Among young Christians, moral discomfort with birth control grows

Backlash against 'contraceptive culture' prompts some young conservative evangelicals and Catholics to forgo the pill

Jessica Wilson with her husband, Nick, and children, Theodore, 2, and Rosalynn, 18 months. Wilson, who is expecting her third child, is one of a small but growing number of conservative Christians who are questioning the use of hormonal birth control.
Caleb Drahosh Photography

Jessica Wilson got married five months before she graduated from an evangelical college in 2010. Because she believed that sex is reserved for marriage, it wasn’t much earlier that she had started thinking about what kind of birth control to use. No one in her family or her church had ever questioned the idea of contraception, but they hadn’t taught her much about it, either.

Eventually she came upon the writings of Randy Alcorn, an author and activist who promotes the idea that hormonal birth control, like the pill and some intrauterine devices, sometimes works as an abortifacient by preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg. Alarmed, she decided she couldn’t take that risk, especially since she had already heard horror stories from friends who said the pill made them gain weight, diminished their sex drive or caused depression. She began charting her menstrual cycles, haphazardly at first, and when she got married she used a diaphragm with spermicide when she thought she was ovulating. All three of her pregnancies, including those that resulted in a son and daughter born 15 months apart, were unplanned, but she says she has no regrets.

“I have seen a lot of people [questioning] the idea in our culture that couples deserve to have five years of freedom before they have kids or this unwritten code that all Americans should have two boys and a girl and then they’re done,” she said. “Why are we buying this idea that we shouldn’t have kids?”

Surveys indicate that the vast majority of both Catholic and Protestant married women have used or are currently using contraception. But Wilson is part of a conversation percolating among some adherents of both traditions, most of them educated and conservative, that suggests a growing moral discomfort with birth control. These are not like the Duggar family (of reality television’s “19 Kids and Counting”) who believe that constant childbearing is a Christian obligation, and not all of them reject birth control wholesale. Some simply don’t like the idea of interfering with a woman’s natural bodily rhythms, or they fear, like Wilson, that hormonal contraception has the potential to cause very early abortions. And others share a broader concern: that the underlying logic of contraception suggests couples can, and should, rigidly control their fertility — and that children are not a blessing, but a burden to be avoided.

Among conservative Protestants, these are sprouts of doubt around a topic that hasn’t been debated seriously for decades. “Contraception has been an ingrained, unquestioned, binding reality on young evangelicals,” said Andrew Walker, director of policy studies at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Growing up in the evangelical community, “there was just the assumption that you get married, you use contraception, no doubt about it.”

Walker, now 29 and the father of two daughters, got married at 21 and didn’t question at the time whether his wife would go on the pill. Today, he still doesn’t believe that contraception is categorically sinful, but his wife no longer uses hormonal birth control, and he has larger concerns about what he calls “the contraceptive mindset.” “The idea of talking about children as a ‘scare’ and viewing them as an obstacle to the American dream, that’s not a Christian way of looking at family,” he said. “That’s what I like to tell young couples: The family is actually a pretty adaptable institution. It doesn’t necessarily have to put a brake on your life.”

Walker says he’s not alone in this thinking. “In more intellectual evangelical circles there’s a growing reticence, and a growing — not questioning the all-out use, but questioning the worldview,” he said. He first started to reconsider his acceptance of contraception as a graduate student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, whose president, R. Albert Mohler Jr., has been an influential critic of what he calls “the contraceptive revolution.” (Wilson, too, cited Mohler’s writing on the subject in describing her own evolution.) As Mohler put it just last year, “Today’s generation of evangelicals is indeed reconsidering birth control, and theological concerns are driving that reconsideration.”

 Few, if any, are convinced that evangelicals will turn against contraception in significant numbers. In 2002, a young evangelical couple, Sam and Bethany Torode, wrote a much-discussed book titled “Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception.” Amy Laura Hall, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University, said the book resonated with her students at the time. “There was a sense that something was wrong if there was this much pressure on exactly how many children you should have and exactly when you have them,” she said. The couple later divorced, and Hall says her students more recently have seemed less inclined to reject contraception. (If students ask her about birth control in class, she recommends a diaphragm with spermicide, explaining that it introduces women to their own bodies and also avoids artificial interruption of the “ebb and flow of desire.”)

But Hall, the author of the 2007 book “Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction,” worries that creeping criticism of “contraceptive culture” misses the point. She says most young couples delay childbearing not because of the existence of contraception but because of complex, real financial pressures. And she’s also concerned that conversations about a theologically proper approach to contraception make life difficult for young married couples. “It puts so much pressure on women’s bodies to be rightly ordered for the sake of the future,” she said. “All this pressure of getting it right — that can’t be what God means us to be doing with our beautiful minds and bodies.”

We have four decades under our belt of widespread contraceptive use. Has this benefited women like it was supposed to? I think a lot of women are looking around and saying no, it has not.

Jennifer Fulwiler

Catholic author and blogger

The Kindara app is one of several that enable women to practice natural family planning with more precision than in decades past.

For Catholics, the theological leap required to forgo contraception is not nearly as extreme as it is for Protestants: The first papal encyclical on the topic was delivered in 1930, and it built on a deep suspicion of contraception that had existed since the earliest centuries of the church. Today, however, 98 percent of sexually experienced American Catholic women have used contraception, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Even so, long-established anti-contraception church doctrine is finding a newly receptive audience among young conservatives who are more vocal and vociferous in their obedience than previous generations.

“We have four decades under our belt of widespread contraceptive use,” said Jennifer Fulwiler, a Catholic author and blogger who writes frequently on the topic. “Has this benefited women like it was supposed to? I think a lot of women are looking around and saying no, it has not.” Fulwiler had six children in eight years, despite a serious blood-clotting disorder exacerbated by pregnancy; in her most recent pregnancy she was hospitalized with a bilateral pulmonary embolism. She acknowledges with a laugh that “people look at me and I’m their worst nightmare,” but she believes in the church’s teaching and that its wisdom is self-evident in the light of what she views as a chaotic contemporary sexual culture.

Like many who question hormonal birth control, or contraception more generally, Fulwiler is a proponent of natural family planning, an advanced version of what was once called the rhythm method. Approved by the Catholic Church, it involves tracking ovulation signs and avoiding sex when fertility peaks during each cycle. The method was once easily mocked as unreliable, but times have changed. Today, fertility apps such as Glow and Kindara make tracking menstruation, body temperature and other ovulation signposts easier, and over-the-counter ovulation kits are affordable and available. Meanwhile, more information and social support than ever before is available online. “The technology has gotten much, much easier,” said Simcha Fisher, the Catholic author of “The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning.” “And it’s more culturally acceptable; it’s no longer seen as something only backwards sheep do because the pope tells them to.”

Matthew Schmitz, deputy editor at the Catholic-leaning magazine First Things, sees a connection between shifting attitudes toward birth control and a broader cultural suspicion of all things “unnatural.” “At one point people would have celebrated having a shirt made of polyester, but now you want 100 percent cotton,” he said. “It does connect in a real way to people’s deeper moral intuitions on things like the pill.”

Beyond mere aesthetics, Schmitz senses contraception is an issue with which more young Catholics and evangelicals are actively grappling — perhaps even finding common ground. “The period in which the Christian community has been divided hasn’t been that long,” he said. One suggestion that he’s right, admittedly anecdotal: When asked which resources had influenced his thinking on contraception, Andrew Walker, of the Southern Baptist Convention, referred first to “Humanae Vitae,” Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical that warned, “[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.”

What we saw with the whole Hobby Lobby stuff is that contraception is one of America’s sacraments.

Andrew Walker

Southern Baptist Convention

In the nearly 50 years since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut found that the state’s ban on the use of birth control violated the privacy rights of married couples, contraception has been viewed primarily as a personal matter. But in the last few years, it has been thrust back into the political sphere by a series of lawsuits over the Affordable Care Act’s so-called contraceptive mandate. To be sure, some of those who, like Walker, question the morality of contraception would be happy to see fewer young women on birth control, but for most of them, this is not a question of public policy. If anything, Republican posturing on contraception may have repelled some otherwise sympathetic young people. Hall said many of her conservative students who may be open to questioning its use on a personal level are appalled by political rhetoric that suggests they shouldn’t be able to choose for themselves. As Walker put it, “What we saw with the whole Hobby Lobby stuff is that contraception is one of America’s sacraments.”

Still, some of the questions raised by the new generation of doubters may resonate even with those who have no moral qualms about the pill: Why do so many women feel pressure to postpone childbearing until the last possible biological moment? Why do stable couples fear that a child will ruin their lives? And why has our culture put more energy into extending women’s fertility window than into remaking the workplace to accommodate parenthood?

Of course, it’s possible to raise those issues without forgoing contraception altogether. Even the most passionate rejecters of birth control concede that it’s not always easy or practical to go without one of the most life-changing tools of the modern era. “It requires discipline and self-sacrifice, and those are never going to be popular things,” Fisher said. “I’m 40 years old and I’m sick and tired of natural family planning, I’ll be honest with you.” She is pregnant and expecting her 10th child. 

Editor's note: This version of the story corrects the date of Al Mohler's statement on contraception. 

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