Birth Control and Contraception
Contraception is the term used to describe the intentional prevention of conception or impregnation. Thus contraception here does not refer to abortion, or to those contraceptive techniques understood to be abortifacient in nature.
As Paul Evdokimov wrote, "In the age of the Church Fathers, the problem of birth control was never raised. There are no canons that deal with it." The Orthodox bioethicist H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., agrees, writing, "Despite detailed considerations of sexual offenses by ecumenical councils, and by generally accepted local councils, and despite a recognition that marriage is oriented toward reproduction, there is no condemnation of limiting births, apart from the condemnation of abortion."
While it is true that the issue of non-abortifacient contraception has not been raised at any ecumenical councils or generally accepted local councils, the issue has been raised by a handful of individual Church Fathers. Where the Church Fathers speak of the only two methods known to be available that we would recognise as purely non-abortifacient (Natural Family Planning/rhymn method and coitus interruptus), they speak in condemnation (St. Augustine, St Jerome, Clement of Alexandria). The only other available method for preventing pregnancy (apart from violent measures such as tightly banding the pregnant abdomen or stabbing the uterus) was chemical/herbal. While some of the Fathers' references to such chemical methods seem clearly to refer to their destroying a child that is being formed in the womb after the sexual act that gave rise to it (abortion), others seem to also include the idea that these methods were also used to "sterilise" the womb to prevent this process from being initiated (St John Chrysostom in his 24th Homily on Romans and St. Caeserius of Arles in his first Sermon). We should also keep in mind that there was no single prevailing scientific model for how conception took place in the "Age of the Fathers". There were at least two scientific models of conception: the Hippocratic/Galenic "two semen" model (closer to our own), whereby both male and female contributed components to the child-in-formation, and also the Aristotelian "one semen model", in which the male semen was the only component of the early child-in-formation and was planted in the fertile soil of the womb during sex (the problem of when "human personhood" began was a separate issue). No Church Fathers weigh into these scientific debates. However, those that do mention chemical methods, condemn them, whether taken before sex to prevent pregnancy, or taken after sex to destroy the contents of the womb. Thus, all three available methods of preventing pregnancy (coitus interruptus, natural family planning, and herbal/chemical treatments) were condemned at some point by Church Fathers, and none were ever endorsed as acceptable.
The position of the Greek Archdiocese of America was given by the Orthodox bioethicist, Father Stanley S. Harakas: "Because of the lack of a full understanding of the implications of the biology of reproduction, earlier writers tended to identify abortion with contraception. However, of late a new view has taken hold among Orthodox writers and thinkers on this topic, which permits the use of certain contraceptive practices within marriage for the purpose of spacing children, enhancing the expression of marital love, and protecting health."
The dominant view, represented by the Church of Moscow, the Greek Archdiocese, the Orthodox Church in America, by the bioethicists Engelhardt and Harakas, may be fairly described as the teaching that non-abortifacient contraception is acceptable if it is used with the blessing of one's spiritual father, and if it is not used simply to avoid having children for purely selfish reasons.
Two dissenting positions are:
- 1) There are those who hold the view that one of sex's natural purposes is the procreation of children (i.e. sex is naturally oriented towards or "for" procreation), and that to actively separate the procreative aspect of sex from its purpose of uniting husband and wife (by natural family planning or artificial contraceptive methods) is to distort it.
- 2)There are those who argue that natural family planning is acceptable, because it simply involves abstinence from sex during times when fertility is likely. Such is the opinion expressed by the Church of Greece in her encyclical of October 14, 1937.
While some local churches have issued official statements on this issue, it is not an issue that has been clearly defined by the entire Church.
Vocal opponents to the prevailing view of contraception in Orthodoxy today include [incomplete]: Metropolitan Hilarion of Vololamsk [ROC], Bp. Artemije of Kosovo [SOC], Fr. Josiah Trenham, Fr. Patrick Reardon, Fr. John Schroedel, Fr. John A. Peck and Fr. Patrick Danielson.
Methods of family planning can be broken down into five categories: Natural Family Planning, withdrawal, barrier contraceptives, hormonal contraceptives, and sterilization. A distinction is implicit here between birth control or family planning and contraception. Whereas the former terms may include all five categories, "contraception" is usually reserved for those methods which more directly inhibit or act against conception.
Natural Family Planning
Even many people who accept the "new consensus" position as outlines above think that Natural Family Planning (NFP) is superior to contraception. It is often said that the dynamics of NFP (similar to the fasts of the Church) serve as a kind of catechesis for marital sexuality, emphasizing the need for self-control and honoring God-given fertility while at the same time recognizing the need for intimacy and allowing for a responsible family planning. NFP is also useful for couples having difficulty conceiving. Additionally, because of the awareness of the woman's cycle that it brings it can also help a woman spot health risks manifested through irregularities in the cycle.
Modern methods of Natural Family Planning differ greatly from the old "rhythm" method, which worked by marking days on a calendar and required a regular cycle length to be effective. NFP can be used by women with irregular cycles, as well as by women who are breastfeeding or pre-menopausal. With proper use, NFP is as effective as the Pill.
Besides being ineffective, methods of withdrawal have traditionally been opposed by the Church as over-indulgence of the flesh.
Intrauterine devices (IUD)
The presence of a device in the uterus prompts the release of substances hostile to both sperm and eggs; the presence of copper increases this spermicidal effect. However, the same effect is believed to harm developing embryos. While the primary mechanism of the IUD is spermicidal/ovicidal, post-fertilization mechanisms are believed to contribute significantly to their effectiveness. Because Christians define fertilization as the beginning of life, this secondary effect is considered by them as early abortion.
- The Pill: Addressing the Scientific and Ethical Questions of the Abortifacient Issue - A collection of recent scholarly articles and statements edited by Linda Bevington and Russell DiSilvestro [Links to ordering info and a description of the booklet]
- Does the Birth Control Pill Cause Abortions? - A very helpful and easy to read booklet by Randy Alcorn. The full version is online in various formats, and there is a minimal charge for a print copy.
- The Growing Debate about the Abortifacient Effect of the Birth Control Pill and the Principle of the Double Effect - by Dr. Walt L. Larimore
- Postfertilization Effects of Oral Contraceptives and Their Relationship to Informed Consent - Article by Dr. Walter L. Larimore
- PBS aired a documentary a little while ago on "The Pill." Their extensive website contains video interviews, social history and documentary, a contraception timeline, a flash presentation of how the Pill works, internet links, and many other resources. A transcript of the television show is also available online.
- Government Lists All Estrogens Used in Oral Contraceptives, Hormone Replacement Therapy as 'Known Human Carcinogens'
- Pilltruth.com - More information about hormonal contraceptives
- Engelhardt, H. Tristram, Jr. Foundations of Christian Bioethics. Swets & Zeitlinger, 2000. See especially Chapter Five.
- Evdokimov, Paul. The Sacrament of Love: The Nuptial Mystery in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition. Crestwood: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985. See especially pp. 174-180.
- Meyendorff, John. Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, second expanded edition. Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1975. See especially Chapter Thirteen.
- Sherrard, Philip. "Humanae Vitae: Notes on the Encyclical Letter of Pope Paul VI," in Sobornost 5:8 (1969).
- Zaphiris, Metropolitan Chrysostomos Gerasimos. "The Morality of Contraception: An Eastern Orthodox Opinion," in The Journal of Ecumenical Studies 11:4 (1974). Note: http://jonathanscorner.com/writing/contraception/ provides a commentary on Zaphiris 1974 and an "opposing views" piece to the "new concensus".
- Zion, William Basil. Eros and Transformation: Sexuality and Marriage: An Eastern Orthodox Perspective. Lanham: University Press of America, 1992. Chapter Seven is entitled "Orthodoxy and Contraception."
- Evdokimov, p. 174.
- Engelhardt, p. 265.
- Saint, Bishop of Hippo Augustine (1887). "Chapter 18.—Of the Symbol of the Breast, and of the Shameful Mysteries of the Manichæans". In Philip Schaff. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Volume IV. Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- Jerome, Against Jovinian 1:20, (AD 393) http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/30091.htm
- Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children 2:10:91:2 (AD 191)
- St John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 24 [A.D. 391]). http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/210224.htm
- St Caeserius of Arles, (Sermons 1:12 [A.D. 522]).