By Mark Weedman
What makes contraception so tricky is that for most Americans, regardless of religious affiliation, there seems to be no question about its use. Current debates about the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act belie a nearly universal acceptance of contraception in the United States.1 American Christians may wait until marriage to start using some form of contraception, but very few of us question whether we should be using it.
There are, however, some good reasons for Christians to question the practice of contraception, although the most important questions are not the ones that first present themselves. Whether the government can require businesses to include contraception as part of insurance plans is a religious freedom issue that has nothing to do with contraception per se. Likewise, the question of whether Christians can or should regulate pregnancy is not a question about contraception itself.
That claim may sound counterintuitive, since the purpose of contraception is to regulate pregnancy! However, the argument here is straightforward enough: Christians have long recognized that while the imperative to “be fruitful and multiply” can indicate the having of children, it can encompass a variety of other outcomes as well, including singleness and either childlessness or the regulation of pregnancies within a marriage.2
A More Helpful Approach
A more helpful approach is to think about contraception through the lens of fertility. Using fertility as our frame of reference allows us to turn from questions about practice to more foundational questions about what it means to be embodied humans. Contraception raises for us the question of how we should understand our body’s fertility within the overall context of our personhood: is our fertility an essential part of our personhood, or is it something we can dispense with? The logic of contraception assumes the latter, that a person can, if he or she wants, treat their natural fertility as though it were somehow extrinsic to their personhood.
When we put the matter this way, it becomes difficult to defend the practice of contraception if that practice implies a view of the human person that distinguishes personhood from bodily properties, such as fertility.
In recent years, a number of theologians have begun a conversation about the importance of the body to our life of faith and awareness of what it means to be a person.3 And with good reason, because concern for the body is a key theme in the Bible, from Jesus’ healing broken bodies, to bodily metaphors for the church, to an account of marriage as “one flesh,” to the resurrection of the body itself. Indeed, when Paul reminds his readers that without the resurrection of our bodies “our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14), he is pointing to a much deeper truth, that the resurrection of our bodies is “the engine” that “gives shape and meaning to the rest of the story of God’s ultimate purposes.”4
One of the many implications of our status as embodied persons is that we are called to recognize the full humanity of other humans, including their bodies. Under the gospel, Christians can no longer make distinctions on the basis of bodies: men and women, and Jews and Greeks (and every other ethnicity) are full participants in the gospel (Galatians 3:28). Our culture may try to enforce dehumanizing hierarchies on the basis of different bodies, but Christians recognize such distinctions are arbitrary and false. Our bodily shapes, colors, and other distinguishing characteristics remain in place and important to our identities, but they have been drawn together and made one by Christ.5
In other words, the question of how Christians should view contraception is really a question of how we should view each other. Do we recognize our neighbors as creatures made in the image of God? Do we recognize their full personhood, including their bodies? These questions matter because our answers establish how we are to love one another.
For me to love my neighbor in a cruciform way, means I must love my neighbor as an embodied person. This is why, of course, Christians stand against racism, sexism, and classism, but a person’s fertility belongs in this conversation as well. Only when I love and am loved as someone whose body is fertile—even when, not incidentally, that fertility isn’t naturally functional—am I truly loving.
So can a Christian use contraception? We can certainly see why Christians of good conscience are suspicious of its use. But before we can even begin to answer that question, we must first begin the life-affirming process of learning what it means to love as Christ loved us.
2 I am aware, of course, there are Christian groups that believe Christians should not regulate pregnancy, but such theologies are by far the minority within Christianity and have very little biblical warrant. Even Roman Catholics, who officially reject the use of artificial contraception, encourage the regulation of pregnancy through nonartificial practices, such as natural family planning.
3 Among a number of interesting and important works, see especially James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009).
4 N.T. Wright, “Heaven Is Not Our Home,” Christianity Today, April 2008; accessible at www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/april/13.36.html.
5 For a helpful examination of effects of dehumanization and about our responsibility to recognize the image of God in all persons, see John F. Kilner’s Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).
Mark Weedman is professor of philosophy and ethics at Johnson University, Knoxville, Tennessee.