Birth Control and Contraception
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A distinction is implicit here between birth control (or family planning) and contraception. The latter term is usually reserved for those methods which more directly inhibit or act against conception. Non-contraceptive methods of family planning (to limit the number and/or timing of children) include abstinence and Natural Family Planning.
Orthodox Teaching on Birth Control and Contraception
Non-contraceptive methods of family planning (to limit the number and/or timing of children) include abstinence and Natural Family Planning.
As Paul Evdokimov wrote, "In the age of the Church Fathers, the problem of birth control was never raised. There are no canons that deal with it." The Orthodox bioethicist H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., agrees, writing, "Despite detailed considerations of sexual offenses by ecumenical councils, and by generally accepted local councils, and despite a recognition that marriage is oriented toward reproduction, there is no condemnation of limiting births, apart from the condemnation of abortion."
Natural Family Planning
Many advocates of Natural Family Planning (NFP) believe it 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 detect health risks manifested through irregularities in the cycle. Modern methods of 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.
The dominant view, represented by the Church of Moscow, the Greek Archdiocese, the Orthodox Church in America, and by the bioethicists Engelhardt and Stanley S. Harakas, may be fairly described as the teaching that non-abortifacient contraception is acceptable if it is used with the blessing of one's spiritual father, and if it is not used to avoid having children for purely selfish reasons.
The position of the Greek Archdiocese of America was given by Harakas: "Because of the lack of a full understanding of the implications of the biology of reproduction, earlier writers tended to identify abortion with contraception. However, of late a new view has taken hold among Orthodox writers and thinkers on this topic, which permits the use of certain contraceptive practices within marriage for the purpose of spacing children, enhancing the expression of marital love, and protecting health."
Some would follow the earlier position taken by the Church of Greece in her encyclical of October 14, 1937, which accepted birth control but not contraception, i.e., it accepted abstinence and NFP, but condemned any method of contraception.
Where some patristic writers speak of NFP and withdrawal (coitus interruptus), they condemn it (St. Augustine , St Jerome , Clement of Alexandria). However, as John Noonan has shown, in each of these cases their position followed from their unbiblical idea, adopted from Stoic philosophy, that sexual desire was evil and thus marital intercourse was only permissible for procreation.
Although some patristic references to contraceptive herbs and potions refer to their destroying a child that is being formed in the womb after the sexual act that gave rise to it (abortion), others seem to also include the idea that these methods were also used to "sterilise" the womb to prevent this process from being initiated (St John Chrysostom in his 24th Homily on Romans and St. Caesarius of Arles.
There are also individuals who would follow the Stoic view represented by St Augustine and others, that any form of birth control or contraception other than abstinence is sinful in that the only permissible act of marital intercourse is for the purpose of procreation. Such individuals follow the typically Latin view that procreation is an essential feature of marriage, and which privilege the procreative end above the unitive. Eastern tradition typically follows St John Chrysostom in holding that procreation is a normal feature of marriage, but not essential to it.
- Marriage does not always lead to child-bearing, although there is the word of God which says, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth." We have as witnesses all those who are married but childless. So the purpose of chastity takes precedence, especially now, when the whole world is filled with our kind. At the beginning, the procreation of children was desirable, so that each person might leave a memorial of his life.... But now that resurrection is at our gates, and we do not speak of death, but advance toward another life better than the present, the desire for posterity is superfluous. If you desire children, you can get much better children now, a nobler childbirth and a better help in your old age, if you give birth by spiritual labor.
- So there remains only one reason for marriage, to avoid fornication, and the remedy is offering for this purpose.
[the following needs citations and perhaps clarification as to whether each of these reject birth control, contraception, or both)
Vocal opponents to the prevailing view of contraception in Orthodoxy today include: Metropolitan Hilarion of Vololamsk [ROC], Bp. Artemije of Kosovo [SOC], Fr. Josiah Trenham, Fr. Patrick Reardon, Fr. John Schroedel, Fr. John A. Peck, and Fr. Patrick Danielson.
Methods of Contraception
Methods of contraception can be broken down into four categories: withdrawal, barrier contraceptives, hormonal contraceptives, and sterilization.
When opponents of contraception look for biblical support for their position, they inevitably point to the story of Onan in Genesis 38, claiming that the sin committed by Onan was his commission of coitus interruptus. However, this is an almost exclusively Western reading of the text. The only Eastern Father to read the Onan account as a condemnation of contraception was St Epiphanius of Cyprus. Origen had not done so in his commentary on the passage, , nor had St John Chrysostom , nor St Ephrem the Syrian. Moreover, according to Noonan, Epiphanius had taken this position “only in the context of his anti-Gnostic polemic.” It was his friend St Jerome who was to shape the Western (mis)reading of Onan through his Vulgate, which departed significantly from both the Hebrew and Old Latin he used as the basis of his translation. In addition to adding the word for semen which is not in the original, he slants the text to make it appear that coitus interruptus was the reason he was punished by God, saying “God slew him because he did a detestable thing". But the Hebrew has only “he did not please God,” and the Old Latin that “he appeared evil before the Lord,” neither of which focuses on the act..
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
- Chrysostom, St John. On Marriage and Family Life. Crestwood: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2003.
- 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.
- Noonan, John T., Jr. Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966.
- Sherrard, Philip. "Humanae Vitae: Notes on the Encyclical Letter of Pope Paul VI," in Sobornost 5:8 (1969).
- Zaphiris, Metropolitan Chrysostomos Gerasimos. "The Morality of Contraception: An Eastern Orthodox Opinion," in The Journal of Ecumenical Studies 11:4 (1974). Note: http://jonathanscorner.com/writing/contraception/ provides a commentary on Zaphiris 1974 and an opposing views.
- 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."
- Evdokimov, p. 174.
- Engelhardt, p. 265.
- Saint, Bishop of Hippo (1887). "Chapter 18.—Of the Symbol of the Breast, and of the Shameful Mysteries of the Manichæans". In Philip Schaff. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Volume IV. Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- Jerome, Against Jovinian 1:20, (AD 393) http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/30091.htm
- Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children 2:10:91:2 (AD 191)
- Noonan, chapters III and IV.
- St John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans
- in his first Sermon)St Caeserius of Arles, (Sermons 1:12 [A.D. 522]).
- Sacred Seed, Sacred Chamber, https://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2015/05/18/sacred-seed-sacred-chamber/
- Orthodoxy, Contraception, and Spin Doctoring: A Look at an Influential but Disturbing Article, https://cjshayward.com/contraception/
- Chrysostom, pp. 85-86.
- Selections on Genesis, PG 12.129
- Homilies on Genesis 62.1, PG 54.533)
- In Genesim et in Exodum commentarii, 34.1
- Noonan, p. 101.
- See Noonan, pp. 101-102.