What Do Religions Say About Birth Control and Family Planning?

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What Do Religions Say About Birth Control and Family Planning?

World Religions. Photo Courtesy of the Harmony Institute

For many people, religion plays a significant role in influencing decisions about birth control use. The knowledge of contraception has been accounted for since early times. Early Islamic medical texts, ancient Jewish sources, and sacred Hindu scriptures all mention that herbal contraceptives could induce temporary sterility. Religious views on birth control vary widely, and even those religions that seem to be the most opposed to birth control have traditions that allow the use of contraceptives. How do certain religions view the issues of procreation and birth control? Family planning is embraced by religions across the spectrum as a moral good, a responsible choice, and a basic human right. The world’s religions recognize that family planning helps build strong families, protect the health of women and children, reduce child and spousal abuse, and prevent unintended pregnancies.

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Christianity and Evangelical Protestants

Christianity. Photo Courtesy of Microsoft Online

Christian notions about birth control stem from church teachings rather than scripture (since the Bible says little about contraception). So beliefs about birth control tend to be based on different Christian interpretations of marriage, sex, and family. Contraception was condemned by Christianity as a barrier to God’s procreative purpose of marriage until the start of the 20th century. Protestant theologians became more willing to accept that morality should come from the conscience of each person rather than from outside teachings.

Many Christians began to consider sex as a gift from God and a positive force that could strengthen the institution of marriage if couples did not feel threatened by the possibility of having children they could not support. The majority of Protestant denominations, theologians, and churches allow contraception and may even promote family planning as an important moral good. As with all issues of Christian morality, it stresses that members use birth control as dictated by their consciences.

Evangelical Protestants:

Opposition to birth control is growing in conservative Evangelical groups who rely more heavily on Catholic teachings, so birth control still remains controversial. Some oppose

all forms of contraception

short of

abstinence

while others allow

natural family planning

but oppose other methods. Some sects even support any form of birth control that prevents

conception

but are against any method that keeps a fertilized egg from

implanting

in the uterus. In 1954, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America stated that “to enable them to more thankfully receive God’s blessing and reward, a married couple should plan and govern their sexual relations so that any child born to their union will be desired both for itself and in relation to the time of its birth.”

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Protestants - Southern Baptists and United Methodists

Protestants. Photo Courtesy of Microsoft Online

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists, uphold the use of some methods of family planning by married couples. The denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission helps ensure that the church can find ways to apply biblical truth to moral, public policy, and religious liberty issues. This creates a biblical model as a framework through which Christians can evaluate the moral and religious liberty issues confronting families in modern culture. The church believes that the use of birth control, as a means to regulating the number of children a couple has and as a means to space out the ages of the children, is a moral decision that is left up to each couple. However, Southern Baptists stipulate that a couple uses a form of contraception that prevents conception.

The United Methodist Church:

Methodists, the nation’s second largest Protestant denomination, preach that every couple has the right and the duty prayerfully as well as the responsibility to control

conception

according to their circumstances. The United Methodist's Resolution on Responsible Parenthood dictates that as a means to uphold the sacred dimensions of personhood, all possible efforts should be made by the community and parents to ensure that every child enters the world with a healthy body and is born into an environment prepared to help the child to reach his/her fullest potential. That's why Methodists support public funding and participation in family planning services.

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Judaism

Judaism. Photo Courtesy of Microsoft Online

Birth control views vary among the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform branches of Judaism. The Torah promotes prolific childbirth; Orthodox rabbis believe that being fruitful and multiplying is a male duty. But many rabbis allow birth control in cases where pregnancy would seriously harm the woman. The book of Genesis makes a reference when during intercourse Onan "spilled his seed on the ground" (withdrawal). This was "evil in the sight of the Lord" and was punished by Onan's death. Judaism uses this passage to determine approved contraceptive methods. Because the birth control pill does not result in sterility and doesn't prevent semen from traveling its normal route, it and other forms of hormonal contraception are preferred over barrier methods to prevent the “spilling of seed.”

Jewish law considers children a blessing. So a man may not abstain from procreation or get sterilized until he has fathered a child. Conservative and Reform Jews feel that the benefits of birth control (female health, family stability, or disease prevention) uphold the commandment to "choose life" more strongly than if they violate the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply."

The Jewish laws of niddah (family purity) do not allow a woman to have sex during her period. If an Orthodox Jewish woman wants to use contraception, she may choose a method that decreases the chances for additional bleeding. Judaism also suggests that brides use the combination pill. Due to niddah, Jewish brides can try to regulate their periods before their wedding to lower the chances of having it on their wedding day. That is because after the marriage ceremony, Jewish newlyweds are supposed to retire to a private room for time alone, known as Yichud. Yichud allows for the consummation of the marriage and is a requirement under Orthodox Jewish law.

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Hinduism

Statue of Hindu Dieties. Photo Courtesy of Allaahuakbar

Hinduism encourages procreation within marriage, yet there is no opposition against contraception. Most Hindus accept that there is a duty to have a family during that stage of one’s life. So they are unlikely to use birth control to avoid having children altogether.

Traditional Hindu texts praise large families (which was normal in ancient times). Yet, Hindu scriptures that applaud small families also exist which emphasize the development of a positive social conscience. So family planning is seen as an ethical good. The Upanishads (texts delineating key Hindu concepts) describe birth control methods, and some Hindu scriptures contain advice on what a couple should do to promote conception (thus providing a type of contraceptive advice).

Contraception views vary widely among Hindu scholars. Although Gandhi advocated abstinence as a form of birth control, Radhakrishnan (a key Indian philosopher) and Tagore (the most prolific writer in modern Indian literature) encouraged the use of artificial contraceptive methods. Arguments in favor of birth control are drawn from the moral teachings of Hinduism. The Dharma (doctrine of the religious and moral codes of Hindus) emphasizes the need to act for the sake of the good of the world. Some Hindus, therefore, believe that producing more children than one or the environment can support goes against this Hindu code. Although fertility is important, conceiving more children than can be supported is treated as violating the Ahimsa (nonviolent rule of conduct).

In 1971, abortion was legalized in India, and there has very rarely been any objections to it. India has a high population, so discussion about contraception focuses more on overpopulation rather than moral or personal ethics. India was the first nation to establish a governmental population strategy based on birth control measures.

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Islam

Islamic Prayer. Photo Courtesy of Antonio Melina/ABr. 01.Dec.2003

Widespread variation on contraception attitudes can be found in the Islamic faith. Because contraception is not expressly prohibited in the Qur’an, many Muslim scholars approve of family planning. Yet, some also believe that birth control is forbidden as the Qur’an contains the command to “procreate and abound in number.” These scholars argue that only God can decide the number of children that a couple will have.

Early Sunni Muslim literature discusses various contraceptive methods, and reveals that the practice of azl (withdrawal) is morally acceptable since it was practiced by the prophet Muhammed. Sunni doctrine in favor of contraception suggests that that any contraceptive that does not produce sterility is morally the same as azl and is therefore accepted.

Despite these varying views, Islam emphasizes that procreation within the family is a religious duty, so there is unanimous rejection of sterilization and abortion. Most Islamic traditions will permit the use of birth control where maternal health is an issue or where the well-being of the family may be compromised. The Islamic faith prioritizes human life, so being able to space out births allows a mother ample time to care for each child. In Shia Islamic countries, contraception is not only taught to married couples, but is encouraged to youngsters as well. Birth control is supported for economic reasons; it helps protect the mother’s life and provide for her children. Muslims also believe that contraception helps to preserve the attractiveness of the wife, thereby increasing the enjoyment of the marriage. For Muslim women, family planning is key to their empowerment. The Islamic faith allows a lot of latitude in interpretation, which is reflected by the various differences in family planning policies by distinct Muslim groups and countries.

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Taoism, Confucianism and Sikhism

Sikh "Anand Karaj" Wedding Ceremony. Photo (C) 2005 Ashish/CC Attribution 2.0

Evidence of contraception goes back thousands of years in China. Chinese religions emphasize the importance of balance and harmony in the individual, the family, and society. Since having too many children can upset this balance, family planning has been a valued part of human sexuality in both Taoism and Confucianism. In the Chinese religions, sex and sexual pleasure are esteemed and celebrated along with the need for moderation. Moderation is also considered a virtue in reproduction. Given this, there is little religious resistance to birth control, and abortion is also allowed.

In general, Taoists are not against contraception. Birth control is rationalized by the negative impacts that could result from unwanted pregnancies. Confucians, unlike Taoists, put more focus on procreation than on the joy and art of sex. Confucians are not as open to birth control as they are more sensitive to any restriction on their God-given right to procreate. However, they still believe that a husband and wife have an obligation to practice family planning.

Sikhism:

Nothing in Sikh scripture condemns the

use of birth control

. Sensible family planning is promoted by the community. The couple decides how many children they want and can support, whether or not to use contraception, and the type of birth control to use. Contraception decisions are centered on the needs of the family. Although Sikhs have no objection to birth control, they are not allowed to use it as a way to avoid a pregnancy resulting from adulterous behavior.

Many Sikhs use contraception; yet, to some, birth control is associated with lust and seen as disruptive to the natural cycle of procreation. There is also no religious mandate on abortion. Some don't support it because they believe the fetus has a soul. But this decision is considered a personal choice.

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Buddhism

Buddhism. Photo Courtesy of Microsoft Online

In Buddhism, there is no established doctrine about contraception. Traditional Buddhist teaching favors fertility over birth control, so some are reluctant to tamper with the natural development of life. A Buddhist may accept all contraceptive methods but with different degrees of hesitation. The worst of all is abortion or ‘killing a human to be.’

In Buddhism, wholesomeness is the main criterion for moral judgment. A notion related to this is the Buddhism beliefs about the duty of the parent. Buddhism preaches the importance of humans to take care of their children, so they can grow up with a good quality of life. Buddhist teachings, therefore, support appropriate family planning when people feel that it would be too much of a burden on themselves or their environment to have more children. Birth control allows couples to plan to have a certain number of children and prevent an excessive number of pregnancies. Buddhists believe that family planning should be allowed and that a good government should provide those services.

Birth control pills and condoms are more acceptable methods, with more Buddhists preferring condoms. According to Mechai Viravaidya, a politician and activist in Thailand, "the Buddhist scriptures say that many births cause suffering, so Buddhism is not against family planning. And we even ended up with monks sprinkling holy water on pills and condoms for the sanctity of the family before shipments went out into the villages." He urges Buddhists to “not be embarrassed by a condom. It's just from a rubber tree, like a tennis ball. If you're embarrassed by a condom, you must be more embarrassed by the tennis ball. There's more rubber in it. You could use it as a balloon, as a tourniquet for snake bites and deep cuts and use the ring of the condom as a hair band. What a wonderful product."

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Mormonism

Salt Lake Temple - Operated by The Church of LDS. Photo (C) 2006 Ricardo630/CC Attribution ShareAlike 2.5

Birth control

is not specifically prohibited by the Church of Latter-day Saints. The Church believes that the decision whether or not to

use contraception

is one that should be shared by husband, wife, and God. Spouses are encouraged to help one another as equals. Raising children is a sacred task that draws couples nearer to God. According to the LDS Church, children are one of the greatest blessings in life, and their birth into loving and nurturing families is central to God's purposes for humanity. When husband and wife are physically able, they have the privilege and responsibility to bring children into the world and nurture them. The church does not provide specific directions as far as the number and spacing of children, including contraceptive use in family planning.

While many statements exist condemning contraception, there is no public statement from any apostle positively recommending its use. All Church leaders preach the same message: The use of birth control by LDS is contrary to the will of God, so the contraceptive use is not specifically encouraged. The text in the LDS General Handbook leaves it up to the married couple to choose. After careful thought and prayer, if a couple has decided that they should not have children at this time, birth control is acceptable (not just abstinence), since the Church recognizes that sexual relations have an important place in expressing and demonstrating the bond of love.

Research shows that the large family size among Mormons is not due to their reluctance to use contraception; in fact, Mormons are just as likely to use modern birth control methods as the rest of the nation. The difference may be that contraceptives are either not used until after child rearing has occurred or are used less often, so that Mormons can reach their desired larger-size family.

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Roman Catholicism and Presbyterians

Catholicism. Photo Courtesy of Microsoft Online

The Roman Catholic Church forbids sex outside marriage, so its teachings about contraception should be understood within the context of a husband and wife. Catholicism is the only major faith in the United States that forbids the use of contraception. The Church teaches that sex must be both unitive and procreative, so its against all chemical and barrier methods of birth control and considers them morally unacceptable -- claiming artificial birth control methods impede the procreative aspect of sex, making contraception sinful.

Natural family planning such as periodic abstinence is the only contraceptive method sanctioned by the Church. The catechism of the Catholic Church claims sex has a twofold purpose: "the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life (2363)." Still, most Catholics disagree with the prohibition of birth control; in fact, surveys find that approximately 90% of sexually active Catholic women of childbearing age use a birth control method forbidden by the church.

The Presbyterian Church:

Presbyterianism fully promotes equal access to

birth control options

. In fact, the Presbyterian Church has been advocating for legislation that would require insurance companies to cover the costs of birth control, asserting that contraceptive services are part of basic health care and warned that

unintended pregnancies

can lead to higher rates of infant mortality and maternal morbidity, and threaten the economic viability of families. Presbyterians have been urging Congress and the president to include comprehensive family planning in any proposal for national health care.

Sources:

Blumenthal (2007). Overcoming Cultural Barriers in Contraceptive Care. Baylor College of Medicine.

Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (2006) Religious Views on Contraception. Call to Justice.

Thomas (2007) Family Life. The Light Planet.

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