Birth Control and the Church: Part 3
As birth control became more readily available at the turn of the century, more men and women gained unprecedented control of their reproductive capabilities. Disposable latex condoms for men were invented in 1916 and in the 1930s affordable condoms were everywhere. The abolition of the Comstock laws, which prohibited the distribution of sexually explicit materials including contraceptives, in 1936 set the stage for promotion of contraceptive devices of all kinds.
In the first article in this series on Birth Control and the Church I wrote about the historical view of the birth control in the church. In the second article I wrote about the era of change, specifically 1930-1961. For this article I have delved into the social, economic, cultural and scientific changes that happened in the time leading up to the 1960’s. Again I am simply presenting information and I will leave it up to the reader to make the connections themselves.
Let’s start with some science. The prevalent historical view in the western world with regard to the development of the child in the womb was preformationism. Preformationism was the belief that in the male ejaculate was a fully formed, albeit tiny, human being. This view is attributed to Pythagorus and later built upon by Aristotle. Prior to the 17th century, magnification was not strong enough to see the individual spermatozoa (sperm) in the ejaculate. Preformationism was held as true both within and outside of the church. And was the likely reason that any form of Birth control was viewed as murder by the reformers. In this view, the father provided a miniature copy of himself and the mother only supplied material substrate to aid the already formed human to grow. In 1677 Antonie van Leeuwenhoek discovered spermatozoa (sperm) which caused uproar in the church. If there really were millions of tiny fully formed humans in each man’s ejaculate, why would God permit all these people to die? Obviously, the connection was not made that there is not a tiny fully formed human in the sperm.
Caspar Friedrich Wolff, showed preformationism as incorrect in 1759 in favor of epigenesis. Epigenesis says that both the male and female seed are required to create an embryo. In 1853, George Newport observed a frog sperm penetrating a frog ovum thus forming a frog embryo, further proving Wolff and his epigenesis as correct. By this time performationism had already been a dead view for a century, this was just the final nail in the coffin.
While performationism reveals the reason why the church viewed birth control as murder, it is not the reason for the current liberal view in the Church. Science had proven that life begins at conception in the 18th century, almost 200 years prior to the Anglican Church approving of Birth Control. The most common argument I hear in favour of Christians using contraception is that science has proven that human life begins at conception. So logically preventing the male seed from fertilizing the female seed would not be murder as was the view of the church during the reformation. I am not going to attempt to dispute this fact…because it is a fact. However while the logical conclusion may be true scientifically, that preventing conception is not murder, does this then permit a Christian to partake of Birth Control on that basis alone? I will let you answer that for your selves.
Also applicable to this are Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection which were first presented in 1859. During the 1920’s these were particularly threatening because they suggested that the world had been created over the course of millions of years – rather than seven days – and that human beings were just one by-product of the evolutionary process. Those who believed in the literal translation of the Bible, contested Darwin’s theories in an extremely heated debate. If the bible could be fallible then perhaps there was no God, and why should we heed the mandate to be fruitful? Good questions indeed. This battle culminated in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In the trial, Tennessee biology teacher John T. Scopes was accused of presenting Darwin’s theories to high school students, in violation of a state law that forbade the teaching of evolution and natural selection. Scopes was found guilty, but history has shown us that in the long run, he is winning this debate.
In the 1870s feminists birthed the concept of “voluntary motherhood” which was simply an early term for birth control. At this time however, even the feminists did not approve of contraception, saying that women should only engage in sex for the purpose of procreation and advocated instead for abstinence.
This view did not last long however. The phrase “birth control” entered the English language in 1914 and was first coined by Margaret Sanger. Sanger was a birth control activist, sex educator, and nurse. Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, and is best known for establishing the pro-abortion Planned Parenthood.
The birth control movement advocated for contraception so as to permit sexual intercourse as desired without the so-called risk of pregnancy. By emphasising the word control they argued that women should have control over their reproduction and their lives. There were obviously very close ties to the feminist movement. Slogans such as “control over our own bodies” criticised male domination and demanded women’s liberation. In the 1960s and 1970s the birth control movement advocated for the legalisation of abortion and large scale education campaigns about contraception by governments. In the 1980s birth control and population control organisations co-operated in demanding rights to contraception and abortion, with an increasing emphasis on “choice”. Please note the dates here and the dates I mentioned in the 2nd Article about the churches acceptance of birth control. Do you see a correlation?
At the same time as the feminist movement was raging, the Roaring Twenties and it’s consumerist and materialistic ideals were also raging. Consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. Consumerism in the 1920’s saw the increase in the automobile, the television, the radio, the advent of Hollywood and so on. People began to have a lot more leisure time, and wealth was abundant. The consumerism that permeated the western world had the most dramatic effect on the role of women. Domestic life changed radically in the 1920’s. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment granted American women the right to vote. More women gained financial independence as the number of women in the workforce skyrocketed. Approximately 15 percent of women were employed by 1930.
As women’s rights increased, so too did social freedoms. A new symbol of this era emerged: the image of the short-haired, short-skirted, independent-minded, and sexually liberated “flapper” woman who lived life in the fast lane. Soon, the flapper came to represent everything modern in1920s America. With this new image of women, a sexual revolution followed as attitudes toward sex changed and birth control became widely accepted and available.
The challenge facing Churches in the 1920’s was how to reconcile religious values with consumerism and materialism. Now that we had made the transition to an industrial and capitalist economy, “modern” values, with their emphasis on acquiring things and the pursuit of leisure were destroying traditional morality. Divorce rates were rising, church attendance was dropping. As well scientific rationalism is battering away at long-held beliefs and about Creation and God.
The sexual liberation that began in the 1920’s found it’s expression in the 1960’s Free Love movement. Is it purely coincidence that this so called free love movement launched at exactly the same time as the Federal Council of Churches declared a liberal view of contraception in the churches? Again I will let you answer that for yourself.
There is far too much history to go through to get all the points and points of view, especially in a blog post. I hope that I have done it justice in the limited capacity that I am able to do so.
In the next article I will give my impressions of everything that I have presented in the past 3 articles in light of scripture.