Procreation, Birth Control, and Choice
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.