Protestants and the Pill: How American Christians Helped Spread Birth Control

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Samira Mehta

University of Colorado Boulder/The Conversation

Since May 3, 2022, the date on which Reported Policy that the Supreme Court planned to overturn Roe v. Wade, many Christians celebrated the prospect of an America where abortion is not a constitutionally protected right – or is a day completely prohibited.

Meanwhile, other conservative Christians have been working on a related target: limit access to certain contraceptives.

In July 2020, when The Supreme Court
ruled that organizations with a “sincerely held religious or moral objection” are not required to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees, many conservative Christians applauded. Six years ago, the evangelical owners of the craft chain Hobby Lobby took their objections to covering the IUD in their health insurance plans all the way to the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby argued – wrongly, according to most medical authorities – that was a form of abortion, and therefore, they shouldn’t have to cover employees’ health insurance for this. The judges sided with the channel’s owners.

Yet, as access to both abortion and contraception is threatenedthe vast majority of Protestants use or have used some form of contraception. Their actions are backed by nearly 100 years of pastoral advocacy on the issue. In my work of a specialist in religious studies, gender and sexualityI researched Protestant leaders who campaigned to make contraception respectable, and therefore widely acceptable, in the mid-twentieth century.

The story, I found, provides a different story about the relationship between Protestants and birth control.

“Responsible Parenting”

As new contraceptive options emerged in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, diaphragm to the birth control pill, Christian leaders struggled with what to think. Many have come to view birth control as a moral good that would allow married couples to enjoy satisfying sex lives, while protecting women from the health risks of frequent pregnancies. They hoped this could ensure that couples would not have more children than they could support, emotionally and economically.

They looked within, considering the consequences of birth control for their own communities, and hoped that “planned” or “responsible” sex would create healthy families and reduce divorce. They also looked outward, thinking about the wider implications of birth control, at a time when there are widespread concerns that the world’s population was rising too fast to handle.

By the time the pill came to market in the 1960s, liberal Protestants and even some conservatives advocated birth control using new theological ideas on “responsible parenthood.”

“Responsible parenting” has reframed debates about family size around “Christian duty. Being responsible in parenthood wasn’t just about avoiding having more children than you could afford, nurture, and educate. It also meant considering responsibilities outside the home to churches, society and humanity.

Protestant leaders supporting contraception argued that the best kind of family was a father with a steady job and a stay-at-home mother, and that birth control could encourage this model, because small families could maintain a comfortable lifestyle on a single income. They also hoped that contraception would help couples stay together by enabling them to have satisfying sex lives.

Multiple denominations birth control approved. In 1958for example, the Anglican Communion declared family planning to be a “primary obligation of Christian marriage” and rebuked parents “who bring children into the world negligently and recklessly, trusting in an unknown future or in a generous society to take care of them”.

The big picture

The religious leaders’ support for “responsible parenting” was not just about deliberately creating the kind of Christian families they approved of. It was also about avoiding the horrors of population explosion – a very present fear in mid-century America.

By the mid-20th century, with increased access to vaccines and antibiotics, more children were living to adulthood and life expectancy was increasing. Protestant leaders feared this so-called population bomb would exceed the Earth’s food supply, leading to famine and war.

In 1954, when the world’s population was about 2.5 billionReverend Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the most important Protestant voices of the timesaw overpopulation as one of the world’s “fundamental problems” and the birth control pill, then under development, as the best potential solution.

Richard Fagley, a minister who served on the Churches’ Commission on International Affairs of the Church’s World Council, argued that in family planning, science had provided Christians with a new place for moral responsibility. Medical knowledge, Fagley wrote, is “a liberating gift from God, to be used for the glory of God, according to his will for men”.

These ideas of “responsible parenting” held that religious couples had a responsibility to be good stewards of the earth by having no more children than the planet could support. Within marriage, contraception was seen as moral, supporting a particular form of Christian values.

Yesterday’s Arguments

These ideas about “good” and “bad” families were often based on assumptions about race and gender that reproductive rights advocates find troubling today.

In the early 20th century, the predominantly white Protestant clergy was very interested in increasing access to contraception for the poor, who were often Catholic or Jewish immigrants. or people of color. Some scholars have argued that early support for contraception was primarily for eugenics, especially before World War II. Some white leaders were concerned about supposedly racing suicide: the racist fear that “they” will be overwhelmed.

Apart from some eugenicists, however, most of these clergy wanted to give people access to contraception in order to create “healthy” families, regardless of income level. Yet many were unable or unwilling to see how they were promoting a narrow view of the ideal family and how this marginalized poor communities and people of color – themes I explore in my current book project.

Additionally, many supporters advocated women’s health, but not reproductive freedom. Their priority was to prepare women to achieve his ideal
of bourgeois Christian motherhood. With fewer children, some hoped, families could get by on a husband’s salary alone, which means more women at home raising children.

A battle won – and lost?

Over the decades, Protestant leaders have largely disappeared from pro-birth control arguments.

There are several reasons. Mid-century agricultural technologies reduced fears of overpopulation – which were only recently awakened by the climate crisis. Meanwhile, the main Protestant churches and their public influence, decrease. Conservative leaders have come to fear that birth control will lead to more working women, not fewer. And since the 1970s, evangelicals are increasingly opposed to abortion, which was increasingly linked to birth control through the general term “family planning”.

In other words, since the “demographic bomb” no longer worked, contraception no longer seemed such an urgent necessity – and some of its other implications troubled conservatives, shattering an almost pan-Protestant alliance.

Meanwhile, liberal Protestants had embraced contraception so much that they no longer saw it as territory to be defended. Today, 99% of American girls and women ages 15-44 who have ever had sex use or have used a contraceptive method. Reproductive rights advocates have turned their attention to abortion rights – largely leaving religious views on birth control to their opponents.

Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Jewish Studies, University of Colorado Boulder

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