Q: Is birth control forbidden in the Bible?

There’s only one passage in Scripture which has any bearing on this admittedly emotional subject. In Genesis 38, a young woman named Tamar was married to Er, grandson of Jacob. For some unspecified reason, he sinned so greatly that God took his life.

In the Judean culture of that era, it was expected that if a husband died while childless, an eligible brother was supposed to marry her and ensure that her own family line would remain intact and his property continue to stay within the family circle. Deuteronomy 25 details the practice, sometimes known as “levirate marriage” – from the Latin word levir, meaning brother-in-law.

Unfortunately, Er’s brother, Onan, wasn’t inclined to fulfill this duty. So when he and his sister-in-law Tamar had marital relations, he practiced a crude method of birth control commonly known as coitus interruptus. His disobedience of God’s command brought about his death as well. From this, some religions have concluded that heaven forbids any practice within a marriage which inhibits the beginning of life.

The Catholic Catechism (1994) states in Article 2366: “The Church, which ‘is on the side of life,’ teaches that ‘each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.’”  In the Church’s theology, sex’s “unitive significance” and its procreative significance are dual purposes which must not be separated. This precludes all forms of birth control except the so-called rhythm method, as well as medical procedures like in vitro fertilization, whether or not the sperm or egg are provided by the natural parent(s).

It’s true that the Word of God describes sex within marriage as a blessing from God and an act which brings the joy of a new member into the world. King David, in his 139th Psalm, describes God’s active involvement in the development of a fetus. You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. Your eyes saw my unformed body. In Isaiah 8 it tells us that children are a gift from the Lord. A Christian couple can certainly come to the marriage bed with a holy awe, realizing that their heavenly father blesses their union and will empower them to be good parents to the babies God gives them.

However, to conclude from the Bible’s instructions that one can find a blanket prohibition against family planning appears, in my view, to be an unwarranted end. Unless a member willingly submits to the authority or the teaching Magisterium of a church, Scripture itself doesn’t express a ban on birth control. Christians are free to embrace the advances made by science and medicine in order to plan the size of their families according to biblical rules of good stewardship. I do respectfully affirm, though, the high regard for life – and sacredness of married love – articulated well by our brothers and sisters in the Church of Rome.