Contraception is the term used to describe an intentional prevention of the conception of a child. This term may also be used to describe the intentional prevention of pregnancy, which may be defined differently from conception.
Until about 1970, all Orthodox churches opposed the use of contraception. Since that time a "new consensus" has emerged, mostly, but not exclusively in America. This new view basically holds that contraception is acceptable within a Christian marriage if:
- 1) the means of contraception is not abortifacient,
- 2) if it is used with the blessing of one's spiritual father, and
- 3) if children are not completely excluded from the marriage.
The statement on marriage and family from the 10th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America follows along these lines:
This "new consensus" has not gone unchallenged. Some teach the traditional view of the Church, that it is sinful to artificially separate the pleasure of intercourse from God's purpose of procreation. Others hold a view somewhat similar to the Roman Catholic position, which would allow family planning in principle, i.e., Natural Family Planning, while at the same time opposing contraception—many Orthodox hierarchs and theologians from around the world lauded Humanae Vitae when it was issued. A few think the "new consensus" position is too conservative and more freely allow contraception.
Many people, on all sides, believe that this change in thinking on this issue of contraception has not received adequate examination. Too often it has become tied up in identity politics, with various groups accusing the other of western influence. It is true that this discussion is closely related to a number of complex issues that have not fully been addressed in Orthodox theology. Roman Catholics are sometimes bewildered by how the Orthodox Church could allow such a change in teaching. One might respond by saying that the dynamics of the Orthodox tradition function much differently than Rome's, and that this issue must be worked through in a manner quite different from a magisterial decree.
It must be noted that the Fathers of the Church, such as Ss. Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius the Great, John Chrysostom, Epiphanios, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Caesarious, Gregory the Great, Augustine of Canterbury and Maximos the Confessor, all explicitely condemned contraception, whether abortive or non-abortive. As of yet, there is yet to be a single Orthodox Saint who did not consider the use of contraception to be a grave sin.
Vocal opponents to the current secularized view of contraception in Orthodoxy include [incomplete]: Bp. Hilarion of Vienna [ROC], Fr. Josiah Trenham, Fr. Patrick Reardon, Fr. John Schroedel
Methods of family planning can be broken down into five categories: Natural Family Planning, withdrawal, barrier contraceptives, hormonal contraceptives, and sterilization. A distinction is implicit here between birth control or family planning and contraception. Whereas the former terms may include all five categories, "contraception" is usually reserved for those methods which more directly inhibit or act against conception.
Natural Family Planning
Even many people who accept the "new consensus" position as outlines above think that Natural Family Planning (NFP) is superior to contraception. It is often said that the dynamics of NFP (similar to the fasts of the Church) serve as a kind of catechesis for marital sexuality, emphasizing the need for self-control and honoring God-given fertility while at the same time recognizing the need for intimacy and allowing for a responsible family planning. NFP is also useful for couples having difficulty conceiving. Additionally, because of the awareness of the woman's cycle that it brings it can also help a woman spot health risks manifested through irregularities in the cycle.
Modern methods of Natural Family Planning differ greatly from the old "rhythm" method, which worked by marking days on a calendar and required a regular cycle length to be effective. NFP can be used by women with irregular cycles, as well as by women who are breastfeeding or pre-menopausal. With proper use, NFP is as effective as the Pill.
Besides being ineffective, methods of withdrawal have traditionally been opposed by the Church as over-indulgence of the flesh.
Intrauterine devices (IUD)
The presence of a device in the uterus prompts the release of substances hostile to both sperm and eggs; the presence of copper increases this spermicidal effect. However, the same effect is believed to harm developing embryos. While the primary mechanism of the IUD is spermicidal/ovicidal, post-fertilization mechanisms are believed to contribute significantly to their effectiveness. Because Christians define fertilization as the beginning of life, this secondary effect is considered by them as early abortion.
- The Pill: Addressing the Scientific and Ethical Questions of the Abortifacient Issue - A collection of recent scholarly articles and statements edited by Linda Bevington and Russell DiSilvestro [Links to ordering info and a description of the booklet]
- Does the Birth Control Pill Cause Abortions? - A very helpful and easy to read booklet by Randy Alcorn. The full version is online in various formats, and there is a minimal charge for a print copy.
- The Growing Debate about the Abortifacient Effect of the Birth Control Pill and the Principle of the Double Effect - by Dr. Walt L. Larimore
- Postfertilization Effects of Oral Contraceptives and Their Relationship to Informed Consent - Article by Dr. Walter L. Larimore
- PBS aired a documentary a little while ago on "The Pill." Their extensive website contains video interviews, social history and documentary, a contraception timeline, a flash presentation of how the Pill works, internet links, and many other resources. A transcript of the television show is also available online.
- Government Lists All Estrogens Used in Oral Contraceptives, Hormone Replacement Therapy as 'Known Human Carcinogens'
- Pilltruth.com - More information about hormonal contraceptives
- Engelhardt, H. Tristram, Jr. Foundations of Christian Bioethics. Swets & Zeitlinger, 2000. See especially Chapter Five.
- Evdokimov, Paul. The Sacrament of Love: The Nuptial Mystery in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition. Crestwood: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985. See especially pp. 174-180.
- Meyendorff, John. Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, second expanded edition. Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1975. See especially Chapter Thirteen.
- Sherrard, Philip. "Humanae Vitae: Notes on the Encyclical Letter of Pope Paul VI," in Sobornost 5:8 (1969).
- Zaphiris, Chrysostomos. "The Morality of Contraception: An Eastern Orthodox Opinion," in The Journal of Ecumenical Studies 11:4 (1974).
- Zion, William Basil. Eros and Transformation: Sexuality and Marriage: An Eastern Orthodox Perspective. Lanham: University Press of America, 1992. Chapter Seven is entitled "Orthodoxy and Contraception."