The Ethics Of Contraception: A Theological Assessment -- By: Dennis P. Hollinger

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 56:4 (Dec 2013)
Article: The Ethics Of Contraception: A Theological Assessment
Author: Dennis P. Hollinger

The Ethics Of Contraception:
A Theological Assessment

Dennis P. Hollinger*

* Dennis Hollinger is president and Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 130 Essex Street, South Hamilton, MA 01982.

For most of its history the Christian church has viewed the use of contraceptives in family planning with moral suspicion. The arguments against contraceptives varied, but the church’s stance was quite clear, though the issue was never paramount in the church’s thought. All of that changed in 1930 with the Anglican Lambeth Conference giving qualified ethical sanction for contraceptive use under certain conditions. Within a matter of several decades most of Protestantism followed the Lambeth trajectory. With the arrival of the Pill in 1960 the shift became complete.

What is most significant about this change is not that it happened, but that there was so little theological reflection in the process. Winds of change regarding family planning in general began to blow in the late 19th century with the revival of Malthusian sentiments regarding world population: “The basic proposition of Malthus that population tends to increase faster than food resources was frequently repeated.”1 By the early 20th century Malthusian leagues had developed in Germany, Spain, Brazil, Belgium, Cuba, Switzerland, Sweden, and Italy. They all began to promote birth control, including potential use of contraceptives, in order to control over-population and its purported social miseries. In 1923 Harvard professor Edward M. East wrote Mankind at the Crossroad, arguing that the world would reach an agriculturally unsustainable three billion by the year 2000. He contended that “[t]he world confronts the fulfillment of the Malthusian prediction here and now.”2

Up until this point the church had a unanimous, albeit infrequent, voice with regards to contraceptives, and other forms of family planning were generally not on the radar screen. In 1908 and then again in 1920 the Lambeth Conference of Bishops in the Anglican Church issued statements condemning contraception. The statement in 1920 read as follows:

We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers—physical, moral and religious—thereby incurred, and against the evils with which the extension of such use threatens the race. In opposition to the teaching which, under the name of science and religion, encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself, we steadfastly uphold what must always b...

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