Accepting Contraception: Common Sense Over Ideology or Theology

David Gushee

Reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies through contraception is a widely agreed upon aspect of the common good. Those who oppose contraception are free proclaim their views, but society as a whole will go its own way.

Close observers of the slow-grinding
abortion reduction/common ground discussion have undoubtedly noticed
a split within the “pro-life” camp between those who are willing
to endorse prevention programs involving contraception and those who
are not willing to do so.

It is apparent even now in
the different sign-on lists for the Ryan-DeLauro bill, which includes
contraception, and the Pregnant Women’s Support Act, which does not.

At one level, this is an evangelical-Catholic
split. Official Catholic teaching bans artificial birth control for
any practicing Catholic. Though this teaching is widely ignored, no
one speaking for the official Catholic position ever endorses policy
proposals that involve contraception. Protestant evangelicals, on the
other hand, do not have a consensus position on this issue, and there
is no official authoritative body of teaching (other than the Bible)
to which we are obligated.

But the issue is even more
complicated because over the last two decades or so, certain strands
of conservative evangelicalism have converged on the Catholic position
on contraception. This has been a noticeable development within my part
of the faith community, and its implications cannot be missed when one
begins to encounter very, very large families, as I have in recent years
among the most conservative Protestants in my world.

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Notice that these conservative
evangelicals are not just rejecting contraception as an ingredient in
public policy, but as a matter of personal morality. They have come
to conclude that using contraception violates God’s will, always and
everywhere. Usually, though not always, the conservative evangelical
turn against birth control is related to a resurgent Calvinism, in which
it is viewed as ungodly to attempt to block the number of births that
God intends for a married couple to enjoy/endure as part of his providential

There are other conservative
evangelicals who do not rule out birth control for married couples,
but do draw the line at any endorsement of contraception outside of
marriage or as an aspect of public policy related to the unmarried.
This posture is based on a basic, traditional Christian sexual ethic
in which sexual intercourse belongs in marriage and Christians must
not endorse its practice anywhere else. It is also, more subtly, based
on an approach to public policy in which evangelical Christians refuse
to support public policy measures that violate their personal moral

This has been intensified all
the more, of course, where the policies in question pertain to the young
and are delivered through the public schools. At that point, the contraception
message comes right back to the children who are being taught a very
different message by their parents at home. For many, this has been
felt to be a bridge too far.

So how is it that some politically
moderate, pro-life, evangelicals like myself are willing now to accept a prevention
plank that includes contraception.

The way I reason it out is
something like this: public policy in a democracy exists to advance
the common good. Deciding on what constitutes the common good is a
process undertaken by the entire nation and its representatives.
Discerning how best to approximate the values thus decided upon is a
process best undertaken by those with the greatest expertise
on the matter at hand.

Reducing the number both of
unwanted pregnancies, and the number of abortions, is a widely agreed
upon aspect of the common good. Not everyone agrees that one or both
of these are the right goals, but most do—based on such diverse, values-based
considerations as the devastating impact of an unwanted pregnancy particularly
on the woman involved, the morally problematic (at best) practice of
abortion, and the life-chances of children raised in high risk situations.

Everyone knows that it is logically
true that if everyone abstained from sex every time they did not want
to be open to a pregnancy, the problem we are considering would not
exist. And everyone knows that abstinence is the best policy in relation
to sexually transmitted diseases as well as unwanted pregnancies. But
for a wide variety of reasons, some perennial and some more specific
to modern culture, many people have sex (both within and outside marriage)
who do not intend pregnancy. The policy question is how to reduce the
negative impact of these choices, even while at the same time discouraging
those choices themselves. I am persuaded by the claims of data-based
policy specialists in this area that providing honest, accurate information
about contraception to anyone who is at risk of creating an unwanted
pregnancy is one of the most important policy steps that can be taken.

Support for pregnant women
is important; preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place is
at least as important. That’s why I think a prevention plus support
approach is best.

This process of reasoning reflects
the recognition that
public policy in a diverse, pluralistic society
will often involve the need for all of us to make concessions that we
find difficult to accept.
It means that there will be many occasions
when evangelical Christians will have to accept that once again we have
been unable to convince the rest of the nation (and, let’s face it,
sometimes our own kids) to adopt the values we teach and preach. We
remain free to proclaim them in our churches and teach them in our homes,
but the society as a whole will go its own way.

This is an invitation to do
a better job of evangelizing, teaching, and preaching, and not a call
to despair over our society. And if we care to make a positive, practical
impact on our society as it actually exists, we have to engage in dialogue
about, and sometimes accept, policy measures that fall short of our
highest values, but meet the needs of real people right now.

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