Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist

The Bible does not contain any definitive statements about birth control, either pro or con. There is one passage in the book of Genesis which is often used to promote a ban on it, but that passage can be understood in more than one way, and its meaning is not clear enough to justify saying that birth control is forbidden.

Most Christian churches permit birth control even if they do not actively endorse it. It is usually believed that sexual intercourse was intended for reproduction, so stopping conception was a sin. The Apostle Paul, however, made it clear that marriage also served the purpose of satisfying sexual desires. It is found in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 7, verse 2 onwards, where he says, “Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. 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.”

Many churches have ameliorated their views and the practice of birth control is now often tolerated, although methods which work by inhibiting implantation of a fertilised ovum may be considered to be an abortion and not permissible. I suspect that most people are not aware of the fine distinction involved and consider all methods acceptable. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has not altered its stance that all methods of birth control, with the exception of abstinence, are sinful.

One common, and very ancient, method of birth control is withdrawal. The man, when he feels ejaculation is imminent, withdraws his penis from the vagina and ejaculates outside. Religious groups often refer to this as Onanism. It is named after a son of Judah, Onan, who did this during intercourse after a Levirate marriage with Tamar, his brother’s widow. Onan was killed by god for it, so it has become the basis for condemning all methods of birth control and not just withdrawal.

Levirate marriage was an ancient practice that provided for a married man who died before his wife had a male heir to carry on his bloodline. The closest male relative, usually a brother, would marry and impregnate the widow and the first male born was considered to be the dead man’s son and inherited his possessions and name. For a man to refuse to perform this obligation was considered very insulting to his dead relative as it meant the relative’s bloodline would die out. Refusal was punished by public shaming.

Onan agreed to marry and impregnate Tamar to continue his brother’s line. At the final stage he withdrew his penis from Tamar and ejaculated onto the ground, thus avoiding any chance of a pregnancy. He was then punished by being killed by god.

The account is found at Genesis chapter 38, verses 8-10, “And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.”

The Catholic church points out that the punishment for failing to honour a Levirate marriage was public humiliation. Instead, Onan was killed by god, thus showing that his behaviour was much worse than a simple refusal of his duty. Since his offence was withdrawing to avoid impregnating Tamar, the church says that birth control is unacceptable to god and each occasion of sexual intercourse must be open to natural conception taking place. However, it is worth noting that the account itself contains no explanation about why Onan’s actions displeased god, only that they did so.

There might be some validity in using this passage to justify a ban on contraception if Levirate marriage were still practiced among Christians, but it is not and the rules and assumptions that surrounded it are no longer in effect. If the condemnation of Onan for ejaculating onto the ground is still valid then so should be the requirement that a man must impregnate his brother’s widow, because one is inextricably tied to the other. Asserting that one is valid and the other invalid is illogical. Surely, either both are still in effect or neither is. It follows that the restrictions and punishments associated with Levirate marriage ended when Levirate marriage itself ended.

There is another explanation of this account as to why Onan’s behaviour was unacceptable which has nothing to do with birth control. The public humiliation used as punishment was for a man who refused to marry his brother’s wife and impregnate her. Under those circumstances, no sexual intercourse would have taken place but his refusal would be scandalous enough to justify public humiliation. However, Onan did not refuse to marry Tamar. Instead, he agreed to marry her and actually had sexual relations with her after they were married. When he refused to impregnate her it became obvious that his motivation was to use his brother’s widow to satisfy his sexual appetite at the cost of grossly insulting his brother’s memory, widow and bloodline, keeping their inheritance for himself. Since Tamar had agreed to marry and be impregnated by Onan as a duty to her dead husband, Onan’s action was done without her permission, meaning that he tricked her into having sexual relations with him by lying to her. His punishment was not for using birth control, but because he lied to his brother’s wife to sexually exploit her at the expense of his brother’s lineage.

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