November/December, 1997 Volume XII Number 9

Food for thought

Some early thinking on birth control and abortion

The words referenced can all be found in The Bible and Birth Control by Charles Provan

Socrates, a well known philosopher, mentioned that population should be kept down to prevent countries from falling "into poverty or war." Another famous philosopher, Aristotle, mentioned various methods of preventing conception without objection. (And why would he object, since he was in favor of abortion as a means of population control?) The Cretans desired low-level populations, and encouraged homosexuality to accomplish this. The Greeks and Romans practiced exposure of infants. Caeser Augustus promulgated legislation to push people into having children, but his attempt failed: the historian Tacitus says "childlessness prevailed". The Carthaginians and Canaanites practiced unnatural sex and child sacrifices -- practices which obviously lowered the population. Pliny the Younger (c 100 A.D.) says that he lived "in an age when even one child is thought a burden preventing the rewards of childlessness."
Plato, one of the greatest of the Greek philosophers, was in favor of laws which would prohibit childbearing after the first ten years of marriage; he was also in favor of what we would call "zero population growth." As we have stated earlier, his disciple Aristotle thought abortion was OK. We know of only a few pagan Greeks expressing "pro-children" views. They were ignored, so much so that about 150 B.C. the Greek general Polybius said, "In our time all Greece was visited by a dearth of children. . . .and a failure of productiveness followed. . . . by our men's becoming perverted to a passion for show and money and the pleasure of an idle life and accordingly either not marrying at all, or, if they did marry, refusing to rear children that were born, or at most one or two out of a great number for the sake of leaving them well off or bringing them up in extravagant luxury."
Charles Provan,
The Bible and Birth Control

I remember a great man coming into my house at Waltham, and seeing all my children standing in the order of their age and stature, he said, "These are they that make rich men poor." But he straight received this answer, "Nay, my lord, these are they that make a poor man rich; for there is not one of these whom we would part with for all your wealth."
Joseph Hall,1574-1656

"...fertility was regarded as an extraordinary blessing and a special gift from God, as is clear from Deut. 28:4, where Moses numbers fertility among blessings. 'There will not be a barren woman among you,' he says (cf. Ex. 23:26). We do not regard this so highly today. Although we like and desire it in cattle, yet in the human race there are few who regard a woman's fertility as a blessing. Indeed, there are many who have an aversion for it and regard sterility as a special blessing. Surely this is also contrary to nature. Much less is it pious and saintly. For this affection has been implanted by God in man's nature, so that it desires its increase and multiplication. Accordingly, it is inhuman and godless to have a loathing for offspring. Thus someone recently called his wife a sow, since she gave birth rather often. The good for nothing and impure fellow! The saintly fathers did not feel like this at all; for they acknowledged a fruitful wife as a special blessing of God and, on the other hand, regarded sterility as a curse. And this judgement flowed from the Word of God in Gen. 1:28, where He said: 'Be fruitful and multiply.' From this they understood that children are a gift of God."
Martin Luther,
Luther's Works, Vol. 5, p. 325, 329

"This passage [Gen. 9:1], moreover, leads us to believe that children are a gift of God and come solely through the blessing of God, just as Ps. 127:3 shows. The heathen, who have not been instructed by the Word of God, believe that the propagation of the human race happens partly by nature, partly by accident, especially since those who are regarded as most suited for procreation often fail to have children. Therefore the heathen do not thank God for this gift, nor do they receive their children as the gift of God."
Martin Luther,
Luther's Works, Vol. 2, p. 132

"Saintly women have always regarded childbirth as a great sign of grace. Rachel is rude and exceedingly irksome to her husband when she says (Gen. 30:10): 'Give me children, or I shall die!' She makes it clear that she will die of grief because she sees that barrenness is a sign of wrath. And in Ps. 127:3 there is a glorious eulogy of offspring: 'Lo, sons are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward (that is, a gift from God).' Surely it is a magnificent thing that children are the gift of God! Therefore Hannah laments so pitiably (1Sam. 1:10), and John's aged mother Elizabeth leaps for joy and exults (Luke 1:25): 'The Lord has taken away my reproach.' Thus when the world was still in a better state, barrenness was considered a sign of wrath; but childbirth was considered a sign of grace. Because of the abuses of lust, however, this remnant of the divine blessing gradually began to be obscured even among the Jews, just as today you could find many greedy men who regard numerous offspring as a punishment. Saintly mothers, however, have always regarded this gift -- when they were prolific -- as a great honor, just as, conversely, they have regarded barrenness as a sign of wrath and as a reproach."
Martin Luther,
Luther's Works, Vol. 3, p. 134-135

"And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was yet in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him.' "The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a montrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before he is born the hoped-for offspring. This impiety is especially condemed, now by the Spirit through Moses' mouth, that Onan, as it were, by a violent abortion, no less cruelly than filthy cast upon the ground the offspring of his brother, torn from the maternal womb. Besides, in this way he tried, as far as he was able, to wipe out a part of the human race. If any woman, ejects a foetus from her womb by drugs, it is reckoned a crime incapable of expiation and deservedly. Onan incurred upon himself the same kind of punishment, infecting the earth by his semen, in order that Tamar might not conceive a future human being as a inhabitant of the earth."
John Calvin,
Commentary on Genesis -- 38:10

Augustine (354-430) had this to say about Onan's sin: "And why has Paul said: 'If he cannot control himself, let him marry'? Surely, to prevent incontinence from constraining him to adultery. If, then, he practices continence, neither let him marry nor beget children. However, if he does not control himself, let him enter into lawful wedlock, so that he may not beget children in disgrace or avoid having offspring by a more degraded form of intercourse. There are some lawfully wedded couples who resort to this last, for intercourse, even with one's lawfully wedded spouse, can take place in an unlawful and shameful manner whenever the conception of offspring is avoided. Onan, the son of Juda, did this very thing, and the Lord slew him on that account. Therefore, the procreation of the children is itself the primary, natural, legitimate purpose of marriage. Whence it follows that those who marry because of their inability to remain continent ought not to so temper their vice that they preclude the good of marriage, which is the procreation of children."
Junius Franciscus (1545-1602);
Calvinist editor of the Belgic Confession; theological opponent of Jacob Arminius.

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