Four Bible professors consider how “Welcome the Children” (this month’s theme) squares with our decisions not to have them at all. This view is by Phil Kenneson. Subsequent views are written by Jack Cottrell, Mark Weedman, and Robert Pate.
By Phil Kenneson
My very unscientific sampling of Protestants across a wide theological spectrum suggests three things: (1) Many are aware the Roman Catholic Church has serious objections to artificial contraception. (2) Many Protestants (along with many Catholics) find the Roman Catholic Church’s prohibition on artificial contraception at least baffling, if not irresponsible and invasive. (“Why should the church,” many ask, “have a say in anyone’s decision about whether and/or when to have children?”) (3) Many Protestants are surprised to learn that only relatively recently have Protestants come to embrace contraception, seeing it largely as a nonissue, or at least as a nontheological issue.
Recent Supreme Court cases, however, have raised the question of whether Christians do in fact have objections to contraception, and if so, on what basis. Whatever one thinks of the legal merits of the well-publicized Hobby Lobby case (formally known as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell), it did bring to light that some Protestants had theological objections to some forms of contraception.
What were their objections? Hobby Lobby made it clear that its founder’s religious convictions did not lead him to oppose contraception per se, but only the four types the company’s insurance was being asked to cover that prevented the implantation of a fertilized embryo. These forms of contraception, they argued, violated their religious conviction that life begins at conception, where conception is understood to mean fertilization of an embryo. (To be clear, this differs from the medical establishment’s definition of “conception,” which entails the implantation in the uterus of a fertilized egg).
In short, the Hobby Lobby plaintiffs objected to the contraception mandate of The Affordable Care Act because they believed that this form of contraception amounted to a form of abortion. Hobby Lobby openly acknowledged it already provided 16 kinds of birth control to its employees, but it objected to being required to cover these types, not because they were forms of contraception, but because they believed they were forms of abortion.
This raises an interesting question: Do Protestants have (or should they have) any theological reservations about the use of contraception within marriage when such contraception is clearly not an abortifacient? And if they do (or should), what might some of those reservations be? This and the following articles are a modest attempt to encourage conversations around these important questions.
A recent study suggests Protestants have in actual practice few or no theological reservations about the use of contraception; indeed, the statistics show that 90 percent of Protestant women of childbearing age who are not currently seeking to become pregnant use some form of contraception. How is it that Protestants, who before the middle of the last century joined their Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters in opposing birth control, now find themselves with almost no theological reservations at all?
Three historical cultural shifts are worth mentioning, not only because they partly account for this dramatic change in outlook about contraception, but also because they raise ongoing questions that bear serious scrutiny.
1. In the early 20th century, serious concerns were raised about worldwide overpopulation, and so birth control was seen by many as a necessary response to this perceived threat to the future of humankind. Today, this concern continues to play a role in many people’s minds, especially since those in developed countries use many times the resources of those in developing countries. A child born in the United States, for example, will on average consume 20 times the amount of resources of a child born in India.
Given these realities, is it responsible to bring an unlimited number of children into the world, especially in developed countries, when so many children around the world continue to lack such basics as food and clean drinking water?
2. As the United States moved away from a rural, agricultural society to a more urban and industrial economy, children increasingly came to be viewed as economic liabilities, potential financial burdens on their families. This shift is still reflected in the widely reported annual statistics that detail how much it costs to raise a child in the United States. (The current average is nearly a quarter of a million dollars, which doesn’t include college tuition or factor in inflation.) For many couples, therefore, the decision to use contraception is inseparable from these economic realities.
3. The rapid shift in acceptance of artificial contraception cannot be separated from the so-called sexual revolution in the second half of the 20th century. Although no brief overview can do justice to the wide-ranging effects of this cultural movement, there is little doubt that the increasingly widespread availability of “the pill” (combined oral contraceptive pill, or COCP) beginning in 1960 offered women unprecedented control over their own fertility, making possible a number of new and closely related opportunities: the delay (or even rejection) of marriage, greater educational and employment opportunities, and unparalleled economic self-sufficiency. As a result, this revolution contributed to a number of societal shifts, including the decrease in marriage and childbirth rates, the increase in divorce and single-parent households, and the emergence of the pro-choice movement.
Thus we find ourselves at a cultural moment where children are often regarded more as a potential burden to be avoided than as a gift to be welcomed, while at the same time we have widely available artificial contraception that offers unparalleled control over both the choice and the timing of childbearing. It is precisely this control that is offered in this Faustian bargain of contraception. Although such unprecedented control is understood in our current context as an act of “responsibility,” honesty also demands we acknowledge that such responsibility comes at a significant cost. Christians of all traditions have long held that children are gifts from God to be received and welcomed with gratitude. But the language of “gift” sits uneasily with the practice of artificial contraception.
Is it possible for any gift to remain a gift if I largely control when it is given or whether it is given at all?
In most other contexts, such control over a gift would go a long way toward erasing the giftedness altogether. This is the single most important reason why Roman Catholic teaching prohibits artificial conception: the desire above all else to safeguard the conviction that children are always first of all a gift of God to be received and welcomed with gratitude.
If Christians in our day choose to use contraceptives, how will they safeguard our long-held understanding that children are gifts from God and not reduce childbearing to another part of contemporary life to be meticulously managed and engineered? This is just one issue in this complex matter, but one that any theology of contraception—Protestant or Catholic—ought seriously engage.
Phil Kenneson is a professor of theology and philosophy at Milligan College in Tennessee.