Ask a friend to name a few individuals who especially shaped our lives in the 21st century and you’re likely to hear names such as Henry Ford, Susan B. Anthony, maybe Karl Marx, or even Sigmund Freud. Few people you ask, if any, would mention Carl Djerassi. Yet this Austrian-born chemist concocted, by accident, something that changed our lives more significantly than anything that was developed in Steven Job’s Palo Alto garage.
Djerassi (pronounced jer-AH-see) died last month at the age of ninety-one, and the world will never be the same because he lived. Dr. Djerassi, you see, stumbled on to what we call “the pill.” Sixty-three years ago, on October 15, 1951, Djerassi was in Mexico City with two other chemists, and they figured out how to synthesize a progestin called norethindrone. This low-cost ingredient was key in what came to be the first oral contraceptive. These chemists originally thought they had created a breakthrough for fertility. Instead the opposite. After the pill started being sold over the counter, fertility rates dropped dramatically and continue to do so fifty-five years later.
At last, or so we thought, sex was severed from procreation. A sexual revolution was upon us. Women had a new and unprecedented control over fertility. Couples could do something called “family planning,” spacing their children as they saw fit. Careers flourished while family size shrank. Children were no longer a surprise; instead they were, a choice. But those were not the only changes. In addition, promiscuity blossomed along with sexually transmitted diseases and an abortion industry unthinkable before the advent of the pill. Erotic freedom took the pole position in a society that became increasingly preoccupied with its own fulfillment. Birth rates dropped, marriage rates decreased, and divorce rates skyrocketed.
Last summer Time featured on its cover a happy couple lying on the beach. Alone. The title of the cover story? “The Childfree Life: When Having It All Means Not Having Children.” Open to pages 38-39 and on the right-hand page you see on the white sandy beach a father burdened with a wife, kids, and a cart of toys in tow. On the left we see the same couple featured on the cover. They sit alone, toasting with what looks to be champagne, and we read in bold letters, NONE IS ENOUGH.
Is none enough? According to Time it is. Lauren Sandler, author of the cover story, quotes both women and men who have chosen not to have children, and the vast majority of them claim to have fulfilled lives and to be thankful for their choice. One childless woman rejoices, My plans… are free from all the contingencies that come with children. Another weighs in, My main motive not to have kids was that I loved my life the way it was.
Indeed, childlessness is epidemic in the western world. A woman living in Niger bears, on average, seven children. A German or an Italian woman bears 1.4 children. A woman in the United States bears only 2.0 children, a number that puts us below the replacement rate.
Do we have a problem here? Should we be concerned about the choice to go childless? With over 7 billion people populating planet Earth, should we be concerned that some people are choosing to not have children? I like what Kathleen Nielson wrote in response to Time’s cover story last August. In an online essay with The Gospel Coalition called “The Problem of the Childfree Life,” Nielson insightfully writes that the fundamental problem with choosing to go childless is not selfishness. Neither is it narcissism, nor is it that childlessness threatens the whole of our economic stability (see Jonathan Last, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting). Instead, Nielson sees the phenomenon of voluntary childlessness as a fundamental forgetting of God.
God, Nielson writes, is both the Creator of life and the Giver of life, and children are his blessing. To segregate sex completely from child-bearing, to isolate the joy of sex from the fruit of sex, is fundamentally an affront to the God who designed us male and female. To sever the link between the exhilaration of intercourse and the child who might show up nine months later is to miss the depth of joy that God has for us in fruitfulness.
Our own Tremper Longman recently wrote a book with his friend Dan Allender entitled God Loves Sex. That’s quite a title—and a very true statement. God loves sex; he invented it. In the book’s wonderful interaction with the book in our Bible called Song of Songs, the authors point out something you may have noticed. In all of Song of Songs, which is basically an erotic love poem extolling the joy of sex, neither pregnancy nor children are ever mentioned directly.
The purpose of avoiding direct mention of children is to accentuate that sex is prized for the pleasure of it and how it draws a husband and a wife closer, not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. To put it another way, the purpose of sex is not only, or even primarily, for the production of children, but for the joy of it. (pp. 141-142)
Allender and Longman are right: sex is, indeed, intended for pleasure. But it is intended for more than pleasure. In a word, sex makes babies. At least it usually does. For some, infertility is a nightmare. But in the past few hundred years, we have taken increasingly heroic measures to ensure that sex doesn’t make babies, and we are the less for our efforts.
Carl Djerassi is the father of a pill that led our culture to believe that children are a choice. Christians, on the other hand, see children as gifts from God to be cherished. Kathleen Neilson clarifies:
Even we believers struggle to think straight about this distinction, amid a world full of talk about choosing to have children and when and what kind and how many. It’s a complicated subject, but for a Christian it starts with God the Creator and Giver of life. Only this God-grounded perspective lets us begin to see the worth of a child as a gift to be rightly and thankfully received. And, interestingly, only this perspective lets us see the worth of a woman to whom God grants or does not grant children. Trusting in our Creator God, we have no need to clamor for other than what he gives, or to seek to please any but him.
Dr. Djerassi is gone, but the pill that he sold us is alive and well. How should we then live after this chemist’s contribution to modern life?
Let us cultivate a healthy, celebratory understanding of sex and sexual intercourse that doesn’t allow sexual pleasure to become another idol we serve. But let us also make room for the potency of sex in the context of marriage. Indeed, procreation is one goal of marriage. Every marriage, especially every Christian marriage, should be open to the gift of children. Children are not impositions to be endured, but gifts to be enjoyed. Blessed is the man—and the woman—whose quiver is full of them!