Science in Christian Perspective



Ethics and Birth Control*

From: JASA 14 (March 1962): 7-11.

The area of discussion of our conference naturally leads to the question concerning the ethicality of the limitation of birth. We have taken under review the population explosion and the Christian responsibility towards an increasing population. This is a specific social problem which bears on the question of birth control. The discussion of the limitation of birth, however, is important for other reasons also. There is, first of all, the actual widespread practice of birth control. Furthermore there are economic, health, and other reasons which arise within the family itself.

When we speak broadly of the limitation of birth or birth control, we can have several things in mind. First, there is abortion, the killing and the removing of the fetus from the body of the mother. Secondly, there is self-denial, the voluntary withholding, within the marriage bond, from sexual union. Third, there is coitus interruptus, the interruption of the sexual act at the moment of ejaculation of the male sperm, so that it does not enter the female body. Fourth, there is the rhythm method. This is the choice of the periods of least fertility in the female as the time for cohabitation. Fifth, there is the use of contraceptives, the use of mechanical or chemical means by either or both spouses to prevent the male sperm from reaching the female ovary.

Even though abortion falls within the scope of birth control, our discussion will not include it in any promi-

*Presented before the 16th Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation in Houghton, New York, August 22-25, 1961.

**Dr. Knudsen is Assistant Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary.

nent fashion. Abortion is the willful limitation of birth after conception has taken place. It involves the killing of a young life and is to be rejected except under the most unusual circumstances. Ethical questions may indeed arise, as in the case of the exposure of the woman in the early stages of pregnancy to a disease that would certainly result in the malformation of the fetus if it is not destroyed. Ethical uncertainty may also arise in extreme cases as to the prior right of the mother or her unborn infant to life, when it appears according to the best judgment of the physician that the unhindered development and birth of the infant will most likely result in the death of the mother and possibly in the death of the infant itself. It is the position of the Roman Catholic moralists that the infant always has the prior right and that nature must be allowed to run its course even in the face of extreme danger to the mother. In support of this position they say, that not only are the destruction of a young life and the interference with the course of nature unethical, but the unborn infant, not being baptized, will die without any hope of eternal life, while the mother, though she may die, is yet able to receive the sacraments and enjoy their benefits.

Even though circumstances sometimes place a physician in a position where he believes a therapeutic abortion is necessary and he and any others involved are placed before most trying ethical problems, this kind of problem is not that in which we are primarily interested. Our problem is more specifically whether, given the normal functioning of the physiological processes, there is ever any warrant for the willful attempt by whatever means to hinder the conception of a child.

When we consider such questions, our minds as Christians naturally turn to the Scriptures, as our only infallible rule of faith and practice. Upon referring to the Scriptures for guidance concerning birth control, however, one comes away without any explicit command. In the area we have delimited, there is no explicit teaching of the Scriptures to guide us. Instead, we must rely upon what can be drawn by good and necessary inference from the more general Scriptural principles.

Certain inferences can be drawn from the meaning of marriage itself, as it is set forth in the Scriptures.

The family was established from the very first, at the creation of man. It is a creation ordinance. God created man, male and female, "And God blessed diem, and God said unto diem, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28). Concerning the relation of himself to Eve, Adam says, "This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh" (Gen. 2:23, 24; cf. Matt. 19:5).

From the very beginning God intended that the union of man and wife should result in the birth of children. Adam and Eve were to be fruitful and to reproduce, filling the earth. The complete family is found in the triadic relationship between the husband, the wife, and their offspring. If the marriage relationship between man and wife establishes a bond that is unique and satisfying, the coming of the child brings the family into another unique position, that is even more complete and satisfying. Even apart from the subjective desires of the individual persons involved (the father, the mother, and the child) there is in the family an ineradicable union or bond. This inner connection comes to expression clearly when this bond is violated. When the union is broken, inerasable scars are left both on the parents and on the child. The child feels the shock deeply when his parents are separated or when he discerns that there is disunity between them.

There are reasons to believe, however, that the meaning of marriage is not found in the procreation of children. That is to say, marriage has other functions. The union which under normal circumstances will result in the begetting of offspring has meaning even apart from this function. This is evident from the Bib. lical description of the marriage relationship itself.

In the marriage ordinance as given in the Scriptures there is a reference to the marriage partners' being one flesh. "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh."

There is indeed a meaningful relationship between the sexes in the consummation of the sex act, the mysterious union that is expressed in the words of Scripture in the establishment of the marriage bond, "and they shall be one flesh." This oneness is brought out strongly by Otto Piper in his most recent book on marriage, The Biblical View of Sex and Marriage (New York: Scribners, 1960). Possibly overstating his case, he seeks to establish on this foundation his entire argument for chastity before marriage and for monogamy in the marriage relationship itself. To be sure, there is possible here a great deal of romanticizing, which has little or no b a s i s in the Scriptures. The Scriptures themselves, however, seem to indicate that there is such a mysterious oneness in the sexual relationship. The anomaly of the Christian's having intercourse with a harlot is that they become one flesh. "Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid. What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh" (I Cor. 6:15, 16).

The psychological aspects of this oneness have been discussed extensively. In the sexual union there is a deep sense of bodily unity and a deep uniting of psyche, especially in the climax of the sex act. Precisely what importance the orgasm has I am not prepared to say; but it is clear that it has a profound Psychical effect, especially if the partners reach their climax simultaneously. The significance of the bodily union of man and woman is perhaps shown in the fact that promiscuity cannot help but harden one and make him also less able to enter into a healthy relationship with a single sex partner.

Sexual union is not only physical, in the narrow sense of the word. In the marriage relationship there should be the entwining of life with life in a communion of love, so that there is a broadening and deepening of mutual interests, a growing helpfulness, etc. That this goal is not always realized in the marriage relationship is patent; but the mutual interdependence of the marriage partners is shown in the violence of the dislocations when this fellowship is not present.

The physical union and the spiritual fellowship of husband and wife complement each other. The spiritual fellowship naturally finds its expression in physical union, and physical union reinforces and stimulates the spiritual fellowship of the spouses.

It is also relevant that the apostle Paul sets forth a function of the marriage relationship apart from any immediate reference to the begetting of children. He advises that in the interests of avoiding fornication each should have his own wife and that each should have her own husband. Both husband and wife should render to each other his due. The possibility that the husband and wife might not cohabit for a while is allowed, but only in order that they might give themselves to religious exercises, specifically, fastimg and prayer. The willful abstention from sexual intercourse within the marriage bond is therefore the exception. The rule is that the marriage partners not defraud oneanother. Paul speaks in a strong fashion, that neither the husband nor the wife belongs to himself but that each belongs to the other and disposes over the other's body. "The wife hath not power of her own body but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body but the wife" (I Cor. 7:14). The terms in which Paul speaks, that the marriage partners not defraud one another, and that each of them has the disposition over the other's body for the gratification of his sexual needs, implies that there is a use or a meaning in the sexual union of husband and wife other than the begetting of offspring.

What is in the fore-around here, to be sure, is the satisfaction of sexual desire as a protection against fornication; but for our purposes it is enough that we establish a function of the marriage relationship other than the begetting of children.

We might also mention that it is the relationship of the husband to the wife, apart from their relationship to their children, that is said to be analogous to the relationship of Christ to his Church. The wife is to reverence her husband. The husband is the head of the wife and is to protect and cherish her as his own flesh. This union is an earthly analogy of the union of Christ and his own.

If there is a function of sexual union other than that of the begetting of offspring, the way is opened for the employment under certain conditions of contraceptive means so that this function may obtain while the actual conception of children is hindered. We have in mind the use of contraceptive means for such reasons as the following: the presence of some disease or weakness that could be passed on to the sibling; the poor health of the mother, demanding that there be no further pregnancies; the need for spacing successive pregnancies both in the interest of the mother's health and in the interest of the needs of the children she has already brought into the world.

The position generally taken by the Roman Catholic Church is that the sexual act has the purpose only of propagating the race. Certain Catholic apologists have claimed that birth control is an evil influence on morality and religion. It is supposed to work against the personal welfare of the married couple. It is supposed to obliterate the distinction between prostitutes and respectable women, eliminating the ideal of motherhood and substituting for it the ideal of personal pleasure. It is supposed to break down self-restraint and self-discipline, relieving one of the fear of consequences.

The Catholic position is in e r r o r in so far as the meaning of the sexual bond is limited to the function of childbearing and in so far as pleasure is set aside as an improper motive for sexual relations. We have already dealt with the first of these points at some length; it remains to speak somewhat further of the second point.

It is very customary to contrast lust and a so-called spiritual attitude in which the element of desire for the sex partner has no essential part. Sometimes this so-called spiritual attitude would give desire little or no place at all. Such a position is possible only if the senses have no proper place, or if all desire must be strictly subordinated to an extrinsic end. The result of such a position is that the urgings toward the sexual partner are repressed as a whole, without any qualification, and thus abstractly. While remaining within the same framework of reference, the only possibility of combating this position is to argue, again in an unqualified fashion, for the legitimacy of passion and human urges. The latter way is taken by the so-called naturalistic theories of sex which are so current today.

It is questionable whether such blanket negations or affirmations of the sexual urge are really allowable on the basis of the Scriptures. If I am not mistaken, modern sexology emphasizes the deep-seated nature of the sexual life of man, pointing out how it colors his energies and drives in a most basic fashion. It would be embarrassing and even dangerous psychically to ignore or to repress entirely such a basic drive, or even to give it a peripheral meaning. It would be equally embarrassing, and even more dangerous in its results, however, to let this urge set its own course.

The Scriptures do not dictate either of these attitudes. Indeed, it inveighs against sexual abuses and it limits the sexual relationship and marriage to this earth; but sexual desire is never spoken of as an evil in itself. It is not even linked directly with the fall of man. In fact, as we have pointed out, the Scriptures give a large part to sexual desire in marriage, so that neither the husband nor the wife is regarded as having power over his own body.

The Biblical teaching is that marriage is honorable and the marriage bed undefiled. "Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled . . . " (Heb. 13:4). Desire for the opposite sex, is spoken of as evil when it is outside of the marriage bond. To continue on with the quotation from Heb. 13:4, "but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge." When there is some anomily in sexual desire, or when the sexual urge is out of :)alance with other demands of the Christian life, it is also proscribed. Thus the Christian is not to give himself to chambering and wantonness. Nevertheless, even though there are illegitimate and perverted desires and even though sexual desire must be kept in harmony with other demands of the Christian life, it is impossible Biblically to set desire or passion to one side as being evil or inferior, contrasting it with some more "intellectual" or "spiritual" motive as the legitimate one for the sexual act.

Within the marriage bond there is a proper and needful function of the body with its desires. It is unfortunate when a marriage partner (most likely the woman) divorces the meaning of the marriage relationship from sexual union. Instead, there should be a recognition of the pervasiveness of sexuality and of the fact that in sexual desire there is the longing for a union of two persons in the strongest way. It is precisely in the union of the body, in being one flesh, that the affection and love of the marriage relationship will have its legitimate and needful expression.

Considered in this fashion, the motive for sexual union is not the satisfaction of desire in any abstract sense, as if sexual desire could be thought of as being completely undifferentiated and essentially polygamous in character, having no essential relationship to the union of one man with one woman in the marriage bond. The motive for sexual union is the fulfillment and expression through the union of flesh with flesh, of the oneness for which both the man and woman long. Within the structure of the marriage bond the various forces and stimuli (mutual affection, bodily contact, etc.) complement and reinforce each other. Within this structure sexual desire and fulfillment are not degrading but upbuilding.

Because there is a legitimacy of sexual union apart from the intent to conceive children, under proper circumstances there is also a place for the use of contraceptive means. Particular objections, however, have been lodged against such use on biblical grounds. We shall briefly consider two of them.

The Biblical story of the sin of Onan has often been thought to militate against any form of birth control. Onan entered into the sexual relation with his brother's widow; but knowing that the seed would not be his, before the climax of the act he withdrew, letting the seed fall to the ground. For this act God punished him with death (Gen. 38:10). Here there is an instance of coitus interruptus. The sin of Onan, however, was not that he interrupted the sexual act as such, but that he refused to perform his duty, as his father requested him, to raise up a seed for his deceased brother, so that his brother's family would still have a place within tht- tribe. jealousy prompted him to let the seed fall, "lest he should give seed to his brother."

The use of contraceptive means is also said to be against nature, being an interruption of its normal course. Man, however, from the first was given the task of subduing nature, not simply out of a desire for selfgratification but in response to the commandments of God. Interference or non-interference in the course of nature is not the prime consideration. What is important is whether the sexual union of male and female has any meaning in the divine economy of things apart from the intent to produce children. We have sought to indicate that it has. We have therefore advocated the use of contraceptive meaps under certain circumstances.

In determining whether such means should be employed, there are certain factors which must be taken into consideration. Due attention must be given to the formation of a family, in response to the divine command to be fruitful and to multiply. We should not go so far as to say that this command applies in the same fashion to everyone. There are also eunuchs for Christ's sake (cf. John Murray, Principles of Conduct, p. 78).

Some couples might even marry when sexual intercourse was physically impossible, or they might for some reason, with the glory of God in mind, abstain from the sexual act and not raise a family at all. But the general command is for all to consider, even though one cannot dictate precisely how it should be applied in every case.

Even when due attention has been given to the formation of a family, there might still be room for the employment of regulative means. Such means, as we have indicated before, might be used in case a physician should consider further pregnancies dangerous. They might also be used to space children, for the sake of the physical health of the mother. Such control is especially needful when the parents are very fruitful.

From time to time it has been urged that the family ~hould also take into consideration in spacing its children the educational and other needs of the children already possessed. I am much less in favor of the use of contraceptive means in such cases.

In advocating a responsible use of means, however, we must proceed carefully. With our theme, the population explosion, in mind we might advocate a dissemination of knowledge; but we must be careful not to enter any area that does not properly belong to us. If a program were to be instituted that would be adequate to cope with this social problem, state involvement would be almost a necessity. State enforcement and interference in the sphere of the family might have worse results than having too many children. Furthermore, in such an intimate sphere of the family, enforcement is almost impossible.

As to the mode of birth control, we have eliminated abortion from consideration on ethical grounds. We have found that abstinence is not supposed to be the rule, according to the Scriptures. To be sure, this provision is made in order to avoid sinful lusts. It also has a deeper basis, however, being rooted in the order of creation itself.

The third method we mentioned, coitus interruptus, is inferior both as to its effects and its effectiveness. Unless the male is exceedingly thoughtful and artful he may leave the female just at the time that her desire for union is strongest, thus destroying her sense of fulfillment. In any case, the climax of the partners cannot be simultaneous.

The use of the so-called rhythm method is possible. .it is possible to choose the periods of least fertility in the woman as suitable for cohabitation. This method, however, involves both a planning and a patterning of the sexual union which rob it of its spontaneity. It also involves that the woman will have intercourse when her desire is not at its high point during her monthly cycle.

Though the rhythm method is not out of the quesion, I should prefer the use of mechanical means, most preferably on the part of the woman, and in extreme cases on the part of both the man and the woman. We must remember that the rhythm method, just as well as the use of contraceptive means, is a conscious effort to limit conception. The use of mechanical means, however, has the advantage of not limiting the time of cohabitation. The partners can choose a restful and relaxed occasion when their family duties are momentarily out of the way, perhaps after they have enjoyed an outing together, when the husband has been free to give full attention to his wife. As we have pointed out, under certain circumstances such use of means is not in conflict with the Scriptural understanding of the sexual relationship.

It must be remembered, however, that the human providence involved in birth control does not in the least diminish the need for one's dependence upon God and his providence. just as a man who saves or who invests must trust that God will so rule the conditions of his life that there will be enough stability for him to realize a return, and just as such a one must be willing to accept a loss gracefully as coming from God, so the marriage couple must also rest in God's providence.

To be sure, there are dangers in the use of contraceptive means. There is the danger that there will be a fear of their malfunctioning. This fear, however, is slight compared to the fear a woman might have of pregnancy apart from the use of means. Many women fear the burdens and dangers of pregnancy. In some women there is a desire to be free from their nature as women. Such feelings, of course, are questionable or even wrong. The woman must learn to rest in the providence of God. There is also the danger that the couple will make the use of means an occasion for unbridling sinful lust, giving way to their desires without any reference to God and to his laws. This, of course, is wrong, whether contraceptive means are employed or not. A final danger is that the couple will believe that they have everything in their own power. Instead, their additional freedom, gained by the use of contraceptive means, should be accompanied even more fully by a strong sense of trust in God, his law, and his providence.