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Procreation, Birth Control, and Choice

2012 February 21

I have a feeling this post is going to get me in trouble with some people. This is a conversation that is so polarizing in our culture that it has become impossible to explore why we hold the views we do and the ways they have shaped our culture without being accused of betraying one side or the other. But I’ve been in an interesting place recently as I’ve been listening to the political rhetoric about birth control as well as almost coincidentally reading traditional church teaching on the sacrament of marriage for my ethics class in seminary. And while I fully admit to not agreeing with all that I have been reading (and acknowledge that the theological stance of the church rarely translates into the understandings of the masses), it is helping me to see the underlying point behind the impulse that has unfortunately become a war against birth control and women. So this post is my thinking aloud as I work through class discussions in relation to these recent debates.

Let me come out and say that I agree with the premise that one of the purposes of marriage is procreation. But by that I do not assume as it is taught by the Catholic Church (and recently adopted by evangelicals) that sex (marriage?) therefore must be limited to being between a man and a woman who must be open to conceiving children with every sex act. Procreation has unfortunately been co-opted into a very limited (and very culturally modern) view of family that assumes simply producing children is the ultimate goal. But the procreative orientation is far bigger than that.

Marriages should be procreative because all relationships should be oriented around encouraging and welcoming new life in all its forms. Sometimes this involves the bearing of children or the adoption of children into one’s household, but it also simply involves an openness to accepting responsibility for others. Partners, friends, communities all should be procreative – they should encourage life and take responsibility for caring for others in this world. Instead of selfishly turning inward to care only for one’s personal wants and needs (as an individual, couple, or community), it is to accept that we are all responsible for the well-being or the shalom of others. To be procreative is to care for not just our own children, but to support the children in our neighborhood or church by willingly sacrificing our time to care for and serve them. It is caring for the children in our global community who lack proper nutrition, or access to clean water and health care. It is to care enough to work to stop human trafficking and sex slavery that deny many children around the world a right to a whole and healthy life.

To be in relationship is to commit to support and sustain life in such ways. Marriage, at least in the way the church has traditionally understood it, is a public covenant of that commitment. Yes, some influenced by the cultural definition that marriage is simply about feelings of love or two people trying to make each other happy, have accepted a similarly limiting definition of procreation as only being about the biological production of children. For some this restrictive stance leads them to seeing children as choices not as blessed members of the community. So when marriage is just about two people in love, then children are something that the couple must either be protected from (so therefore we must have safe-sex to prevent the unwanted dependency of children) or it is something that couples simply add on as if they were an accessory to make the family picture look complete. On the opposite extreme, this limited view produces the idea that one can impose through legislation restrictions against birth control, same-sex unions, and women’s agency. When individual choice and happiness are the guiding reasons for doing anything, morality (of any sort) can only be imposed by law and sadly gets reduced to such absurd extremes in the process.

When Mike and I got married we chose as our wedding “hymn” “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” We had a number of people question that choice since the song isn’t about romantic love (what people often assume the sole point of marriage is), but love for God and neighbor. But we knew that we were not entering into a relationship just for our sake, but to mutually strengthen each other to better serve God in this world – be that through one day caring for children or through accepting responsibility for caring for the local and global communities we are a part of. We did end up procreating by having children of our own, but even as we seem to fit this culture’s assumed normative ideas of marriage, we constantly try to work to expand what it means to be in relation with each other and our community. I don’t accept that as a mom my sole responsibility is to make my husband happy and to pour myself into my kids (which these days seems to simply just be about who can pretend to live-up to the perfection of one’s Pinterest board). Yes, loving and caring for my husband and kids is part of my responsibility, but so is loving mercy, seeking justice, and walking humbly with God. I am procreative in my so-called heteronormative marriage – but so are my single friends, my gay and lesbian friends, my childless married friends, and yes, even my children as they learn to live in communally loving and responsible ways.

I reject the absurdity of the birth control debate not just because it is hurtful, but because it misses the point. But at the same time I reject the cultural lie that my individual choices are all that matter. We are all part of a community and therefore our relationships cannot just be about meeting our personal needs, but instead must procreatively support and nurture life in all its forms. If birth control helps some people actually be more supportive of life, then let’s celebrate and fund it. Sadly birth control is often simply viewed as a matter of choice which has allowed us to view children simply as a threat to our (false sense of) independence or as an accessory to our constructed life. But banning or limiting birth control so as to impose a limited idea of procreation onto all people doesn’t solve that problem. To truly support a traditional view of the intent of procreation the place to start is instead to encourage people to think more communally, to see themselves as responsible for caring for the needs of their local, national, and global community (which might include having children), and to work to support and encourage life in whatever ways they can within those relationships. That is what good marriages – good relationships – should do. But somehow I don’t see those publicly speaking out against birth control these days deciding to call people to live communally and to support life (and children) by seeking justice for the poor and the suffering.

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. February 21, 2012

    Well said Julie – I love the idea of being pro-creative in all of our relationships, thank you for that thought. wonderful to hear a larger voice calling us to expand, not decrease in this conversation.

    And on a lighter note…You don’t live up to your Pinterest boards? Unfollow! :)

  2. February 21, 2012

    Beautifully said.

  3. Mich permalink
    February 21, 2012

    Have you read, “Rights Talk” by Mary Ann Glendon?

  4. Dom permalink
    February 21, 2012

    Great thoughts Julie! Your posts are always interesting and thought provoking. Love your choice of a wedding hymn. “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love” always moves me, since it captures the essence of what it means to be Christian. (In my opinion)

  5. Lily permalink
    February 22, 2012

    Amen! Keep preaching sistah!

  6. February 22, 2012

    There is a beauty in your use of procreate as a verb outside of its normal limited meaning … instead of just bringing forth life … going forth into Creation … with our Creator … to create new life in others. There is something mystical in that. Haven’t quite wrapped my heart around it yet. Thank you, Julie.

    • February 22, 2012

      In the reading I’ve been doing for class I kept encountering the Catholic teaching that that infertile or older couples can still fulfill the procreative aspect of marriage by caring for children in the community (i.e. fulfilling the baptismal covenant they made to that child as part of the congregation). The traditional teaching usually asserts that if one can have natural child then one should, but that expansion of procreation for all captured my attention. It is still procreation. Why can it not be expanded to all as well since the impulse itself is larger than just bearing children? Like you the idea is just rolling around my head as I try to work through it.

      • March 1, 2012

        I find this understanding of procreation wonderfully expansive and nurturing. It has certainly sparked some thoughts in my mind. Wonderful – thank you.

  7. February 22, 2012

    There is also the matter of the fact that birth control is important for other medical reasons that have nothing to do with procreation or not — and may even do with preserving the ability to procreate in the future.

    Sandra Fluke, one of the witness who was not allowed to testify before Congress, spoke about the effects of Georgetown not covering birth control in student health coverage on The Young Turks last night. One of the stories she told was about a young woman who had a condition that required treatment using hormonal birth control (I believe it was PCOS but I can’t recall). She couldn’t afford it and lost an ovary.

    So for the virtue of preserving procreation, this rule…limited a young woman’s ability to procreate in the future?

  8. Autumn permalink
    March 5, 2012

    I’m simply curious about one thing here . . . In not taking the view that birth control is meant to prevent pregnancy when prescribed by a doctor, are you for or against the birth control policy Obama wants to put in place? I ask because I know of at least two women who’ve had to be on birth control, not to prevent pregnancy, but to help regulate their hormones during their menstrual cycles. The one, who is still quite young, has suffered very heavy bleeding and severe cramps during her cycle, and the only thing keeping her from being debilitated on her cycle is the use of birth control.

    I do find your thoughts on procreation to be quite interesting (and I can see why Mike would be so madly in love with you :)). I know I personally feel that birth control should be something covered as preventative medicine because of the two women I mentioned. Of course, with any debate, there are always going to be pros and cons.

    Thank you for writing this. It’s quite refreshing.

    • March 5, 2012

      To clarify, I’m not against birth control to prevent pregnancy or for other medical reasons (and yes I support Obama’s plan). I think we’ve allowed the use of birth control to alter how we view children. I fully support that there are times when it is best for a couple (and more supportive of life in general) to prevent pregnancy, and so support birth control. But wish we as a culture could have meaningful conversations about how we value children and life. I’m not going to oppose giving birth control to someone who wants it only because they don’t give a shit about the world or anyone else and only want to live for themselves because not wanting children is just one tiny part of a problematic worldview. I just wish as a culture we could openly acknowledge that such life-denying worldview is problematic.

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