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.


Peter Fournier said...

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,

DavidD said...

I haven't read all the comments here, but I've read all 26 posts to date. I don't notice any mention of praying to God for direction, understanding, anything like that. If you want to know what God wants I would trust God even before Martin Luther. If prayer hasn't provided you with direction, maybe exploring how you're going about such prayer would be more important than counting on selected Bible verses, teachers and reasoning to tell you what God wants of you. There weren't 6 billion people on the planet when "be fuitful and multiply" was written. I wouldn't trust anyone myself to update those words except God.