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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Crafting the modern family: reproductive engineering and contraception

A while back, I came across an interview with Amy Laura Hall, Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, on the Christianity Today website. The interview touches on issues relevant to some of my own concerns, namely, pro-life issues, especially up-until-recently overlooked ones such as the ethics of in-vitro-fertilization. It is also relevant to my recent foray into the complex practical, philosophical, and moral world of contraceptive use and natural family planning.

In the interview, Hall says,
Even Christians committed to biblical truth and salvation through Christ have been tempted to bend, stretch, and evade God's unequivocal call to "choose life." When land, money, health, or status has been at stake, Christians have reshaped their imaginations to see some humans as subhuman, as not quite children of the heavenly Father.

She is speaking here of unintended pregnancy, but does she extend these things to use of contraception as well?

In this interview in The Other Journal, Dr. Hall speaks about the escalating social phenomenon of control over reproduction. She says,
...consider, historically, how the nuclear family became in North America a symbol of the responsible, pure family. That occurs largely during the atomic era, during the 50’s. With the return of soldiers and the creation of new suburbs, you have this sense that what is truly “the family” is two parents -- and by in large the standard became two parents with only two, possibly three, children. Mainline as well as Evangelical Protestants bought into that image as the icon for the best family. There are examples of this in posters that were distributed in the late 40's and early 50’s by social hygiene organizations seeking to promote this vision of the comparatively independent and isolated family.

When you gain such historical perspective, you can ask a new set of questions. Is the independent, nuclear family the only biblically sound depiction? You can go further to ask whether this is even the primary Biblical depiction of the family? Back up into Scripture and try to think through how, especially in the New Testament, Christ re-configures the Roman family. The primary image of the family in Jesus’ words (as well as in Paul’s words) is the Church. Its through baptism we are made heirs according to the promise. We are not foundationally related through blood ties genetically, but through blood ties Eucharistically. Through Christ, through Christ’s blood, we are made one, and Paul refers to this both baptismally and Eucharistically. It is through Christ’s blood that we are made one family.

When you look at those images alongside a nuclear family that is all genetically related and fairly isolated, even from grandparents, the difference is salient. That image of the nuclear family, the four individuals – mom, dad, son, and daughter – alongside the image of the Eucharistic family, I think it calls into question our somewhat obsessive pursuit of our “own children” who will fit neatly into the Midwestern suburb.

I think Hall makes an interesting point. She does not say, however, whether family planning has a place in society or not. In this interview, she does not offer much suggestion as to how society is to accommodate large numbers of children except to say that the church must help, although in the previous one she asks,
How can we reconfigure our institutions—workplaces, schools, churches—in ways that make them truly hospitable to new human life? Is there on-campus housing for undergraduates with babies at Christian colleges?

Strangely, she doesn't mention families taking care of their own. She merely criticizes the Bush administration for being "woefully inadequate in keeping up the most basic of social structures that churches and these communities rely on to do a pretty decent job on some of the most basic services like public education...They have not provided a safety net for those tasks and people who churches cannot meet."

(Hall, does, however, praise Bush for his stance on stem-cell research.)

I agree that the church and society should help, but before that, it should be up to family, both immediate and extended. After that neighborhoods, on up to society as a whole including the employment and maternity/paternity-leave structure, should get in on the act. I suppose that in our transient society, the extended family cannot be expected to assist the burgeoning young family as in times past, yet certainly this aspect needs to be looked at when calling into question the contemporary desire to “control one’s form of family.”

Unfortunately, the issue of family planning does not exist in a vacuum; it is inextricably related to other individual and societal factors such as health, familial support, community support, church support, and economic and other factors. Perhaps it is also as much related to the materialism in our culture as it is to control issues.

Which leads to this question: is control of one’s family size and child spacing bad in and of itself? There are all sorts of ways we control our lives, because, in this country of wealth and opportunity, we are able to. How does one determine how much or what kind of control is good, and what is bad? How does one distinguish “control” from “stewardship?”

The whole term responsible parenthood is also historical, and that comes up around the 20’s and 30’s with the American Eugenics movement, which tried to forge a distinction between responsible and appropriate family forms, and irresponsible families. The argument went that with too many children one couldn’t provide for them in a way that would be responsible. There was also a great deal of anti-Catholicism and blatant racism and classism going on, especially by the time you get to the 50’s with this. So you have this kind of climb of the middle class trying to prove itself as responsible. You get them limiting the number of their children more and more, so they can provide more material goods for their children, send more of them to college, and by and large fit the mold.

This is the crux of the discussion, I believe. Certainly there is pressure to “fit the mold,” but part of my question has been, to what extent can this be avoided, in early 21st-century America? As Americans, we aren’t just a huge collection of little nuclear families that are sufficient unto themselves; we depend on our extended families, our communities, and our society as a whole for our livelihood in many ways. Of course there are ways to “break the mold,” and many of us do that in various ways throughout our lives. Just how much “breaking of the mold” can be done, though, before it refuses to yield any workable form?

And one thing I’ve had people ask me, is OK, you’re critical of reproductive technology to try and have your own children, but also you want to call into question the meticulous timing of children that goes on with more and more effective kinds of birth control. And yes, what I see as consistent with both of those efforts, both birth control (at least the way birth control is used by white dominant Americans in our culture) and reproductive technology is the sense that reproduction is something that one must control in order to fashion a family that will fit with one’s expectations. With the onset of especially effective forms of birth control (there were ineffective forms prior and they didn’t really matter that much for how we thought about the family), and reproductive technology, you have this ever-more efficient quest of controlling one’s form of family. I think this has warped the way we think about incipient life, the way we think about the gift of life, that parenting has become so much a task.

I mean, we have become Pelagian in how we think about the gift of life. It is something that we must control, navigate, and adhere to in order to craft a family that will fit in with economic demands that will fit in with cultural expectations. Evangelicals have to ask ourselves “Why?” What are the norms by which we are trying to adhere when we are seeking a particular kind of family. I suspect many of us are at least influenced by the images in the media. Ya know, “baby gap kids”, “better homes and gardens”, as we are influenced by a scriptural witness to the gratuity of life.

I think she’s right about fashioning a family that will fit with one’s expectations. Yet she seems to speak as if economic and cultural considerations are without merit. I don’t see how they can be completely escaped, however, nor do I think they necessarily should be. Such considerations ought to be prayerfully considered as part of one’s overall stewardship and one’s purpose in the world, and go way beyond “baby gap kids” and “better homes and gardens.” Hall also does not address the validity of other considerations, such as health or extended family issues.

We don’t ignore economic factors when purchasing homes, cars, clothing, food, and other items. Not to equate things with persons or to say that children are a commodity, but, they do cost money to provide for, even from before they are born.

Besides all that, there are innumerable unpredictables in family planning, even when a couple tries to fashion a family in a way that they deem workable. Things can go “wrong” every step of the way. Miscarriages happen. Birth defects happen. Illnesses and accidents happen. Death happens. For many, though they may try to time and space children to the month, their bodies may not cooperate.

I am not certain that reproductive engineering and attempts to manage the spacing and number of children belong in the same category. In mentioning attempts to control what one’s family will look like, there is an implication that such control is a priori bad. I’m not referring to sex of children, or eye color, or other traits, but I mean child spacing and numbers. I think the reasons one has for use of methods to control one’s family spacing and size are what make attempts to manage family size morally acceptable or not.

I do not know Dr. Hall’s age, nor how long she’s been married. I note that she has two children. I wonder how many more she will have, and, if she continues to have children, how that will affect her current work.

Chris Keller, Hall’s interviewer in TOJ, asks a great question:
The question of, “what are children for”, is this idea to have a perfect child, and to have the child in a very controlled way, to give this child everything that he or she needs and to give the child every advantage possible… is there kind of an approach to children in this country that seems Savior-esque, with this objectification does there also come a kind of idolatry of children?

Hall’s response mentions Gnostic idolatry and Anne Geddes photos vs. Norman Rockwell pictures, in which she asserts that Geddes’ photos are indicative of a dominant culture in America that sees children as a way to accessorize and fulfill one’s own life, rather than as interruptions into our own hopes, dreams, and goals. I must admit that I don’t see Geddes’ photos in quite the same way, but believe she has a point in what she says about dominant American culture.

Perhaps in some ways, attempting to have children in a very controlled way can lead to an idolatry of children, but I think it may also be indicative of a desire to have control over one’s life in general, and of a materialistic view both of what having children means and of caring for them.

Yet I don't think that wanting to provide for and cultivate one's children is necessarily motivated by a desire that they be mere trophies. Perhaps a parent wants to do this because they love their children and value them as precious creatures of God! They desire to give them every truly good gift. Siblings are good gifts. So are parents who are able to take care of them properly. So is education, and training to develop their God-given skills.


  • For what it's worth, you can search inside Hall's book, Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love, on Amazon's web page. There is, I was told, no reference to "family planning" in the book.

    By Blogger Martin LaBar, at 5:11 AM  

  • Bonnie,

    Thought-provoking post!

    I'm going to have to write about contraception on my blog at some point. It is such a critical issue for our understanding of nature and God's plan.

    In the mean time, I'll merely make two observations (for what they're worth):

    -There is a BIG difference between artificial contraception and natural contraception. Please see, for example,
    Couple-to-Couple League.

    -Before 1930, NO Christian denomination approved of artificial contraception. The Church Fathers and the Protestant Reformers were VEHEMENTLY against the practice.



    By Blogger Lawrence Gage, at 11:32 AM  

  • Martin, thanks for the info. I definitely think some more exploration of the distinction between what is acceptable "family planning" and unacceptable "family crafing" needs to be done.

    MJ, thanks for your comments. I've been exploring the issues you raise quite a bit lately, actually. I look forward to what you have to say.

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 12:30 AM  

  • Dear Bonnie,
    I am a Christian from Taiwan, I really appreciate your sharing on contraception. As a matter of fact, I am also doing some research on this issue. I am not good in using this 'blogger', and I try to print out your essay for more easy to read, however it take too much space due to the limitation of the format. Is that OK and possible if you can sent me your whole series essays to me through e-mail? I will not plagiarize your essay and if I quote your essays I will document it.
    My e-mail is
    Thanks a lot.
    Oh, I am also a homeschooling father with 4 children aged from 13, 12, 10 and 5. In Taiwan, there are about 300 Christian families doing homeschooling.
    Since I can't find your e-mail and write to you directly, so, I leave my request here. Hope that you can see it.
    In Christ.
    Daniel Wong

    By Blogger wong27296924, at 10:06 AM  

  • Indeed, in this week's episode, Claire and Phil throw their slow kid, Luke, a huge birthday party in order to make up for all the crap birthdays he's had in the past, since his birthday is so close to Thanksgiving...? Sounds like somebody was betting their show would still be on by late November, and beyond that, didn't want to take any chances!

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  • I like to read interviews with Amy Laura she is fantasic.

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