Losing sight of the ultimate purpose of sex has had dire moral and social consequences in America. According to the natural law understanding of sexual ethics, procreation is central to the purpose of sex. This necessitates both marriage as a requirement prior to a sexual act, so as to enable the upbringing of children; and also a heterosexual union, as biologically, it is impossible for two members of the same gender to procreate through a sexual act. When people fail to embrace a proper understanding of sex, the consequences include out of wedlock births, abortion, broken families, homosexual unions, and high rates of sexually transmitted diseases.
In Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973, historian Dr. Allan Carlson identifies the advent of contraception as the beginning of sexual ethics’ downward spiral in the United States. Acceptance and widespread use of contraceptives has heralded a hellish era of sexual ethics by severing the link between sex and its most essential function, procreation. While Dr. Carlson and his sympathizers correctly trace the roots of our current moral crisis to the introduction of contraception, he errs in identifying contraception as an intrinsic moral evil – and thus, as an inadmissible tool even within the marital covenant.
Natural Family Planning vs. Artificial Contraception
Opponents of contraception propose Natural Family Planning as a preferable, acceptable alternative, but their arguments are not consistent with a natural law understanding of sex and the supposed impermissibility of contraception. Traditional Catholic teaching embraces Natural Family Planning, also known as the rhythm method, including a public endorsement by Pope Pius XII in 1951. If one is going to postulate that non-abortifacient contraception is morally wrong because it frustrates the natural purpose of sex — that is, procreation — then NFP cannot be allowed, as well as other contraceptive methods, however. Natural Family Planning has the same goal as forbidden contraceptives: All methods aim to curtail the possibility that the couple becomes pregnant.
Non-abortifacient contraceptive forms — such as condoms — only serve to decrease the likelihood that the couple will conceive. There is still the possibility of conception. Condoms have a 82% effectiveness rate, while natural family planning, on the other hand, alleges by some estimates to have a 98% effectiveness rate. (Whether that number is accurate or not, is up for debate.) That being said, if the crucial point in this debate is that couples should only have sex if they are open to the possibility that they could become pregnant — then what is the ultimate difference between the use of a condom and the use of NFP? Both have the possibility of failure and thus the possible result of pregnancy, and both aim ultimately to thwart procreation, the “natural end” of intercourse.
To be consistent within the natural law framework, the only available option would be to either not have a full marriage in the time you do not wish to have children (abstinence) or to have intercourse at random times, because only then would you truly be trusting God to shape your family as He wills. Only full abstinence or unplanned pregnancies would allow a married couple to engage in intercourse while honoring the procreative purpose—not seeking to thwart the natural process of having children.
Old Testament vs. New Testament Principles
While our understanding of natural law is helpful to relating the particulars of morality to a secular audience, Scripture is the ultimate authority on moral particulars and how Christians ought to live our lives. On this matter, Scripture’s prescription is far from black and white. In Evangelical Ethics, the Presbyterian minister Dr. J. Jefferson Davis relates that for Protestants, an understanding of contraception must come from Scripture’s explicit teachings and “legitimate biblical principles regarding the nature of human sexuality and the divine purposes for the institution of marriage.”
What does the Old Testament teach about procreation and contraception? Mankind commanded to procreate in Genesis – “be fruitful and multiply.” Beyond this general mandate, there is the oft-cited case of Onan, who “spills his seed” and sins. In Onan’s case, most scholars say his sin likely involves his “willful refusal to perform his levirate duty to his deceased brother’s wife” — not in the contraceptive act itself. At any rate, it is clear that the Old Testament promotes child-bearing as a good thing. Upon first glance, it may seem difficult to construct a pro-contraception case given the foundation of the Old Testament. We must also ask to what extent the Old Testament outlook is significant since Christ established the new covenant, however, and how the two interact. Do the Old and New Testament give different outlooks on procreation and marriage?
In 1 Corinthians 7:5 – Paul tells married couples, “Do not refuse one another conjugal rights except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” The implication is that God’s purpose for Christian couples is not simply, as Dr. Davis relates, “maximum fertility, or the maximum number of conceptions biologically possible during the course of the Christian marriage,” but rather, “The larger principle…that Christian couples have the right to choose to ‘override’ the usual responsibility to procreate for a season in order to pursue a spiritual good.” Sex may serve the purpose of unifying the couple and increasing their mutual affection, not simply serving the end of procreation. The mandate to procreate is not, and cannot be, indefinite.
Thus, while I respect and agree with much of the natural law thought on contraception, I do not find contraception to be an inadmissible evil. Contraception should never be used outside of marriage to escape the consequences of fornication, and it should not be used indefinitely within marriage to avoid the responsibilities of husband and wife to raise children. Any type of abortifacient contraception is a moral wrong as it ends a life, but non-abortifacient contraception could be used by a married couple with a proper understanding of Scriptural principles.