The author of the blog Contraception and Christianity, who goes by the handle Contraskeptic, kindly emailed me a link to his blog, where I came across this post. It’s interesting. In his blog description, he says that his blog is intended for discussion about contraception in the context of Christian marriage, and that he’s trying to sort through his own views on contraception, as an Evangelical Christian. He supports birth control, but is sympathetic to the arguments against it. Shaping his perspective is his wife, who did not want to become pregnant after her second child, but did anyway, despite non-medical efforts at prevention. Before her third pregnancy, she was suffering from postpartum depression. She wanted to go back to work. She thought that having another child would be a “disaster.” She asked her husband to get a vasectomy, and he wouldn’t. She would only have sex with him once a month, the day after her period ended. She slept on the couch so that she wouldn’t be tempted into sex. And when she found out she was pregnant again, she sobbed, and was “devastated.”
After the birth of their third child, her husband went in to get a vasectomy, and was refused. Getting it at his wife’s request, his doctor said, was the wrong reason. It’s been 15 months since this couple has so much as cuddled, let alone had sex. They both want to — but the wife is so terrified of another pregnancy, another difficult delivery, another C-section, another long recovery — that it’s not worth it. Contraskeptic writes:
Here is the dilemma I face:
If I get a vasectomy, we’ll be sinning if we have sex, and unlike using a condom, the sin will be permanent (or extremely expensive if not impossible to reverse). Practically speaking, there’s no repentance if indeed contracepted sex is a sin.
But if I don’t get a vasectomy, and we have to abstain until my wife reaches menopause, we’ll be sinning by not having sex. Couples are only supposed to abstain briefly but to come back together to avoid temptation (see I Corinthians 7). And it seems that the NFPers and the Quiverfull folks would agree that abstaining for the purpose of avoiding children is also a sin.
Beyond the concern about offending God, if I opt for abstinence over a vasectomy, our marriage will suffer. Love will diminish because we’ll be avoiding physical affection and because my wife will be offended that I am not complying with her wishes.
This is not a trick question, this is not a hypothetical, this is not a rhetorical trap. This is a real-life dilemma. I have a real-life decision to make.
What would you do if you were in my shoes?
First, I’ll point out that Contraskeptic’s situation is probably fairly common among people who don’t believe in or lack access to contraception. It was certainly commonplace before the dissemination of the birth control pill. And it’s not healthy. Sex is part of what you sign up for when you get married. You certainly are not entitled to your partner’s body, and you don’t have the right to demand sex from them whenever you want it, but you do have a legitimate complaint (and grounds to terminate the relationship) if the marriage is sexless.
But this is a little more complicated. The marriage isn’t sexless because one party has simply lost interest; it’s sexless because the aftermath of sex is physically, emotionally and mentally traumatizing to one party. She is, justifiably, asking her husband to undergo a simple procedure which would solve the problem of unwanted pregnancy. He, just as understandably, did not want to undergo surgery (it’s his body, after all), and her (fair) response was to refuse to engage in the behavior which would have potentially devastating consequences. Which makes their situation pretty unhappy.
Many of their religious peers will argue that using any form of contraception, other than natural family planning, is sinful. Contraskeptic asks for their opinions, and I can already predict what they’ll say: Contra and his wife need to shift their mentality to one that regards children as blessings, not burdens; his wife should realize that pregnancy and childbirth are beautiful events which are natural parts of womanhood, and she should embrace them; she should not be so selfish as to think about her own desire to work, and certainly should not demand that her husband alter his God-given body to suit her demands; and they should consider the highly effective Natural Family Planning method if they want to avoid more children.
Those arguments are crap.
I can grasp the conservative Christian arguments against the contraceptive pill, even if I know that they aren’t medically sound. Their viewpoint is something like this: The Pill primarily works by inhibiting ovulation and thickening cervical mucus so that sperm can’t fertilize the egg in the first place. Some versions of the Pill also thin the uterine lining, making it inhospitable to a fertilized egg. So if, somehow, sperm does get through and an egg is released, and they join, the egg cannot implant. The medical definition of pregnancy begins at implantation, not fertilization, precisely because about half of all fertilized eggs don’t implant in the first place. Recent research further suggests that the Pill doesn’t have an effect on implantation, but there is some dispute. For a religious person who believes that life begins at conception, the Pill may not be the best option. That’s all fine and good — until they start trying to convince the rest of us that their belief equals science, and that they should have the right to impose it on others. But that’s another post.
Now, what anti-Pill Christians often ignore is the fact that using the Pill will actually cause fewer fertilized eggs to be flushed out than non-use will. The vast majority of the time, the Pill stops the sperm and the egg from ever joining. If, on the unproven off-chance that they do join, they will probably be flushed out. Any fertilized egg will be a fluke, and an extreme rarity. But if a couple has sex without using contraception, over the years far more of the woman’s eggs will be fertilized. More than half of them will naturally not implant. Of those which do implant, a significant number will experience problems in utero and result in miscarriage. A “non-contracepting” couple, then, will produce far more fertilized eggs and embryos which never reach birth than a “contracepting” one will. Their response to this argument is intent — the contraception-using couple intends to avoid pregnancy, while the non-contraception-using couple embraces new life, even if that new life never comes to fruition.
The Pill is not an abortifacient, in that there is no way it can cause an abortion (at least according to the medical definition of the word). Using the Pill will actually save the “lives” of more fertilized eggs than will having sex without contraception. But I can still understand the religious opposition to it, even if I think it’s silly and factually incorrect.
What I find less convincing is the religious opposition to vasectomies, tubal ligations, and condom use. The arguments against vasectomies and tubal ligations is two-fold: (1) altering your reproductive capabilities is doing damage to God’s gift of your body and ability to reproduce, and (2) couples should be open to children and not take steps to permanently avoid pregnancy. The alternative is Natural Family Planning, wherein women track their fertile days and have sex only on those times when they think they can’t get pregnant. The caveat, of course, is that if you get pregnant — which, given the fact that typical NFP use has up to a 25% failure rate, is a strong possibility — you embrace it and have another baby. NFP advocates say that their method doesn’t interfere with God’s natural plan or his creation of the human body. It forces couples to discuss their fertility, and negotiate about sex — if they’re horny but it’s a potentially fertile day, they have to talk about whether the sex will be worth it. Gathering the baseline data for NFP can take as long as six months — during which time the couple can either abstain or risk pregnancy. NFP also requires that couples abstain for 8-10 days out of every menstrual cycle, on the days when the woman is most fertile — and at the peak of her sexual desire. She can’t have sex when she wants it the most, and her husband can’t give her oral sex, either, if they’re following Catholic doctrine (sex must be centered on penis-in-vagina intercourse, and foreplay is only permissible so long as it leads up to the husband ejaculating inside of his wife’s vagina).
Obviously, I’m skeptical about NFP as a practice. But what doesn’t make sense to me is the idea that NFP is acceptable, but vasectomies, tubal ligations and condom use aren’t. Either interference with God’s plan for your life and His design of your body is wrong, or it’s not. But as far as I can tell, the only time that conservative Christians decry medical interference with the body is when it comes to reproduction. After all, cancer occurs naturally, but I don’t think that most Christians would argue that we should just sit back and let God’s plan take its course. We alter God’s design all the time — we cut out hair, trim our fingernails, put on make-up, remove our facial and body hair, get braces, pierce our ears. Perfectly healthy people give their blood, or their bone marrow, or even one of their bodily organs (like a kidney) to people who need those things to survive — people who, without human interference into God’s plan, would be dead. How it is acceptable to give up a functioning, healthy kidney — part of the body God gave you — but not acceptable to alter your reproductive system so that you do no further harm to your body or your partner’s body?
There isn’t an answer — at least not until the anti-contraception crowd admits that their perspective is more about control of women than it is about morality or health or God.
Anti-contraception people will argue that contraceptives, vasectomies, and other pregnancy-prevention techniques are bad because they screw around with a healthy reproductive system, unlike, say, an appendectomy or chemotherapy, which seek to correct disease. But, as I wrote above, we constantly take steps which alter perfectly healthy bodily functions so that our lives are easier, or so we fit a social standard of acceptable physical appearance (hence making our lives easier). And in using NFP you’re taking active steps to avoid the blessing of children — how is that less of an affront to God than using a condom?
It is simply not a consistent philosophy, and I don’t imagine that most NFP proponents will be able to justify medical intervention and altering God’s plan in some instances but not in others. They won’t be able to give Contraskeptic an answer other than “open your heart to children and use NFP.” They will have to ignore the plight of his wife because, as a woman, she doesn’t matter beyond her use as a breeding mare.
There are many good, well-meaning people who personally oppose contraception, and who don’t use it themselves. There are others who not only personally oppose it, but think everyone should make the same decisions that they’ve made, and are quick to condemn “contracepting” women. I do look forward to what they say in response to Contraskeptic’s situation.
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