Examining the Jagged Little Pill
By bonnie mcmaken
October 14, 2009
We were newly engaged and overwhelmed by details: the dress, the guest list, the “fun” family tension and ... the honeymoon. And the honeymoon meant sex. And sex meant babies. And babies, in my neurotic mind, meant the dead-end to my career, financial instability, and the stigma of being “that couple,” those crazy people who get pregnant immediately after their wedding.
So I did the only logical thing, the thing that everyone did: I went on the Pill. Sure, I talked it over with my then-fiancé, but was there really a choice? It was practical. Responsible even. It wasn’t time. We weren’t ready. We wanted to enjoy one another, figure each other out before we added a child to the mix. We had our fancy hormonal insurance and, even if we didn’t fully understand the decision we had just made, we were set.
I know there are a lot of couples like us: Christian couples who—in their mission to abstain from sex before marriage—never learn how to think critically about birth control. So we choose the easiest option, the one that’s most effective, or the one that our friends chose. And then, besides swallowing that little pill every day, or opening that annoying little square package, or inserting that ring, we forget about it.
Birth control matters more than we think. It matters because our whole selves, including our bodies, matter to God. God created us male and female intentionally (Genesis 1:26-28). Our bodies reflect God because He made us in His own image, and marriage is a picture of how God relates to His people (Ephesians 5). What we do with or put into our bodies, then, is important. Our underlying assumptions about contraception, even our ignorance of the subject, will inform what we choose and why.
We all know God designed sex for pleasure and procreation. To deny that married sex is about pleasure for husbands and wives is to rob us of something inherent and profound, something that’s apparent even in Scripture (Song of Solomon). Sex is healthy for couples, and it’s good when we enjoy our spouse in this way. We should never feel guilty for that.
Instead of acknowledging God’s two-fold design for sex, though, our culture tends to put the procreation half on the shelf because we have the modern scientific luxury to wait or never have kids. “Birth control” used to be a laughable and irrelevant phrase, unless you count some nifty and not surprisingly ineffective makeshift linen condoms (ouch). Birth, like death, was not something we were able to control; it was—barring health complications—a part of the natural rhythm of marriage.
Our views shifted about 50 years ago with the invention of a contraceptive pill. The Pill was intended to liberate women from the oppression of unwanted pregnancies. Women could now wriggle their way out from under the tyranny of men’s sexual dominance and enjoy the same career opportunities or sexual promiscuity as their male counterparts.
Women, for the first time in history, were empowered to control their fickle fertility. But we have to ask ourselves: Is it truly feminine empowerment when we stifle a part of us that makes us women in God’s image and we allow science to dictate our bodily rhythms? This is a question, among many, my husband and I struggled with our first year of marriage.In general, we were asking ourselves, "How do we respect our bodies and the two purposes of sex while making wise decisions about contraception?" We are called to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). That passage isn't saying we should be bad stewards of our bodies or our resources, or that we should throw caution to the wind when it comes to getting pregnant.
However, hostility or ambivalence to life, in thinking or in practice, is sketchy, unbiblical and often more subtle than we think. For example, it's not that I was ever hostile toward life, but there was a time I was consumed with fear of getting pregnant. I couldn’t trust God to care for me.
Putting ourselves into God’s hands is frightening; it is a fragile place to be, but it’s often where we experience profound freedom. And under this mindset, Christians can vary in their opinions on birth control.
I started to taste this freedom when my husband and I prayed about other birth control options. I was having a rough psychological time on the Pill (my predisposition for anxiety was heightened). Not everyone experiences this, but there were enough side effects that we knew we needed something different. We chose Natural Family Planning (NFP).
You’re probably thinking, “Isn’t that the Rhythm Method that all those Catholics use and then have like 12 kids?” NFP is based on the time of ovulation, but it’s not guesswork like the Rhythm Method. There are three scientific indicators of ovulation, the primary one being a rise in the woman’s temperature, which is taken orally each morning. And contrary to popular belief, when practiced correctly, it’s actually 98 percent effective according to Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler.
This is not an apologetic for NFP; it’s not the right choice for everyone. It’s a lot of work. It takes intentionality, but that’s actually what I like about it. I like knowing what’s going on with my body. I like that my husband isn’t in the dark and is able to take some of the responsibility for birth control. Not many couples share this weight, but it’s valuable.
Choosing birth control is sometimes difficult, but maybe it should be until God gives us peace. We should wrestle with issues of our sexuality, life, gender and marriage. It’s also important to remember that once we choose, we don’t have to stick with that method forever. Marriage ebbs and flows, and so can our choices about birth control.
Life belongs to God, and that’s vital to remember in any method we choose. No form is foolproof. Are we open to life if God chooses to bless us with it? The possibility might always scare us, but maybe that’s OK. Life is a dangerous, mysterious, wonderful thing—kind of like the God who gives it.
Bonnie McMaken is a musician, foodie, writer, wife and mother. She lives with her husband and baby daughter in Chicago, Ill.