Contraception pt. 3: Barrenness, the Elderly, the Rhythm Method

The first post in this series examined abortifacients, health risks, and social consequences as well as a brief history of birth control. The second post went into the dominion mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” and how procreation is one of the fundamental purposes of marriage. This leads to a few questions and possible objections which we will look at in this third post in our series. What about the barren and elderly? If procreation is a fundamental purpose of marriage does that mean that they can’t have legitimate marriages? What about the rhythm method? What are lawful reasons for abstaining from intercourse?

The Barren and Elderly

To preempt a common rebuttal and to make a necessary qualification we will go back to William Gouge. Procreation being a duty and purpose of marriage does not mean that barren or elderly couples cannot marry, nor after having been married does barrenness nullify the marriage. When any purpose of marriage (unity of husband and wife, procreation, preventing immorality, cf. WCF 24:2) is acted against (not that the possibility is absent, but acted against) the nature of the marriage act is violated, which makes the act itself against nature, just as the homosexual act is (which onanism is compared to, see part 4). Hence any act against the conception of a child in the marriage act is against nature. But a purpose of marriage is not acted against when barren or elderly people marry.

Gouge makes the distinction between those who are impotent and those who are barren. An impotent person should not get married but barren people can, but if one becomes impotent after getting married it does not void the marriage. Here are his own words:

3. Of impotent persons that ought not to seek after marriage.

2. They are to be accounted impotent and in that respect unable to perform the essential duties of marriage, who (to use the Scripture phrase) were born eunuchs from their mother’s womb (Matt 19:12): or by any accidental occasion are so made: as they who are defective, or closed in their secret parts: or taken with an incurable palsy: or possessed with frigidity, or any other such like impediment.

These ought not to seek after marriage: for by those signs of impotency God sheweth that he calleth them to live single.

Contrary to this manifestation of God’s will do they sin, who conceal their impotency and join themselves in marriage, whereby they frustrate one main end of marriage, which is procreation of children; and do that wrong to the party whom they marry, as sufficient satisfaction can never be made.

4. Of barrenness, that it hindereth not marriage.

Quest. Are such as are barren to be ranked among those impotent persons? Answ. No, there is great difference betwixt impotency and barrenness.

1. Impotency may by outward sensible signs be known and discerned, barrenness cannot: it is not discerned but by want of child-bearing.

2. Impotent persons cannot yield due benevolence [ie. sexual relations]: but such as are barren may.

3. Impotency is incurable: but barrenness is not simply so. Many after they have been a long while barren have become fruitful: and that not only by an extraordinary work of God above the course of nature [as Sarah (Gen 18:11) and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7), with whom by reason of age it ceased to be after the manner of women] but also by such a blessing as might stand with the course of nature, being obtained by prayer [as Rebekah (Gen 25:21) and Hannah (1 Sam 1:5,20)] whereof daily experience giveth good evidence: for many after 10, 15, 20, and more years barrenness have brought forth children.

On these grounds many Saints, who have been barren, have married, and their practice therein not disallowed, nor their marriage dissolved. For though procreation of children be one end of marriage, yet it is not the only end: and so inviolable is the marriage bond, that though it be made for children’s sake, yet for want of children it may not be broken.

. . .

Where there is no such just impediment as hath been before mentioned, it is lawful for all sorts of people of what calling or condition soever to marry. For Marriage is honourable in all, or among all, namely in, or among all sorts of people (Heb 13:4): whereupon it is accounted a doctrine of devils to forbid to marry (1 Tim 4:1,3). For it is a doctrine contrary to God’s word, and a doctrine that causeth much inward burning, and outward pollution, and so maketh their bodies, which should be temples of the Holy Ghost, to be sties of the devils.

Of Domesticall Duties, Second Treatise, Part 1.

Lawful Reasons for Abstaining from Sexual Intercourse

Intention is always important in ethical situations, we must distinguish between the finis operis (the end of the act) and the finis operantis (the end of the actor). Abstaining from intercourse is not sinful in and of itself, but it can be depending on the intention behind abstaining. In our next post we will talk about the sin of onanism, the act (finis operis) of which is sinful regardless of the actor’s intentions. But first we will look at lawful and unlawful reasons for abstaining from sexual intercourse within marriage.

An approach such as the rhythm method is not sinful for the same reason that onanism is. The rhythm method is “a method of birth control in which the couple abstain from sexual intercourse during the period when ovulation is most likely to occur.” Being aware of the woman’s period of fertility can be used in order to try to get pregnant, but if it is used for the express purpose of preventing conception, it is a wrong intention of an act (abstaining) that is not itself wrong. The intention cannot work against God’s design for marriage and sex, which we surveyed in our last post. A lawful reason for abstaining would not be sinful in finis operantis (the end of the actor) because the intent is not sinful even if abstaining could be sinful if done for another reason. The Word of God only gives four reasons in which voluntary and temporary abstention from sexual intercourse is acceptable. None of these lawful reasons are for the express purpose of preventing conception.

1) Piety; such as for prayer and fasting. “Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency” (1 Cor. 7:5; cf. Joel 2:16).

2) Mercy; such as when one has leprosy or other contagious diseases (Lev. 13:46), or one spouse is physically injured or ill, or for the time after the woman has given birth and cannot safely have intercourse. It would tend to the destruction of life (WLC 136) to expose others to dangerous diseases, or to have relations when it would aggravate an injury or illness, therefore abstention from intercourse, is an act of mercy. Greg Price adds,

Furthermore, when the specific intent of a medical procedure is not to prevent the conception of a child, but rather to remove some cancerous tissue or to correct some bodily malfunction of the mother or the father, and in the process of this medical procedure, the ability of the mother or father to procreate is hindered or eliminated, then I would submit that such a procedure is not sinful. For the express purpose of the surgery was one of mercy in sustaining life, and not of cruelty in preventing life. Our God delights in showing mercy and calls us to minimize the suffering of others (in all lawful circumstances) rather than to increase the suffering of others (Matthew 12:7).

Birth Control—The Biblical And Historic Protestant Position

Therefore sterilization surgery or a hysterectomy may be lawful in cases such as this. However, it would not be wise for the father to get a vasectomy if he is not the one with the medical issue. God forbid that the mother should die, or a lawful divorce should take place sometime later and the father remarries but can no longer procreate.

3) Modesty; such as abstention during menstruation, “Also thou shalt not approach unto a woman to uncover her nakedness, as long as she is put apart for her uncleanness” (Lev. 18:19). Temporary abstention in this case is not for the purpose of preventing conception, but rather to avoid an unnatural abomination for which the Lord cast out the heathen nations from the land of Israel (Lev. 18:24-30).

For what can be expected from such polluted copulation, but a leprous and loathsome generation? This kind of intemperance is expressly forbidden (Leviticus 18:19); and a capital punishment inflicted upon such as offended therein (Leviticus 20:18). Abstinence in this time is set in the catalogue of notes which declare a man to be righteous (Leviticus 7:20); and the contrary intemperancy is put in the roll of such abominations as provoked God to spew out the Canaanites (Leviticus 18:28); and to forsake his own inheritance (Ezekiel 22:10).

William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties, pg. 223.

4) Necessity; such as “when a lawful calling requires a husband to be apart from his wife for extended periods of time such as a soldier in times of war or a minister in times of persecution or apostasy” (Price, Ibid.). For example, when Uriah the Hittite would not go in to his wife when he was taken off the battlefield for David’s scheme (2 Sam. 11:9-11).

Abstaining for the express purpose of preventing offspring, however, is not a lawful reason; it is sinful in finis operantis (the end of the actor). God is indeed sovereign and nothing can stay His hand from doing what He has determined to do, however we must not use this as license to disobey His design for marriage in the created order. God may chose to bless someone with a child despite their use of birth control, or even despite unintentional barrenness, but that doesn’t mean it is morally right to attempt to prevent conception.

Consider the following analogy. Just as it is clearly a moral evil to intentionally prevent the conception of SPIRITUAL LIFE (i.e. a new man in Christ) which God creates by means of the seed of the gospel, so likewise I would argue it is a moral evil to intentionally prevent the conception of PHYSICAL LIFE (i.e. a new man in Adam) which God also creates, but by means of the seed of copulation. On the one hand, just as it is a violation of the Sixth Commandment to intentionally keep the seed of the gospel from being preached for the express purpose of preventing the birth of a new man in Christ (for a new man is a creation of God, renewed in the image of God), so likewise it is a violation of the Sixth Commandment to intentionally prevent the seed of man from being united with the egg of a woman for the express purpose of preventing the birth of a new man in Adam (for a man is the creation of God, made in the image of God). On the other hand, just as it is not a violation of the Sixth Commandment to avoid preaching the seed of the gospel for the express purpose of fulfilling other commanded duties (personal, domestic, and civic), so it is not a violation of the Sixth Commandment to avoid sexual transmission of the seed of man for the express purpose of fulfilling other commanded duties (piety, modesty, mercy, and necessity). Life, whether physical or spiritual, is God’s great creation. For man intentionally to prevent life for his own reasons is to usurp the prerogative of the Creator of life.

Greg Price, Ibid.

Not only does Scripture teach the positive duties and blessings of procreation within marriage and the lawful reasons for abstaining from intercourse, it also details for us the case of Onan and his sin, which has come to be called onanism. We will examine this in light of Scripture and the unanimous testimony of the Church in the final post of this series.

Calendar-based method for fertility cycle awareness.
Calendar-based method for fertility cycle awareness.

3 thoughts on “Contraception pt. 3: Barrenness, the Elderly, the Rhythm Method

  1. “Thirdly, There is an inordinatenes in lust in regard of the end, when a mans desires of that way tend not to the lawful ends of procreation, and of preventing fornication, but alone to the pleasure of the action, and satisfying the voluptuous motions of his heart without any more ado. For this is to be brutish, the unreasonable creatures that have not capacity to conceive of the end of their actions, are carried to them by a kinde of violence, a strong motion in which the pleasure of their senses over-rules them, but man should not be so sensual, yea his desires should be ordered by his reason, and he should know and consider why he desireth any thing, and be carried in his desires by right motives and inducements.”

    — Edward Leigh, Body of Divinity, p. 844.


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