Bad Religion

Why Shouldn’t a Christian Embrace Contraception?
New books dissected over email.
April 17 2012 11:49 AM

Bad Religion

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Why shouldn’t a Christian embrace contraception?

 A women and some birth control pills

Keith Brofsky/Photodisc

Ross,

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

I appreciate the complexity of your answer about capitalism. Greed requires restraint, but the restraint has to be sensible, tempered by an appreciation of human fallibility and unintended consequences.

Why not treat lust the same way? If we can manage the profit motive so it’s put to good use, can’t we do the same with the libido? Why shouldn’t a Christian embrace contraception? You and I have discussed this topic before, but only in the context of abortion. Let’s talk straight up about the ethics of birth control. You depict the pill as a gateway to moral chaos. I’d like to convince you that it ain’t necessarily so.

Throughout the book, you include contraception in a litany of ills—illegitimacy, infidelity, divorce—that signify cultural erosion. I’m with you on the latter three. But is it really fair to cast contraception as part of that lot? Sure, birth control can facilitate promiscuity. But can’t it also facilitate sexual intimacy within marriage, enabling couples to raise a manageable number of children? Isn’t that an exercise of sexual and parental responsibility? Is openness to procreation—in every act—really essential to moral sex? Can an orthodox Christian, as opposed to a fundamentalist, reconsider that teaching?

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In the book, you don’t explicitly rely on the strict openness-to-life argument. You present a more sophisticated case against the “shift from a child-centric to a romance-centric model for adult sexual relationships.” You strongly implicate the pill in this shift. From 1960 to 1980, you observe, the percentage of American women who agreed that “almost all parents who can ought to have children” fell by half.  But in practice, contraception isn’t a rejection of childbearing. According to government data (see Table 10 of this report), more than two-thirds of American women who use contraception are mothers. Their lives are already child-centric. They’re not rejecting parenthood. They’re managing it. They’re regulating their sexual activity so they can take proper care of their families.

Here’s where I’ll appeal to your capitalist sympathies and cross-apply them. You outline Michael Novak’s argument that the free market is, in your paraphrase, “the economic system best suited to man’s fallen nature.” Novak writes that man’s natural competitiveness is hard to suppress and that “competition for money” can be countenanced, from a Christian standpoint, if it’s “productive for others.” You warn proponents of this idea not to be naïve about “the dark pull that money can exert over the human heart.”  But you also seem open—indeed, sympathetic—to Novak’s argument. Why not take a similar view of sexual desire? It’s hard to suppress, and it can be put to good use. Not just for procreation, but also for bonding. Can’t contraception be part of that? Can’t we practice safer sex, just as we practice safer capitalism?

A right-wing fundamentalist might insist on the Biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply, just as a left-wing fundamentalist might insist on selling our nation’s possessions and giving everything to the poor. But you explained in your last post how an orthodox Christian, open to practicality and interpretation, could answer the case for redistribution. In the days of unprotected industrial capitalism, a stronger safety net made sense, but circumstances have changed: Unaffordable entitlements are now the greater threat. Can’t a similar point be made about procreation? In the time of Jesus, the world’s population was 200 million to 300 million. Today it’s 7 billion and on its way to 10 billion. Doesn’t this radical change in our circumstances call for a rethinking of the early Christian emphasis on procreation, including the prohibition on contraception?

Will

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