Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Making babies

I’ve been doing some pretty serious thinking about the arguments for and against birth control for some months now. This is the current result of that thinking. I’ve tried to write it with grace and I hope that no one will be offended. I did find, however, that it is not possible to write about controlling birth without mentioning how babies get made. If this bothers you, please read no further. :)

A few hundred years ago, a normal family might have had eight, nine, even thirteen children. They simply came as God gave them…and they often went home to be with him early in their lives. Since then, medical science has given us the ability to save the lives of many children who would have died. It has also given us the ability to see that they never live at all.

This ability has created a moral quandary for Christians. Do we make use of the knowledge we now have, choosing the size of our families as we desire, or do we allow God to give us children as he sees fit?

“It’s not God giving you all those children, you know, it is just nature running her course.” This is a standard objection raised when one dares to suggest “letting God plan our family.” I don’t find it very compelling, however, as it is God who created the natural order of things, including this fact: sex leads to babies. Since he has made it clear that sex within marriage is an abundant good, not to be avoided under normal circumstances, we must assume that his plan is for us to have babies…thus “nature runs her course” with his blessing and guidance.*

Birth control as commonly practiced involves some barrier between the act of sexual union and the creation of a new life. This could be an unnatural hormonal barrier, causing eggs not to be released; a chemical barrier, killing sperm before they reach the egg; a physical barrier, placing a blockade in the way of the sperm; or a combination of these.

I have found that these barrier methods seem to erect a barrier in my heart as well…something that asks me “why not accept with joy that life that this act is meant to create?” And so I am not easy in mind or heart while barring life from love.

The Catholics have it right on this point, I believe. Life is inextricably tied to the act of love. It should not be separated, and cannot be without a loss of something precious in the act itself. Those who have never known sex without birth control probably can’t know the loss, having never known the fullness. I have known both, and know that there is great, glorious, expansive joy in making love with the intent for children.

Having said this, I think that the Catholics have made a rather crucial logical error in their acceptance of “Natural Family Planning”. The claim is that this method is natural, working with the body’s fertility cycle instead of overruling it entirely. It requires sacrifice on the part of the couple, emphasizing the truth that sex cannot be taken lightly, simply as a recreational activity. Sex has natural results (pregnancy) and if pregnancy is not welcomed, sex cannot be either, at least during periods of fertility. This is all true, but I think it misses the point.

Ultimately, both barrier methods and NFP come down to the same thing: deciding not to welcome children at that particular time. Both take the issue of children out of the hands of God, with the parents choosing to take on the responsibility of deciding when the family should grow. The difference in method is real, and of the two choices, NFP is certainly more natural, working with the woman’s body instead of against. But it still places family planning into the hands of the parents, instead of those which formed us.

Our Father in heaven knows us. He knows our needs, our desires, our fears, and our joys. He knows what is best for us. We claim to believe this, and in every other area it is considered virtue to “leave it in God’s hands.” Why then would it be virtue to take this one crucial part of life in our own?

One compelling argument for birth control of any form is that of stewardship. God has given us finite resources, we say, and so we must be careful not to stretch those resources too thin by having too many children. This is compelling because it is hard to see where the money for the clothing, the extra bedroom, and the piano lessons will come from. Yet when Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he said that we should pray “Give us this day our daily bread.” We are not to ask for a comprehensive budget that makes sense for the year…we are to ask only for our daily bread and trust that he will provide for our needs. And so where is our trust? Has he not carried you thus far? Do you think he’ll drop you if he’s carrying you and another child? The arguments for stewardship of what God has given seem inconsistent with choosing to refuse another gift.

Another aspect of stewardship, which I find particularly strong right now, is that of stewardship of the body. The female body needs time to recover from pregnancy and labor and birth. It needs time to heal, time to regenerate, time to lose those extra twenty pounds (at least, we think we need that last one!) These are real needs…and God has provided for them without our intervention. If a mother feeds her child in the way God intended (breastfeeding), then infertility for a time is unavoidable. This time is of different lengths in different women and at different times. Some will find themselves infertile for over a year, some six months, and some as few as two. It is tempting to say that two months is too short a time period…heaven knows I think that it is…but God knows your body better than you do. And his plans are for good, not for ill.

Choosing to bar life from the marriage bed, no matter the method, chooses to see only part of God’s plan for love. It limits both the love of the couple by refusing to share it with others, and limits their acceptance of God’s love in the form of the gifts he would give. Alternatively, embracing life opens our hearts for the fullness of our love for each other, and the opportunity for joy in the family that God, in his infinite love, allows us to create.

* The argument in outline runs something like this:
1) God created the natural order of things.
2) The natural order of things is that sex leads to babies.
3) Sex is a good thing, not to be avoided.
4) Therefore babies must also be a good thing.


Amber said...

Emily, thanks for posting this and telling me about it. It is something I've thought a lot about as well. I ended up concluding through private judgement (rather than by following any particular teaching) that we could use NFP largely because of these two reasons. First, I believe that God gave us the ability to know when we are fertile so that we can join him in bringing life into this world, and as a way of honoring our free will. When using NFP, I think that the couple needs to be very careful that they aren't just listening to their own voices and motivations, but seriously, thoughtfully, and prayerfully listening for God's will in their NFP practice. If the couple feels that God's will is for them to try for another child, then they should of course do so, no matter what their personal concerns might be. Without that call, I think that using the fertility signs given to us is still being in alignment with God's will for us.

This is very interesting to think about, and it is making me want to learn more about the Catholic Church's teaching on NFP and the logic behind it. It isn't something I've spent much time on, since my private judgement and Church teaching ended up in the same place. (Disclaimer for anyone other than Emily reading this: I am not Catholic, just in case anyone who knows me is confused (and yes, this is Amber, as in Matt's wife (wow, how many parens can I use?)) - I'm just very interested in the Church's teachings)

Amber said...

BTW, I also meant to mention... have you ever seen the term "QuiverFull"? If you haven't, you might want to take a look at and/or do a search on it. Just some more food for thought!