by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
(With responses by Kendra Weddle and Melanie Springer Mock)
During the first year of our marriage, my husband and I did not use birth control of any kind. Eleven months after the wedding, I gave birth to our first child.
According to the July 2012 Guttmacher Institute Fact Sheet, “Couples who do not use any method of contraception have an approximately 85% chance of experiencing a pregnancy over the course of a year.” So we were true to the statistics—although our story took place in the latter part of the 1950s, not 2012.
The question you’re probably wondering is why had we made such a decision?
After all, we were not Roman Catholic, obeying church doctrine; nor were we working for an employer who refused to cover contraception as part of a health insurance policy, thus making contraception unaffordable. (In fact, most health insurance policies excluded contraception until the 1990s when a few states enacted laws requiring at least some such coverage, but more than half did not).
Nor did we live in one of the states that still had laws that restricted the advertising or selling of contraceptives, the strictest of which was Connecticut where, from 1879 to 1965, a law was in effect that said “any person who uses any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purposes of preventing conception” would be faced with a fine and the possibility of going to prison. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that law (the harshest of all such laws) in 1965 on the grounds that it violated the right to marital privacy.
In the 1950s, none of these matters were on our minds as a young Christian couple. If you had asked me if my pregnancy was an unplanned or unintended one, I would probably have said, “No, it was not unplanned. It was planned by God, intended by God.”
And from the first moment I laid eyes on my wonderful baby son, I considered him a gift from God. Still do. But now I know this would have been true whether or not we had used contraception and planned the timing of the first child. I consider my second son, carefully planned for and born a few years later, equally a gift of God.
At the time we entered marriage, however, my then husband and I were 21-year-old evangelical Christians who were trying to live what was called the “deeper Christian life” that we had read so much about. We believed God was in charge of every part of our lives, down to the tiniest detail, and it was not at all an implausible leap of faith to believe we could and should simply trust God to give us children according to the “if and when” of God’s own plan.
We did not belong to a formal movement or church that indoctrinated us with this idea, nor did we ever discuss this decision with anyone at all—ever. Things like this just weren’t talked about. There was certainly no “Quiverfull movement” urging us to have as many children as possible. But entirely on our own, throughout our engagement, we talked about and prayed about the decision not to use contraception when we became husband and wife. And we were convinced that this decision, practiced during the first year of our marriage, was an indication of our total surrender to God’s will.
But then one day, not long after I had become a mother, my family doctor (who had cared for me throughout my pregnancy and also delivered the baby and cared for him and me afterward) said he wanted to talk with me. He said he was worried that we might have another child right away. “I’m concerned about your health,” he said. “It’s really hard on a woman’s body to have children too close together. Your body needs a rest, and it’s better for the baby, too.Taking care of a little one takes a lot of energy. Spacing children is wise and in the best interest of the whole family.”
He talked about the methods of birth control available at the time—the barrier methods. (The pill was still in the development stage at the time and didn’t receive FDA approval until a few years later in 1960.) But I took my doctor’s advice seriously, reasoned that God had given us brains and expected us to make wise decisions, and I knew I could view caring for my health, including spacing childbirths, as wise stewardship of my body— not a lack of trust in God.
The dearth of information sources years ago
With all the books, articles, television programs, workshops, and Internet resources on religion and sexuality available now in 2013, it’s hard to realize how few there were then. The two books most familiar to me from within the evangelical circles of that time were the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship publication, Heirs Together: A Christian Approach to the Privileges and Responsibilities of Sex, and a British publication called The Sanctity of Sex. Both were published in 1948,and neither addressed birth control, except for one brief reference in a section of Heirs Together addressing certain women’s health issues that might make avoidance of pregnancy necessary and thus require “either complete sexual abstinence, or the use of contraceptives (with all their uncertainties), or sterilization. . . ,” all of which, said the authors, raised questions beyond the scope of the book! That was it!
Among evangelical Protestants at least, it seemed to be taken for granted that every couple would somehow find their own way and could feel free to decide for themselves what to do about contraception, how many children to have and when to have them, and even whether or not to have any children at all. It was for the most part seen as a personal matter—not something that needed to be dictated by outside authorities, religious or otherwise.
And so it has been—until some of the recent rhetoric and lawsuits have appeared on the scene as the result of an extreme form of religious and political conservatism joining together.
In Birth Control and the Christian (the 1969 book resulting from the 1968 “Protestant Symposium on the Control of Human Reproduction” that I discussed in a September 2012 FemFaith essay). one of the participants, Dr. M.O. Vincent wrote: “There is no specific text in Scripture to settle the contraception issue for us. The overall Scriptural view of the nature of God, man, marriage and sexual intercourse leads, however, to the view that we have a right to contraception control.” (From chapter 12, “Moral Considerations in Contraception.”)
He went on to write in detail about why contraception is important for the good of families, society, and even for the entire world in light of the population explosion and its attendant problems. Participants in the Symposium, co-sponsored by Christianity Today and the Christian Medical Society, appeared to hold similar views. They discussed sterilization, contraception, and abortion in a reasoned and respectful way without anyone’s insistence that there was only one absolute view that all Christians must adhere to. Individual freedom to make up one’s own mind was important.
The book that resulted from the symposium was published by Tyndale House Publishers, one of the companies now suing the government over the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that coverage of contraceptives must be included in health insurance offered by employers—and without cost to the recipient of such preventive care.
Among the Christian schools also suing is the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, even though, to its embarrassment, the college was discovered to have already been covering contraception (including emergency contraception), totally apart from the mandate. According to a Huffington Post report based on information from a spokesperson for the college’s legal team, the school then “tried to scramble to get rid of that coverage in order to qualify for the one-year reprieve President Barack Obama put in place for religious institutions that have moral objections to contraception.”
Why all the controversy now?
So what is going on with all the complaints, scare tactics, and lawsuits about the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act—a mandate that many women greeted with joy and relief? (According to the Guttmacher Institute, the average woman who would like to have two children will have to use contraception for thirty years of her life—which can be very expensive.)
I’m guessing several things are going on. First, I think there are genuine Christian moral convictions held by some, and I told my own story to show I understand fully why someone might personally make a decision not to use contraception—although that should not give anyone the right to stop all others from having access to birth control.
Second, when the Affordable Care Act specifies that all FDA approved contraceptives must be covered by an employer’s health insurance for employees, some people have seen this as endorsing what they are erroneously calling abortifacients. Many people don’t fully understand reproductive biology. Here’s a good article from The National Catholic Reporter that attempts to set the record straight by providing facts that can remove a lot of the fear of IUDs and emergency contraception.
Third, I believe much of the furor many Christian conservatives are stirring up over the contraception coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act is actually just a matter of political ideology that defines this issue as “government overreach,” running contrary to their ideas of small government—very inconsistent ideas, I might add, especially when it comes to women’s health and reproduction. If there is any place where the religious right wants BIG government, it’s in issues concerning women’s bodies. Rick Santorum, for example, said states have a perfect right to outlaw contraception. And one doesn’t have to look far to see the extreme measures many state legislatures have been taking to make the termination of pregnancy almost impossible, regardless of reason, even though this week marks 40 years since the Supreme Court ruled that women have the constitutional right to safe, legal abortions.
Last, and this may be at the real heart of it, the availability of contraception makes it possible for women to plan their education, their careers — their very lives— in a way that was not possible before. Some of the reaction against contraception is really a backlash against all that women can now be and do in a way that was not possible before effective contraception. No longer does a woman have to wonder anxiously every month about whether or not she’ll have her period. Those who believe women were created primarily for childbearing and childrearing resent the freedom now possible for the female sex.
That’s my take on what has been going on. Now I’m eager to hear what Melanie and Kendra have to say about all this!
Serving Society No Child at a Time—A Response by Kendra Weddle
“I do not want to have children,” I said, dropping what I imagined was a bomb to my then serious boyfriend who would eventually become my husband.
My reasons for this decision were, like Letha’s, driven by my faith but aligned in a very different way. I believed because of my childhood experiences of rural America where families were almost entirely formed by two parents, a husband who farmed or worked outside the home, and a wife who stayed home to cook and clean and make sure everything maintained an even keel, in order to have children myself, either my husband or I would need to stay home.
And, I didn’t want to.
Credit my youth leaders or pastors or farming background. Somewhere, despite the conservative impulse to assume child-rearing meant someone needed to be primarily in charge, I, nevertheless, entertained the then radical notion that my career (one I assumed would relate to Christian ministry in some way or another) could trump my presumed role as mother.
And, make no mistake about it; even though my boyfriend-turned-husband decided he, too, was satisfied with a life without children, many of our extended family and family friends believed this was a monumental problem. One church woman took me aside after news had eventually circulated that the reason we did not have children after a few years of marriage was because we didn’t intend to. She sternly informed me that this decision not to have children was the most selfish decision I could make and I should feel guilty for having forced such a commitment on my husband who surely was disappointed he had married me, given my horrific baggage.
While I never have felt guilty, really, I do remember many sleepless nights during graduate school when after noticing my period was late, I felt deep anxiety about how having a baby would completely disrupt my life. How would I finish school? How would we absorb the additional costs? Would we need to move closer to relatives?
Fortunately, our forms of contraception always worked and we never had to face the situation I often feared, especially during the long years of graduate school. I simply cannot imagine my life without being grateful for the decision-making possibilities that, a few years earlier, would have been unimaginable.
Contraception enabled me to create the life I could envision rather than being forced to make a life out of circumstances beyond my control.
This choice made possible by reproductive science is one seldom celebrated, especially in this era of so-called traditional family values. But I think we would do well to acknowledge, at least occasionally, the societal benefits when a familial unit opts for no children.
Instead of being selfish, I often think this decision has cultural benefits and serves society in important ways. One of the most environmentally-conscious things someone can do to reduce our human footprint is to not have children knowing the demands of population growth are challenging our natural environment beyond is ability to sustain us. And, each year when we pay our property taxes which fund our local schools, I’m reminded of how much money we put into the education system, a service we help provide but one we do not use.
Less tangible, but no less real, I often think of the benefits childless workers give to their employers though without recognition. We usually take fewer days off work because we are not staying home with a sick child or taking one to an appointment. We arrive early and leave late, often giving more time to our jobs because we can. When our colleagues are busy attending to their families, we cover for them. We buy numerous products our friends and colleagues sell us because they are raising money for their children’s extra-curricular events.
While the conservative movement has created and maintained loud opposition to contraception in the Quiverfull guise of creating as many babies as possible as God’s intended desire, or in the name of growing old with no one to care for you as a recent blogger suggested, or as a bizarre claim that there is a dire need for more, not fewer, people on this planet, I hope we can celebrate contraception for the range of choices it provides women, and for the idea that family planning, in all its wondrous diversity, is a good thing. Indeed, very good.
School Fundraisers, the Military, and the Affordable Care Act: Where Should our Money Go? —A Response by Melanie Springer Mock
Those school fundraiser projects Kendra mentions in her post, the ones she supports even though she doesn’t have children? We have ‘em, in spades. There’s a brochure for cookie dough sales on our counter right now, part of a new campaign to raise funds so my boys’ fifth grade class can attend outdoor school this spring.
Because I recognize the burdens these fundraisers place on others, we generally just write the school a check without asking anyone else, not even family members, to contribute. And in this case, we’ll be eating a lot of cookie dough come April, which I suppose is a better deal than having to stash wrapping paper everywhere or buying lots of magazine subscriptions—the other major fundraisers in our town.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our schools were funded adequately, so children wouldn’t have to become miniature door-to-door sales people, hawking stuff no one wants? Yet fundraising projects in our town pay for educational experiences that, in my time at least, were financed by taxes rather than companies who skim huge profits off of cookie dough and wrapping paper sales.
Surely you’ve seen the poster wondering how society might be different if the United States military held bake sales to fund its projects, and public schools received the enormous budget the military now enjoys. This idea, which of course critiques our bloated military spending, is not only interesting to ponder, but has helped me understand my own anger about the Affordable Care Act conversation currently playing out among many evangelical Christians.
In early January, Her.menuetics, the Christianity Today blog about women’s issues, published an article titled “Hobby Lobby: The First Martyr Under Obamacare?” The headline alone caused my blood to boil, just a little; for me and my denominational history as a Mennonite, martyrdom is more about Anabaptists being burned at the stake and having their tongues cut out than about a multi-billion dollar corporation trying to dodge an insurance mandate. (That the writer, Karen Swallow Prior, uses language like Hobby Lobby “going to the rack” makes the allusion even more hard to, um, swallow.)
According to the article, Hobby Lobby is opposing the Affordable Health Care Act because it refuses to “pay for abortion-inducing drugs,” and as a result, may be charged with substantial fines that will, Swallow Prior writes, mean “the death knell for the company.” The company’s Christian owners believe remaining in compliance with the Affordable Health Care Act would violate their religious beliefs. Because Hobby Lobby is a corporation, rather than a religious institution, they are not eligible for exemption, and so may be punished with a fine of $1.3 million per day if they do not comply with the law.
Many would argue that the stance of Hobby Lobby’s owners shows a fundamental misunderstanding of contraception and its biological functions, a misunderstanding Letha describes in her post. Beyond this, there are parts of Swallow Prior’s argument—and that made by many opponents of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate—that reflect a certain narrow-mindedness when it comes to religious liberty, morality, and the role each of us play in a democracy.
Because, fundamentally, Hobby Lobby and Swallow Prior, et al., are arguing that they should not have to pay for something they find morally reprehensible, and that doing so violates the religious liberty offered every American in the constitution. Writes Swallow Prior: “What Roe v. Wade did to this country by judicial fiat in permitting abortion-on-demand is not even in the same category as requiring private citizens to violate their consciences and their most deeply held religious convictions by personally participating in acts they find immoral and unconscionable.”
So I wonder, is the Affordable Health Act in the same category as requiring a pacifist to violate her conscience and her most deeply held religious convictions by paying taxes every year into a system that funds a military whose budget is six to seven times larger than China, and more than the next 20 countries’ military budgets, combined? Should companies owned by pacifists have the same opportunity to oppose paying taxes that fund the military, without penalty?
Of course not. This pacifist will continue to pay taxes, despite feeling unsettled about what I see as the morally reprehensible use of my money to support, for example, drone strikes against innocent Pakastanis. Other Christian business owners will continue to pay their taxes, recognizing the crucial role a democracy plays in the health of their business—and the health of their business, in a democracy.
Hopefully, those who oppose the Affordable Health Care Act will recognize that banning contraception is not a “deeply held religious conviction” many, or even most, Christians hold. (According to a Guttmacher Institute survey, 74 percent of evangelical Christian women who were sexually active used some form of birth control as of 2011.)
Refraining from using contraception has never been a religious conviction I’ve deeply held, which makes this argument all the more perplexing—and frustrating—to me. I started using hormonal birth control in my mid-20s, far before I became sexually active, to alleviate symptoms from painful periods that came too often. Even then, when I took the pill for medical reasons, I paid out of pocket for my prescription, because somehow taking this medication is my burden to bear in ways it isn’t for a heart patient, taking Coumadin, or (in the case of some insurance companies) the impotent needing Viagra.
In the years since, I’ve continued to take birth control pills for health reasons, and to prevent pregnancies, as my husband and I decided we wanted to adopt several boys already existing in the world and needing a family, rather than bearing biological children. Though I would have happily accepted any children born to me, too, I was grateful that contraception gave our family the space to make the right choices for us, and never saw my use of contraception as a violation of my conscience.
According to some estimates, nearly 75 percent of evangelical Christians feel the same way; and, as Letha notes, in another time, even an evangelical leader could see contraception as a “good” for family planning without being labelled a heretic.
So why are so many Christians fighting the Affordable Care Act now? Why are some folks willing to honor a corporation as a religious martyr? And why isn’t there the same outrage for other “deeply held convictions” of the faithful, like the obscene use of money to fund war and the killing of women and children, and the seeming lack of concern to educate the yet-to-be-even-conceived some evangelicals seem so intent on saving?
Great reflections, as usual. As a fellow Mennonite, my feelings and attitudes mirror Melanie’s to a T. All this saber-rattling about religious convictions on contraception make me gag–knowing most of the same people couldn’t care less about all the Iraqi, Afghan, or Pakistani pregnancies our military has interrupted, let alone the born people they have killed or wounded for life. I have no patience with what seems mostly like anti-Obama ideological manipulation.
Reading your comments, especially Letha’s history with contraception, made me think of my own family system and heritage. If I were writing an essay about it, I might title it, “Thank God for the Mumps!” That seemed to be the only method of birth control in my ancestral story.
My maternal grandmother bore five children in less than 10 years, and then got the mumps, which obviously made her sterile–or who knows what would have happened to this very poor family trying to survive the Great Depression.
My paternal grandmother was an only child–for the reason that her father got the mumps after her conception, which made him sterile. In contrast, this young woman bore 5 children in 6 years–dying at age 29 from complications with the last baby. My father was 4 years old at the time and had to grow up with no mother and with an aunt who preferred his sisters, and who kicked and verbally abused him.
So I’m grateful for the mumps and grateful indeed that we have better methods of contraception today!
BTW, last Sunday, January 27, Bill Moyers interviewed two women in recognition of the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade. One was from the ACLU and the other a Latina working with an organization supporting Latina women. They were very articulate and convincing. Check it out on PBS.org.