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.