Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Explaining Christian Positions on Contraception

For this week's newspapers, I (very briefly) explain the differences between different types of Christians on contraception and how this relates to Hobby Lobby and other recent Supreme Court and Affordable Care Act issues:

Q:  I am having difficulty understanding the religious convictions which led to the recent Supreme Court cases about health care and contraceptive coverage.  Can you explain why the parties to the case object to providing certain medications or treatments to their employees?

While this story that has received considerable attention and raised some intense emotional responses, the religious elements of the story have, unfortunately, been poorly explained or largely ignored in the majority of news coverage.  This missing element would reveal that rather than a two-position issue (contraception vs. no contraception) there is a vast diversity of approaches to this question among the various branches of Christianity plays a significant role in understanding the convictions represented in these cases. 

For one group of denominations, there would be no prohibitions whatsoever regarding contraception.  It would be viewed as a matter of unrestricted individual opinion, and no further inquiry regarding the method of contraception, nor regarding the mechanisms by which they function would be necessary.  The list of denominations with this approach would largely align with those with accepting stances toward abortion and approving positions toward same-sex relationships.  In some cases, members of this segment of denominations may even provide or promote contraceptive products as a matter of human care or social justice. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum would be those traditions which disapprove of contraception as a matter of principle.  Most notable among this segment would be the Roman Catholic Church, which approves of only complete abstinence or the natural timing of cycles as methods of avoiding or delaying pregnancy.  Additionally, there is an understanding among a small, yet broad, portion of the conservative evangelical community which encourages couples to be open to receive as many children as God would grant them.  Proponents of this end of the spectrum typically point to verses where God commands Adam and Eve, as well as Noah’s Family to “Be Fruitful and Multiply,” and the many Psalms and Proverbs which speak highly of numerous children as a blessing from the Lord.  They may also employ an argument from nature – that it is unethical to interfere with nature by the use of chemical or barrier contraceptive methods. 

The remainder the Christian spectrum falls between these two bookends.  For these Christians, children are acknowledged as a blessing, and openness to children is typically encouraged.  At the same time, it is also recognized that each family’s situation is unique, and some may find it necessary to provide a longer break between pregnancies or that medical, economic, or other reasons make limiting family size the wisest course of action. 

While they trust the conscience of each husband and wife to guide this choice, they place one firm boundary – that it is not permissible to take actions which have the potential to end the life of an already-conceived child.  In most cases, this would allow a husband and wife to use barrier methods of contraception as well as surgical sterilization, without concern, as dictated by their circumstances. 

Many would also be open to the use of traditional contraceptive pills, patches, and shots, although this is less universal due to questions about the potential of these methods to prevent a fertilized egg from implanting. 

IUDs are often seen even less favorably because of their potential to prevent implantation.  Those who observe this boundary would always exclude such methods as “morning after” pills, which intend to prevent ovulation, but have a secondary mechanism of preventing implantation of a fertilized egg.  They would also exclude “week after” pills or any method which exclusively prevents implantation after fertilization. 

It is this final category of contraceptives that were at the center of the most prominent of these cases.  In fact, the most prominent plaintiff in this series of cases actually provides 16 out of the 20 contraceptives specified by the Affordable Care Act, and only objected to providing those methods which have the intention or potential to end already-conceived life, for the reason that they believe they would be contributing to an act of murder by funding such methods in their insurance coverage. 

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