Is Contraception Christian?

Is Contraception a Christian Technology?There’s no doubt that birth control is being discussed more now than since the Pill was released in the 60s. However, in Christian circles the question of contraception has tended to center around the ends of family planning: is it permissible for Christians to plan how many children to have, or should we simply let “God be in control”? Should Christians have big families or small families? Is it licit for Christians to have sex within marriage without hoping to achieve pregnancy?

While these conversations are ones that all Christians should have, they are not the questions I want to discuss here. I would like to start a conversation about the means of family planning. Assuming that it is valid for Christians to plan their families and to enjoy marital intercourse without necessarily hoping or expecting to achieve pregnancy (some big assumptions, to be sure), is contraception a licit means of family planning for Christians?

Another way of saying all of this is, is contraception a Christian technology? The first principle of media ecology is that technology is not “neutral,” simply to be used in a way that is morally right or wrong. Rather, the medium is in fact the message – every new technology is born out of a specific worldview and promotes a specific worldview. As Neil Postman aptly stated, “technology is ideology.” So the question to be asked is, what worldview is accepted and promoted by contraception, and is it consistent and compatible with Christianity? My answer, as may be expected, is “no” – but we will examine this conclusion momentarily.

Before beginning, some definitions are in order. By “Christian worldview” I mean a worldview that upholds four things: the dignity of human beings as creatures who are a union of body and soul and are image bearers of God; marriage as a glorious and mysterious relationship that reflects the relationship of Christ and the Church; sexuality and sex within marriage as good and as a way that humans image God; and children as blessings from God who are intricately created and loved by Him. Also, I do take for granted the presupposition that new human life begins at conception.

By contraception I mean anything artificial or man-made that is introduced into one’s body or into the sexual act itself that has as its purpose inhibiting pregnancy. This includes all forms of hormonal birth control (birth control pills, patches, shots, to name a few), barrier methods (condoms, diaphragms, IUDs, spermicides, etc), and other forms of birth control that don’t fit nicely into a category, such as surgical sterilization.

You will notice that I do not include natural methods of family planning in this list. Natural methods of family planning are methods that discern the naturally occurring cycles of fertility and infertility within a given couple and utilize this information to avoid, space, or achieve pregnancy. It is my stance that these methods of family planning are compatible with a Christian worldview, and it is the difference between the worldview of artificial contraception and that of “natural family planning” that I hope to elucidate in this article.

One final disclaimer: it is not my intention to accuse, confront, or shame anyone who may be using or promoting artificial means of contraception. My general understanding about the issue is that contemporary Christians, for the most part, have never been introduced to these concepts before and therefore are not voluntarily choosing something that may be morally questionable. My desire with this article is not to accuse but rather to start a conversation about an issue that I believe to be one of the most serious issues of our time.

That being said, let’s begin.

What Hormonal Contraception Says About Women

We can start with an examination of hormonal birth control. Besides the fact that many contraceptives in this category have abortive effects and therefore can lead to the death of newly conceived humans (a fact that many Christians are wholly unaware of), there are other serious concerns for Christians considering hormonal contraceptives. First of all, what are birth control pills/patches/shots actually doing?

Focusing on birth controls that target women (since most hormonal methods do), hormonal birth control works by altering the makeup of the female reproductive system in order to prevent ovulation from occurring and/or to prevent sperm from reaching a released egg. (Or, in the case of some methods, to terminate an early pregnancy, which is abortion.) We could get into the science of all of this, but for our purposes here it is enough to say that (most) hormonal contraceptives prevent pregnancy by causing women to not experience ovulation.

Now, women of reproductive age who naturally do not ovulate (excluding women who are pregnant) are classified as “anovulatory” and this can be a somewhat serious condition that requires medical attention.

So in other words, hormonal birth control prevents pregnancy by intentionally causing a woman’s body to dysfunction. Even if a woman does not experience external side effects from hormonal birth control, what is happening inside her body is unhealthy and destructive.

To say it one more time, and this time with more Christian language: hormonal birth control works by taking a female body that is functioning the way God designed it to function and intentionally obstructs this design.

What does this kind of technology accept and promote as true about women and about the female body? At best, it proclaims that the design of the female body is arbitrary and therefore it doesn’t matter if we change it to meet our ends. But is this something that we as Christians can affirm, we who believe that God created human beings – body and all – and proclaimed that his creation was “very good”? Can we at once affirm the blessing of God on married, bodily love, while at the same time denying the goodness of the female body as he created it? There is a contradiction here that is all too often overlooked.

Think about it this way. We intuitively understand that if a woman tries to control her weight in a way that is unhealthy, such as an eating disorder, that she most likely does not have a firm grasp on her beauty, dignity, and identity as a daughter of God or else that there is some other aspect of her life that seems to be spiraling out of her control. And we rightly jump to the defense of a woman in this situation, offering her our love, our help, our prayers, and our support to help her approach whatever questions or sorrows she possesses in a way that is affirming of her identity as a beloved daughter of God. We understand that the harm that she is doing to her body in this situation is not arbitrary, but is intensely significant because her body is inseparable from who she is, from who God designed her to be.

Now, for some reason when the question of birth control is brought into play, we accept an entirely different set of rules. Not only is the harm to a woman’s body that is wrought by hormonal birth control accepted, it is in fact promoted, encouraged, and even hailed as a symbol of women’s rights. Many husbands take a completely “hands off” approach to the question of birth control, putting all of the responsibility onto the woman to find an effective method of avoiding pregnancy, regardless of if that means harming her own body in the process.

But where the example of hormonal birth control differs from that of an eating disorder, is that the acceptance of hormonal birth control does not only make a declaration regarding the specific woman in question. Hormonal birth control declares that the entire female reproductive system of ovaries and uteruses and menstruation and ovulation is either arbitrary, insignificant, or even a result of the Fall; a way of thinking about female anatomy that I have heard many Christians promote.

Now I do have some things to say regarding the issue of female anatomy being a result of the Fall, but I will get to that when I talk about natural systems of family planning. For now, the point I want to make is that the technology of hormonal birth control accepts and promotes the view that the design of the female reproductive system – that is, one of the biological processes that make certain human beings female rather than male – is arbitrary at best or a nuisance at worst. This is a view that I consider to be completely at odds with a Christian anthropology: an anthropology that affirms the dignity of women and declares that the body is good and essential to our humanness.

A common objection people like to make at this point is that people use medicine to cure all kinds of health problems, so why is birth control any different? But this is precisely what I am trying to emphasize: the presupposition here is that the female reproductive system is a “problem” that needs a “cure.” But unlike medicine, which attempts to heal the body, birth control obstructs the natural functioning of the body. Even when birth control is used for medicinal purposes (irregular cycles, menstrual cramping, etc), it still “works” by covering up the symptoms of disease rather than finding a true cure.

What Hormonal Contraception Says About Children

Besides the presuppositions about women that are accepted and promoted through hormonal contraceptives, there are also presuppositions about children at play here. Or rather, presuppositions about pregnancy. The idea behind “birth control pills as medicine” is that pregnancy is a disease that must be cured, in many cases, at all costs. As we’ve already seen, even the destruction or total elimination of a woman’s reproductive organs can be considered less serious than “contracting” a pregnancy. This mindset towards pregnancy is evident by the fear and/or repulsion so many Christian couples have at the idea of getting pregnant, especially in the early years of marriage.

This begs the question for Christians: is pregnancy something negative? Is pregnancy to be avoided in general? Should we be willing to obstruct our bodies – whether through hormones or through surgery – in order to ensure that we don’t become pregnant?

Everywhere throughout Scripture that fertility, pregnancy, and children are referred to, it is in the context of God’s blessing and covenant. When God creates the world and the first man and woman, he blesses them and their love with fruitfulness (Genesis 1:28), and this pattern continues throughout Scripture (Genesis 9:1, Exodus 23:26, Deuteronomy 7:14, Deuteronomy 28:11, Psalm 127:3-5, Psalm 128:3, to name a few references). Martin Luther goes so far as to point out that everywhere in Scripture the blessing of God is associated with fertility, and the wrath of God is associated with infertility.

According to Luther:

. . . fertility was regarded as an extraordinary blessing and a special gift of God, as is clear from Deut. 28:4, where Moses numbers fertility among the blessings. “There will not be a barren woman among you,” he says (cf. Ex.23:26). We do not regard this so highly today. Although we like and desire it in cattle, yet in the human race there are few who regard a woman’s fertility as a blessing. Indeed, there are many who have an aversion for it and regard sterility as a special blessing…. The saintly fathers did not feel like this at all; for they acknowledged a fruitful wife as a special blessing of God and, on the other hand, regarded sterility as a curse. And this judgment flowed from the Word of God in Gen. 1:28, where He said: “Be fruitful and multiply.” From this they understood that children are a gift of God.

(Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis Chs 26-30, Luther’s Works, vol. 5)

Harsh words from Luther, and I repeat them with utmost sensitivity, as someone who personally struggles with infertility. But as someone in this category, I resonate with the truth of his statement – infertility is a result of the Fall, it is the result of bodies not working the way they are meant to work. And the desire for infertility is also one that is influenced by principalities that are not at one with the mind of God – a worldview which states that children are inconveniences, nuisances, undesirable, or to use this word again, arbitrary, rather than blessings from God, image bearers of the Divine Nature, the only things that are truly “new” in all of creation, and the ultimate manifestation of love and unity between husband and wife.

But I will talk about children more in a bit. For now, let us move on to a discussion of barriers.

According to Barrier Methods, the Body is Irrelevant

Quite frankly, many Christians actually see the harmful effects and presuppositions of hormonal birth control and reject them just as vehemently as I do in this article. After choosing not to use hormonal birth control, many Christians opt for some kind of barrier method, often paired with a level of fertility awareness. It makes sense: barriers are not (as) harmful for their users, in most cases (although not all) they do not pose threat of abortion, and they usually have a pretty high effectiveness rate at avoiding pregnancy. So what’s the problem?

It’s true: the issue with barrier methods is a bit more ideological than that of hormonal birth control, since many of the physical risks aren’t as apparent. Nevertheless, there are still presuppositions at work here that are not compatible with a full Christian theology.

First of all, let us consider the name “barrier method.” Why is it called such? The name is simply a description of the function: barrier methods prevent conception by putting a barrier between the physical parts of husband and wife that could cause conception. There are many different types of barrier methods but this is clearly the case in all of them. So we must ask ourselves: is this significant? Is it significant that married Christian couples would put a barrier between their bodies during intercourse?

I must point out that for Christians, who believe in the goodness, dignity, and importance of the human body, who do not consider the body something evil or arbitrary but rather an intrinsic part of who we are as bodily creatures, who acknowledge the glory of the Incarnation and the fact that God himself would dignify the human body by himself being made flesh, whatever we do with our bodies is highly significant. There is no dichotomy between body and soul in Christian anthropology.

This is in fact why Christians consider sexual intercourse to be good – it is a bodily expression and manifestation of love. Sexual intercourse is the physical sign of the covenant of marriage. That is to say, it is the sign of what has happened in marriage, expressed physically.

What has happened in marriage that sexual intercourse is supposed to represent? In Christian marriage, a man and a woman promise to give themselves to each other fully, to become one flesh, to love and serve each other until death separates them. They promise this before God, to be coworkers with him in the world, a representation of the love between Christ and the Church.

Sexual intercourse in marriage expresses this covenant bodily by being a complete bodily gift of the spouses to each other – the literal becoming of “one flesh.”

Now, what happens if a physical part of a spouse is held back, not given to the other? What if the husband wrapped plastic around his mouth so that he wouldn’t have to kiss his wife during intercourse? First of all (besides being strange) we would recognize that something was “off” – there would not be full freedom in the gift of each other. What if the wife didn’t want to be fully undressed in front of her husband? Even if she promised that she loved her husband, that she trusted him fully, that she was giving her whole self to him, we would understand that something was not right. There would be something that was held back from the gift of self, the gift that is supposed to be entire.

I use these examples because it is more obvious to us that something is amiss when it is an external part of the body of one spouse that is withheld or blocked from the body of the other. But this is precisely what happens in the case of barrier methods. Part of the spouse’s body is being withheld or blocked from the other spouse – namely, the part of the spouse that has the potential to truly make a new “one flesh” with the other spouse. Barrier methods change the meaning of sex by insisting that sex does not have to be a complete physical gift of the spouses to each other. Barriers claim that complete physical unity is insignificant. To put it simply, barrier methods imply that the spouse’s bodies are an arbitrary part of sex; we can change what we want how we want about our bodies and how they work together. We can choose which parts of each others’ bodies we want to receive. As long as we feel satisfied, the physical bodies and actions don’t really matter.

Furthermore, barrier methods are just as guilty as hormonal methods of contraception when it comes to changing the meaning and purpose of sex. For the Christian, this is highly significant. Hormonal birth control demeans and often harms the body of the woman, and demeans and often kills new children. Barrier methods insist that physical unity is not necessary for a complete gift of self in intercourse – which is of course a contradiction, since sexual intercourse is the physical manifestation of a total gift of self. Both methods uphold infertility, which we have already seen is a result of the Fall. Both methods change the meaning of sex by either altering the body of the spouses and thus requiring one or both spouses to “change” themselves as a prerequisite for sexual intercourse, or by changing what happens (or could happen) when the two become one. Of course none of this can be considered arbitrary if we believe that God created male and female, created sex, and instituted married sexual intercourse as a sign of the covenant of marriage between husband and wife and a reflection of the life-giving love Christ and the Church.

Perhaps at this point, most of this seems abstract or ideological. Or maybe it seems to resonate with truth, but one is still left with the question: if not birth control, then what? I hope that by the following examination of natural family planning, the differences in worldview will become apparent and some of the non-Christian presuppositions of contraception will be highlighted as they are juxtaposed with the body-and-life-affirming presuppositions of a natural method of family planning.

Natural Family Planning – Not Another Form of Contraception

Before beginning, I do want to emphasize that there are many different methods of natural family planning (commonly referred to as NFP), and they vary in their effectiveness and scope. My discussion of NFP will center strictly on the Creighton Model, which is the method that I personally use and teach. This method is 99.5% effective at avoiding pregnancy if used correctly which means it is just as effective as the birth control pill, so stereotypes about the ineffectiveness NFP can be left behind.

Many people (if not most) do not know what “NFP” is, so a quick definition is in order. In short, the way of the female reproductive cycle is such that there is only a short window in which conception is possible in any given cycle (usually about 5-12 days). While men are always fertile, women are most of the time infertile. The time of fertility in a woman is limited to the days approaching and immediately after ovulation, which means that for a monogamous couple, the only time that they can achieve pregnancy is during this window of fertility. This “window” of fertility can be determined with accuracy from external observations of the woman’s body throughout her menstrual cycle. Thus, a couple can determine days that are naturally fertile or infertile within the woman’s cycle. NFP works by charting day by day the events in a woman’s cycle, and then choosing which days the couple will have intercourse depending on their intentions. If the intention is to avoid pregnancy, then days of infertility are chosen, and if the intention is to achieve pregnancy, then days of fertility are chosen.

Now the question is always asked: how is this different than birth control? If the intention is still to avoid pregnancy, isn’t it just the same?

The answer is of course, no. These are fundamentally different ways of approaching family planning. First of all, let us state the obvious: while contraception is inherently biased against conception (meaning, contraception is only used as an aid to avoid pregnancy and therefore any pregnancy that might be achieved while contracepting is considered a “failure” of the method), natural family planning has no inherent bias. It can be used to avoid or to achieve pregnancy, depending on the couples’ intentions. It is a method that provides its users knowledge of what is or is not possible on any given day, and leaves the choice completely up to the couple of whether or not to pursue or avoid pregnancy.

This is highly significant for the Christian, who wishes to be conformed to the mind of Christ in all things. For what is the mind of Christ when it comes to pregnancy, that is, to new children? Unlike the mind of the world which looks with disdain upon children, Jesus insists, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God,” (Mark 10:14) and again, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 18:10-11) As Christians who believe that every human being is created by God, in his image, we must beware of any ideology that would lead us to believe that the conception of new life is a “failure.” Natural family planning, unlike contraception, upholds that the conception of new life is a natural, healthy, and completely good event that can occur at certain times within the cycle of a couple’s fertility. Even if the intention is to avoid pregnancy, the conviction that fertility and conception are good is honored and upheld by choosing to abstain from genital intercourse during the fertile period rather than alter or obstruct a couple’s fertility.

Natural Family Planning Promotes Women and Their Bodies

This leads to the next noteworthy difference between natural family planning and artificial means of contraception: the fact that with a natural method, nothing is being altered or obstructed in the body of either spouse or the union of their bodies. How different is the approach of a natural method than an artificial method, especially as it relates to the body of the woman! Whereas hormonal birth control considers female anatomy arbitrary or a nuisance, a natural method of family planning approaches the design of the female body with utmost reverence. It is precisely the female body that one studies and bases fertility awareness upon in a natural method. A natural method upholds the female body and reproductive system as good, healthy, and reasonable, worthy of being cherished, honored, and promoted.

Lest one dissociate the reproductive system and inner workings of the female body from the woman herself (as contraception tends to do), remember that the driving forces behind the female reproductive cycle are hormones: hormones that affect – for better or for worse – the emotions of the individual woman. That is to say, the inner workings of the female body are not independent or isolated from her personality. The different hormones that are active at different points in her cycle affect her emotional wellbeing, perception of herself and others, and outlook on life.

Now, and this is extremely important, when a woman’s hormones are functioning correctly, when they are present at healthy levels and at the correct times in her menstrual cycle, the woman will experience optimal physical and emotional health. Mood swings, cramping, irritability, depression, and other symptoms that are commonly associated with “premenstrual syndrome” (PMS) are in fact signs that hormone levels are not where they should be. Far from simply being “how women are,” these symptoms of PMS are the result of illness within the body. And the best-kept secret is that PMS is a treatable condition. PMS does not have to be and should not be a part of a woman’s experience.

All of this information is evident and easy to diagnose when a woman charts her cycle on a daily basis. Hormone abnormalities can be seen on paper and detected with simple tests and procedures, and then treated by doctors who are trained to operate in a way that cooperates with the reproductive system (for more information on this, look into NaProTechnology). Without going into it too deeply here, suffice it to say that this is a system of family planning and of health care that truly has a woman’s best interests at heart and treats her and her body with the utmost dignity of a daughter of God.

Natural Family Planning Helps Husbands Love Their Wives

Natural family planning provides a great an opportunity for Christian husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. The way that we teach natural family planning is as a shared system. It is not simply something that the woman alone should concern herself with, but something that requires the mutual cooperation and support of both husband and wife. Both husband and wife must be resolute in their intentions to achieve or avoid pregnancy, and therefore both husband and wife must be involved in the monitoring and evaluating of their fertility. We encourage husbands to actually do the work of “charting” the signs of fertility that the woman observes. What this means in practice is that the husband is deeply in tune with the inner workings of his wife’s body, and he is able, just as she is, to understand and appreciate the way she has been designed by God. He is also able, as is she, to detect potential abnormalities or signs of improper function within her body and find natural and effective ways to treat the abnormalities and find real healing.

Consider this passage from Ephesians in light of the literal nourishing and cherishing of the wife’s body that takes place when a couple uses their resources and reason to study and honor the wife’s body such as takes place when using a natural method of family planning:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own body, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. (Ephesians 5:25, 27-30)

Natural family planning provides husbands an opportunity to love their wives in a more full and complete way by cherishing all of her female body, not simply the parts that are aesthetically pleasing to him. And charting one’s cycle also provides women a deeper insight into who they are specifically as bodily creatures intricately designed and loved by God.

NFP and Selective Intercourse: Isn’t This a Bad Thing?

There are two more aspects of natural family planning that I wish to emphasize before bringing this article to a close. The first has to do with the selective intercourse that is an essential part of a natural system of family planning. Many couples understand the value in understanding a woman’s natural cycle and fertility, but still wonder if abstinence is necessary during the fertile period if the intention is to avoid pregnancy. Won’t abstaining during those times negatively affect the marriage relationship by imposing “rules” on the couple or unnecessary frustration?

On the contrary, the selective intercourse that must take place within a marriage that is planning their family with a natural method is motivated by the exact same reason that Christians insist sex is only for marriage. Christians understand that God has designed sex a certain way and for a certain purpose: to unite a husband and wife in the context of marriage. Why? Because it is only in marriage that couples truly give themselves to another person in a complete, total, indissoluble, sacrificial way. Until the couple has promised to be committed to each other until “death do us part,” until they vow to become “one” for better or for worse, the “oneness” and complete gift of self that the physical act of sexual intercourse expresses doesn’t make sense. What’s happening physically doesn’t line up with what’s happening emotionally or spiritually. The couple is expressing a complete gift of self to each other in their bodies while choosing to withhold full commitment to each other. The two don’t match up.

The unmarried Christian couple at this point may then affirm, “Sex is a gift of God. It is a gift of God with a deep and significant purpose – to unite a husband and wife in full bodily union with each other, mirroring their full commitment to each other. Since we can not or have not taken responsibility for each other yet in the commitment of marriage, we will abstain from sex so that we can honor each other and uphold the meaning and significance of sex.” Christians would acknowledge that this decision would only increase and strengthen the couple’s love for each other, not weaken it.

This is the same reasoning behind selective intercourse within marriage. Even within marriage, the couple must still ensure that when they come together physically in sexual union, they are submitting to God’s design for sex and are making a full and complete gift of themselves to each other. Now, at certain times that full gift of themselves may result in another gift – a new creation made in the image of God, the fruit of the couple’s love. But what if, for whatever reason, the couple is either not willing or not able to accept the responsibility of their complete gift of themselves to each other? Rather than altering their bodies or choosing to block full physical union from occurring through the use of contraceptives, the married couple may then choose to abstain during the fertile times acknowledging, “The way that our bodies have been designed by God to work together at this time is such that a new child may be the result of our union. Since we are not able to accept the responsibility of our physical union at this time, we can honor each others’ bodies, honor our union, and honor the God who designed us this way by choosing to not engage in the gift of sex at this time.” This strengthens the couple’s love for each other by bringing them to a fuller and deeper understanding of each other and appreciation for God’s design for their bodies and sexuality.

Of course, all of this assumes that the ways our bodies work are the result of God’s design and not the result of the Fall. This topic deserves an article (or many books!) all its own and I will not be able to tackle it meaningfully here. For now I will simply say that as a teacher of reproductive anatomy and physiology, the intricacy of the male and female reproductive systems and how they work together in such delicate ways to create new human beings seems to speak powerfully of the creating and sustaining power of the Giver of Life, of the God who saw the human beings that He had made, affirmed them as “very good,” and blessed them with fruitfulness. Furthermore, I think the fact that throughout Scripture infertility is associated with the Fall and fertility with God’s blessing speaks powerfully.

One Final Thought on Selective Intercourse

I’ll offer one more thought on selective intercourse and choosing to abstain during times of fertility if husband and wife are choosing to avoid pregnancy. If Scripture is clear throughout that fertility is a gift of God, that children are gifts of God, and that all human beings are image bearers of God and recipients of the sacrificial death of God, then it follows that as followers of God we should strive for the same mind and heart of God in relation to children. That is to say, we should always affirm that fertility is indeed a blessing of God and that children are indeed blessings and gifts of God. This rules out certain reasons for avoiding conceiving new children, namely, any reasons that fail to acknowledge the immeasurable dignity and blessing of children.

Natural family planning offers an unmatchable examination of conscience when it comes to our decisions to avoid pregnancy. For one, by choosing to abstain during fertile periods (rather than turn fertile times into times of infertility), we at once acknowledge that fertility and children are something worthy of honor and respect, so much so that we do not take the liberty upon ourselves to alter or impede fertility and the conception of children. But secondly, by abstaining during these times, we feel in our bodies the sacrifice and perhaps, the sadness, of not being able to accept God’s gift of new life.

Now, there are reasons that are good and just to avoid or space pregnancy. But many of the reasons that we often choose to delay pregnancy are in fact based in misconceptions or even rejections of Scripture’s clear affirmations of the blessing of children. We don’t want children to “ruin our lives,” or we “don’t really like children,” or we don’t want to make the sacrifices necessary to raise new image bearers of God, or sometimes we don’t even know why we simply don’t want children. All of our reasons for avoiding children are brought to the surface and examined when the way we avoid pregnancy is by abstaining from intercourse during the times when pregnancy may occur. A natural method of family planning, based as it is in abstaining from intercourse during times of fertility if we hope to avoid pregnancy, forces us to examine our reasons for avoiding pregnancy. Because we are forced to ask ourselves, “Is the reason we are avoiding a new child worth it? Is it worth not being physically intimate with you at this moment?” If the reason is one that both partners fully agree on, then the decision to abstain will hold in tact. But if upon asking this question the couple realizes that they are approaching it all the wrong way, often times the result is an affirmation of the goodness of children (in accord with the mind of God) and a joyful reception of the gift of children that is a result of the gift of sexual union.

In short, the actual use of natural family planning can help to bring the hearts of husbands and wives closer to the heart of God in relation to the beauty and gift of children and their intrinsic link to sexuality and love. And I know many couples that can affirm this particular change of heart in their own experience.

I will conclude this article here, acknowledging that there is always more that can be said and that there are many assumptions I have taken for granted. I look forward to questions, comments, and objections to the concepts I have proposed here; as I mentioned at the beginning, there is very little (hardly any) literature that engages this subject while taking into account the effectiveness of modern natural methods of family planning. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a deep, thoughtful, and prayerful conversation in the Church regarding the Christian vision for marriages and families.

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About the Contributor

Ruth Robertson

Ruth Robertson
Ruth Robertson lives in Greenville, SC where she works at the Frazee Dream Center, a non-profit serving low-income children and their families. Ruth teaches the Creighton Model FertilityCare System to women and couples who are looking for natural methods of family planning. More information about her work can be found on She is happily married to Ben Robertson. 


  1. Jessica Wilson says:

    This is great Ruth!! Lots of well articulated things that I hadn’t really thought about before.
    I guess I am still wrestling through the issue with barrier methods. Maybe I am just not following the logic right, if it’s an issue of withholding all of yourself I feel like you’d be doing that anyway when choosing to abstain but I don’t know.
    Another question I have, right now I don’t see the abstaining part a big deal at all because obviously there are other ways to enjoy each other sexually but you didn’t mention that at all, is that because it’s obvious or because there are some Catholics who think sexual expression in marriage should only ever be through intercourse?

    Other random feedback: I loved the part about PMS! It’s so fascinating how hormones are at play and we don’t even know half the time if they are off or not…

  2. hey Jessica,

    Sorry it took me so long to respond. Life has been crazy!

    As far as barrier methods, the issue isn’t about “withholding all of yourself” but about picking and choosing which parts of your body to give/which parts of your spouse’s body to receive during sex. The idea is that sex is supposed to be a TOTAL gift of yourself – a gift of your whole body and true love. But if you’re unwilling/unable to accept the gift of your spouse’s whole body, then you can choose not to have sex rather than to “dissect” the gift in order to pick the parts that you want. It’s about protecting the integrity of the body (and therefore the person), and protecting the integrity of sex.

    To put it more simply: sex is a beautiful gift that reflects love because it is a physical manifestation of giving yourself entirely to your spouse, and receiving them entirely. But if you are unwilling to receive them entirely, the more loving decision is to abstain from the gift of sex rather than cheapening it by picking and choosing which parts of your spouse to receive or which parts of yourself to give.

    During that time couples are encouraged to explore other parts of their relationship and of their spouse (maybe developing a hobby together or going on a date and having good conversations together, or some other way of cultivating your relationship), but the idea is, don’t disrespect each other and your sexual union by wrapping part of your body in plastic so that you don’t have to give that part, or inserting something into your body so that you don’t have to receive part of your spouse. Keep the integrity of your body, your spouse’s body, and your sexual union by maintaining that when you come together sexually, it is a full gift of yourselves to each other.

    Let me know if that makes sense (still not sure if I explained it well) or where you disagree with that/think the logic breaks down. I’m truly interested because I want to continue developing what I think about these issues and how I speak about them to make sure they make sense and are reasonable!

  3. As far as other forms of sexual expression within marriage, the Catholic Church (and all Christians until less than 100 years ago) has always taught that the unitive and procreative aspects of sex must remain in tact in order for sex to be a fully Christian expression of intimacy.

    Rather than me trying to explain what may or may not be considered “ok” I thought I’d refer you to this article about oral sex vs oral stimulation. It goes into detail better than I could about those things.

    The main Scripture that Christians throughout all of time until the last century understood to be condemning sexual acts in which the man “spills his seed” (aka ejaculates outside of the woman, thus causing a sexual union to lack possibility of procreation) is the story of Onan in Genesis 38, in which Onan withdraws from his wife and “spills his seed on the ground” and God kills him for it. In the last century many Christians have reinterpreted this passage to be about Onan not fulfilling the Levirate law… but there are some problems with that interpretation. Anyway I won’t go into it much here but if you are interested a quick google search will tell you all you ever wanted to know about Onan! haha

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