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Birth Control and the Bible

August 3, 2011

I hate it when people claim to be rational about things but are not.  I also hate it when people blindly believe in things which are obviously wrong.  Naturally, this brings me to the Catholic Church!  Catholics denounce the use of birth control, claiming that the bible is against it.  This is a great area to apply some logic and reasoning, so here goes.

My sources for this blog post come from the following web pages:

It’s History, Dummy

One argument for the banning of birth control is historical.  That, somehow, because that’s the way it’s always been that’s the way it should be.  Of course, that’s complete hogwash.  Just because we used the horse and buggy for hundreds or thousands of years does not mean that automobiles are a terrible idea.  Just because we used cotton and linen in our history doesn’t mean that rayon should be banned.

This logical fallacy is an “appeal to tradition“.

The Laws of Nature

Another argument against birth control is that it is against nature.  They say that it is a law of nature to procreate, and therefore to not procreate is somehow against the laws of nature.  It’s interesting that this argument is almost never substantiated with facts, research, or anything else.  It’s usually presented as an innate truth, not as the opinion that it is.

To show the absurdity of this argument it is useful to draw a parallel in the real nature.  The leader of a pride of lions will frequently kill and eat the young male cubs before they have a chance to grow up and challenge the leader for dominance.  When people express their horror at this behavior the response is usually, “that’s just the way nature works”.

I don’t see people killing and eating their young.  Why is that?  It is, after all, a law of nature!  Clearly we don’t choose to follow all laws of nature.  It seems silly for us to proclaim the sanctity of one law of nature while not following the others.  So clearly, this isn’t a great argument for the banning of birth control.

Genesis 38:8-11

The Readers Digest version of this is that a husband died, and God commanded his brother to get the widow pregnant.  The brother did the deed, but pulled out at the last minute.  Because he “spilled his seed on the ground”, God killed the brother.  This passage is used as an example of how God doesn’t want our “seed” to go unused and therefore we should not use birth control.

Deuteronomy 25:7-10 indicates that it is the custom for a man to marry his brothers wife (if he dies).

The Bible doesn’t say what should happen if the woman doesn’t want to have kids by the brother.  Or what if the brother already has a wife?  Today we would call that rape or bigamy.  God “commanded” it, yet we don’t condone either of these in today’s society.  What makes these commandments any different than not “spilling seed”?  Nothing.

Genesis 1:27-28

This is the main “be fruitful and multiply” passage.  It also says that man should “fill the earth and subdue it”.  Mission accomplished.  Next mission please!

There are so many things in the Bible that we don’t take seriously today because we feel that the culture at the time is different than what we have today.  The population around the time of Christ (and the writing of Genesis) is estimated to be about 200 million people.  Today we have almost 7 billion people.  What could be more of a cultural change than to increase the population by 6+ billion people?  I would argue that this commandment no longer applies.

The phrase “be fruitful and multiply” is used to convince people that using birth control somehow violates this instruction from God.   That using contraceptives prevents people from being fruitful and therefore is against God.   What if a couple has 20 children, and then uses birth control?  Nobody would ever claim that they were not fruitful!

What about 2 kids?  Our measure of fruitfulness is subjective at best, and the Bible offers no objective numbers.  Maybe our fruitfulness depends on the individual/couple.  While one couple may need 4 kids to be fruitful, another couple might be fruitful with 1 child.  Maybe in today’s culture, with mostly city dwellers, our threshold for fruitfulness is much lower than it was 2000 years ago when there were not as many people, the mortality rate was much higher, and the average life span was almost a third of what it is today!

Devil’s Advocate

So, let’s say that the commandment to not “spill seed” is valid today.  Just for the sake of argument.  What then?

A normal male will produce millions of new sperm every day!  If those are not, um, used then they will die and be reabsorbed into his body.  Does this mean that a man is guilty of a mortal sin several millions of times a day?  After all, by not using his sperm he is preventing a life from forming.

A woman ovulates once a month.  If she does not get pregnant at that time, is she guilty of “spilling her seed”?   She is born with approximately 400,000 eggs in her ovaries.  If she only has 100 children in her lifetime, is she guilty of “killing” 399,900 unborn children?

Catholics claim that using birth control violates God’s laws because it prevents a conception that could have been.  What about the phrase, “Not tonight, I have a headache”?  Is abstinence a mortal sin?  Some say that babysitting is the best form of birth control ever, so is that a sin?

Children Are A Gift From God

The last halfway coherent argument made for the banning of birth control is that children are a gift from God, and should be valued as such.  That we shouldn’t refuse a gift from God.

Of course, Deuteronomy 21 and Exodus 21 say that we’re allowed to stone our misbehaving children to death.  Proverbs 30:17 says that kids who mock their parents will have their eyes plucked out by ravens and eaten by eagles.  Genesis 22 talks about when God instructed Abraham to kill is son.  Exodus 12 is about when God killed the first born in every household in Egypt.  And Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 talk about how one day we will eat our children.

There are numerous examples of how the early Biblical society was allowed to murder the children, in many cases by direct instruction from God.  We cannot claim that spilling seed is a moral sin, yet stoning our children is not.  There is a contradiction here.

Conclusion

The biblical case for banning birth control is weak at best.  It consists of cherry-picking bits and pieces from here and there in an attempt to justify the lame theology of the Catholic Church.

But there is a bigger lesson to be learned here.  Most of us are not Catholic, so we don’t believe in the banning of birth control anyway.  The lesson here is to recognize the parallels with other “sins”.   There are many other things that Christian’s (not just the Catholics) are against, but their justification is similarly cherry-picked verses and undefinable “laws of nature”.  The two that come to mind are abortion and homosexuality.

Sometimes we need to re-evaluate our beliefs by doing actual research into the reasoning behind them.  If the reasoning is not sound then maybe it’s time to change our beliefs.

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6 comments

  1. Do you feel birth control should be used and why/why not? This was a big topic in my Philosophy class and both sides were argued pretty well — was just curious.


  2. There is a lot of ways to answer that question, but let’s consider a married couple in a monogamous relationship but for whatever reason they shouldn’t have (more) kids. Maybe it is a health reason, or economic, or whatever. Either they “go without” or they use birth control. Birth control in this scenario is the preferred way, in my opinion.

    Many people who oppose birth control think it will promote promiscuity in teens. The problem is that the alternative, abstinence-only education, has been a failure. It did little or nothing to prevent teen pregnancy or promiscuity. Since the teens are going to do it anyway, wouldn’t it be best to educate them about not only birth control, but STD’s, safer sex practices, and how to avoid mental and physical complications?

    It seems to me that many people argue this issue on moral ground, but the practicalities of it really only shows one viable solution: Birth control. At least, that’s my opinion.


    • I would have to agree with you. Our debates in Philosophy were more pertaining to abortion, at what time the fetus is considered a person, things of that nature. Of course, birth control was brought up a few times, but sparingly.

      Something I found interesting was the Catholic Church’s view on when a fetus becomes human. Apparently is was originally stated (by whom nobody knows, probably arbitrarily) that from conception, it takes a baby boy 40 days to become a viable human life and 80 days for a baby girl to become a viable human life. The law was originally established in the 16th century; it was later retracted and is no longer in place.


      • From a practical perspective, for Catholics conception occurs at intercourse– *before* fertilization of the egg. Ok, that’s not what they say but it is how they act. If the life started at fertilization then they wouldn’t have such an issue with birth control. I say a “practical perspective” because although the words they use are different, the effect on how you live your life is the same.

        Again, from a practical perspective rather than an ideological or theological perspective, the Catholic Church views birth control as equivalent to abortion (a moral sin, etc.) because it prevents a life that could have been.

        This apparently grey line (where life begins at intercourse) is interesting. According to Catholics, a baby born without intercourse, using In Vitro Fertilization, has somehow missed out on the act of copulation and has therefore been deprived of something. Think about that for a moment. Your unfertilized and unborn kid is a third participant in “the act”. If I took that idea seriously I too would be creeped out forever and also promote abstinence only education!

        This whole “life begins in the womb” thing is causing other unintended side effects that are going to become huge issues soon. Already there are laws in some states (and more proposed) that can put a mother who miscarries in jail for homicide. If the mother slips and falls on the ice and miscarries, the mother could be punished. But what about poor and malnourished mothers? Or mothers without health care? They could be liable too. The legal mess of proving intent of murder or negligent homicide is going to be crazy.

        Taken to the extreme, will “not impregnating your wife” be punishable by a life sentence? It’s not an inconceivable future. Similar things have happened in history.


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