11/10/2004

religious beliefs informing abortion views?

At Dean Nation, I've commented on the phenomenon of pharmacists refusing to fill birth-control prescriptions, citing their pro-life religious beliefs. Fundamentally, being anti-birth-control is completely at odds with the pro-life position, because birth control prevents undesired pregnancy, obviating the need for abortions (the exception is the morning-after type pills, which could legitimately be interpreted as an abortion pill if you define life as beginning at conception).

It's tempting to ascribe the religious Christian right's self-defeating take on birth control as stemming from their religious attitudes towards human sexuality. I have very little knowledge on this topic, but the stereotype of the Christian faith is a Puritan attitude, where sex is a sinful act. The repressive attitude towards the topic may even account for the profusion of cabarets and erotic clubs in the South - when I moved from Boston to Houston, I was struck by how much more blatant these types of establishments are in their advertising and presence.

As I confessed, though, I simply don't know enough about Christian theology to have an informed opinion on the real religious impetus behind why this hostility towards birth control arises from the pro-life crowd. I do know that in Islam, sex between married couples is considered a religious act, and earns the man and woman blessings. The specific issue of whether birth control is valid or not was one i was previously unaware had any controversy attached (though I laughed along with everyone else at the "every sperm is sacred" skit in Monty Python, I didn't think that was actually practiced).

What are the religious justifications for a ban on birth control? I can't answer, and I suspect that there might well be none. Ultimately, this issue is probably driven more by political extremism (complete with purifying litmus-test jihad) than by any rational adherence to religious precepts or a sincere desire to reduce abortions overall.

Certainly, if reduction of abortion was the real goal, then methods like birth control that actively promote the desired results would not be under attack. That they are, I think, suggests something.

7 comments:

Andrew said...

A few comments on Christianity and sex. You have to be careful about describing how Christianity deals with sex because there are a lot of different approaches depending on which branch of the faith you're talking about. Most all branches of Protestant Christianity permit birth control, though there are protestants who believe otherwise.

On the question of whether the Christian faith believes that there is something inherently sinful in the sexual act, well, there are again disagreements. Some Christian theologians follow St. Augustine of Hippo in the belief that the sex drive is a product of the fall. Others take the view that sex and the sex drive are a perfectly legitimate means of expressing love.

The Catholic position on birth control can be boiled down to the belief that it is wrong to carry out a natural act and yet frustrate the natural consequences of the act, with the natural analogy being one who eats for the enjoyment of eating, but then throws it up in order to keep eating.

Also of note is that the Catholic position on birth control really only started taking shape at around the twelfth/thirteenth centuries. By the time St. Thomas Aquinas was writing (late 13th c.), the Church had come to a fairly hard and fast position on the issue.

Rook said...

You know, I never could understand why people would condemn an act that God gave to us......

But then what do I know? I'm an adult child of a recovering catholic and suffer from post dramatic catholicism.

jerseycityjoan said...

OK, Aziz, we are both learning something today. Via Google, here's the first 3 paragraphs of what appears at http://www.catholic.com/library/Birth_Control.asp. I kind of knew what the Catholics' position was; what I didn't know for sure was that none of the [major, I assume] Protestant denominations agreed, even in theory. My impression was that lots of fundamental Protestants were against sex outside marriage, artificial birth control and abortion. So maybe they don't object to birth control when it's used by married people.

"Birth Control

In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his landmark encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (Latin, "Human Life"), which reemphasized the Church�s constant teaching that it is always intrinsically wrong to use contraception to prevent new human beings from coming into existence.

Contraception is "any action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act [sexual intercourse], or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" (Humanae Vitae 14). This includes sterilization, condoms and other barrier methods, spermicides, coitus interruptus (withdrawal method), the Pill, and all other such methods.

The Historic Christian Teaching

Few realize that up until 1930, all Protestant denominations agreed with the Catholic Church�s teaching condemning contraception as sinful. At its 1930 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican church, swayed by growing social pressure, announced that contraception would be allowed in some circumstances. Soon the Anglican church completely caved in, allowing contraception across the board. Since then, all other Protestant denominations have followed suit. Today, the Catholic Church alone proclaims the historic Christian position on contraception."

I'm a Methodist and certainly can't speak for American Catholics. Let me just say this: Most Catholics under 45 seem to have seem to have 0-3 kids, just like their neighbors. Either they are pretty good at abstenance or they're probably not following church teaching on birth control.

MM said...

The Catholic teaching on birth control, though I disagree with it, is both religious and consistent. Most American Catholics don't follow it, but then they don't always follow the command to love thy neighbour as you love thyself either. ;-)

There are different degrees of Christian opposition to birth control, which have to do with the period at which you think life begins: fertilisation, implantation, formation of the cortex, or something else. Those who believe life begins at fertilisation allow barrier methods (condoms, diaphragms, spermicides), but not hormonal methods, because the latter sometimes work by preventing implantation, rather than fertilisation. (Some people don't realise that the pill works this way; they're the ones who are against the morning-after pill, but for The Pill).

Aziz Poonawalla said...

The position on post-fertilization (ie, preventionof implantation) birth control makes some sense. But what is the theological basis for these religious injunctions against birth control methods? Was Monty Python actually on to something with the "every sperm is sacred" bit?

I am getting even more confused. What I am looking for is an understanding of the theological context behind the ban.

Andrew said...

There are two main reasons for the Church's historical position on non procreative sex.

The first view is one seen more often in the past than in the present. It is the belief that before the fall of Adam and Eve, there was no sex drive. According to this belief, Adam could consciously control his bits, and so had he and Eve done the deed before the fall, he would have willed his equipment to the necessary state and impregnated Eve, and they would have done this out of a joyous sense of obeying God by populating the earth but no lust. This school of thought believes that the reason we cannot consciously control our genitals is that following the Fall, control was taken from man, and, as a consequence of the fall, we are subject to the control of lust which controls our members. In other words, before the fall there was no sex drive.

If that is your belief, since *any* conjugal act between husband and wife comes from lust, which is a result of the fall, then there is always going to be some taint to the sex act. So the sex act is okay only if you are doing it in the sense of doing your duty to God to populate the earth.

This view did *not* go over without controversy and was never a dogmatic teaching of the Church. The Greek Orthodox churches never really went in for it (they never really went in for a lot of Augustine), and there were Western Christians who disagreed as well. It was nevertheless something of a majority view through the Middle Ages.

BUT, there were also those who believed that the sex act is a good gift from God for expression of love between the sexes and to be enjoyed as such. It was not the majority view, but it did exist. Note too that contraception was still not entirely prohibited by church law at this point.

Now then, with medieval scholasticism, you see the Church's current stance on birth control. St. Thomas Aquinas was a big believer in Natural Law and that our Creator has given us certain natural instincts and moral sense. The sex drive, per Aquinas, was given to many by God as a part of nature to ensure the survival and propagation of the human race. If, though, you are to have sex but attempt to thwart its natural consequences, then you are in effect violating God's design for the sex act and thus in disobedience to Him.

It's not "every sperm is sacred," it's that the Roman Catholic Church believes that God made us want to have sex so that the earth would be populated, and therefore we should use our bits as directed. To be flippant, I think that such thinking would probably also prohibit the consumption of diet soft drinks, but one rarely sees the Vatican pronounce on that.

Does that clarify things a little bit?

seducintigereyes said...

It really depends what kind of religion you talk about really. Some Catholics believe that when you have sex it should only be to make a baby. Not saying that they are all against the pleasure of it, just that if you have sex you have to do it knowing that, most likely, it will result in a baby.