By Jack Cottrell
Is it moral for a married couple to use contraceptive devices to prevent pregnancy? By contraception we mean the prevention of conception, which is the fertilization of the ovum by the sperm. We do NOT mean the prevention of the implantation of a fertilized ovum—a newly formed baby—in the wall of the womb.
This clarification is important because some so-called “contraceptives” do not necessarily prevent conception. Rather, they can allow the new baby to form, but then prevent his or her implantation in the womb, thus causing the baby’s death. This is equivalent to abortion, and is morally wrong. The IUD almost certainly works this way, and the “morning-after” pill, along with “the pill” as such, may work this way at least part of the time. Anyone considering using contraceptives should investigate the mechanics of the contemplated method, and should err on the side of the life of the unborn.
Assuming that a couple has identified a pro-life method of contraception, the main ethical question that remains is this: is it morally acceptable to use a contraceptive at all? Is contraception always wrong? My answer is NO, absolutely not. It is quite ethical (consistent with biblical teaching) for married couples to use non-abortifacient contraceptives.
To establish this position, I will briefly present and refute the two major attempts to argue against the use of contraceptives.
First, the Roman Catholic Church forbids their use based on its view of the purpose of sex between husband and wife. Catholics argue that sex has two purposes: the procreation of children, and the bonding of the husband and wife. This seems to be biblically accurate, as depicted in Genesis 1 and 2.
But the problem is that the Catholic view declares that these two purposes for sex can never be separated. By papal decree, both the possibility of procreation and the unitive purpose must be present in every marital sexual act. Former Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk said, “Married persons cannot be faithful to the meaning of their marriage if they deliberately suppress either of these values.”
I agree that sex in marriage does indeed have both of these purposes, but I deny that both must be present in every sexual encounter. If the purposes were inseparable, then contraception would be wrong because it interferes with the procreative principle. But there is no biblical basis for the inseparability idea. The most we can say is that procreation is indeed a main purpose of marriage as such, but this does not require that it be a possibility every time a husband and wife come together sexually.
The second major argument against contraceptives as such is held by many Evangelical Protestants. It is the argument that contraception is wrong because it interferes with the sovereign providence and purposes of God in bestowing the gift of children within marriage. Besides Genesis 1:28 (“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth”), the main passages quoted here are Psalm 127:3-5 and Psalm 128:1-4. As one advocate of this view says, “If God truly is sovereign, then we can trust him to decide when pregnancy should occur.”
The main problem with this view is the assumption that there is something wrong with human agents “interfering with providence.” Let’s remember that the process of reproduction is part of the system of nature as governed by natural law. Is natural law somehow autonomous, operating outside the actions of human beings? Or from another perspective, does natural law operate solely by the power and purpose of God? The answer to both questions is NO, and we see this in Genesis 1:28 itself: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
God’s command to Adam and Eve to “subdue” the earth is the human race’s mandate to take control of the laws of nature and to manipulate them to God’s glory and to the benefit of mankind. In other words, part of our God-ordained dominion over the earth is our responsibility to participate in and gain control over the cause-and-effect processes of the natural order, including reproductive processes.
The fact is that we exercise our wisdom and ingenuity to interfere with and augment the processes of nature practically every hour of every day. Do you use an alarm clock to wake yourself up? Do you shave, or cut your hair and nails? Do you mow your yard? Do you have your teeth filled or have surgery? Do you cook your food? Do you take aspirin? We simply do NOT “let nature take its course.” That is not God’s plan.
Using contraceptives is in principle no different from these other common ways of “subduing the earth.” Good stewards of fertility will use wisdom and discernment in childbearing, depending on circumstances (see Matthew 24:19; Luke 23:29).
Jack Cottrell serves as professor of theology at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.