NOT LONG AGO, a friend asked my opinion about birth control pills. She and her husband, who have several young children, wanted to use them, but she had misgivings.
She had read an article by a Christian couple that had frightened her. “They basically just blasted the entire idea of using hormonal birth control on the basis that it is pretty much abortion,” she said.
Although evangelical sex manuals from the 1970s, including Ed and Gaye Wheat’s Intended for Pleasure, advocated the pill as a means of enjoying the delights of the marital bed without fear of pregnancy, some evangelicals today have a very different perspective. A recent Christianity Today blog series on contraception that I participated in received vigorous and occasionally vitriolic responses, despite giving voice to a range of perspectives: Advocates of hormonal contraception were featured alongside proponents of natural family planning.
How is it that contraception has become a religious battlefield—even, or perhaps especially—among evangelical Protestants?
A certain myth currently in circulation among conservative Christians (Catholic and evangelical alike) harkens back to a pre-contraceptive past when parents welcomed innumerable children, each as a gift from God. In this mythical narrative, the advent in the 1960s of the modern contraceptive pill fostered in people a “hedonistic mentality” and made them “unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality.” After the pill, children were no longer seen as gifts, but as burdens—“diseases” to be vaccinated against. If, despite precautionary measures, a woman conceived, then her modern “contraceptive mentality” would all but determine that she have an abortion. “Abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception,” wrote Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae.
Echoing Evangelium Vitae, in 2006 Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler called for the “rejection of the contraceptive mentality that sees pregnancy and children as impositions to be avoided rather than as gifts to be received, loved, and nurtured.” He also charged that the “effective separation of sex from procreation” was “one of the most ominous” and “important defining marks of our age,” leading to all kinds of sexual degradation.
The implication, of course, is that earlier ages were more closely aligned with God’s will and with “natural law,” the classical philosophy praised by Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae.