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Reconceiving contraception

It’s time for the church to tell the truth about birth control as a moral and theological issue

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Reconceiving contraception
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As the culture wars bear witness, we live at a time of widespread confusion about the nature and purpose of our bodies. Technology, while empowering tremendous advances in medicine, has also allowed us to move beyond the restoration of the body to its transformation. “Technology opens up previously unimagined possibilities,” Carl Trueman says, “changing from male to female, fusing our bodies with machines, downloading ourselves into a giant computer, developing means of living forever.”

But consider another, rather more mundane technology, one that has become so common as to produce indifference. This technology tricks the female body into acting more like a male body, in the sense that it becomes unable to conceive. It causes temporary or sometimes even permanent sterility, such that pregnancy and childbearing becomes optional or even impossible, even for the married and sexually active.

If you haven’t guessed by now, the technology in question is contraception. While the word itself didn’t exist until the 1880s, attempts to prevent conception have almost always existed. And until 1930, the church has almost always and uniformly opposed the use of techniques and devices that would allow for pleasure but prevent the conception of a child, as procreation is one of the primary ends of sexual union. Yet in the 21st century, the majority of Christian women use various birth control methods, from barrier methods to hormonal birth control to sterilization, without much reflection on the morality of their use.

It’s not that people are intending to do something that most Christians throughout history have considered wrong: it’s that they don’t even realize that contraception is a moral issue with which their consciences need to contend. So what changed?

In a word: Lambeth. The Lambeth Conferences were (and remain to this day) the international gathering of Anglican bishops to decide on pressing church and world affairs. For the first time in Christian history, the Lambeth Conference of 1930 allowed for the use of artificial contraceptive methods for those who have “a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood” and “a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence.” But the conference didn’t go so far as to detail what those moral obligations or reasons might be. That’s not to say that they don’t exist; it is to say, though, that the Anglican Communion implicitly allowed for couples’ use of contraception, without actually dealing with any of the moral questions raised by the practice throughout nearly 2,000 years of Christian history.

More women, and perhaps especially Christian women, are becoming skeptical of the bill of goods sold to them by the medical establishment with regard to birth control.

It seems as though Malthusian concerns about overpopulation and global famine motivated the members of the conference’s reasoning. Even more concerning, though, is the conference’s consideration of eugenics. On both sides of the argument, for and against, clergy appealed to eugenics for either liberalizing or maintaining the historic church’s teaching on contraception. Episcopal eugenicists argued against contraception in 1908 and 1920 on the basis of “race suicide,” for fear that the “incapables, the degenerates, the criminals and the imbeciles” would reproduce more quickly than the “more refined,” higher classes, and overtake them. In 1930, though, eugenicists arguing for contraception won out, on the basis that contraception could help to control the reproduction of the lower classes while allowing the elites to multiply.

Regardless, the Lambeth Conference of 1930 accomplished more than any of the bishops could have possibly imagined. What followed was blanket acceptance of the practice of contraception among Protestant Christians, leading to a moral indifference regarding contraception that persists to the present day. Perhaps the most tragic thing about Lambeth was that because it sidestepped the moral issues concerning contraception, the burden of moral consideration fell almost exclusively on Christian women, without the church’s moral guidance to aid them. The conscientious burden of deciding whether and which contraceptive methods to use falls uniquely on women, as they are heavily pressured by their doctors and our culture to use contraception, even when they express concerns about ethical or health-related implications.

More women, and perhaps especially Christian women, are becoming skeptical of the bill of goods sold to them by the medical establishment with regard to birth control. Women are beginning to see through the lie that in order to exist and succeed in the marketplace, we must modify our bodies in a way that makes them less womanly. After all, what could be more natural for women than conceiving and bearing a child? As our culture continues to advance contraceptive technology, including in ways that increase the likelihood for unintended abortion, women desperately need resources to think about and discuss the issue of contraception cogently from both a medical and theological perspective. Now, more than ever, we need a comprehensive and robust theology of the body to meet the demands of our sex-crazed age.

Lambeth ultimately abandoned Christians to the dictates of their own desires. No longer shaped by the counsel of churches, our ideas about contraception have come instead from secular sources. Everywhere else, Christians have been right not to cede discipleship on matters of sex to Hollywood or even the doctor’s office. Here too, it is time for churches to reclaim their moral mantle and form a renewed Christian conscience on contraception.

Katelyn Walls Shelton

Katelyn Walls Shelton is a Bioethics Fellow at the Paul Ramsey Institute. She is a women’s health policy consultant who previously worked to promote the well-being of women and the unborn at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She graduated from Yale Divinity School and Union University and lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, John, and their three children.


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