Last December (2006) I made the trip down to Ocala Florida for the ordination of a good friend. On the way down I noticed several adds for “discount vasectomies.” The practical side of me immediately thought “I don’t want the word ‘discount’ associated with any surgical procedure–particularly not in certain areas!” After the ordination, as I was on my way back to Tennessee, I saw another bill-board this time with a somewhat different ad: “vasectomy reversal.”
I couldn’t help but see in these two roadside advertisements, juxtaposed as they were, a metaphor for our time–well, perhaps for human nature in any time.
The old adage voiced by Einstein that our knowledge would always out-pace our wisdom is similar to the observation that, for the most part, humans seek immediate self-gratification. The only problem is that often the very things that grant immediate gratification will be regretted, sometimes immediately, sometimes farther into the future. In fact, many of the “lifestyle” choices that are now considered par for the course in our society can hardly be considered “victimless” crimes (a concept that some apply far too broadly–and one that may only exist in theory). In such a context, it is hardly surprising that where there is one industry servicing a desire or need, there is another waiting in the wings to ameliorate any negative consequences or to offer a “reversal.”
Which brings me to my concern, one which I’ve mentioned on this blog before, namely the nearly complete submersion of Christians into popular values and ways of thinking. By sharing my concern about this, I am not sounding a call for a retreat from culture–fundamentalism has tried that and failed–as I believe all such sectarian efforts are doomed to failure. We cannot segregate ourselves from the world in which we live and expect to be effective in carrying out the great commission. At the same time however, there are too many areas of our lives, even the lives of those of us who worship at otherwise strict or downright legalistic churches, which have not been submitted to what, for lack of a better term, I call the “Gospel test.”
It is truly amazing how many of my assumptions–political, social etc…–I have had to put aside because in reflecting on the question of whether or not they met the Gospel test, the answer I came to after long reflection was a stark “no.” There are some issues that I’ve come to a “no” on that I truly believe are wrong for anyone. There are others where, at least for the moment I’ve concluded that they’re a “no” for me, but perhaps someone else could come to a different conclusion.
The struggle for the church is to be a place that encourages–indeed, inspires–people to put all aspects of their lives to this test while making sure not to make central things out of those that belong on the peripheral. I find more and more that my discomfort is inspired not so much by those who have come to a different decision than I have, but by those who have never found themselves asking the same questions.
Which brings me back to vasectomies. Since Anna and I have determined to use natural family planning, it probably comes as no surprise that we would have some discomfort with things like vasectomies. However, I don’t see contraception as intrinsically wrong or sinful. I would certainly think having a vasectomy would be OK if there were some medical problem that could result in Anna’s death were she to get pregnant, but short of that I don’t believe I would consider one. Our experience of natural family planning has only hardened this resolve–I simply see no need to walk in what I perceive to be an ethical gray area, and one that, until recently was condemned by the whole of the Church, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike (I admit I’m not familiar with the approach of the Eastern Orthodox to these issues).
But, some may ask, if there is nothing intrinsically wrong with either of them, what could possibly be wrong with a vasectomy or other means of artificial contraception at any time? Well, the short answer is that it’s too damned convenient. If I could unpack that a bit, and put to rest the assumption that any criticism of our modern sexuality must rest on a fear of “onanism” or some such, I would point out that, once someone knows their wife’s cycle, and she is familiar with her body, there is usually little benefit to resorting to artificial means to avoid conception–except of course, convenience. It’s difficult to put one’s libido in check to the ups and downs of hormonal cycles. But there is more to this abstinence than a simple desire to take a more disciplined route. There is reason behind this discipline, a reason that heightens the value of the marital relationship.
I know that many people today look at our forebears in the faith and see nothing but patriarchal male chauvinists. That side certainly existed. But there is another side to the tradition that has done it’s best to bridal the worst excesses of human self-centeredness. One example of this was the criticism voiced by Jeremy Taylor (among others) that a man who had sex with his wife while purposefully attempting to avoid conception was, in effect, making her a whore. In other words, he was using her for his own sexual gratification while simultaneously denying one of the deepest levels of her identity, i.e. being a woman who could conceive and bear children and be a mother, making him a father. We might look at this accusation and think it a bit odd–after all we might say, one probably wouldn’t care about the well-being or pleasure of a prostitute, but certainly one cares about those things with one’s wife. But that’s just the thing, in those days it wasn’t guaranteed that a husband would necessarily care about either of those for his wife (not that it’s really guaranteed today, we just like to think it would be). In other words, without the natural possibility of conception, it was believed that sex became nothing but a selfish act and turned the interaction from personal to instrumental. And what could be more instrumental than extra-marital sex in the modern world, enabled by the availability of and the blind trust in artificial means of birth control.
And here is where we come to the issue. It’s not that contraception in any form is bad in and of itself, it’s a matter first of motivation and secondly of what sort of people their use forms us to be. What do I mean by that? Primarily I am thinking of the ways in which contraception can help bolster a disordered sexuality. I am working from the definition of a disordered sexuality that I have extrapolated from several of Archbishop Rowan Williams’ essays. In summary, Williams maintains that a disordered sexuality or relationship is one that refuses to open oneself up to the reality of the other person. What does that mean? It means seeking to find fulfillment for oneself without the risk attendant with being truly open and available to the other person. In other words a person who habitually uses pornography or has one night stands, or visits prostitutes has a disordered sexuality because they are using another person (even a representation of that person) for their own gratification without honoring them or knowing them as a person. They could be with anyone, they never establish a relationship.
I have come to believe that the habits inculcated by the prevalence and unquestioning acceptance and use of contraceptions has helped to spread a disordered sexuality. Additionally, I believe that some forms of contraception in particular, make the transition from the prevention of conception to the active termination of pregnancy only too easy. For example, considering the power of habituation, could it be that the great prevalence and acceptability of “the pill” has paved the way for the acceptance of “the morning after pill?” We need to seriously consider the fact that, while there may be a large moral difference between the prevention of pregnancy and the eradication of a life from the womb, the habitual threshold is not that high–it’s simply moving from one pill to another…one before sex the other after.
Likewise, we have to answer the question of whether the unquestioning acceptance of vasectomies (as evidenced by the off hand way it is often spoken of by my peers, even at seminary and among the clergy) in fact serves to bolster the creation of a society that is unwelcoming toward children, and indeed, many who are “weak.” What sort of people do our choices form us into? In 1930 when the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion became the first protestant body to approve the use of contraception, it was stated that contraception was acceptable “when there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence.” One has to ask how many Christians today actually think through these questions enough to clearly feel any moral obligation before filling their prescriptions or buying a pack of condoms–in my experience very few…nor would I have done so if I hadn’t been forced to ask these questions by long-dead fathers in the faith.
I believe one has to grant that Bishop Charles Gore of Oxford was right when he claimed that the approval of contraception by the Anglican Church would have disastrous consequences (you can read what he said here), and one can only marvel at the similarity of language used to grant limited acceptance to abortion in our own day (the Lambeth Conference, like the Episcopal Church, condemns abortion for any reason of “mere convenience). Actions, like ideas, have consequences, and I have to wonder how much the seemingly morally unexamined decision of one man I know to have a vasectomy years ago (the first I’d heard of) affected the later decisions of his daughter to have (at least) two abortions (both of which were for reasons of convenience).
It may not be convenient, but given the past complicity of Protestants and other Christians with the sins of eugenics, we have no choice but to ask these questions: who do our actions make us or reveal us to be?
[note: the image above was found on the internet and evidently comes from a T-shirt given to patients at the first ever public vasectomy clinic. Notice part of the slogan: Funkist.]