Kendall has posted an interesting piece by Russell Shorto in the NY Times entitled Contra-Contraception. Mr. Shorto begins his piece with an interesting observation about the parallels between English society in the 18th century and American society post-1960:

The English writer Daniel Defoe is best remembered today for creating the ultimate escapist fantasy, “Robinson Crusoe,” but in 1727 he sent the British public into a scandalous fit with the publication of a nonfiction work called “Conjugal Lewdness: or, Matrimonial Whoredom.” After apparently being asked to tone down the title for a subsequent edition, Defoe came up with a new one “A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed” that only put a finer point on things. The book wasn’t a tease, however. It was a moralizing lecture. After the wanton years that followed the restoration of the monarchy, a time when both theaters and brothels multiplied, social conservatism rooted itself in the English bosom. Self-appointed Christian morality police roamed the land, bent on restricting not only homosexuality and prostitution but also what went on between husbands and wives.

It was this latter subject that Defoe chose to address. The sex act and sexual desire should not be separated from reproduction, he and others warned, else “a man may, in effect, make a whore of his own wife.” To highlight one type of then-current wickedness, Defoe gives a scene in which a young woman who is about to marry asks a friend for some “recipes.” “Why, you little Devil, you would not take Physick to kill the child?” the friend asks as she catches her drift. “No,” the young woman answers, “but there may be Things to prevent Conception; an’t there?” The friend is scandalized and argues that the two amount to the same thing, but the bride to be dismisses her: “I cannot understand your Niceties; I would not be with Child, that’s all; there’s no harm in that, I hope.” One prime objective of England’s Christian warriors in the 1720’s was to stamp out what Defoe called “the diabolical practice of attempting to prevent childbearing by physical preparations.”

The wheels of history have a tendency to roll back over the same ground. For the past 33 years — since, as they see it, the wanton era of the 1960’s culminated in the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 — American social conservatives have been on an unyielding campaign against abortion. But recently, as the conservative tide has continued to swell, this campaign has taken on a broader scope. Its true beginning point may not be Roe but Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 case that had the effect of legalizing contraception. “We see a direct connection between the practice of contraception and the practice of abortion,” says Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, an organization that has battled abortion for 27 years but that, like others, now has a larger mission. “The mind-set that invites a couple to use contraception is an antichild mind-set,” she told me. “So when a baby is conceived accidentally, the couple already have this negative attitude toward the child. Therefore seeking an abortion is a natural outcome. We oppose all forms of contraception.”

I find this discussion both interesting and pertinent. As a person about to be wed, my fiancee and I have found that the Christian community as a whole–at least the protestant side of it–has little or nothing to say to young couples about the appropriate use or the misuse of contraception. Indeed, one thing that continues to amaze me as a historian is the rapidity with which contraception became the unquestioned law of the land even amongst otherwise traditional Christian groups. Consider the timeline: in 1930 the Anglican Communion became the first important Christian body to break ranks with the until then unanimous moral principle that the use of contraception was in effect to stand in the way of nature and to attempt to exert one’s own will over the will of God. I had a good conversation with my future in-laws (both of whom were involved in the pro-life movement over the years) several months ago relating to contraception. During the conversation I made the observation that there’s not a great deal of difference between a woman choosing to take birth control pills and a woman deciding to take an open abortifact such as the “Morning after pill”1

my future father-in-law disagreed, noting that there is a world of moral difference between the murder of a human being and the prevention of conception.

While I have to grant that he is right, that there is a distinction between contraception and the continually multiplying types of abortion, I believe that in some cases (and am increasingly convinced that to a greater or lesser extent in all) contraception can in fact nurture the same type of habits and thinking, and that its use certainly makes the decision to abort seem less unnatural and difficult, particularly since they each encourage a de-linkage between the sexual act and child bearing. Additionally, each inculcates and continually feeds a mentality in which children are viewed more as curse than blessing.

Roman Catholics of course, coming from a more uniform (at least institutionally) Aristotelian/Thomistic perspective will argue that while there may be a distinction between the two, both actions are morally repugnant because destroying or subverting the potential for life is, for lack of a better term, murder before the fact, i.e. through external intervention one has stopped a natural process by which an individual would have come into existence and known life, thereby depriving said person of life.

I am not arguing from a Roman Catholic perspective however, and beyond acknowledging the admirable simplicity of Roman Catholic arguments for the seamless garment approach to respect for life, I will leave that there for the moment. What I would like to focus on and consider are the similarities between the language that was once used to consider the use of contraceptives and which is now employed–increasingly even in “conservative” Christian circles–to refer to abortion. An illustration of this can be found in the writings of Charles Gore who wrote about the push for the acceptance of contraception before and after the Lambeth Conference of 1930. Before the Lambeth conference, in an undated pamphlet entitled The Prevention of Conception, Commonly Called Birth Control Gore stated that the arguments for the acceptance of contraception were based upon propaganda:

DURING the present century there has been a very widespread propaganda of the ideas and methods of what is (very euphemistically) described as ‘Birth Control’-which in reality means the use of contrivances by which the sexual act can be separated off at will from its natural consequence in the production of offspring and the former can be indulged in without ‘risk’ of the latter.

In the early stages of this propaganda it was associated with the names of those who were called, or called themselves, atheists, and it was regarded with horror by the respectable and religious world. It is still, both on the Continent, in America, and at home, in the main in the hands of the declared foes of ‘institutional religion.’ But latterly there has been in one respect, at least in England, a conspicuous change. A large number of good and religious people, influenced by ‘hard cases’ within their experience, or generally by the known conditions of modern life, and the appalling number of ‘unwanted’ babies, have been driven to advocate these practices for the prevention of conception or to condone them, if they are used under severe restrictions. ‘The thing,’ they say, ‘ought not to be broadcast. Its public advertisement ought to be prohibited, and the clinics, or other public institutions, ought not to be allowed to give instruction in the prevention of conception; but it is not wrong in itself. There is, moreover, no prohibition of it in Holy Scripture. We can leave the discussion of its consequences, social, economical, or medical, to the sciences concerned, and meanwhile acquiesce in the use of these methods by good people under proper advice, where it is necessary.2

Gore was prescient in the sense that it was precisely these “hard cases” that led the 1930 Lambeth conference to OK the use of contraceptives. Yet, despite its approval, the language indicated that there must be limitations on its use:

Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.3

The obvious question arises as to why those people living in countries where they are least likely to feel a “moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood,” are those most likely to use contraception–usually for financial or lifestyle reasons. Indeed, if one were to look, one would find that, for the most part, the so-called first world where people have access to healthcare, abundant food and other resources, is also the region of the world where the birthrate is lowest. Some may argue that this is progress and that it is better to focus energy on fewer children. Of course that argument breaks down in those cases where children are completely absent from the equation. Of course, Gore foresaw the effects of the 1930 resolution as well as he saw it’s possibility beforehand:

This is no doubt a restricted admission, but it is a definite withdrawal of the quite general condemnation expressed in the Resolution of 1920, and I fear it will be the only part of the contribution of the recent Conference to the question of sexual relations which will be seriously effective. The classes of persons aimed at in Resolutions 13, 14, 16, and 18 are not those which pay any attention to what the Church says. The same must be said of the worldly-minded who use contraceptives from motives of selfishness, luxury, and convenience: such people know quite well that they are disregarding ‘the parsons,’ and have no intention of listening to them. But there is a large class which cannot brace itself to ignore the voice of the Church. They have been anxiously waiting to hear what the bishops will say. <strong>No doubt they feel that their cases are ‘hard cases.’ In different ways we are all apt to feel that. They think that they have a morally sound reason for avoiding parenthood, and that they cannot practise abstinence.</strong> Now they learn that a representative assembly of the chief authorities of the Anglican Communion has ‘removed the taboo’ on contraceptive methods, and no doubt their scruples will in many cases be silenced and the easier course taken.

I observe that the Bishop of London says that he agrees with the conclusion of another bishop who, ‘reading the resolutions as a whole, thinks the balance appears quite definitely on the side of strictness.’ I fear that this is practically the exact opposite of the truth. I think the clause which sanctions certain methods as a ‘regrettable necessity’ in certain cases (to use the bishop’s expression) is the only clause which is likely to have any considerable effect: and I cannot doubt that that effect will be disastrous4

Of course, people are still using “hard cases” to push for the blanket acceptance not only of birth control but of abortion. This is one reason why the cases that are put out front are those that people are most afraid to speak out against. What man wants to argue with a rape victim that the abortion of her child would be wrong? What about the single mother with multiple children and a husband who just died etc… Not only do many Christians fail to speak to these issues because they are emotionally charged and “hard cases,” but some Christian pastors have actually encouraged families to opt for abortion in difficult situations–how easily the acceptance of “hard cases” expands to encompass all cases, something Gore saw in 1930: we all see our own cases as hard ones in part because we crave affirmation and acceptance.

There have been some attempts to revisit the issue of contraception, including a book on the subject entitled Open Embrace in which a young protestant (now Eastern Orthodox) couple consider the issue, though they have revised their opinions somewhat since then. Most theologians recognize that the acceptance of contraception had a major hand to play in the sexual revolution as well, which is why some of the commentors on Kendall’s blog, have mentioned that the article he posted includes shades of misogyny and an anti-sexual attitude because some anti-contraceptive writings seem to denigrate the idea that someone would actually enjoy sex for sex’s sake. While I agree that some of them come of that way, I don’t think that it limits the power of their critique greatly. To paraphrase Jeremy Taylor on the subject, there are multiple purposes for marriage, and to close oneself completely off from one of them is to pervert the institution itself.

I’m sure Anna and I will continue to wrestle with this issue, but I’m glad we are, too many couples aren’t.

  1. the term “morning after pill” is misleading as it can refer to several separate things. One is the administration of a high dosage of normally prescribed contraceptives which prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. The other method is RU486, which causes a shedding of the uterine wall, removing any implanted egg and can be used up to 6 weeks after conception. []
  2. Charles Gore []
  3. Lambeth 1930, resolution 15 []
  4. Charles Gore, Lambeth on Contraceptives []