This post concludes our four-part series on the ethics of birth control. Here, Mark Driscoll discusses five “levels” of birth control and the biblical and scientific amorality of each of them.
Adapted from Religion Saves: And Nine Other Misconceptions.
There’s no doubt the Bible says children are a blessing, but the Bible doesn’t seem to address the specific topic of birth control. Is this a black-and-white topic, or does it fall under liberties?
Level 1: No Birth Control
At the very least, every Christian married couple should cover every aspect of their marriage with prayer, including future children God may bless them with. Through prayer, the Christian couple is demonstrating faith in the goodness and sovereignty of God over all of life, including the womb.
Some Christian couples determine to use only prayer in their family planning. As a result, they simply enjoy normal marital sexual relations and trust that if God desires that they have children, he will provide according to his timing. When a Christian couple chooses this approach, trusting that whatever happens is God’s good will, it is acceptable.
Level 2: Natural Birth Control
Natural methods include any kind of contraception through which pregnancy is prevented by abstaining from vaginal sexual intercourse on days when the wife is likely to be fertile. The most popular natural method is the calendar-based rhythm method, which has been replaced by more effective methods such as the symptothermal method and the standard-days method. Fertility computers are a new development in contraceptive technology that make these natural methods easier to use by telling a couple when sex will or won’t result in pregnancy. The Roman Catholic Church approves the use of natural methods.
Natural birth control methods have many benefits, including the involvement of both husband and wife, as well as the fact that such methods are free, safe, and reversible. Additionally, these methods require no surgery, chemicals, devices, or drugs. Natural methods can also be used with other methods, such as a condom, during fertile times. One of the potential difficulties is that natural methods require discipline and planning, which not everyone is equally faithful to ensure. In conclusion, natural birth control is permissible for a Christian couple.
Level 3: Non-abortive Birth Control
Like the natural methods, non-abortive birth control methods also seek to influence the timing of conception but do so by taking either temporary or permanent additional measures. This method of birth control has quite a long history.
Temporary non-abortive birth control methods are generally barrier methods. Barrier methods of contraception include all methods that permit intercourse but prevent the sperm and egg from coming together. Perhaps the most common is the male condom, which was invented three thousand years ago by an Egyptian couple using a linen pouch.49
Permanent non-abortive birth control methods are often chosen by couples who have decided not to enlarge their family. (For the purposes of this chapter I am referring to voluntary versus involuntary sterilization.) Such preventatives can be achieved by either female sterilization, also called tubal ligation, or by vasectomy for men. Both of these methods require minor surgery and should be considered permanent, although it is theoretically possible, but difficult, to undergo a reversal.
Three things need to be mentioned regarding permanent non-abortive birth control methods.
- First, the heart needs to be examined regarding motive on this issue; this method should never be used to completely abandon the blessing of children.
- Second, it is unwise to make this decision too early in life, because it is not uncommon for a couple to later desire more children, or for someone to remarry after being divorced or widowed and desire to have children with their next spouse.
- Third, some Christians are legalistic on this issue and declare that there is essentially never a good reason for such a permanent measure. However, life in a fallen world is complicated and painful. A pastor and his wife, good friends of mine, suffered eighteen miscarriages before he had a vasectomy to stop what had become for them incredible physical and emotional pain.
To summarize, levels 1 to 3 are options that Christian couples can consider without concern of terminating a fertilized egg, thereby taking a human life.
Level 4: Potentially Abortive Birth Control
At the next birth control level we tread into murkier waters, where it is more difficult to discern what is biblically right. “The pill” is a categorical term for more than forty types of oral contraceptives, which are also referred to as birth control pills and sometimes combination pills because they contain a mixture of estrogen and progestin. These hormonal contraceptives are designed to override the female body’s normal cycle and “trick” the woman’s brain into believing she’s already pregnant, thus preventing the release of an egg from the ovaries.
Birth control pills were introduced to America in the 1950s. In 1965 the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the nineteenth-century law prohibiting the use of contraceptives.65 Today, fifty to sixty million women worldwide take the pill each day, and it is the most widely prescribed drug in the world.66
The Pill Debate
The debate over hormonal birth control, particularly the pill, is whether it results in the taking of a life by destroying a fertilized egg. Author, pastor, and pro-life leader Randy Alcorn has written a great deal on this subject.69 Alcorn writes, “The Pill is used by about fourteen million American women each year. Across the globe it is used by about sixty million. The question of whether it causes abortions has direct bearing on untold millions of Christians, many of them prolife, who use and recommend it.”
Alcorn goes on to point out that there is not one but rather three purposes for birth control pills.
- First, the pill exists to inhibit ovulation, which is its primary means of birth control.
- Second, the pill thickens the cervical mucus so that it becomes more difficult for sperm to travel to the egg.
- Third, the pill thins and shrivels the lining of the uterus so that it is unable or less able to facilitate the implantation of the newly fertilized egg.
The bottom line is this: the first two purposes of birth control pills are contraceptive in nature and therefore acceptable for use by a Christian couple. However, the third function of birth control pills is potentially abortive in that it seeks to disrupt the ongoing life of a fertilized egg. That potentiality is incredibly controversial; thus, faithful Christians who are staunchly prolife and believe that life begins at conception are divided over the issue.
To help provide some clarity, Focus on the Family’s Physicians Resource Council (PRC), under the leadership of James Dobson, examined the issue for two years. The PRC is comprised of prolife Christian doctors from a wide variety of fields. They sought to thoroughly study the issue of whether combination oral contraceptives (those with both estrogen and progesterone) cause abortion. Ultimately, even they were undecided:
Pro-life physicians who have carefully and conscientiously studied this issue have come to different conclusions regarding the interpretation and implications of the relevant scientific data. After two years of extended deliberation and prayer, the PRC has not been able to reach a consensus as to the likelihood, or even the possibility, that these medications might contribute to the loss of human life after fertilization. The majority of the experts to which Dr. Dobson has spoken feel that the pill does not have an abortifacient effect. A minority of the experts feel that when conception occurs on the pill, there is enough of a possibility for an abortifacient effect, however remote, to warrant warning women about it.72
Therefore, whether to use birth control pills is a very complicated issue about which faithful prolife Christians and doctors disagree. As a result, it seems legalistic and inappropriate to declare that use of the pill is sinful. Conversely, it seems that Christian couples need to be informed of the potential abortive nature of birth control pills so that they can study the matter further and prayerfully come to an informed decision according to their own conscience and the leading of God the Holy Spirit.
As a pastor who is, admittedly, not medically trained, I do not encourage members of our church to use the pill but also would not discipline a member for sin if they did.
Level 5: Abortive Murder
Abortion is taking a human life by killing a fertilized egg. Biblically, it is also known as the sin of murder. Abortions include medical procedures of various kinds as well as RU-486 and the morning-after pill. Other items that cause abortion are the intrauterine device (IUD) and Norplant, which do not prevent conception but prevent implantation of an already fertilized ovum. The result is an abortion, the killing of a conceived person.74
Thomas W. Hilgers of the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota, studied over four hundred articles on the subject and concluded, “The primary action of the IUD must be classed as abortifacient.”75 Tragically, some 2.5 to 3 million American women use IUDs.76
It may seem odd that I, as a pastor writing primarily for Christian readers, include this level as a form of birth control. Yet, tragically, many people, including Christians, use abortion as a form of birth control. Undoubtedly, there are very rare cases in which even the most devoutly Bible-believing, pro-life Christians are caught on the horns of an ethical dilemma involving abortion (e.g., when the mother’s life is at stake), but for the purposes of this chapter I am speaking of abortion in its majority sense as a murderous form of birth control.
In summary, as a pastor I would support Christian couples practicing levels 1 to 3 of birth control, urge those considering level 4 to prayerfully and carefully reflect on their decision, and oppose any Christian couple considering level 5, unless there are extremely weighty extenuating circumstances.
- 49: Cutrer and Glahn, The Contraception Guidebook, 72.
- 59. Ibid., 77.
- 60. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 35.
- 61. Cutrer and Glahn, The Contraception Guidebook, 82–83.
- 62. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 35.
- 65. Ibid., 30.
- 66. Ibid.
- 68. L. S. Potter, “How Effective Are Contraceptives? The Determination and Measurement of Pregnancy Rates,” Obstetrics and Gynecology 88 (September 1996): 135–235, in “Oral Contraceptives—An Update” Population Reports (Spring 2000), http://findarticles.com/p/articles/ mi_m0856/is_1_28/ai_62723391/print?tag=artBody;col1.
- 69. One of his great works on the subject is his book Does the Birth Control Pill Cause Abortions? You can download the entire book or read condensations of the book for free here: http:// http://www.epm.org/books/does_the_birth_control_ pill_cause_abortionsDetail.php. In addition, articles on abortion, birth control, and related issues can be found here: http://www. epm.org/resources-prolife_abortion.html.
- 72. Focus on the Family, “Position Statement: Birth Control Pills and Other Hormonal Contraception,” December 30, 2005, http://www.family.org/sharedassets/correspondence/pdfs/ miscellaneous/Position_Statement-Birth_Control_Pills_and_Other_Hormonal_Contra- ception.pdf.
- 73. “Possible Post-Fertilization Effects of Hormonal Birth Control,” Hormonal Birth Control, http://www.cmda.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Search&template=/CM/HTMLDisplay. cfm&ContentI D=3045.
- The Ethics of Birth Control. Part 1 (waltbrite.wordpress.com)
- The Ethics of Birth Control Part 2 (waltbrite.wordpress.com)
- Birth Control and Insurance Companies (virginiamccabe.wordpress.com)
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