The Ethics of Birth Control (Part 1): 4 Concerns that Increase Birth Control Use

Adapted from Ethics for a Brave New World, Second Edition, by John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg

The twentieth century saw major changes in humankind’s understanding sexuality—the sexual revolution, the rise of varying understandings of sexual orientation, and of morally permissible sexual activity. The methods of conceiving and gestating a baby have also dramatically expanded. During the last half of the twentieth century there has been a steady increase in the use of birth control devices—for Christians and non-Christians alike. Despite a long tradition of hesitation in regard to birth control, both pragmatic and biblical considerations have led many Christians to conclude that birth control is morally acceptable.

Before jumping into the ethics of birth control, it's helpful to understand the pragmatic framework for the rise in the usage of birth control in our culture. From a pragmatic standpoint, advocates of birth control tend to emphasize four main issues:

1. Population growth and the apparent depletion of natural resources

Some use this as warrant for population control, but not everyone agrees. Historically, the three main checks to population growth have been war, hunger, and disease. Wars and starvation still abound, and yet population growth continues. The reason is undoubtedly due in part to medicine’s growing ability to control disease and prolong life.

2. A change in socially acceptable sexual behavior

Part of the shift in sexual mores involves a change in attitudes toward premarital sex. Because attitudes toward premarital sex are so positive, there has been much concern about a rise in teenage pregnancies. Through educational programs about sex, dispensing of condoms or other birth control devices, and through programs stressing abstinence, in recent years there has been a decline in teenage pregnancies. So an increasingly positive attitude toward premarital sex with a desire to avoid becoming unwed mothers and fathers has greatly accelerated the acceptance and use of various birth control devices.

3. Women have careers outside the home

Women have found great fulfillment in careers outside the home. Many of these women are very competent at what they do and understand that, if they are to make a mark, they must give themselves wholly to their career. Many of these women still want to have children and raise a family. The obvious question is how a woman can have a successful career and at the same time have children. For many women, the answer is to put off childbearing until later in life when these women have already achieved many of their career goals. Given increasing life expectancy for both men and women, there is much less hesitancy to wait until one’s late thirties or early forties, to start a family.

4. Family finances and individual careers

Many married couples wonder if it is morally right to potentially deprive existing children financially just to increase the size of their family. Moreover, given the need in many societies for both husband and wife to work, it becomes impractical to have a large family. In some homes, if there aren’t financial resources to pay for day care for the children, and if, for example, the wife has a significant management position at her company, a decision to forego children and pursue the wife’s career goals is the expected response.

While pragmatic concerns are important, they cannot be determinative for the Christian. This is part one of a four-part series on the ethics of birth control for the Christian. Be sure to stop by through the week for more info.

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