Real Sex vs. the Contraceptive Mentality (Part 2)

[Continued from Part 1]

Restraint, Relationships and Planning Parenthood

When I say that we “naturally want to avoid having children” at certain times, I would imagine that the image that comes immediately to mind is of birth control, abortion or infanticide, and most traditional societies have seen these in some form or other. However, I’d like to turn our attention to something so basic and so prevalent that we don’t think about it much.

From an anthropological point of view, the entire structure of our romantic and family relationships serves as a way to control childbearing, limiting it to situations in which offspring can be supported. Consider: Requiring that young women remain virgins until marriage ensured that children will not be born without a provider. Nor was the decision to marry, when it came, a strictly individual affair. Marriage was negotiated and approved by the wider families, because the families were in effect committing to help support the new family unit being created. Many cultures also required the husband’s family to pay a “bride price”, not simply as compensation for the lost contribution of the daughter to her own family, but as proof that the husband was of sufficient means to start a family.

Once in place, this set of cultural mores and laws provided an easy way to adjust to want or plenty:

In good times, people married young, in bad they married late and some did not marry at all. Within a marriage, the strong cultural ideal of the faithful wife ensured that if husband and wife avoided intercourse to space children the husband would not find some other male getting his genes in on the sly, while the cultural rules surrounding legitimacy assured the wife that even if her husband was unfaithful during such a time, any children resulting would not supplant hers in terms of inheritance or prestige.

A dramatic example of the extent to which marriage age was used to manage fertility can be seen in Wrigley’s Population History of England, which makes a strong case that the English population explosion in the mid eighteenth century through the early twentieth was a result of a decline of in the average age of first marriage for women from 26 to 23. (This, coming at the same time as increased life expectancy caused the population to grow dramatically, and triggered a round of Malthusian worrying by the cultural elites.)

With marriage choices as the primary means of regulating reproduction, the other key factor, in addition to marriageable age, was the number of people who never married. In Western Europe from the Middle Ages through the Industrial Revolution, 10-25% of women never married. In poorer countries such as Ireland, both late marriage and spinsterhood came into play with the result that as few as 30% of the women of childbearing age were married at any given time. (Comprehensive demographic data here. Example table of percentage of women of childbearing age married by country and decade available on page 21 of this paper.)

What we see when we view demographic history is that marriage (and chastity outside of marriage) is an adaptive trait which allows us as rational creatures to regulate our fertility. The fact that the signs of female fertility are hard to discern means that any sexual act with a woman of childbearing age may result in the creation of a child. And the set of moral and societal norms surrounding marriage provide us with a way to manage that fact responsibly in order to have children only when we believe we can support them. This evolutionary analysis actually leads to a definition of marriage which is startlingly similar to a traditional Christian understanding of marriage: In both cases one of the primary ends of marriage is to assure that children come into being only when others are prepared to love and care for them.

[to be continued]

12 Responses to Real Sex vs. the Contraceptive Mentality (Part 2)

  • Chastity is very important both in and outside of marriage.

    “And the set of moral and societal norms surrounding marriage provide us with a way to manage that fact responsibly in order to have children only when we believe we can support them.”

    I agree. But, unfortunately our society’s norms and sense of morality has changed over time leading to a deterioration of family values, which has also in turn led to a break up of the traditional family unit.

    Plus, the Catholic Church has been quite remiss in promoting and teaching proper fertility treatment alternatives to IVF that are in line with Catholic teachings.

    But, Fr. Benedict Groeshel did recently host a show on Catholic fertility for couples with fertility issues.

    http://teresamerica.blogspot.com/2010/05/faithful-couple-reflects-on-issues-of.html

  • I wondered if you’d mention Ireland. People think of the Irish as baby-crazy, but that has not always been the case as you say.

  • As a cradle Catholic I agree with your assessment. The only thing I don’t agree with is the use of birth control (aka condom) when your married and don’t want children. My spouse is a Medical Doctor and also disagree with the method the church authorized since it is not as full-proof as birth-control or condom. Let me correct myself hormone birth-control we are also against. My question I guess is why is the church against condoms even in marriage?

  • Marriage requires an openness to procreating and condoms inhibit that openness or are a barrier to that openness.

    Here is chart analyzing all forms of contraception and it shows reasons why the Church is against each form of contraception.

    http://www.usccb.org/prolife/issues/nfp/action.shtml

  • Alex,

    As Teresa says, the Church’s opposition to barrier forms of birth control are based on the understanding that they falsify the procreative nature of the sex act. From a Catholic point of view, there is not a moral difference between the use of hormonal and barrier methods of birth control.

  • Alex,
    While it’s hard to see at a glance because the columns are out of alignment, the chart to which Teresa links gives typical use effectiveness ratings (it’s not specified on the page but it looks to be measured in terms of pregnancies per hundred users) for all methods. Pregnancy rates for the fertility-acceptance methods allowed by the Church are actually lower than they are for barrier contraceptives–quite a bit lower if you exclude the now disused calendar rhythm method.

    These methods do demand a high degree of self-discipline, which many couples are unwilling to impose on themselves.

  • Alex..again…abstaining when the wife is fertile teaches sexual control, which is essential and the reason why couples who utilize NFP don’t divorce or stray.

  • The problem I see with NFP is not the theoretical admissibility of the practice, but with the widespread disregard of the Church’s requirement that such mean be used only for grave reasons.

    Now customarily one does not simply judge his own case– he submits the matter to an independent person. Hence, those having recourse to these methods should be doing so only after consultation with an orthodox spiritual advisor, who can judge the facts of a couple’s situation and determine if there truly is a grave cause for avoiding cooperation in the creation of new life.

  • Sorry, for my delay in responding back. Thank all of you for the comments. We have looked into this method further and also reading Gregory K. Popcak’s “Holy Sex!” is the ultimate guide to a fulfilling, happy, yet virtuous sexual life.” I have to recommend this book because it does lay out what NFP is in detail and makes it sound so.. much more loving … read the book if anyone was like me… Thanks

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