What Religions Say About Birth Control

When religious positions on preventing pregnancy are discussed, we usually hear how contraceptives are forbidden. Religious traditions are more pluralistic and varied than that, however, and even within the religions most publicly opposed to birth control we find that there are traditions which would permit the use of contraceptives, even if only in limited circumstances. Both atheist critics of religion and religious adherents need to understand these traditions because not every religion regards contraception as a simplistic issue.

Roman Catholic Christianity & Birth Control
Roman Catholicism is popularly associated with a strict anti-contraception position, but this strictness only dates to Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii. Before this, there was more debate on birth control, but it was generally condemned like abortion. This is because sex was treated as having no value except for reproduction; therefore, hindering reproduction encouraged sinful uses of sex. Nevertheless, bans on contraception are not infallible teaching and could change.

Protestant Christianity & Birth Control
Protestantism is perhaps one of the most diffuse and de-centralized religious traditions in the world. There is almost nothing that isn’t true of some denomination somewhere. Opposition to contraception is increasing in conservative evangelical circles who are, curiously, relying heavily on Catholic teachings. The vast majority of Protestant denominations, theologians, and churches at least permit contraception and may even promote family planning as an important moral good.

Judaism & Birth Control
Ancient Judaism was naturally pro-natalist, but without a central authority dictating orthodox beliefs there has been vigorous debate on the question of birth control. Most, for example, prescribed birth control to prevent conception for as long as the mother nursed, which protected the life of the nursing infant. However important fertility may have been to a small religious minority, the well-being of the mother has generally been treated as paramount and as justifying contraception.

Islam & Birth Control
There is nothing in Islam that would condemn contraception; on the contrary, Muslim scholars investigated and developed birth control methods which were taken to Europe. Avicenna, a famous Muslim doctor, lists in one of his books 20 different substances that can be used to prevent pregnancy. Reasons behind the justification of the use of contraceptives include preserving the quality of the family, health, economics, and even helping the woman preserve her good looks.

Hinduism & Birth Control
Many traditional Hindu texts praise large families, which was normal in the ancient world because the precarious nature of life required strong fertility. There are also Hindu scriptures which praise small families, though, and the emphasis on developing a positive social conscience was extended to the idea that family planning is a positive ethical good. Fertility may be important, but producing more children than you or your environment can support is treated as wrong.

Buddhism & Birth Control
Traditional Buddhist teaching favors fertility over birth control. Only after being a human can a soul reach Nirvana, so limiting the numbers of humans necessarily limits the numbers achieving Nirvana. Nevertheless, Buddhist teachings support appropriate family planning when people feel that it would be too much of a burden on themselves or their environment to have more children.

Sikhism & Birth Control
Nothing in Sikh scripture or tradition condemns the prevention of pregnancy; on the contrary, sensible family planning is encouraged and supported by the community. It is left to the couples to decide how many children they want and can support. Use of contraceptives is justified for the sake of economics, the health of the family, and social conditions. All of this is centered on the needs of the family; contraception in order to avoid pregnancy as a consequence of adultery, however, is not permitted.

Taoism, Confucianism, and Birth Control
Evidence of family planning and use of contraceptives goes back thousands of years in China. Chinese religions emphasize the importance of balance and harmony – in the individual, in the family, and in society generally. Having too many children can upset this balance, so sensible planning has been valued part of human sexuality in Taoism and Confucianism. Indeed, at times there has been strong social pressure not to have more children than the wider community could accommodate.

Family Planning, Sexuality, and Sexual License:
There is little to no condemnation of using birth control in most major religions. It’s true that most religions promote fertility because they date back to eras when high fertility rates could mean the difference between the survival or death of a community, yet despite this, room is still made for allowing or even promoting wise family planning. Why is it, then, that conservative Christians in modern America have started to oppose the use of contraceptives? If atheists are going to accurately and reasonably respond to these changes, it’s necessary to understand what is driving them and where they are coming from.

Part of the cause may be the influence of Catholicism. Catholics and conservative evangelical Protestants have worked closely together to fight abortion and some Catholic reasons for opposing abortion, reasons which are also used against birth control, have been adopted by Protestants. Some Protestants may be following these reasons to an anti-contraception conclusion and it appears that some evangelicals are starting to use Catholic arguments against the permissibility of contraception and against Protestant tradition.

Perhaps more important, however, is the fact that support for use of contraceptives occurs in the context of “family planning.” Use of contraceptives to make it easier to engage in extramarital sex (by avoiding the consequences of sex, like pregnancy) is not supported by Protestantism or any other religious tradition. In modern America, though, contraception is legal for everyone, not just married couples, and is frequently used by unmarried sexual partners for precisely that purpose: to avoid pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted diseases.

Thus the increasing opposition to contraceptives generally may be due to a growing belief that it’s more important to oppose extramarital sexual activity rather than support family planning. If making it more difficult for people to have sex outside marriage without consequences means making it more difficult for married couples to properly plan and care for their children, that appears to be a trade-off they are willing to make. It is not, however, a trade-off which non-Christians should be forced to make.