Southern Baptist Convention, says that evangelical leaders haven't adequately addressed the moral questions raised by modern reproductive technologies.

At the same time, evangelicals overcame their traditional reticence in matters of sexuality, and produced a growth industry in books, seminars, and even sermon series celebrating sexual ecstasy as one of God's blessings to married Christians. Once reluctant to admit the very existence of sexuality, evangelicals emerged from the 1960s ready to dish out the latest sexual advice without blushing. As one of the best-selling evangelical sex manuals proclaims, marital sex is Intended for Pleasure. Many evangelicals seem to have forgotten that it was intended for something else as well.

Mohler joins Catholics in condemning the "contraceptive mentality" and makes the case that a Christian marriage must be open to children.
Marriage represents a perfect network of divine gifts, including sexual pleasure, emotional bonding, mutual support, procreation, and parenthood. We are not to sever these "goods" of marriage and choose only those we may desire for ourselves. Every marriage must be open to the gift of children. Even where the ability to conceive and bear children may be absent, the will to receive children must be present. To demand sexual pleasure without openness to children is to violate a sacred trust.

But he rejects the Catholic requirement that this openness must apply to each and every act of intercourse:

For most evangelicals, the major break with Catholic teaching comes at the insistence that "it is necessary that each conjugal act remain ordained in itself to the procreating of human life." That is, that every act of marital intercourse must be fully and equally open to the gift of children. This claims too much, and places inordinate importance on individual acts of sexual intercourse, rather than the larger integrity of the conjugal bond.

The focus on "each and every act" of sexual intercourse within a faithful marriage that is open to the gift of children goes beyond the biblical demand. Since the encyclical does not reject all family planning, this focus requires the distinction between "natural" and "artificial" methods of birth control. To the evangelical mind, this is a rather strange and fabricated distinction. Looking at the Catholic position helps, but evangelicals must also think for themselves, reasoning from the Scriptures in a careful consideration.

In another column, Mohler calls deliberate childlessness "a form of rebellion against God's design and order."

The church should insist that the biblical formula calls for adulthood to mean marriage and marriage to mean children. This reminds us of our responsibility to raise boys to be husbands and fathers and girls to be wives and mothers. God's glory is seen in this, for the family is a critical arena where the glory of God is either displayed or denied. It is just as simple as that. The church must help this society regain its sanity on the gift of children. Willful barrenness and chosen childlessness must be named as moral rebellion. To demand that marriage means sex--but not children--is to defraud the creator of His joy and pleasure in seeing the saints raising His children.