What does Christianity say about birth control and planned parenthood?

The Bible does not say anything directly about birth control or planned
parenthood. Nevertheless, a number of biblical principles may be applied
in order to help a disciple of Jesus make personal ethical decisions
regarding these very important and sometimes controversial topics.

Some have taught that any sort of birth control, even the rhythm method,
is sin. This is an especially controversial teaching of the Roman Catholic
Church. To support this, they quote such passages as Genesis 1:28, “Be
fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” This
passage represents the only command of God which it would at least appear
that mankind has obeyed fully! Does this passage mean that it is a sin to
not have an unlimited number of children? Obviously no. Jesus himself
never married and had no children. Does that make him a sinner? He taught
that for some it was reasonable for them to choose not to have children in
order to serve God in a special way. Genesis 1:28 certainly does not teach
that birth control is a sin.

Another passage which is used in found in Genesis 38:8-10. In this passage
an Israelite man named Onan is labeled as wicked because he spilled his
seed on the ground, thus refusing his imposed wife the opportunity to bear
children. To use this passage to teach that birth control is a sin is to
use it completely out of context. Onan’s sin was not birth control, but
was a selfish treatment of his wife. He took sexual pleasure from her but
because of his selfish desire to not have children who would not be his
heir, he refused to let her have children. You should read this passage
for yourself and decide if it is teaching that birth control is a sin.

The fact is that the only passages I have ever seen used to teach that
birth control is a sin simply do not do so, if taken in their context. Are
there any principles of scripture which can be indirectly applied to birth
control? All I can say on that is that I do not know of any. I would say
that if one spouse deeply desires to have children and the other does not,
it may be the sin of selfishness for the spouse who does not want children
to refuse their partner one of their deepest desires, especially if the
form of birth control is used without the consent or agreement of the
other spouse. It is difficult to produce a formulaic rule which would
apply to such a situation. However, I do not believe that is the spirit of
your question.

Abortion is a different story. The willful murder of a child while still
living within its mother’s womb is a sin. The taking of anyone’s life for
selfish reasons so that the parent will not have to deal with that child
is clearly a sin. Having made some hard and fast statements, it appears to
me that certain “grey areas” do exist. For example, one might ask whether
use of the morning after pill, which prevents the implanting of the
fertilized egg into the uterus, is sin. Is this abortion? Does the
preventing of the fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus amount to
murder of a baby? I believe this is not a simple question. Good-hearted
disciples may not agree on this question. One might say that disciples
would have no business using the morning after pill anyway, as this is
primarily used for one-night-stands gone bad. It is not that simple. Rape
victims often choose to use the morning after pill. Is this sin? I will
leave this up to the conscience of the individual reader.

Along a similar line, some have opposed the use of embryonic cells for
medical research on the grounds that this amounts to the killing of a
child. This, too, is a difficult question. In the process of performing in
vitro fertilization, a number of fertilized embryos are made when the eggs
and sperms are artificially joined in a test tube. This process has
brought the joy of parenthood to many thousands of those who could have
their own children by no other method. However, this method inevitably
leads to fertilized embryos which are not inserted into the potential
mother. Is it a sin to take these unimplanted embryos and simply allow
them to die? Even more controversial, is it ethical to take these unused
embryos and use them to produce human cells outside of a uterus for
medical research? It is the personal opinion of this writer that it is not
sin to discard the extra embryos which were only created in order to
produce life, but which cannot be used. Would one require that they be
implanted in another woman? Again, it is my personal opinion that to use
these embryos which will only be discarded later in order to do research
which could save thousands or even millions of lives is not a sin. Having
said this, I do not believe all followers of Jesus will agree with this
position. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14 teach that
humility and charity with regard to such issues is required.

Some would say that the use of RU 486, commonly known as the abortion
pill, is the same thing as the morning after pill. That is simple not
true. RU 486 is a hormonal drug which causes the fetus, which is already
growing in the mother’s womb, to be spontaneously aborted. Whatever one
thinks of the morning after pill, there are different ethical implications
to the prevention of pregnancy and the ending of pregnancy. The difference
between surgical and chemical abortion (RU 486) is similar to the
difference between a person poisoning or strangling their victim. The
result is the same.

As a scientist, I believe that in the future, other methods of preventing
pregnancy as well as methods of “unnaturally” beginning pregnancy will be
developed. These technologies will continue to raise difficult moral
questions for followers of Jesus. Some of these questions will be fairly
easy to answer (such as use of RU 486), but others will be very difficult,
and will require careful thought and grace amongst those who face these

John Oakes, PhD

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