Birth control

General Introduction

God blessed the first couple with the words: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). This blessing expresses the conviction that sexuality and marriage serve the propagation of human kind. A wealth of children is considered by Holy Scriptures as favour from God and a reason for joy (cf. Gen 24:60; Ps 127:3[2]). Before now people generally had no problem accepting children as they come. Accepting children as they come became a problem due to some changes that have taken place in society. These changes among others include a rapid demographic development which has created the fear in many that the available resources may not be enough to serve the rapidly growing population. And thus, may result to malnutrition, poor lodging conditions, inadequate education, unemployment, inadequate medical care and unhygienic conditions. This raises the question of the justification or even the necessity of birth control, of its limits and means to achieve it. The Church as the custodian of Truth and Morality does not condemn birth control generally but rather teaches the proper means by which this can be done without violating the natural law as well as the divine law. In what follows we shall give a kind of historical account of the Church’s teaching on birth control.

What is Birth control?

Birth control according to the New Catholic Encyclopaedia (1967) essentially denotes the voluntary control (restriction) of the reproductive effect of sexual intercourse. It refers not only to the intentional limitation of the family size or the spacing of births through any of the several possible means including periodic continence but also to the practice of contraception to achieved desired results. Thomas Pazhayampallil in Pastoral Guide (2004) defines it as the obstruction of either the conjugal act or the biological factors of fertility in the couple in order to ensure that unprogrammed birth will not take place. In concrete terms, the artificial means of birth control are generally referred to as “contraception.”

Types of Birth control

a) Natural Means of Birth control

Also called Natural Family Planning it is defined by Thomas Pazhayampallil’s Pastoral Guide, no. 473 as planning of birth of children based on in-built indicator of fertility and infertility in a woman’s body. Natural Family Planning is based on the biological fact that there is a period of sterility during the menstrual cycle of each woman. This means that there are a number of days during which there is no ripe ovum present in the female genital tract. The menstrual cycle ends with the discharge of the unfertilized eggs. It is about recognising and making use of those periods of infertility when the ripe eggs are beyond shooting range. This method was propounded during the second half of the 19th century. However, in 1929 and 1930 respectively two doctors Knaus (Austria) and Ogino (Japan) carried out a research which resulted in the rhythm/calendar method. According to their research, human conception can occur in a certain limited period between two menses and this period is called the fertile period and the rest of the days are free/infertile/safe period. Since then many methods of the Natural Family planning have been proposed which we shall see later. Pope Paul VI refers to this as “licit” means of regulating birth. The Church’s teaching authority recommends them for those who have just reasons to regulate birth.

b)Artificial Means of Birth control

This means the use in the sexual act of any mechanical instrument, chemical substance or bodily action (withdrawal) which has as its purpose the prevention of conception. Thomas Pazhayampallil lists the artificial means of birth control (contraception) to include: interrupted sexual act (withdrawal), vaginal douche, condom, the diaphragm, the loop (the ring, the spiral, the bow), pills and some spermicidal creams and jellies. Interrupted sexual act is the withdrawal of the penis from the vagina before ejaculation so that the sperm is spilled outside the vagina thus preventing fertilization. Vaginal Douche is a contraceptive device in which a vagina is washed out after sexual intercourse with the addition of some chemicals. Condom is a synthetic rubber sheet placed over an erect penis to retain the sperm at ejaculation and prevent it from being deposited in the vagina. The Diaphragm is a dome-shaped rubberized cup with a metal spring rim which after applying a spermicidal cream or jelly, the user positions it so that the rim spans between the posterior fornix and the pubic bone covering the cervix. Pope Paul VI refers to this as “illicit” means of regulating birth. The morality of the artificial means of birth control stems from the general principle that every conjugal act must remain open to the transmission of life that is, every conjugal act must retain its essential relationship to procreation. Based on the above principle the artificial means of birth control (contraception) has been excluded as licit means of birth control by an unbroken and constant teaching of the Church as follows:

The Church’s teachings on Birth Control

Biblical foundations

The 38th chapter of Genesis tells the story of Judah, his sons and Tamar. One of the sons, Onan, practiced the sin of contraception –coitus interruptus (withdrawal) with Tamar. The Bible tells us that God slew him because he had done this abominable thing (Gen 38:10); that is spilling his semen on the ground. Gen 38:11-26 and Deut 25: 5-10 show that he was not killed for violating the Levirate law but for contraception. (Cf. Lev 18:22-23; 20:13). In the New Testament the Greek “pharmakeia” – sorcery possibly refers to birth control. “pharmakeia” denotes the mixing of various potions for secret purposes, one of which was to prevent pregnancy. In all three of the passages it appears, it is in a context condemning sexual immorality; two of which also condemn murder (cf. Gal 5:19-26; Rev. 19:21; 21:8). These passages condemn the use of the products of “pharmakeia” for birth control purpose and thus by implication, the artificial means of birth control is condemned. On the other hand, 1Cor 7:5 supports the practice of natural family planning.

Patristic voices

Early Church Fathers were undivided in their condemnation of artificial birth control. Among these include: Letter of Barnabas, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Lactantius, John Chrysostom, Jerome, St. Ephrem, Epiphanius and Bishop Zeno of Verona. For instance, Origen (2nd C) says that the one who wastes the gifts of God resembles Onan who was put to death. Lactantius (3rd century) observed that the genital organs are for procreation and we must obey this divine law with utmost devotion. St. Ephrem as well as Bishop Zeno of Verona of the 4th Century condemned Onanism as abominable. For St. John Chrysostom, those who do not allow the children to begin their life have mutilated the nature and committed murder. In his Ad Eustochium, St Jerome acknowledged that those women who take and drink drugs of sterility commit murde

The Medieval Fathers

St. Augustine explicitly condemned contraception in his De Conjugiis adulterinis. For him intercourse even within marriage is unlawful and wicked where conception is prevented. Women who take pills to prevent conception commit murder. In his Summa contra Gentiles, the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas condemned contraception as against both the dictates of Natural law and the Divine design for the conjugal act. Ejaculation of sperm contrary to the purpose of procreation is morally disordered and constitutes a sin no less in gravity than murder. St. Albert, the great also wrote extensively against the above immoral practice

Modern Times: Conciliar and Magisterial teachings

Pope Pius XI: In 1930 Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Casti Connubii declared: “Since the conjugal act is destined primarily be nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious…any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offence against the law of God and of nature and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of grave sin.”

Pope Pius XII: In his October 29, 1951 address to a convention of Italian Catholic Midwives, Pope Pius XII re-affirmed the teachings of Casti Connubii stating that contraception in all its forms is an intrinsically immoral act and that this precept is an expression of both divine and natural law.

Pope John XXIII: He objected to contraception and birth control in accordance with the Church’s teaching. This led him to establish the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family, and Birth-rate, popularly known as “Birth control commission” in 1963. In his Mater et magistra he further affirmed the teaching of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council: by means of an extraordinary magisterium the Council Fathers in no. 51 of Gaudium et Spes states that when there is a question of harmonizing conjugal love with the responsible transmission of life, objective standards of morality must be followed. In this regard therefore, it is morally wrong for Christians to employ methods of Birth control which are found to be blameworthy by the magisterium. This means that all artificial methods of birth control (contraception) are excluded as licit means of birth control.

Pope Paul VI: He expanded the commission’s membership to include physicians, psychiatrists, demographers, sociologists, economist and married couples. At the end the commission’s deliberations there were two reports; the majority report which proposed a shift in the Church’s traditional teaching and the minority report which urged the Pope to hold fast to that teaching. After due reflection on the matter, he wrote the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 that was based on the minority report. It is worthwhile to x-ray some of Pope Paul’s teaching in Humane Vitae

The bases of Humanae Vitae’s teachings – The Doctrinal principles:

This includes the principle of Totality of man: a being composite of matter and spirit with a vocation that is not only natural and earthly but also supernatural and eternal. It is also centred on the two coordinates of conjugal love and responsible parenthood. Conjugal love reveals its true nature and nobility when it is considered in its supreme origin, God, who is love. Conjugal love is fully human; it is total, faithful and exclusive until death. Conjugal love demands responsible parenthood. Thus, in deciding the number of children to be raised due to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions of the time, couples should not proceed at will but must pay attention to the objective norms of morality. In doing this, they must recognise their own duties towards God, themselves, the family and the society in a correct hierarchy of values. Furthermore, each and every marriage (conjugal) act must remain open to the transmission of life (HV 11). This is because according to the natural law, there is an “inseparable connection willed by God and unable to be broken by the human person on his own initiative between the unitive and procreative purposes of the conjugal act.” Thus, an act of mutual (conjugal) love which impairs the capacity to transmit life contradicts the will of the Author of life of which humans have no authority to counter

Licit and Illicit ways of Birth control

The above doctrinal principles lead to drawing a line of demarcation between the licit and illicit means of birth control. In this regard all direct interruption of the generative process already begun and especially directly willed and procured abortion even if for therapeutic reasons are illicit means of birth control. Included in this list are all direct sterilizations, whether perpetual or temporary, of either man or woman. Lastly, every action, which either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes either as an end or as a means to render procreation impossible are illicit ways of birth control. The licit means include: 1) therapeutic means which are truly necessary to cure diseases of the organism even though impediment to procreation be foreseen but not directly willed; 2) Recourse to the natural rhythm immanent in the generative functions, that is, the use of conjugal act in the infecund periods only. Here birth is regulated without offending the moral principles of life. This is what is referred to as Natural Family Planning

Consequences of Artificial Birth Control

Pope Paul VI justifies the above position by outlining some of the grave consequences of the artificial methods. First, there will suddenly be open an easy road to both conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of the standards of morality in the society. Second, women will lose their human dignity and respect as the employment of contraceptive devices would lead to their becoming mere sexual objects of satisfaction for men.[3] Third, morality and the mission of generating life would be exposed to arbitrary will of individuals and the public authorities

Pastoral directives

The Pope knowing that this teaching on birth control may appear difficult to many or even impossible of actuation gives some pastoral directives. First, the Holy Father holds that the honest practice of birth control demands that husband and wife acquire and possess solid convictions about the true values of life and family and then tend towards acquiring self-mastery. This self-mastery which is an integral part of the virtue of chastity demands the help of God (grace) with some ascetic practices, some intermittent periods of abstinence on the part of the couple. The advantage of self-mastery/chastity as a tool for birth control is that it gives serenity and peace, facilitates the solution to other problems, favours the attention for one’s partner, helps them drive out selfishness and deepens their sense of responsibility. Pastors and confessors are to teach married couples the indispensable way of prayer and prepare them to have recourse with faith to the sacraments of Eucharist and penance. They are never to be discouraged by their own weaknesses. The Pope calls upon the media and other stakeholders of human society to create an atmosphere favourable for the practice of chastity.

St. Pope John Paul II: he has repeatedly reaffirmed the above teaching of the Church on many occasions. In his address to the Episcopal Conference of the United States on Oct 8, 1979 he declared: “I myself today, with the same conviction of Paul VI, ratify the teaching of this encyclical.” Similarly in his June 7, 1980 Address to a group of Indonesian Bishops he reiterated that contraception is to be judged objectively so illicit that it can never, for any reason be justified. In n.32 of the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio (1981) he affirmed that contraception leads to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love. In n.80 of the Encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993) he re-affirmed contraception as an intrinsic evil. He re-iterated this teaching with further clarifications in his “Additional Meditation” before Angelus on July 17, 1994.[4]

Pope Benedict XVI: in 2008, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed the traditional Church’s teaching on birth control. He says that birth control (contraception) negates the intimate truth of conjugal love with which the divine gift of life is communicated. Magisterial teachings therefore aim at protecting conjugal love. He reaffirmed the use of natural family planning for couples wanting to space their children.[5] He re-emphasized this stance in 2010 in an interview which was published in the book Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times.

Pope Francis: in an interview with the Italian daily Newspaper Corriere della Sera on March, 2014, Pope Francis recently reaffirmed the Church’s teachings on contraception and birth control. He acknowledged Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae as being prophetic. He praises his predecessor’s courage to go against the majority, to defend moral discipline as well as oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism. He stressed that there is no need to change that teaching.

The Code of Canon Law:

Canon 1398 of the 1983 code states that a person who actually procures an abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication. This shows the severity of the moral evil of employing an illicit means of regulating birth. Canon 1055 reaffirms the Church’s teaching on the inseparability of the unitive and procreative purposes of marriage.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

CCC 2368 acknowledges that for just reasons couples may wish to space births of their children as a demand of responsible parenthood. However, in doing this they should conform to objective criteria of morality. CCC 2399 states clearly that legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means. Furthermore CCC 2370 reiterates that every action that intentionally renders procreation impossible is intrinsically evil. It rather recommends the natural family planning as a moral alternative for birth control.

Natural Family Planning: A moral alternative[6]

The justification for the Natural Family Planning (NFP) as a moral alternative to contraception in birth control according to the teaching authority of the Church (magisterium) is further evident when one understands the essential differences between both means as follows: Contraception is the intentional use of a drug, chemical, device or procedure to prevent pregnancy by acting directly against the fertility of each marriage act (sex). The biological purpose of sex is to reproduce, yet contraception denies the goodness of fertility. It is a lie in “body language” (CCC 2370). It works against our nature, i.e. God’s purpose for creating us. It also helps to promote the sins of adultery (sex outside of marriage) and fornication (sex before marriage) by reducing the chance of “embarrassing” consequences. On the other hand, in NFP, couples do not work directly against the fertility of the conjugal act but regulate birth by periodically abstaining from the conjugal act. The act is periodically avoided and not abused. NFP only gives information to help a couple choose between abstinence and the conjugal act. During the woman’s naturally infertile times, spouses can engage in the conjugal act; whereas, during the fertile periods, they can abstain. Under NFP, the married couple make legitimate use of a natural disposition; whereas in contraception, they impede the development of natural processes (Cf. Humanae Vitae 16). Even though the moral intention is to regulate birth by abstinence, NFP still respects the goodness of human fertility. NFP does demand “just reasons”, self-discipline, sacrifice, mutual consent (Cf. 1Cor. 7:5; Casti connubii 53) and openness to new life (CCC 2366) from both spouses.

Some of the Methods of Natural Family Planning include:

Rhythm Method: Conception occurs when the sperm is deposited in the vagina of a woman and unites with the ovum produced by the woman. This union of sperm and ovum (fertilization) can take place only when a mature ovum is present. Since a woman usually produce only one ovum per menstrual cycle and the ovum remains alive from twelve hours to two days (48 hours) unless it is fertilized and a male sperm from a healthy man can normally survive up to 72 hours, so conception can only be possible within four days in a menstrual cycle. 3 to 4 days must be allowed to forestall any possible mistake. Thus, possible fertile period within the entire menstrual period is 8 days. The rest are free days or safe/sterile period. However, the difficulty of this method is that the menstrual cycle is not the same for all women and that a woman’s periods many vary from their previous pattern. The onus lies on the mature woman to study and know her periods and body regulations.

Temperature Method: here, a special fever thermometer may also be used to find out the safe period. After the woman’s egg is released, the temperature rises above normal though only about 0.4°F. The thermal shift to the higher level is caused by progesterone which is only produced after the ovum has left the ovary. The temperature stays at this higher level until just before the start of the next menstruation when it drops again to the normal level. Once the higher temperature level as been recorded for three days, the woman can be sure that her ovum is already broken up and the unsafe period over. The difficulty of this method is that it require a thermometer, charts and regularity in taking the temperature. Besides the temperature may be upset by other causes such as slight illness, time etc.

Ovulation Method: This method is based on the biological fact of mucus as an indication that the ovulation has set in. This mucus must be there to preserve the sperm cells and lead it to the ovum. After ovulation there is a feeling of dryness around the vagina. At about the arrival of ovulation this mucus becomes slippery giving a feeling of lubrication.

Summarily, it is to be noted that NFP does not separate sex from responsibility; it is not just a method based on physiology but is based on virtue. It is based on sexual self-control, which is necessary for a healthy marriage. It respects God’s design of the inseparability of the unitive and procreative ends of the conjugal acts; does not impede the sources of life as well as respects the principle that each and every conjugal act must be open to the transmission of life.

Evaluation and Conclusion

From what has been said above, it is clear the Church is not totally against birth control as such but what the Church is against is offending the moral principles of life in a bid to achieve such.[7] Indeed, the Church through the teachings of Humanae Vitae recognises that certain circumstance could make the regulation of birth a necessity. Such conditions include: Physical (sickness, present or imminent, proximate or remote), Psychological (insanity, depression); and external conditions (Lack of finance, war/ disaster whether natural or artificial and the problem of demography). However, while respecting these genuine conditions (reasons) for birth control, the Church teaches recourse not to the artificial methods (contraception) but the natural methods, that is, the Natural Family Planning. In this way, the Church teaches that the normal and real birth control is self-control or self-mastery.

The advantages of the Natural Family Planning include: it enhances and intensifies the relationship between the spouses, promotes marital harmony and equality, it educates for continence, help build marital spirituality; improves the quality of life, restores dignity to women, and strengthens marriage and family life. Conversely, recourse to contraceptives would widen the road to marital infidelity as well as bring about a general lowering of moral standards. Despite being a ‘sign of contradiction’ in modern society, the Church continues to re-enforce with much intensity her unbroken and constant moral teachings on birth control.


[1] Originally my B.Th Moral Theology thesis for the Bachelor of Theology Comprehensive Examinations of Seat of Wisdom Seminary Owerri, May 2014. The Church´s teachings on the value of life is eternally valid and it is intimately connected with her teaching on birth control. The Catholic Church believes and teaches that artificial contraception is sinful and immoral and may frustrate a divine plan to bring a new life into the world. Instead of using birth control methods such as pill, IUDs, diaphragms, and condoms, Catholics can use Natural Family Planning (NFP) techniques. While the Church does not judge and condemn persons and individuals who continually advise, promote, propagate and practice these immoral forms of artificial contraception, she calls all to an inner conversion of heart while she remains unwavering in putting forth her true teachings and moral values as a matter of the Divine mandate she has received from Christ.

[2] “Lo, sons are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one´s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies at the gate.” RSV.

[3] Today, the prophecy of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, seems to have come to pass. The contemporary world is sexually charged, men and women are fast becoming mere sexual objects for sexual fantasies and exploration. Was this the plan of God at creation? Because men and women now put so much confidence in artificial means of birth control especially condom are we not witnesses to the widespread of marital infidelity and single parenthood? Was this the plan of God at creation? There is a need to return to the drawing board, if not humanity may be heading towards auto-destruction.

[4] He said: “Unfortunately, Catholic thought is often misunderstood…as if the Church supported an ideology of fertility at all costs, urging married couples to procreate indiscriminately and without thought for the future. But one need only study the pronouncements of the Magisterium to know that this is not so. Truly, in begetting life the spouses fulfil one of the highest dimensions of their calling: they are God´s co-workers. Precisely for this reason they must have an extremely responsible attitude. In deciding whether or not to have a child, they must not be motivated by selfishness or carelessness, but by a prudent, conscious generosity that weighs the possibilities and circumstances, and especially gives priority to the welfare of the unborn child. Therefore, when there is a reason not to procreate, this choice is permissible and may even be necessary. However, there remains the duty of carrying it out with criteria and methods that respect the total truth of the marital act in its unitive and procreative dimension, as wisely regulated by nature itself in its biological rhythms. One can comply with them and use them to advantage, but they cannot be “violated” by artificial interference.”

[5] The 2008 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith´s instruction Dignitatis Personae: On Certain Bioethical Questions reiterates Church opposition to contraception, mentioning new methods of interception and contragestion, notably female condoms and morning-after pills, which also “fall within the sin of abortion and are gravely immoral.”

[6] The Church permits and encourages married couples to space births and plan how big or small their families will be by using Natural Family Planning (NFP). By using natural science – taking body temperature, checking body fluids, and using some computations – a woman can determine with 95% accuracy when to have sex and not get pregnant. A woman is fertile during approximately seven to ten days per cycle and is infertile the rest of the time. When practiced properly, NFP is as effective as any artificial birth control method. And it is not difficult to learn. Mother Theresa taught poor, illiterate Indian women how to effectively use NFP. In addition, no prescription and no expensive devices are involved, so it is easy on the budget.

[7] For the Church, the worst aspect of birth control pills is that many of them are not true contraceptives; they do not prevent the sperm and egg from conceiving. Instead, they work as an abortifacient, causing the uterus to eject potentially fertilized eggs. Because the Church teaches that life begins at conception, any fertilized egg is an embryo and a human person. Also, artificial contraception is morally wrong because each and every sex act can occur only between husband and wife and must be directed towards two ends: love and life, that is, the intimate unity between the man and woman (love) and possibly procreating another human being (life). Conception and pregnancy do not have to occur each time, but no man-made barriers should prevent what God may intend to happen. When love and life – unity and procreation – are separated, then sex becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end. Birth control makes sex recreational, and removing what may be perceived as the “danger” of pregnancy means that couples no longer need to communicate about when and when not to have sex and whether they want o can afford another child. Discussions on this topic can strengthen the marriage.

© Valentine Anthony Umoh 2018

Universidad de Navarra
Facultad de Teología