I’m writing this on June 23rd, the half-century anniversary of the birth control pill. The pill, as it soon came to be called, shifted the world on its axis. Life in the developed world would forever be measured BP andAP (Before the Pill and After the Pill). This revolutionary prescription drug was the first medication invented for people who weren’t even sick, and the women who swallowed the tiny pill ingested a new universe. Now sex could be free from the constraints, responsibilities, and the joys of pregnancy. Children, for single and married women alike, would now be a choice, not a consequence of sexual intercourse. Sex itself was liberated from child-rearing responsibilities. Pleasure became its sole purpose.
Oh, the ironies… The pill was invented by a conservative Roman Catholic who was trying to cure infertility when he stumbled onto a drug that prevented conception. The pill was intended to prevent pregnancy, but it gave birth to the abortion industry as our culture of sexual promiscuity was born. The pill was thought to be a savior to women weighed down and held back by the burden of child-bearing. Sex was set free from the shackles of pregnancy. But these same women were betrayed with a kiss. Men enjoyed, so to speak, a free ride from responsibility. They began to marry later, if at all. Sexually transmitted diseases increased exponentially after the advent of the pill, which also clearly promoted infertility. Women have borne fewer children since the pill: 3.6 in 1960 versus fewer than 2 today.
Think also of the irony of how the pill affected the institution of marriage. In pre-pill America, marriage was seen, at least in part, as the gateway to the pleasures of sexual intimacy. More often than not she said, No. . . Not until we are married. He said yes to the responsibilities of marriage, in part, because of the allure of her smile. But in post-pill America she is liable to say yes on the first date. Marriage, then, becomes accessory to romance, not the consummation of a couple’s attraction to each other. She and he are likely to get married, if at all, when they desire to have children. The pill brought about what might be called the great reversal. Formerly marriage was the institution that provided the environment for sexual pleasure, but now marriage is viewed as a confining institution, the environment that greatly limits sexual activity.
Of course, all of the above can’t be blamed solely on a drug, but surely the pill contributed to the climate of indulgence called the sexual revolution. As a 1966 U.S. News & World Report cover asked, “Can its availability to all women of childbearing age lead to sexual anarchy?” It seems so. . . . Hugh Hefner wrote the Playboy philosophy, publishing it in his magazine in eighteen installments. But Hefner’s philosophy really boiled down nicely to the credo of the revolution: If it feels good, do it. Morality itself was up for grabs. Ernest Hemingway, who took his own life in 1961, put it like this: What is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after. As a society, we found that C. S. Lewis was right: Repeated disobedience to conscience makes conscience blind. There was very little we felt bad about the morning after.
So, the obvious question: How should evangelical Christians view the pill? A few points for us to ponder…
First, let us cultivate a healthy, celebratory understanding of sex and sexual intercourse that doesn’t allow sexual pleasure to become another idol we serve. The world has enshrined sexual pleasure as a necessary component of a fulfilled life. The French philosopher Rene Descartes famously said, I think, therefore I am. We have upended Descartes and said, I copulate, therefore I am. Christians need to laugh at such a notion. Sex is a gift, and like all good gifts it must be received with the understanding that the gift is not ultimate, the gift is not God. The greatest man ever to live, Jesus of Nazareth, never got married and never had sex. This fact alone should disempower the notion that sex is a prerequisite to a significant life.
Second, as we approach the issue of sex and sexuality, we must revere and make room for its potency. In the late 1970s, Dr. Ed Wheat wrote Intended for Pleasure. It was something of an evangelical sex handbook extolling what Alex Comfort popularized in The Joy of Sex. Wheat’s book sold over a million copies! Fair enough, sex is intended for pleasure. But Christians must realize that sex was intended by God for something else too, and that would be the making of babies. It is probably accurate to say that people in the Western world are having more sex than anyone at any time in history. We give condoms to young people so they can do it early, and we have invented drugs for older people so they can do it late! But it is also accurate to say that we are having fewer babies than any generation heretofore. We have all but severed the link between sexual intercourse and procreation. Christians should be highly circumspect about this severed tether.
Third, we should understand procreation as one goal of marriage. The Bible teaches that children are a blessing from God and that it is a good thing if our quiver is full of them (Psalm 127:4-5). This is not to say that birth control is completely off limits for Bible-believing Christians. It is to say that every marriage should be open to the blessing of the Lord in the conception and begetting of children. Children are not impositions to be endured but gifts to be enjoyed. If we are not open to the bearing of children, we shouldn’t be getting married in the first place.
Fourth, we should take care to select birth control devices and methods that don’t destroy life. There is a world of difference between a contraceptive (something that prevents the sperm from fertilizing the egg) and an abortifacient (a device or drug that prevents a fertilized egg from being implanted in the womb). There is a debate about whether those birth control pills prevent ovulation or prevent implantation. Because we revere life that God creates, we should choose carefully between the two.
As we enter the brave new world of designer babies, family planning, and genetic engineering in this age of population control and general acceptance of the role of the pill, it is high time that the evangelical church puts into practice the convictions we profess. We live in a world that has a mentality of contraception. Our mentality, however, must be shaped by Scripture and guided by the wisdom of the church throughout the ages. Only then will we think clearly about the times in which we live and the technologies that we are allowing to shape our lives.