Spiritual Life
Reasons to Believe
Religions & Sects
Church History
In the News
Faith & Reason Press Speaker's Forum Links Resources About Us
Birth Control

Birth Control

A Biblical Perspective

Michael Frields M.D., F.A.C.O.G.

Historical Perspective of the Church

For centuries there has been much controversy in the visible church regarding the use of various means to control family size. Until very recently in man’s history, the means have been limited. But as man’s knowledge has increased, especially in the last half-century, numerous contraceptive techniques have been developed. This has resulted in even more complexity in dealing with the issues of family size and birth control. Whether within the context of spiritual life or outside of it, this subject is not uniquely complex as an issue in today’s world. With this issue, as with any other, we as Christians need to apply sound Biblical principles in order to draw correct conclusions. In further discussion of this subject, several facts will be assumed: The Bible is the inspired word of God, is complete in itself, and no other revelation from God exists; although specific answers to all questions are not found within the scriptures, general principles may be derived which will definitively guide all aspects of our lives; Biblical principles are unchanging and transcend time and culture.

When we examine the subject of human reproduction, we find that God has created a capacity for procreation that exceeds the desires and/or capabilities of most individual couples. The biological capacity for reproduction, also known as “fecundity,” is modified by many factors, including heredity, general health, frequency of ovulation, intervals between pregnancies, length of time of lactation after birth, miscarriages, and stillbirths. Fertility, on the other hand, which is defined as the actual frequency of births, is influenced by other factors such as age at marriage, divorce and separation, and frequency of sexual relations. Contraceptive and population control methods such as preconception birth control techniques and post-conception methods (abortion and infanticide) also will influence the fertility rate.

Given the above, we may postulate that if a couple is married in the late teens and has no impairment in the biological capability for fecundation, they are capable of producing between twenty and twenty-five offspring during their reproductive years. As the above mentioned factors come into play, the actual number of offspring will be decreased accordingly. An example of a population in which actual maximal fertility potential was demonstrated can be found in the Hutterites. The Hutterites are a religious sect similar in beliefs and practices to the Mennonites, and they view fertility regulation by any means as sinful and high fertility as a blessing. The fertility of this society was studied in the early twentieth century, and the married Hutterite women were found to give birth to an average of ten children each. If these numbers are extrapolated out to the current time, we would expect to see an average of thirteen or fourteen children each. This would be the result of the marked reduction in both the perinatal and maternal mortality rates which have occurred in the last fifty years. Remember, these numbers are averages and take into account those women who have less than the average number of children or no children at all because of biological impairments.

The concept of family planning comes into play when a couple attempts to reconcile the number of children they desire, or are capable of properly caring for physically and emotionally, with the number that they are biologically capable of bearing. As we have seen, in the majority of couples, the former probably never approaches the latter. It is our task to explore doctrine on the subject and to apply Biblical principles to the current options for family planning which are available to us today.

In order to have a clear comprehension of Biblical doctrine on this subject, two areas must be examined in some detail. First, it is important to have an understanding of current popular thinking, especially commonly held “religious” views, and to examine those in the light of sound Biblical doctrine. Second, it is important to assess certain aspects of current scientific knowledge as it applies to this area, and likewise to examine it in light of Biblical doctrine.

The most widely held “religious” views of family planning and birth control in the western world are the doctrines of the Catholic Church. The current teaching of the Catholic Church in the area of family planning is basically the same as it was centuries ago at its inception. Current doctrines are based on non-scriptural principles as well as scriptural misinterpretations, and may be traced back to the early centuries of the organized Christian Church.

As early as the first century AD, the Stoic argued that sexual passion distracted man from the contemplation of God, and the second century theologian Clement of Alexandria associated sexual intercourse with guilt and argued that it could only be justified by the obvious need to reproduce. Augustine, in the fourth century, in Marriage and Concupiscence, concluded that the male semen both contained the “new life” as well as transmitted Adam’s original sin from generation to generation. He condemned all forms of birth control, including coitus interruptus and periodic abstinence. These views on birth control were the most widely held for the next several centuries.

The thirteenth century writings of Thomas Aquinas have been the most influential on the doctrines of the Catholic Church and have changed little, if any, to the present day. Aquinas’ main interest was in reinterpreting Aristotle and reconciling Aristotelian and Muslim knowledge with Christian doctrine. His conclusions regarding birth control are contained in his voluminous work, Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles. Aquinas condemned birth control in any form on the grounds that it was “against nature and therefore morally wrong.” In Summa Theologica, Aquinas states, “In so far as the generation of offspring is impeded, it is a vice against nature which happens in every carnal act from which generation cannot follow.” Also, in Summa Contra Gentiles he states, “The inordinate emission of semen is against the good nature, which is the conservation of the species; hence, after the sin of homicide, by which human nature actually existing is destroyed, this kind of sin, by which the generation of human nature is impeded, seems to hold second place.” In summary, Aquinas taught that any sexual act that was not for the expressed purpose of attempting procreation was wrong, and, likewise, any such act which occurred in which there was a potential wasting of the seed of procreation was a sin second in its seriousness only to murder.

In 1278 AD, four years after the death of Aquinas, the Dominican Order adopted his teachings as their official doctrine. The ultimate co-mingling of scripture and human thought on this subject occurred at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century when Summa Theologica of Aquinas was placed on the altar with the Holy Scriptures and held equal in authority.

In more recent history, Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical Casti Connubii in 1930, condemned all methods of birth control except periodic abstinence as a “grace sin.” This teaching was reaffirmed by Pope Pius XII in 1951. In 1966, Pope Paul further reaffirmed this position of the Catholic Church on birth control in his encyclical Humanae Vitae in which he used papal authority to state that “every conjugal act has to be open to the transmission of life.”

The Bible has very little to say about the subject of birth control specifically. In fact, there is only one Biblical reference which alludes to a specific technique or method. This is found in Genesis 38, which gives the account of Onan. The Catholic Church has used this reference to support its view of birth control. In Genesis 38:9-10, we read, “...when he went into his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground, in order not to give offspring to his brother. But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord; so He took his life also.” Out of context, it appears that what Onan did in “spilling his seed on the ground” (also known as “coitus interruptus,” or the “withdrawal” method of birth control) was the basis for God’s harsh judgment upon him. However, when we study the reference in its context, we come to a much different conclusion. Genesis 38 gives the account of Judah and Tamar. In Genesis 38:1-5, Judah, one of the sons of Jacob, married a Canaanite woman named Shua, and together they had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. In 38:6, Judah selects Tamar to be the wife of his firstborn son, Er. In verse 7, the Lord takes the life of Er because he was evil (the specific sin is not stated). Then in verse 8, Judah instructs Onan to marry Tamar and “...perform your duty