Deliberate Childlessness Revisited

Clearly, I hit a nerve. Almost two years ago, I published an article entitled “Deliberate Childlessness: Moral Rebellion With a New Face.” In that article I addressed the growing phenomenon of married couples who simply choose not to have children. I argued that this development indicates an eclipse of the Christian worldview in terms of the gift of children and a redefinition of marriage itself.
The article has been republished in various venues and has just recently erupted as a major focus of debate. After reviewing various responses–some extreme in intensity–I have taken time to rethink the issue and to revisit the question. At this point, I am even more convinced that deliberate childlessness represents a serious moral issue and that many Christians are deeply confused about the topic. Others seem to believe that the invention of modern contraceptive technologies has simply redefined the institution of marriage and the goods it is intended to represent.
In my original article I argued that “Christians must recognize that this rebellion against parenthood represents nothing less than an absolute revolt against God’s design.” In response, many have suggested that a rejection of parenthood is simply a deeply personal and sensitive question that is beyond moral consideration on the part of the Christian community. I find this argument impossible to accept. The Scriptures speak specifically to God’s intention in making us sexual beings and in creating marriage as the arena for the holy and healthy fulfillment of the sexual gifts. From a biblical perspective, the conjugal bond between husband and wife is never without reference to God as the Creator and to the entire human community as the beneficiaries of marriage. The capacity for procreation is, by God’s design, a central part of the conjugal bond and the institution of marriage.
The shocking reality is that there are so many persons who seem to privilege our own technological age as representing a new moral reality that allows human beings to transcend the sexual bond of marriage in terms of procreation. This is true in the secular world, where the invention of modern contraceptives–especially “The Pill”–represents nothing less than the liberation of sexuality from both marriage and procreation. Without the “threat” of pregnancy, unmarried couples are now free to engage in adultery and other forms of sexual sin without fear of the imposition of new life in the womb. Even among married couples, something similar has happened: Thanks to the reliability of contraceptive technologies, husbands and wives are now able to see children merely as a lifestyle option, rather than as the gifts that come naturally with the enjoyment of the conjugal act.
The responses to my article have been interesting, if often perplexing. Some have criticized me for failing to address the issue of infertility. I can only wonder if these persons actually read the article. I clearly stated: “Morally speaking, the epidemic in this regard has nothing to do with those married couples who desire children but are for any reason unable to have them, but in those who are fully capable of having children but reject this intrusion in their lifestyle.” Based in personal experience, my wife and I would never overlook the pain of those who even now are waiting for the gift of children, much less those who have come face to face with the reality that they are unable to conceive or bear children. My concern is with deliberate childlessness–a point made clear in both the title and the substance of the article.
Some have suggested that Christian couples might choose childlessness in view of extenuating circumstances required for unusual Christian service. I fully acknowledge that there may be situations, rare in the extreme, in which this may emerge as a serious moral consideration. Nevertheless, it hardly seems reasonable to assume that the innovation of modern contraceptives represents a new reality of gospel significance. Some have pointed to Paul’s concern for the gift of celibacy in 1 Corinthians chapter seven. I have dealt with this issue extensively elsewhere, but it simply has nothing to do with those who, not receiving the gift of celibacy, decide to marry.
Others have raised the specter of overpopulation. As one critic wrote, “Mohler seems to be unaware that the greatest moral issue facing planet Earth is overpopulation.” That critic needs to come into the 21st century, where the main population concern in Western nations is underpopulation rather than overpopulation. Though overpopulation may be a significant issue in some nations, the statistics indicate that underpopulation is likely to be a worldwide phenomenon with ominous repercussions. The tragic reality is that citizens of Europe and North America are now failing even to replace themselves in terms of children. We will soon face the phenomenon of an aging population with fewer young people to drive the economy and to support the entire social structure.
Nevertheless, demographics are the symptom rather than the cause of the phenomenon of deliberate childlessness. My larger concern is with the bare fact that an anti-natalist philosophy has now infected much of the Christian church. I fully expect non-Christians to think and to act as unbelievers. Nevertheless, I am perplexed by Christians who seem to believe that marriage and reproduction can be separated while glorifying God within the marital bond.
Throughout the centuries, the Christian moral tradition has focused on the unity of the goods that God gives us. Separating these goods leads to a weakening of the structure God intended for our good. This is never more clear than in the institution of marriage. Our current confusions over marriage–even the debate over same-sex marriage–betray the fact that we have allowed an artificial understanding of marriage to dominate our thinking. The very fact that same-sex marriage can be envisioned indicates that the institution of marriage has already been fundamentally weakened. The separation of sex from marriage and the separation of marriage and sex from reproduction must surely be a contributing cause of this confusion. If marriage were clearly understood as the marital bond between a man and a woman that represented the full reception of God’s gifts–including the gift of procreation and children–we would have very little misunderstanding about what marriage is.
Beyond this, does God’s purpose in creating us as sexual and reproductive beings mean that, in a very real sense, we need the experience of children and parenthood? The experience of parenthood changes both mother and father. Dirty diapers, midnight feedings, skinned knees, and first days of school give way to adolescence and the emergence of our children as adults in the making. The entire process requires parents to give themselves unreservedly to the toil and joy of raising, teaching, protecting, nurturing, disciplining, loving, and enjoying our children. Does God not use this to make us different people than we otherwise would be — even different Christians?
This isn’t for everyone — only for those who marry. Those who reject the responsibilities and delights of parenthood have decided to leave the raising of the next generation to others. What does this say?
Does this mean that all couples must maximize the number of children they can receive and raise? I did not raise the issue of contraception within the life of a marriage that is open to the gift of children. Elsewhere, I have argued that Christians must make contraceptive decisions with great care and that, as Christian believers, we are pre-committed to see children as gifts, rather than as incidental byproducts of the sexual act–much less as intrusions into our cherished lifestyles. I have consistently argued that Christian couples can make responsible decisions about the timing and number of children, so long as the marriage is genuinely open to the gift of children and the responsibilities of parenthood.
At this point, my position diverges somewhat from the Roman Catholic tradition. Participating in a symposium commemorating the 30th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that conclusively dealt with the issue of contraception, I argued that, “The effective separation of sex from procreation may be one of the most important defining marks of our age–and one of the most ominous.” I agreed with the predominating theme of the encyclical–that Christians must reject the “contraceptive mentality” that marks the postmodern mind.
Nevertheless, I believe that the Roman Catholic tradition focuses too narrowly on “each and every act” of sexual intercourse within a faithful marriage rather than on the marriage itself as being open to the gift of children.
To be honest, I am most perplexed by those who seem to think that the position I articulated is something new in terms of Christian conviction. Actually, the affirmation that marriage and procreation are inextricably bound together has been the consensus of Christians throughout the centuries. Consider the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who addressed this issue beautifully and sensitively in his Ethics, written between 1940 and 1943. Bonhoeffer puts the case clearly: “The right of nascent life is violated also in the case of a marriage in which the emergence of new life is consistently prevented, a marriage in which the desire for a child is consistently excluded. Such an attitude is in contradiction to the meaning of marriage itself and to the blessing which God has bestowed upon marriage through the birth of a child. Certainly a distinction is to be drawn between the consistent refusal to allow children to come of a marriage and the concrete responsible control of births.”
Bonhoeffer wrote these words as he was leading a congregation through the agony of Nazi persecution. His thought was necessarily clear and his point was urgent. Even under the threat of Nazi tyranny, marriage was to include the hope of children and the desire to receive them as God’s gifts. Surely, we can learn from his example.
Without doubt, this debate will continue. My hope is that the consideration of this great question will lead to a larger embrace of the goodness of marriage — and a deeper obedience for all of us who know its delights.