For much of its existence, the Church heavily emphasized procreation as the primary purpose of sex—some Catholics even believed that intercourse at times where pregnancy was not a possible result (such as current pregnancy and menopause) was sinful. Pope Pius XI's 1930 encyclical entitled Casti Connubii was written in response to the Anglican Communion's Seventh Lambeth Conference, which approved contraceptive use in limited circumstances. Casti Connubii confirmed the Church's position opposing birth control:
However, this encyclical acknowledged for the first time a secondary, unitive, purpose of intercourse. Because of this secondary purpose, married couples have a right to engage in intercourse even when pregnancy is not a possible result:
Some interpreted this statement as not only permitting sex between married couples during pregnancy and menopause, but also during the infertile times of the menstrual cycle. The mathematical formula for the rhythm method had been formalized in 1930, and in 1932 a Catholic physician published a book titled The Rhythm of Sterility and Fertility in Women promoting the method to Catholics. The 1930s also saw the first U.S. Rhythm Clinic (founded by John Rock) to teach the method to Catholic couples. However, use of the Rhythm Method in certain circumstances was not formally accepted until 1951, in two speeches by Pope Pius XII.
Many early Church Fathers have made statements condemning the use of contraception including John Chrysostom, Jerome, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus of Rome, Augustine of Hippo and various others. Among the condemnations is one by Jerome which refers to an apparent oral form of contraception: "Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception.
"The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life."
In further justification of this position, Pope Paul VI claimed
"Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection."
In the same year as the release of Humanae Vitae the Minority Papal Commission Report, who upheld the traditional Catholic prohibition of contraception stated:
"One can find no period of history, no document of the church, no theological school, scarcely one Catholic theologian, who ever denied that contraception was always seriously evil. The teaching of the Church in this matter is absolutely constant. Until the present century this teaching was peacefully possessed by all other Christians, whether Orthodox or Anglican or Protestant. The Orthodox retain this as common teaching today."On July 17, 1994, John Paul II clarified the Church's position during a meditation said prior to an angelus recitation.
Unfortunately, Catholic thought is often misunderstood ... as if the Church supported an ideology of fertility at all costs, urging married couples to procreate indiscriminately and without thought for the future. But one need only study the pronouncements of the Magisterium to know that this is not so.Truly, in begetting life the spouses fulfill one of the highest dimensions of their calling: they are God's co-workers. Precisely for this reason they must have an extremely responsible attitude. In deciding whether or not to have a child, they must not be motivated by selfishness or carelessness, but by a prudent, conscious generosity that weighs the possibilities and circumstances, and especially gives priority to the welfare of the unborn child.Therefore, when there is a reason not to procreate, this choice is permissible and may even be necessary. However, there remains the duty of carrying it out with criteria and methods that respect the total truth of the marital act in its unitive and procreative dimension, as wisely regulated by nature itself in its biological rhythms. One can comply with them and use them to advantage, but they cannot be "violated" by artificial interference.
In 1997, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family stated:
"The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable. Contraception is gravely opposed to marital chastity; it is contrary to the good of the transmission of life (the procreative aspect of matrimony), and to the reciprocal self-giving of the spouses (the unitive aspect of matrimony); it harms true love and denies the sovereign role of God in the transmission of human life.
A summary of the Scriptural support used by Catholics against contraception can be found in Rome Sweet Home, an autobiography by the Catholic apologetics Scott and Kimberly Hahn. They illustrate the results of the research on contraception conducted by Kimberly Hahn as having a pivotal effect on their lives, notably the fact that the Catholic Church is one of the few Christian denominations to take a clear stance on the issue. Among the Scripture included in the book are the following lines from Psalm 127:
"Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one's youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies at the gate."For an anthropological (non-religious) evaluation of the effect of contraception on marital love, see Cormac Burke: "Married Love and Contraception" Osservatore Romano, Oct. 10, 1988.
Catholics for a Free Choice claimed in 1998 that 96% of Catholic women had used contraceptives at some point in their lives and that 72% of Catholics believed that one could be a good Catholic without obeying the Church's teaching on birth control. According to a nationwide poll of 2,242 U.S. adults surveyed online in September of 2005 by Harris Interactive, 90% of Catholics supported the use of birth control/contraceptives.
Use of natural family planning methods among Catholics is low. In 2002, 24% of the U.S. population identified as Catholic. But of sexually active Americans avoiding pregnancy, only 1.5% were using NFP.
To date, statements from the Vatican have argued not that use of condoms to prevent disease is immoral, but rather that condom-promotion programs are simply bad policy. The Vatican's current position is that such programs encourage promiscuity, thereby actually increasing STI transmission. Papal study of the issue is ongoing, and in 2006 a study on the use of condoms to combat AIDS was prepared for review by Pope Benedict XVI.
As scientists advanced birth control methods during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the tradition of Protestant rejection of birth control continued alongside growing dissent from Protestant Nonconformists. As an example of the dissent, the editor of a Nonconformist weekly journal in the United States wrote in 1893,
There was a time when any idea of voluntary limitation was regarded by pious people as interfering with Providence. We are beyond that now and have become capable of recognizing that Providence works through the commonsense of individual brains. We limit population just as much by deferring marriage for prudential reasons as by any action that may be taken after it.
Protestant denominations were slow to officially go along with such a view, although followers were not as reluctant.
Then in 1930, at the Seventh Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion, after years of considerable internal debate, issued the first Protestant statement permitting birth control "when there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence. During the 30 years afterward, Protestant acceptance of birth control steadily increased. By 2005 acceptance had increased such that a Harris Interactive poll conducted online among 2,242 U.S. adults found that 88% of non-Catholic Christians who identified as either "very religious" or Evangelical supported the use of birth control/contraceptives.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has stated,
When a woman and man join their bodies sexually, both should be prepared to provide for a child, should conception occur. When that is not their intention, the responsible use of safe, effective contraceptives is expected of the male and the female. Respect and sensitivity should also be shown toward couples who do not feel called to conceive and/or rear children, or who are unable to do so.
Other major Lutheran and Presbyterian associations, as well as other Protestant groups in general, may take other positions. For example, in 1989 the Lutheran Churches of the Reformation adopted a statement consistent with Quiverfull teachings.
The United Methodist Church, holds that "each couple has the right and the duty prayerfully and responsibly to control conception according to their circumstances." Its Resolution on Responsible Parenthood states that in order to "support the sacred dimensions of personhood, all possible efforts should be made by parents and the community to ensure that each child enters the world with a healthy body, and is born into an environment conducive to realization of his or her potential." To this end, the United Methodist Church supports "adequate public funding and increased participation in family planning services by public and private agencies.
Sex is a powerful drive, and for most of human history it was firmly linked to marriage and childbearing. Only relatively recently has the act of sex commonly been divorced from marriage and procreation. Modern contraceptive inventions have given many an exaggerated sense of safety and prompted more people than ever before to move sexual expression outside the marriage boundary.
Author and FamilyLife Today radio host Dennis Rainey suggests four categories as useful in understanding current Protestant views concerning birth control. Christopher G. Ellison and Patricia Goodson use very similar categories in their 1997 study of Protestant seminarians' attitudes on the matter.
Protestants in this group often connect birth control use with modern feminism, an "anti-child mentality", "worldliness", and abortion because birth control is used for "the same reasons why a woman aborts her child".
The fourth group is the "no children" group. Rainey sees couples in this group as believing they are within their Biblical rights to define their lives around non-natal concerns. While not their main emphasis on the subject, Protestant authors such as Samuel Owen and James B. Jordan support this as an acceptable option, but only when a higher ethical principle intervenes to make child bearing imprudent, such as health concerns or a calling to serve orphans or as missionaries in a dangerous location, etc. The Cyber-Church of Jesus Christ Childfree argues their position, "Jesus loved children but chose to never have any, so that he could devote his life to telling the Good News." Jordan also maintains that modern birth control methods, as well as Natural Family Planning, are acceptable tools of prudent family planning. Jordan also strongly supports the option for couples to have very large families, while Owen believes that non-use of birth control in any form should be normative. Rainey sees infertile couples as falling into this group apart from their choice in the matter. Sterilized couples may as well. According to Southern Baptist R. Albert Mohler, Jr., "Couples are not given the option of chosen childlessness in the biblical revelation".
Stemming from ideas from the Quiverfull movement, some Protestants such as Bill Gothard advocate for couples to undergo sterilization reversal surgery. Brad and Dawn Irons run Blessed Arrows Sterilization Reversal Ministry. The couple advocates for Quiverfull ideas while providing funding, physician referrals, and support to Protestants wishing to undergo reversal surgery.
Nothing in Scripture prohibits married couples from practicing birth control, either for a limited time to delay childbearing, or permanently when they have borne children and determine that their family is complete ... In our viewpoint, birth control is biblically permissible. At the same time, couples should not practice birth control if it violates their consciences (Romans 14:23)—not because birth control is inherently sinful, but because it is always wrong to violate the conscience. The answer to a wrongly informed conscience is not to violate it, but rather to correct and rightly inform one's conscience with biblical truth.
Evangelical couples may, at times, choose to use contraceptives in order to plan their families and enjoy the pleasures of the marital bed. The couple must consider all these issues with care, and must be truly open to the gift of children. The moral justification for using contraceptives must be clear in the couple's mind, and fully consistent with the couple's Christian commitments.
Additional adherents of this view include Rainey, James Dobson, Jordan, Mohler, and evangelical ethicists Franklin E. Payne and John and Paul Feinberg. Although most Protestants adhere to this view, some such as Rainey may nonetheless advocate for one of the categories he describes, depending upon which Christian values they deem most important.
Some Protestants, however, reject the position that contraceptive use is a matter of conscience. Although some Quiverfull adherents accept that birth control use is a matter of individual conscience, other such adherents may argue that the Bible commands their position for all Christians. For example, David Crank, publisher of Unless The Lord Magazine, states, "The 'Quiverfull' approach is universal in the sense that it is not something unusual that only a few are called to. Rather it is God's basic design and plan for mankind, and it was the way most of mankind lived most of the time, until the 20th century." Charles D. Provan additionally argues:
"Be fruitful and multiply" ... is a command of God, indeed the first command to a married couple. Birth control obviously involves disobedience to this command, for birth control attempts to prevent being fruitful and multiplying. Therefore birth control is wrong, because it involves disobedience to the Word of God. Nowhere is this command done away with in the entire Bible; therefore it still remains valid for us today.
Quiverfull authors such as Hess and Hess disagree and say the matter is simply one of clear obedience or disobedience to God's words in the Bible.
"Behold, children are a gift of the Lord" (Psa. 127:3). Do we really believe that? If children are a gift from God, let’s for the sake of argument ask ourselves what other gift or blessing from God we would reject. Money? Would we reject great wealth if God gave it? Not likely! How about good health? Many would say that a man’s health is his most treasured possession. But children? Even children given by God? "That’s different!" some will plead! All right, is it different? God states right here in no-nonsense language that children are gifts. Do we believe His Word to be true?
To such statements, Protestants such as Jordan point out that Christians will, in fact, choose against the blessing of money and great wealth. Jordan also maintains that, while children are indeed blessings, they are only one among a wide range of blessings God offers, and prayerfully choosing foci among them is part of prudent Christian stewardship. John Piper's Desiring God ministry further explains,
Scriptures also say that a wife is a gift from the Lord (Proverbs 18:22), but that doesn't mean that it is wrong to stay single (1 Corinthians 7:8). Just because something is a gift from the Lord does not mean that it is wrong to be a steward of when or whether you will come into possession of it. It is wrong to reason that since A is good and a gift from the Lord, then we must pursue as much of An as possible. God has made this a world in which tradeoffs have to be made and we cannot do everything to the fullest extent. For kingdom purposes, it might be wise not to get married. And for kingdom purposes, it might be wise to regulate the size of one's family and to regulate when the new additions to the family will likely arrive. As Wayne Grudem has said, "it is okay to place less emphasis on some good activities in order to focus on other good activities."
Protestants, including Quiverfull adherents, also disagree over whether the Biblical statement "be fruitful and multiply" in Genesis 1:28 and 9:7 is a command or simply a blessing God spoke over its recipients. Mary Pride and Charles D. Provan see it as a binding command upon married Christians, while Dobson, MacArthur, Jordan, and Raymond C. Van Leeuwen do not see the statement as prohibiting family planning by contraceptive use.
As part of this debate, Protestants (as well as some Catholics) disagree over the Sin of Onan as found in the Bible verses of Genesis 38:1-10. Protestants within the "children in abundance" group often see Onan's act of coitus interruptus as condemning contraceptive use, while most see Onan's real sin as failure to fulfill the terms of his Levirate marriage (Yibbum), even though the Bible says failure to fulfill this term is humiliation not death, according to Deuteronomy 25:5-10.
Protestants who accept that birth control is permissible may disagree over which methods are impermissible.
In Sam and Bethany Torode's 2002 book, Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception, the young couple argued that only Natural Family Planning was permissible, citing their views borrowed from Catholicism including the Theology of the Body. The couple later accepted barrier methods and stated,
Strict NFP reaches a point where it is more harmful for a marriage than good. We think that Jesus' words in Luke 11:46 apply: "And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry." How is it that spouses are saying "yes" to the gift of each other when they end up abstaining for much of their married lives? ... We also see honest congruity with the language of the body by saying "no" to conception with our bodies (via barrier methods or sensual massage) when our minds and hearts are also saying "no" to conception. We don’t believe this angers God, nor that it leads to the slippery slope of relativism or divorce. We strongly disagree with the idea that this is a mortal sin.
Some conclude that "natural family planning" is acceptable but "artificial" means are not. But this seems to overlook something significant: in both cases, you are still seeking to regulate when you have children. And so if one concludes that it is wrong to seek to regulate the timing and size of a family, then it would have to be concluded that natural family planning is just as wrong as "artificial" means. But if one concludes that it is appropriate to steward the timing and size of one's family, then what makes "artificial" means wrong but natural family planning right? Surely it is not because God is "more free" to overrule our plans with natural family planning! Perhaps some have concluded that artificial forms are wrong because they allow one more fully to separate intercourse from the possibility of procreation. But if it is wrong to have intercourse without a significant possibility of procreation, then it would also be wrong to have intercourse during pregnancy or after a woman is past her childbearing years. There is no reason to conclude that natural family planning is appropriate but that "artificial" means are not.
In her book, Birth Control for Christians: Making Wise Choices, Jenell Williams Paris, who is associate professor of anthropology at Bethel College in St. Paul, reviews the benefits and uncertainties of various birth control methods, and decidedly favors the the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM), which is similar to NFP but is different. (Paris is a FAM instructor.) The main difference is that FAM is not tied to Roman Catholic teaching. Regarding hormonal methods and abortion, Paris explains that both assertions that the hormonal methods are necessarily acting as abortifacients and the counter claim that they never do are impossible to substantiate from data, and that the probability of the hypothesized scenarios are so small such that the collection of data seems infeasible.
Dr. Dobson would emphasize as foundational his strict concurrence with the biblical teaching that every child is a blessing from God ... While affirming that human life begins with fertilization (the union of sperm and egg), his interpretation of Scripture leads him to believe that the prevention of fertilization is not morally wrong. However, he would oppose any method of birth control that acts after fertilization and terminates a conceived human life by preventing its implantation in the womb ... After two years of extended deliberation and prayer, the PRC has not been able to reach a consensus as to the likelihood, or even the possibility, that these medications might contribute to the loss of human life after fertilization. The majority of the experts to which Dr. Dobson has spoken feel that the pill does not have an abortifacient effect. A minority of the experts feel that when conception occurs on the pill, there is enough of a possibility for an abortifacient effect [with the progesterine-only pill], however remote, to warrant informing women about it.
The American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians & Gynecologists, however, argues that it is inappropriate to implicate certain hormonal contraceptives as abortifacient based upon theory only, and points out that no empirical evidence exists to prove any abortifacient action. The organization states,
Is it appropriate to implicate a medication as an abortive agent without the data to support such a claim? To do so creates needless hostility and division among physicians and patients who genuinely respect life from the moment of conception. Where do we draw the line in informed consent for responsible disclosure of known medical risks vs. a theoretical risk which is not substantiated by current scientific knowledge? Is it accurate to implicate all hormonal contraceptive methods as one regarding their method of action, rather than evaluating each one individually?
Provan in his The Bible and Birth Control extensively quotes early Protestant views of birth control, which Provan uses to conclude,
If Martin Luther were alive today, would he not disapprove of many Christians who view children as a bad thing, and so practice birth control to prevent God from sending more blessings to them? ... Truly Scriptural principles do not change at all: therefore Christians should willingly receive the blessings which God has for us, and not try to prevent them.
Protestant scholars such as Jordan, however, maintain that Provan's view has the effect of adding a law to the Bible it does not contain. Jordan states,
Jesus repeatedly denounced the Pharisees for their additions to the Law of God. Thus, we must be extremely careful about what laws we lay down for people. Does the Bible clearly state that contraception is sinful, or that people are obligated to have as many children as possible? If the Bible does not say these things, we need to fear God and be frightened of adding to His Word.
Jordan argues also that the views of early Protestant Reformers on contraception are unreliable because they were heavily influenced by not just the Bible but Neo-Platonic mysticism (otherworldliness) and Aristolean teleologism (measuring all things only by their result), philosophies they inherited from their Catholic predecessors such as Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo. Bart Garrett describes it, "They operated in a time and context that unhealthily looked at sex as a base, physical pleasure that carried with it spiritual detriments."
Jordan further points to the Reformers' unreliability based upon their rejection of Song of Solomon as a description of passionate sexual expression within marriage. He also cites technophobia among Protestants, as evident by their rejection of things ranging from buttons to airplanes ("if God meant for man to fly he would have given him wings"). As well, Jordan points to what he describes as the Reformers' own mantra, "reformed and always reforming" (ecclesia reformata est semper reformanda), as evidence that Protestants should not cystalize their position on the matter at some point in the past, and says that rejecting contraceptives based upon their correlative rise alongside feminism exhibits the genetic fallacy.
Many Orthodox hierarchs and theologians from around the world lauded Humanae Vitae when it was issued. Among these Orthodox leaders, some teach that marital intercourse should be for procreation only, while others do not go as far and hold a view similar to the Roman Catholic position, which allows Natural Family Planning on principle while at the same time opposing artificial contraception.
More lenient Orthodox leaders maintain that the new consensus position is too conservative, and thusly allow more freedom for contraceptive use.
"It is the privilege of married couples who are able to bear children to provide mortal bodies for the spirit children of God, whom they are then responsible to nurture and rear. The decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord. Church members should not judge one another in this matter.
"Married couples also should understand that sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a means of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife.
The LDS Church opposes elective abortion "for personal or social convenience and "strongly discourages surgical sterilization as an elective form of birth control".