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.