Mormon doctrines? Birth control

My wife and I were talking the other day about how different Church was when we were younger, and especially, about doctrines and cultural practices that seem to have gone away. I suppose most religious traditions change in significant ways; there’s often, perhaps always doctrinal instability and cultural evolution. Probably, I just notice the Mormon case because that’s where I live, spiritually.

Anyway, I thought, over the next few days, that I would explore the changes I’ve noticed, and try to winkle out a reason for them. For those of you who read this blog, but who aren’t Mormons, I apologize. Maybe you’ve noticed similar changes in your own faith traditions? Anyway, as always, I have no authority to speak for or about the Church. I’m just a playwright with wifi; I claim no expertise in theology or cultural anthropology.

Anyway, the first major change we noticed, and the issue that led to this conversation has to do with birth control. We got married in 1980, and before then, when we were growing up and later when we were dating, the idea of using birth control was, if not entirely forbidden, at least strongly discouraged. The purpose of sex was, primarily, procreation. Artificially restricting the size of one’s family was considered incompatible with God’s will.

If you want to look for anti-birth control quotations from General Authorities, there are certainly plenty to choose from, including quotations from men I have looked up to and admired.  “In most cases the desire not to have children has its birth in vanity, passion and selfishness. . . All such efforts . . . befoul the pure fountains of life with the slime of indulgence and sensuality.” (David O. McKay, 1919) Or this: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, and those who refuse the responsibility of bringing them into the world and caring for them are usually prompted by selfish motives, and the result is that they suffer the penalty of selfishness throughout eternity.” George Albert Smith. Or this: “As to sex in marriage, the necessary treatise on that for Latter-day Saints can be written in two sentences: Remember the prime purpose of sex desire is to beget children. Sex gratification must be had at that hazard.” J. Rueben Clark. Or this: I have told tens of thousands of young folks that when they marry they should not wait for children until they have finished their schooling and financial desires. They should live together normally and let the children come.” Spencer W. Kimball.

This was the normal, everyday rhetoric of Church leaders when I was growing up. It was preached from the pulpit in Church. It was what we all believed. If you had asked me, back in the late seventies, whether my wife and I would practice birth control, I would certainly have said no. I honestly didn’t think about it much. I’m a guy; I wasn’t the one who would be getting pregnant. Still, this is what everyone believed and taught.

And then I met Annette. And we became engaged. And talked about our lives together, our goals, our plans, our intentions. And she didn’t have any better information than I had; we both thought birth control was against the rules, and we both felt pretty uncomfortable with that idea, for reasons neither of us could really articulate. We were Mormon kids; we weren’t comfortable talking about sex at all, let alone the specifics of pregnancy protection.

But we were in a student stake, and one of the counselors in the stake Presidency was an OB/GYN. And he gave a series of firesides on sexuality and birth control. And we had to go; the SP said we had to attend these firesides in order to be given a marriage temple recommend. Not that we wouldn’t have gone anyway; the seminars were, to two nice Mormon kids without a clue about human sexuality, spectacularly informative and interesting and invaluable.

Best of all, this counselor talked about birth control. He talked about the various kinds of birth control available, and gave us his best sense of the strengths and weaknesses of each. (This is what he said about abstinence: “it’s a form of birth control, and like all forms of birth control, it can have unpleasant side effects.”)

What he said in those firesides has become official Church policy. Decisions about birth control and the consequences of those decisions rested solely with us. This was a decision we needed to make, mutually. This was something we needed to talk about and decide. It wasn’t anyone else’s business. Above all, this wasn’t something I got to decide, as the guy. And it was also not something I should just let her deal with. We needed to genuinely communicate. We needed to agree, completely and fully.

The policy today couldn’t be clearer. It’s official doctrine, right there on the Church website. Why the change? Why all this anti-birth control rhetoric, and then nothing. Because really isn’t something anyone talks about anymore. I couldn’t tell you when the last time was when I heard a talk on this subject in Church. It’s certainly never discussed in General Conference. Why?

I know it sounds absurd to say that it’s because the Church is becoming more feminist, or at least more open to feminist thinking. Surely, for most of you, that’s an absurd thing to say. But it’s nonetheless true, in a quiet, unacknowledged way. The Church is becoming more open to feminism, if only because society is growing much more open to women’s issues and the Church is part of society. Decisions about reproduction, about pregnancy and childbirth, these are women’s issues. And yes, there’s tremendous social pressure on young women to marry too soon, to have too many children too quickly, to put their health at risk so they can fulfill what they believe to be a commandment, to multiply and replenish the earth. I taught at BYU for twenty years; I saw it all the time. Mormon kids do marry too young; I think that’s absolutely true.

But things are changing, slowly and inexorably, and changing for the better. And the evolving stance on birth control is central to that change. And yes, Mormon culture is as annoyingly reliant on mansplaining and clueless patriarchy as any other conservative American subculture. But when I was first married, birth control was discouraged and now it’s no one’s business. That’s a good thing.

5 thoughts on “Mormon doctrines? Birth control

  1. April Michelle Bloise Lewis

    I’ve always heard it both ways in a complementary way. You should not put off having a family when you get married, but you (as in the couple) need to make sure you are doing what is best for said family, including thinking of your emotional, physical, and temporal needs while still having faith that Heavenly Father will help you with whatever you need.

  2. Anonymous

    Enjoyed this post, We married in 1967 and talked freely with each other on the subject. Space four little ones then called that enough.

  3. Jonathan Langford

    This is the kind of change that some (Mormons and non-Mormons both) find inconsistent with faith. But it’s really not. It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to see that it’s perfectly consistent to see leaders and doctrines and teachings as inspired, but also still fallible and prone to human error (which, in fact, is what the scriptures tell us will be the case). We are all works in progress, and God works with all of us to move us toward knowledge and understanding.

  4. Anonymous 2

    Before I got married in 1979, our student ward bishop interviewed us and actually said that he didn’t approve of people having more children than they could financially take care of and he hoped we wouldn’t do that, as we were both still in college. He was a dentist. He told us about people who couldn’t afford braces for their children, and that was “a shame.” I thought that was kinda weird to say and still do. Most braces are for cosmetic purposes, right? Who cares about braces if your teeth function well enough?
    We had kids right away anyway. In hindsight I am glad we did it when we were young and healthy enough.
    Also in 1979, I taught an RS class and someone made this comment: My sister couldn’t have children and asked for a blessing. The blessing giver (a GA, as I remember) asked if they had ever used birth control. They said they had, and he said, “Then I’m sorry, I can’t give you this blessing.” I know that story scared at least my roommate into rethinking birth control.
    Seems that for a while in the 70s and 80s the rhetoric from the pulpit didn’t match what was happening in real life.

  5. Nancy Wilson

    For what it’s worth: Researching the history of birth control, you can find out that most forms have historically had really awful side effects, particularly for women. I find it interesting that the rhetoric against the use of birth control died down at roughly the same time that reliable and safe things became available. (Safety really did lag significantly behind public availability; many side effects weren’t recognized until years or decades after market introduction.) Also, while I believe most couples today – certainly most that I know – are using birth control to enhance their marriages, making decisions about child spacing and numbers in a way that is best for their families, I have several times been shocked to learn that women I’ve met wish deeply for more children – or children at all – but their husbands object to the responsibility said children would impose. It sounds as if the two issues – use of birth control for any reason, and welcoming children with all the responsibility that entails – have been historically conflated. Birth control is no longer generally carcinogenic or mutagenic, although those problems aren’t as completely done away with as we’d like to think. There is still a need for people to be selfless, to be generous and welcoming to children.
    Of course, if I didn’t believe the scriptures which indicate that there are a finite number of spirits waiting to come, I would probably see this differently. If I didn’t believe the scripture which states, “the earth…[has] enough and to spare” I would also see this differently. But I believe both of those, I think the point that not refusing children out of selfishness is still valid. Please note, I don’t presume to define a selfish reason. The most extreme examples I’ve seen – and this was from the outside, so it may have been very different than I understood – were two couples I knew from school. One of them, he insisted on buying jewelry for his wife that she then had to work to pay off, when she would have preferred children; the other, he said they had to wait ten years after they married to have kids – again, this is from the outside, I may have misunderstood his reasoning – so he wouldn’t “have to settle down.” I knew for a fact that she desperately wanted children. I also knew a couple who had been married a while, and he left because she wanted more children and he wanted a more upscale lifestyle than he could have by staying around – or that’s what he said. So when I hear the older rhetoric of not being selfish by delaying a family, those are the examples that leap to my mind, and I imagine that those speakers had run into more cases like that than most of us do.


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