The Ethics of Children

***After further research I have revised details regarding methods of contraception since first writing this post, however, my personal practice and the overall point of this post has remained the same.

It is from God that parents receive their children, and it is to God that they should lead them.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

There are many issues concerning contraception and our responsibilities regarding children, and while I will individually address a handful of them in the coming weeks, I want to begin, not with the distortions, but with the beauty of original design. There are two main reasons I am beginning with God’s command for multiplication: we cannot address distortions if we are unfamiliar with the original design; and if we are to address culture and stand as God’s people we must adhere to his design ourselves. Essentially, God’s commands to Christians as to how we view children is our springboard for how we engage culture. In order to address culture, we must first address ourselves as the Body of Christ, adhering ourselves to his will and from there engaging the world at large.

There are nine basic methods used in addressing conception:

1. Abstinence: The only scripturally supported method for those who are unmarried (I will be addressing conception that occurs outside of marriage in the coming weeks). In regard to married persons, though ethically permitted it is scripturally prohibited for more then a period of time devoted to prayer, and not necessarily regarded to be used as a means to prevent conception (1 Corinthians 7:1-7).
2. Nothing: There are very few who adhere to this, but it is ethically and scripturally permitted
3. Rhythm, Calendar, Natural Family Planning (NFP), coitus interruptus, and Temperature methods: These methods seek to prevent conception by natural intervention, by abstaining during ovulation or interrupting coitus before sperm is released, it is in no way abortive and is thus ethically and scripturally permitted.
4. Chemical and barrier contraception (i.e. diaphragm, condom, female condom, spermicide and sponges etc…): These methods seek to prevent conception using artificial means and are in no way abortive and thus ethically and scripturally permitted (with the exception of the Catholic Church’s moral theology).
5. Sterilization (i.e. Visectomy, and “tying tubes”): This is a more permanent method of artificial contraception, it is ethically permitted, and though Scripturally permitted it is a subject of debate among some Christians.
6. Hormonal Birth Control (i.e. “the pill”, IUDs, the Depo Shot etc): While the first and second mechanisms seek to prevent conception, the third (or “fail-safe” ) mechanism is medically abortive (i.e. prevention of implantation and thus the killing of a human embryo, but it is in debate whether this third mechanism is every actually employed); it is both ethically and scripturally ambiguous. For me personally, when ethics remain ambiguous I default to being more conservative in my decisions, and as such I avoid hormonal birth control. There is also further note to be made in regards to women’s health and the treatment of fertility as pathology which is largely the approach of hormonal birth control, but that’s an issue for another post.
7. RU-486 and Plan B: These are medically abortive (by preventing implantation) and thus ethically and scripturally prohibited
8. Abortion: The vernacular term used for abortions after implantation has occurred and (not to be confused with spontaneous abortion which is vernacularly known as miscarriage), abortion as such is ethically and scripturally prohibited.
9. Infanticide: Many may think it preposterous for me to include this, but this is a practice that has been used for centuries, and there are current proponents of this in our own country (Peter Sanger being one). Infanticide is legally, ethically, and scripturally prohibited.

For this post I am assuming the premise that the killing of a human embryo is ethically wrong and thus prohibited for people as a whole. I am also assuming the premise that marriage is between one man and one woman. I will in later weeks address these topics, but for today they will remain assumed.

I am also assuming married couples are physically capable of conceiving, the heart-breaking issue of barrenness must be addressed seperately, and I hope to address it in the future.

For a Christian married couple methods 1-4 are the only ethically and scripturally permitted methods that are without debate, methods 5 and 6 are subject to debate among many Christians and are ethically and scripturally ambiguous. I will be largely addressing methods 1-4 in this post.

I reject the Catholic Church’s view that artificial means of contraception are wrong:

it [Catholic moral theology] seeks to prevent the second purpose of marriage, the partnership of the sexes, from asserting itself in opposition to the first purpose, reproduction. This argument may sound convincing, and yet it leads to insoluble complications. It certainly eliminates the unnatural act of preventing conception, but this is replaced b the unnatural state of a marriage without bodily union.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics

Although “natural” methods are approved by the Catholic Church, they are still an unnatural interruption as Bonhoeffer explains.
Both “natural” and “unnatural” methods (that are ethically and scripturally permitted) are an “unnatural” occurance, but this does not make them sinful,

…while the meaning of marriage normally includes giving birth to children, this is not absolute. In this fallen, sinful, age, in desperate need of knowing the Redeemer, nature by itself does not dictate whether to beget children. The decision about whether to conceive children is not ultimately a decision about what is natural, but about what will magnify the Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
–John Piper, This Momentary Marriage

In regard to method number 5, Sterilization, I would side much with Bonhoeffer and others that this method, while ethically permitted, and not scripturally forbidden is one to be used very carefully; permissible when further pregnancies pose health risks specifically. Because Sterilization is much more final the the other four methods it must be handled with great care by a married couple, with devotion to prayer and counsel.

Thus, I believe methods 1-5 are all ethically and scripturally permissible for a married couple to use, however I believe they must be engaged by appeal to one’s conscience. In order to approach these methods responsibly we must maintain a Scriptural worldview, one where our desires and motives are subjected to our loving Creator and his design as we take part in his creative process.

When God first created humanity and established the covenantal marital relationship between Adam and Eve, he commanded them to be fruitful and mulitply, that they fill and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:26-28). This was a mandate later echoed by God to Noah after the flood waters had subsided (Genesis 9:1). It was through the offspring of God’s chosen people, Israel, that he would reveal himself to the world (Genesis 12:1-3).

Children are considered a blessing from God throughout Scripture; this has always been a counter-cultural reality. The Israelites stood as an example to the world as one of the few nations (with the exception of Egypt) who did not subject their children to “exposure” (the practice of abandoning unwanted children by exposing them to the elements to either die or be found by slave-traders or a childless family), rather the Israelite stood as people who accepted all children as a blessing from God.

they [Jews] take thought to increase their numbers; for they regard it as a crime to kill any late born child [meaning born after the father had written his will].
Tacitus (AD 55-120)

Jesus later affirms the value of children (Mark 10:13-14); there is no doubt God views children as highly valuable and to be cherished. With the coming of Christ and his fulfillment of the law, the mandate to multiply changed only slightly, from making children, to making disciples, a change that brought the inclusion of the Gentiles into covenant as God’s people; God’s people grow through making disciples, not only by having children. This, however, does not nullify that marriage is in part for having children, but rather expands upon it; that we make children disciples thus providing inclusion to those outside of blood-line to extend that grace of God and disciple all people. As God’s people our aim is not to populate the world with offspring, but to have and raise children to know Jesus and his grace.

The natural result of intercourse between husband and wife (with the exception of bareness) is children. Paul asserts that a married couple has a duty to have sex, often (1 Corinthians 7:1-7), and this will eventually produce offspring. A married couple’s constant prevention of children can become questionable if there is no desire to include children in one’s life. That said, children are not the ONLY reason for sex, as I hinted at in my last post, sex between husband and wife is also about pleasure, unity, maintaining marital fidelity, and exalting God (Proverbs 5:15-23; Song of Solomon; 1 Corinthians 7:1-9). Because sex is not JUST for children, and children are a blessing, some interference on the part of the husband and wife may be used to prevent pregnancy in mind for stewardship. Like all of God’s blessings we are called to steward them, therefore putting no thought, planning, nor prayer into when we conceive is hardly how one embraces a blessing,

The right of nascent life is violated also in the case of a marriage in which the desire for a child is consistently excluded. Such an attitude is in contradiction to the meaning of marriage itself and to the blessing which God has bestowed upon marriage through the birth of the child. Certainly a distinction is to be drawn between the consistent refusal to allow children to come of marriage and the concrete responsible control of birth. Human reproduction is a matter of the will to have a child of one’s own, and for precisely this reason it would not be right for blind impulse simply to run its course as it pleases and then to go on to claim to be particularly pleasing in the eyes of God; responsible reason must have a share in this decision.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics

The pursuit of making children disciples (be it by having children and discipling them or impacting children spirtually) is absolutely a function of marriage. But asserting an effort to control our fertility in order to steward what we are given (so long as they are within the bounds of what is ethically and scripturally permissable) is not wrong. However, as married persons we must be in constant submission to God and his will, putting our hearts before him and surrendering any selfish motives we may have in our decisions regarding children. We must make a paradigm shift that is all together different from our culture.

We must start with a rejection of the contraceptive mentality that sees pregnancy and children as impositions to be avoided rather then as gifts to be received, loved, and nurtured.
–Albert Mohler

It is appropriate to use (permitted) methods of contraception within marriage, but they must be subject to prayer, and we must constantly scrutinize our own hearts to insure our motives are for God’s glory, and not the heart of a world that looks at children as commodities to be discarded when unwanted and embraced when convenient. Children are indeed a beautiful blessing, who provide us opportunity to relinquish selfishness daily and partake in innocent joy, we must embrace them as such, with responsibility, love, and a heart fully submitted to our Creator God.

Resources Consulted
A History of Contraception, By Angus McLaren
Ethics, By Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letters and Papers from Prison, By Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Ethics for a Brave New World, By John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg
God, Marriage and Family, By Andreas J Kostenberger
This Momentary Marriage By John Piper

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3 comments

  1. Savannah · · Reply

    Ah – I was SO excited for this post – and FINALLY got a chance to read it!
    I love the quote from John Piper and the reminder that the main objective is always to bring God glory. Love the post – and am thankful that you are speaking out about contraception. Too many believers are unaware that their birth control methods are abortive – and too few people speak out in honestly about the issue. Great post 🙂

    Like

  2. Great stuff, Lydia! Thanks for speaking (writing) truth.

    I didn’t know who Peter Singer was so I looked him up. Wow. I’m left speechless and heart-broken.

    Like

    1. Thanks, R.J.
      His views are minority, but his level of influence in our nation’s ethical system makes it all the more concerning.
      Hope all is well with you!

      Like

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