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A Review of Open Embrace. By Sam and Bethany Torode.

Mar 16, 2003

Eerdmans, 2002.

I was in a Protestant Christian bookshop recently and was talking about this book with the store’s manager.  When he learned of the subject, he said, “I have never really given the issue very much thought”. I said, “Neither have most other Protestants”.

Well, it is perhaps time that Protestants start giving some consideration to the issue of contraception. After all, as I mentioned to the manager, all Protestants prior to 1930 shared the same view on the issue as Catholics. That is, for the first 19 centuries of the Christian church, denominations of all stripes agreed that contraception was wrong.

It wasn’t until the Anglican Lambeth Conference of 1930 that contraception was first given tacit approval by a Christian body. And even then it was only hesitantly welcomed. But since Lambeth, a quick succession of Protestant denominations have followed suit. As a result, today almost all Protestant denominations have embraced birth control in its various forms, arguing that Christians in good faith can make use of it.

However, one has to wonder why the Christian church should have been so united for so long in denouncing the use of contraceptives. The truth is, there are many reasons why we should be suspicious of contraception.

For example, important theological issues are raised. The Bible obviously has a high view of both sexuality and children. And it certainly views fertility as a special blessing from the Creator.

Protestants have tended to forget, along with much of modern secular culture, that there is a very real link between human sexuality and procreation. True, each sex act does not need to entail procreation, but the psycho-social link has all but been lost in modern thinking. We tend to forget that the two very much go together. This is something the Catholic Church has long stressed. They have emphasised the twin pillars of sexuality: the unitive and procreative functions. While not every Catholic has accepted the Church’s teaching in this regard, it remains a bedrock  doctrine of Catholic teaching.

And since most of the Patristic writers argued this same theme, it is perhaps incorrect to label this a Catholic teaching.  It was the accepted understanding of the early church. Augustine, for example, saw three purposes for marriage: offspring, fidelity and sacrament, or as we would put it today, procreation, morality and relationship.

There are also some very real ethical concerns about contraception. The chief worry is that many contraceptives are actually abortifacients. That is, they actually kill a live unborn baby, albeit a very young one.  For example, some forms of contraception prevent the fertilised egg from implanting itself on the uterine lining, thus making it not able to receive nourishment.  It dies as a result.

The truth is, many contraceptives are wrongly called contraceptives. They do not prevent conception (that is, the union of sperm and egg). Instead they kill a tiny baby, the product of conception. For this reason, Christians of all persuasions should reject many forms of contraception just as they reject (or should reject) abortion.

And medically, there are a number of concerns about the health risks associated with contraception. The Pill, for example, is notorious for the many harmful side effects. Yet the very real health risks associated with these birth control devices are seldom clearly spelled out, and as a result, an informed choice is often difficult to make. In this respect the contraception industry is much like in the abortion industry, where the whole story is rarely given.

Social problems with birth control can also be mentioned. For example, there is the problem of declining fertility rates, experienced throughout the Western world. Even Australia’s fertility rate of 1.7 babies per woman is below the replacement level of 2.1. And it continues to decline.

As policy makers know, we are experiencing some major problems in this area. As the pool of the elderly increases, while the number of newborns decreases, political and economic problems loom. For example, who will pay for the pensions and other welfare benefits of the elderly, as the young tax base continues to shrink?

Thus for these and other reasons, we may need to take a much closer look at contraception. And this book is very good at forcing us to do just that. The authors, Protestants like myself, urge us to think more carefully about what we are doing and what we are in effect saying, when we buy in to the contraception mentality.

They point out that natural family planning (NFP) does give couples options. Every sexual act may not result in children, as nature itself intended. Women are only able to conceive several days a month. NFP, not to be confused with the unreliable rhythm method, has a proven track record. Also known as the Billings Method, the method takes into account a woman’s natural cycle, does not introduce harmful chemicals, is completely natural, and has a proven success rate.

In sum, contraception is usually viewed as a Catholic issue. The truth is, however, it is a Christian issue, and one that needs to be examined afresh.

Given all the bizarre new reproductive technologies currently available, and with even scarier prospects just around the corner, it is appropriate that Christians step back for a moment, and reflect on what the creator intended when he blessed us with the gift of sexuality. This volume will go a long way in helping us think more clearly and soberly about the most unique and awesome gift we are endowed with. It may not convince everyone, but if it helps us to refocus our attention on the splendor of marriage, the grandeur of procreation, and the blessing of children, then it will have done much good.

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22 Responses to A Review of Open Embrace. By Sam and Bethany Torode.

  • Bill, although I am commenting 8 years after you published this piece I just want to note that I find it most interesting and thought-provoking and I’m glad you provided a link back to it from your recent piece on “The Homosexualisation of the Catholic Church”. This piece has helped clarify for me the actual scientific argument behind the Catholic Church’s opposition to so-called “contraceptive” systems such as ‘The Pill’.
    Dominic Baron, NZ

  • Thanks Dominic.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • My husband and I recently gave our fertility over to God. It’s the most scary, terrifying but exhilarating thing we’ve ever done! We’re now expecting baby number 5 and are nervous but knowing that He will provide everything we need, as he has done for the previous 4! Thanks for this article, Bill – I’ll definitely be sharing!
    Julie Lawson

  • Thanks Julie
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • “Well, it is perhaps time that Protestants start giving some consideration to the issue of contraception. ”

    Certainly. But I would say that it is even more urgent that Protestants start giving some consideration to 2 other issues where, in contrast to the Catholic Church, they have dropped the ball: Divorce and Reproductive Technologies.

    Jereth Kok

  • I am with you Jereth, as can be seen by the 111 marriages articles I have penned, and my 91 articles on bio-ethics.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Good on you Bill!

    I did not wish to imply that this is not an important topic. It is. Generally speaking, Protestants (even conservative ones) have most definitely bought into the “birth control” culture without enough critical thinking.

    Just a few comments on the medical side of things.

    Firstly, it is true that hormonal contraceptives (eg. the pill) potentially have health effects. There are some women who should not be prescribed the pill because the health risks are too great–eg. somebody over the age of 40 who has high blood pressure, or who smokes, or where there is a strong family history of breast cancer. However, all responsible doctors will take potential risks into account and will discuss risks and side effects with their patients before prescribing. The “contraception industry” is not quite the same as the abortion industry, because pharmaceutical companies cannot sell their product direct to the public–family doctors and general practitioners act as gatekeepers.

    It should also be noted that for the majority of women, hormonal contraception is safe if used according to directions and under supervision of a doctor.

    Secondly, we do need to be very careful to avoid methods of contraception which are actually abortion — and this *is* an area where the health industry often withholds information. Abortifacient methods of contraception include the “morning after pill” and (probably) the copper IUD.

    The standard contraceptive pills, hormonal implants, hormonal IUDs, barrier methods and surgical contraception (eg. vasectomy) work by methods other than abortion, so are ethically acceptable for Christians who believe that use of contraception is permitted by the Bible.

    Jereth Kok

  • As Protestants my wife and I were introduced to the Billings method by a Catholic Nun over 25 years ago. We found this method excellent in achieving conception.

    We knew that many contraceptives are actually abortifacients and were aware of the health risks associated with contraception. Yet, to our knowledge, it has not been a subject generally discussed in Protestant circles or raised in Christian literature, although there are several organisations that have done so in seminars/conferences and published material. The medical profession would appear to have failed to adequately raise these issues in published material or in advising those seeking their help and advice. We would suspect that there are far too many Australian women who are taking the pill having never actually been told all of its possible side effects. The pharmaceutical industry would not want them to be told because of the extremely high profits.

    One of the most significant commands in Scripture is in Genesis 1:28 where we are commanded to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Yet our reproductive rate would appear to be similar to the overall statistics.

    It is time to return to the Biblical mandate, be blessed in our families and be restored in our influence on society. It will happen and needs to happen now – but the choice is ours individually and corporately.

    Thanks Bill for your review – we were not aware of the book. May we see many more on this subject and the issues widely discussed.

    Brad Salisbury

  • Jereth, if you look in the Mims or at the information page contained in a packet of the Pill, you will see that it works in three ways, by “inhibiting ovulation”, by “changes in cervical mucus which increase the difficulty of sperm penetration” and by changes in the endometrium which reduces the likelihood of implantation.”
    Since it takes 6 to 8 days for the newly fertilized egg to travel down the Fallopian tube to the uterus, changes to the endometrium to prevent implantation is actually abortion.
    Jane Munro

  • Yes quite right Jane

    And there are others, which we need to be aware of. For example, implants such as Norplant and Depo-Provera are abortifacients. There are more than 200 actual or potential abortifacient agents. So we need to be very careful here and be very aware of what we might be using.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • God forgives always, man sometimes but nature never. I do believe there’s some truth in this saying.
    Contraception goes against what nature intends. The use of artificial hormones affects the whole person, body, mind and soul.
    When the pill is taken daily, then daily it affirms the anti-child mentality and when pregnancy occurs abortion seems justifiable as the pregnancy wasn’t intended.
    I can’t count how many times as a pregnancy counsellor I’ve heard this reasoning.
    By the way Bill, the World Health Organisation has confirmed the Oral Contraceptive Pill to be carcinogenic on par to cigarettes.
    Lien van der Velden

  • If procreation is such an important part of sexuality, why is oral sex mentioned (in the context of marriage) in Song of Solomons?

    Yes, some contraceptives prohibit implantation of a fertilised pill but some only prevent ovulation. It’s important to know which is which.

    Of course the pill has important side effects- all drugs do. The dr explains the risks to the patients, weighs this up against intended benefits, and then a decision is made about whether to go ahead. I know some women won’t be allowed to go on the pill because of their particular background risks. For others, it’s an issue of patient choice, knowing the risks.

    So taking all of that into consideration…

    One thing I’ve never understood: if it’s ok to have sex using natural family planning methods (I.e. having sex on days where, hormonally speaking, you are much less likely to conceive), why is it not ok to use a pill to change your hormonal status to one where you are much less likely to conceive? In both cases, you’re having sex hoping you won’t get pregnant, but recognising that there’s a small possibility you might (& if so, intending to keep the kid). Your heart’s attitude is the same. So what’s the difference?

    Once again, I’m not talking about contraceptives that prevent implantation- only those that prevent conception. I just don’t see the moral dilemma here (unless the only issue is that it’s “artificial”… Which I think is the issue that Steve Jobs had with conventional chemotherapy…)

    (Oh, and just to clarify, it’s not true that a woman can only get pregnant a few days at a time in her cycle.

    Also, the Billing’s method is great for women who want to conceive. It’s fairly average for contraception for women with regular cycles. But for those women with irregular cycles?! No way in the world is this a good, reliable method.)

    Amanda Fairweather

  • Thanks Amanda

    I wrote this piece simply to get Protestants to think more carefully – or perhaps think for the very first time – about this issue. What I said above should provide ample reason for such a rethink. That does not mean of course that I have become Catholic on this or am totally opposed to it. If I can even get some evangelicals to wake up to the truth that many contraceptives are not contraceptives at all, but abortifacients, then I will have preformed an important duty.

    But for those who want to get into a big to-do over this, I will let my Catholic friends and/or Billings method advocates make the case here, and answer some of these queries.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,
    Thankyou for the article. If I could add some additional comments since you first published.

    There are three common, reliable and non-hormonal methods of working with a couple’s combined fertility for the avoidance or achieving of pregnancy.
    Billings Ovulation Method http://www.woomb.org
    FertilityCare system http://www.fertilitycare.com.au
    Sympto-thermal Method http://www.acnfp.com.au

    With regards to safety of the Pill, the International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC) a branch of the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated in their Monograph Vol 91, 2007, the combined oral contraceptive (an inhibitor of ovulation and implantation) is categorised as Group 1, carcinogenic to humans. By way of increased risk of the following cancers – breast, cervical, liver and melanoma. There is a reduced risk of ovarian, endometrial/uterine and colorectal cancers.

    For the reproductive technologies, there is a method of medical care that utilises a restorative approach to conception for infertile couples with very good success rates – NaPro Technology http://www.naprotechnology.com

    Lastly, there is a concerted effort in the medical arena to redefine conception as that of ‘implantation’, rather than the scientifically proven ‘fertilisation’, in order to avoid the thorny ethical landscape of contraceptive and ‘interceptive’ medications that are in their action abortifacient at times.

    Luke McLindon

  • Hi Bill,
    OK sweet, thanks :).

    Luke: Ignoring your claims about such methods being reliable (i think the figures are at about 75% efficacy, not what I’d call reliable)… what do you think ethically of condoms?
    Amanda Fairweather

  • In response to Amanda, and any readers interested.

    Using natural family planning (or fertility awareness-based methods) in a marital embrace is using a method that works with the Creator, as the husband and wife are co-creators, should this act be fertile. There is a time in a woman’s cycle of 8-10 days of higher fertility and couples jointly may elect to avoid this time if a new life was something that would be difficult for them. But their ‘act’ is still fecund – able to bear fruit. Couples approach their sexuality without a contraceptive mentality.

    In contrast, a contraceptive act is one that has been declared sterile by an action undertaken to avoid, as completely as possible, a pregnancy. Even if it means use of a potentially abortifacent means of contraception – which most sadly are to varying degrees (aside from barrier methods, tubal ligation, Essure and vasectomy).

    While it may be artificial, that is not the point. The point is that a couple is declaring their love for one another, but with a non- acceptance of their innate procreative sexuality. This does seem to cause a drift in the unitive effect of the marital embrace, and for some couples can lead to the banality of ‘sex’, even to the point of infidelity.

    Contracepting couples (regardless of their religious affiliation) usually share the same sad divorce rates of society at large. Those that adopt fertility awareness in their married life have about a 4% divorce rate, the figures show there is something different in this approach of joint responsibility.

    Hormonal contraceptives, do not always block ovulation, in fact, some studies have shown ‘breakthrough’ ovulation 30% of the time, but ‘hostile’ mucus decreases likelihood of pregnancy, and lastly an unprepared endometrium impairs implantation. Bear in mind 50% of unwanted pregnancies, in women undertaking an abortion, have been correctly using contraception.

    With the ‘fertility awareness’ methods I outlined in the previous post, they all need the support of formal instruction. But they can all be reliably used in the women with irregular cycles, and different stages of fertile life. This is precisely the advantage of these methods, we apply them to the woman (and man) in front of us – in order to ’empower’ them in the true sense.

    Luke McLindon

  • Amanda,
    The reliability you quote (of 75%) is along the lines of the old Rhythm method (1930’s).

    These days we are looking at fertility awareness methods(98.6% perfect use, 95% typical use), compared to the Pill (99% perfect use, 92% typical use) and condoms (98% perfect use, 85% typical use).

    The following free scientific article provides a good up to date summary;
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19264938

    Luke McLindon

  • Thank you Bill for giving this topic attention. I have practiced NFP for nearly 20 years with my husband and have also been involved in education of young people in fertility and sexuality. I believe that God has given every woman the capacity to recognise their own fertility. Some women’s symptoms are more subtle than others but some find that anxiety or our culture clouds their discernment. Even so, a key symptom of fertility is also a key component of fertility and if missing or very limited then the woman’s fertility may also be limited. A number of rigorous studies have been done on NFP and findings have placed its reliability at similar to or better than the pill in avoiding pregnancy. The Chinese government has authorised the use of the Billings Method. Indeed, many Chinese, highly motivated by the population control policy, prefer NFP because of its superior reliability. Women are indeed only fertile for a few days of each cycle. I think, around 3-5 days and can with good training readily identify both fertile and infertile times. Most practitioners appreciate the greater self knowledge possible as a result and are no longer mystified or worried by mood changes caused by cyclic hormonal shifts. I have seen many young women find the knowledge of their fertility cycle positively liberating and inspiring to new levels of self respect.
    Ally Conway

  • Catholic Women’s League Australia supported by Endeavor Forum hold workshops on NFP (Billings Method) at the Commission on the Status of Women meetings at the United Nations in New York every year.
    Many African women attend these workshops as they are very keen to avoid contraceptives handed out to them by Family Planners under the guise of ‘Family Planning”. The level of artificial hormones used to make the MAP etc are dangerous to women.
    Recently I heard on EWTN that the Pill only works 45% of the time for women aged between 16 and 25.
    Madge Fahy

  • Thanks for bringing this up Bill – it is such an important area!

    On one hand use of the pill is likely responsible for a large number of procured abortions simply through its widespread routine use. If we use the 99% perfect use statistic above, then that equals one pregnancy per year for 100 women using the pill. That means all three major mechanisms have failed: prevention of ovulation, hostile mucus, and prevention of implantation. In how many of these women would implantation have been prevented (ie abortion)? Is even one abortion too many for a woman throughout her reproductive life? As a society, how many tens of thousands of procured abortions occur through the use of the pill?

    On the up side, couples living with NFP enjoy a more complete communion during love-making by inviting the Holy Spirit, who represents the procreative love between the Father and the Son, to be present each and every time. Intentionally-sterilised intercourse removes this aspect of love from the relationship and disinvites the Holy Spirit from being fully present.

    As a man I have the utmost respect for my wife’s fertility just as she has for mine. Neither of us wishes to contracept and make sterile (even temporarily) that part of us which make us uniquely male and female, since that is part of the great gift God gave to us.

    Joseph Turner

  • Perhaps the most pernicious philosophical effect of contraception is its ersatz medical character: you are entitled to the pleasure of sex and also to take pills or use a medically-inserted device to avoid pregnancy. If a pregnancy ensues – as it often does – you then have your ‘operation’ to remove the ‘tumour”. The medical and pharmaceutical professions’ involvement in contraception and abortion gives this death-dealing the seal of approval.
    Maryse Usher

  • I should have also said, in this context the new baby is regarded as a disease to be avoided at all costs.
    Maryse Usher

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