Human birth is the most commonplace miracle on this planet. But this private joy is fast becoming a public sorrow. Now that humanity is counted by the billions, the mathematics of the mass warns of widescale starvation in fifteen years. It may be this century’s great moral crisis.
Romanticists of fertility like to say that birth control would have cheated the world of seventeenth child Johann Sebastian Bach, fifteenth child John Wesley, or even eleventh child Cardinal Ottaviani, the conservative who heads the Vatican’s latest commission on contraception.
All Christian groups accept some form of family planning. Gazing across the great ecumenical divide, Roman Catholics permit only the “rhythm” method of periodic abstinence from sexual relations, while Protestants generally accept mechanical or chemical preventatives as well.
Rome merely believes what the Protestants did until several decades ago. The U. S. state laws against birth control recently overthrown were Protestant hangovers. In Roman Catholic France and in Canada, where Protestants were dominant until recently, any artificial contraception is still illegal, though the prohibitive laws are seldom enforced.
The closest thing to a Protestant consensus is a 1961 policy statement of the National Council of Churches. (On this issue, the council doesn’t speak for Eastern Orthodoxy, which generally holds the Roman position.) The NCC said “motives, rather than methods, form the primary moral issue.” But a few Protestants, at least, wonder about that.
Some fear wide availability of birth control has encouraged youths to be promiscuous. Limiting control to married couples only seems impossible. The “pill,” for instance, is used for medical treatment as well as contraception. Conservative Protestants are usually mum on the issue, but once in a while some speak out—often with a Roman accent. Writing in Eternity five years ago, Illinois physician Stanley Anderson virtually said that the use of birth control amounts to disobedience and lack of faith in God.
When that was written, the “pill” was still experimental, and Planned Parenthood was advising against use of the new intra-uterine device (IUD). But both techniques are now used by millions. Still, however, biologists lack information on the effects of these methods. In fact, they aren’t really sure how the IUD works.
The pill—which is relatively expensive and must be taken daily—is popular among affluent, sophisticated people, while the IUD is the most feasible means of mass birth control for developing nations. Though only about 95 per cent effective, the IUD is inexpensive and, once the small loop or ring is inserted in a five-minute operation, requires little attention. An estimated 1.3 million women now use the IUD in India, and South Korea credits 400,000 IUD insertions with a significant drop in its birth rate.
The United Nations reports that world population grew by 70,000,000 during 1966, as food production per person in developing countries dropped by 4 to 5 per cent. Last month, U. S. aid director William S. Gaud predicted that by 1980, “one billion additional mouths will be added to those areas of the world least able to feed them.”
Thus birth control is increasingly important in U. S. foreign policy. When President Johnson urged population planning on the world in his 1967 State of the Union address, the Vatican press—apparently sensing he had more than rhythm in mind—issued a rebuke. A few weeks later, Secretary of State Dean Rusk made one of his strongest statements yet:
“We shall need more food, but more food is not the long-term solution. We must continue developing of better instrumentalities for population control.… Changes in mores are in process in many parts of the world, and the approach is becoming international.”
An indication of scientific hesitancy is seen in the fact that a committee of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration is studying the safety and effectiveness of IUDs and should report by mid-year. Although ethical discussions on birth control tend to be divorced from biology, scientific evidence leads such Christians as William F. Campbell, a missionary doctor in Morocco, to fear that use of the IUD is “a kind of abortion.”
The biological question is at what point the IUD stops human life—before or after the male sperm fertilizes the female egg. The ethical question is whether a fertilized egg is a human being—whether the IUD may be the mechanism for microscopic murder.
Campbell, writing in the Christian Medical Society Journal, admitted that science is unsure whether eggs become fertilized when the IUD is used. Majority opinion, however, appears to be that the IUD does not prevent fertilization but rather keeps the already fertilized egg from nesting in the wall of the uterus.
Because of this possibility, Campbell rules out the IUD, as well as the experimental “morning-after pill,” which is taken to stop implantation of a fertilized egg.
Campbell is apparently the first Protestant to raise the moral issue in print. The current Journal carries a few replies accusing Campbell of legalistic nit-picking à la Rome. Church of the Brethren medical missionary John S. Horning raises the rival theory that the IUDs do not cause “death or disruption after fertilization” but somehow make the ovary release the egg before it is ripe enough to be fertilized. Another theory is that the IUD interferes with fertilization in the area where egg and sperm normally meet.
Unless the IUD is “proven to be an abortive mechanism,” Horning thinks it would be a greater sin to frustrate birth control than to use a method “which we think might just possibly produce abortions.” In his work with poor Indians in Ecuador, Horning reports “95 per cent success” with IUDs and “95 per cent failure” with Campbell-approved methods.Campbell says Christian morality permits use within marriage of “condoms, diaphragms, spermicidal drugs, medicine to suppress ovulation, and drugs to suppress formation of sperm in the male.”
Speaking from India, a pressure point in population, IUD proponent Dr. R. B. Conyngham of the Christian Medical Association says, “It is only presumed that fertilization does occur. There is no evidence that implantation occurs … and that abortion then results.”
But what if science proves that the IUD seals the doom of an already fertilized egg by stopping implantation, or even by later abortion, as some evidence suggests? This is the basic moral issue. Campbell contends that any fertilized egg is already a “human person” because “the total potential for future development, carried in genes from the father and the mother, is present.”
Similarly, Notre Dame scientist Julian Pleasants says that “implantation, placentation, and birth merely change the form of nutrition; they do not change the character of the embryo.” Germain Grisez of Georgetown University says Vatican II clearly outlawed IUD’s “since these quite likely interfere with life already conceived.”
Dr. Donald Chan, gynecology professor at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, says he can find “no scriptural basis one way or the other” to decide when a human being first exists, so he presents the latest scientific evidence to Malayan Christians and lets them decide whether the IUD is moral.
A substantial group of Protestants would agree with Dr. Milton O. Kepler, an Episcopalian who teaches a course in religion and medicine at George Washington University. To him, abortion is “removal of an implanted ovum.”
Campbell’s position could prohibit not only IUD’s but also birth-control pills, taken by millions of women. Most popularly written articles on the pill talk of its “anti-ovulant” effect—prevention of release of the egg by simulating conditions of pregnancy.
But Edward Tyler, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, noted two other effects of progesterone-estrogen combinations: making the cervical mucus impenetrable to sperm, thus acting like a diaphragm; and making the womb unsuitable for implantation of a fertilized egg. America, the Jesuit weekly, noted this evidence in opposing this type of pill.
A Lutheran physician in California, Dr. A. Giesbret, not only opposes the IUD on the abortion grounds but also feels that the pills—even if they only act to suppress ovulation—are “completely immoral and contrary to natural principles.” He says he knows several Protestant physicians who agree.
Whatever Protestant viewpoint develops, on the basis of numbers the Roman position is more important. Among Roman Catholics searching for a liberal view is Virginia physician Rudolph Ehrensing, who has written for National Catholic Reporter. On the question of when human life begins, he hopes the church will decide that “the fertilized ovum is not a human person, that the full human being comes into existence only in, say, the third week or the third month after conception. Then an ‘abortion’ before that time—the preventing implantation … might be moral under some circumstances.”
In this month’s McCall’s, Roman Catholic columnist Clare Boothe Luce contends that “any physically harmless birth control means, short of sterilization (which is sexual suicide) and abortion (which is self-violence and infanticide) should be accepted by the Church.” What’s more, she believes Pope Paul will apply his “courage and consummate prudence” and come to a similar conclusion.
But popes do not contradict previous Vatican pronouncements. The birth-control belief has a long history, including a 1588 bull by Pope Sixtus V that condemned contraception by “magical evil deeds” and “cursed medicines.” In a 1930 encyclical that apparently falls under the dogma of papal infallibility, Pius XI said “any use whatever of marriage, in the exercise of which the act by human effort is deprived of its natural power of procreating life” is sin. In authoritative but not infallible statements, Pius XII interpreted this as permitting rhythm but not the pill and other methods considered unnatural.
Also, the Pope can’t condone methods he believes to be immoral, despite an impending crisis of starvation. At least he’s worrying about the problem from all angles. Many Protestants—staggered by the moral aspects of present and future suffering—give scarcely a second thought to the moral aspects of the various methods. Many others give scarcely a first thought to either.
Merger Plan, Installment One
After five years of negotiation between the Reformed Church in America and the Presbyterian Church, U. S. (Southern), the first installment of a plan for merger of the two groups was mailed to congregations in late January.
The 106-page pocket-size booklet deals with “form of government” for the proposed new Presbyterian Reformed Church in America. The negotiating committee’s timetable calls for release of sections on disciplinary procedure and worship in June and on organizational structure and doctrine in August. Target date for submission of a complete plan of union is 1968.
Just before sending out the first section, the Joint Committee of Twenty-four declared that the merger it proposes is “the only viable possibility of union before us either now or in the immediate future.” But after that, the Permanent Committee on Inter-Church Relations of the 950,000-member Southern Presbyterian Church suggested that discussion with the smaller RCA is only one of the ways the denomination should pursue Christian unity. It specified talks with the United Presbyterian Church and the Consultation on Church Union. After the Presbyterian General Assembly’s surprise decision in 1966 to become a full participant in COCU, the RCA General Synod asked for an explanation. The Joint Committee’s “only viable possibility” statement is intended to guide the next assembly in its answer. Whatever decision the Presbyterians make will be under the watchful eye of the 230,000-member Reformed Church, whose synod meets simultaneously with the Presbyterian assembly this June in Bristol, Tennessee.
The policy draft is not proposed for adoption at Bristol but is certain to stir debate there. It is labeled a “first draft presented for study and suggestion,” and the committee is asking the grass roots to send comments.
The document generally follows the present Presbyterian Book of Church Order in format and content, with some important differences. It includes some RCA practices, and some procedures not spelled out in the constitution of either denomination.
The graded system of courts would use Presbyterian names (session, presbytery, synod, general assembly), but the RCA consistory (elders and deacons sitting as one board) would be retained at the local level.
Presbyteries would be authorized to name a “general pastor” to oversee relations between congregations and their clergymen—an office new to both churches. However, he would have no administrative authority, and would report to the presbytery through a committee on pastoral relations.
New ordination vows are proposed for ministers, elders, and deacons. Candidates would be asked to affirm that they “sincerely believe the Gospel of the Grace of God in Christ Jesus as revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and as truly set forth in the doctrinal standards of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in America.”
Presbyterian ordinands now are asked if they “believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice,” if they “sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” The draft follows current RCA forms for clergy ordination except that the vow omits the promise to “reject all errors” contrary to the Bible and doctrinal standards.
Another likely issue is the amending procedure, which would require a two-thirds vote of presbyteries—compared to three-fourths under current Presbyterian practice—to approve another church merger or amend doctrine.
ARTHUR H. MATTHEWS
The Moon Martyrs
Edward White, II, one of the most outspoken of U. S. astronauts on the subject of religion, had sewn three tokens into the left leg of his space suit just before the June, 1965, flight during which he became the first American to walk in space.
He carried a miniature cross, a star of David, and a St. Christopher medal that had been blessed and sent him by Pope John XXIII. White later explained:
“I took these things to express, a bit, the great faith I had in the people and the equipment we were using for the mission. I had faith in myself, and in Jim [McDivitt], and especially in my God. Faith was the most important thing I had going for me on the flight;”
White also said that this faith in God and colleagues kept him calm when he had dangerous difficulty reclosing the hatch after the space-walk.
A dreadful human error seemed inevitable someday in the race to the moon. It came in an instant on January 27, during the first full dry run for the Apollo mission that had been scheduled for this week. White, Virgil (Gus) Grissom, and Roger Chaffee were burned alive within seconds in their Apollo capsule on the Cape Kennedy launch pad. The cause may not be known for months, if then.
Instead of tokens, the 36-year-old White had planned to take a miniature Bible with him into space this time.
Like many other astronauts, White found time for church work despite his demanding profession. He was a lay speaker and member of the official board and Christian education commission at Seabrook Methodist Church, one of several modern Protestant churches that have sprung up in suburban Houston, Texas, to serve the burgeoning National Aeronautics and Space Administration community.
White’s closeness to the church’s life added a special poignancy to the half-hour memorial service for him last month. The Rev. Conrad Winborn said, “The fullness of Ed’s life, his giving of himself, makes the loneliness and separation intolerable but, paradoxically, bearable. He gave deeply and fully of himself, and we have been the recipients of a priceless and eternal treasure.”
Earlier the same morning, another memorial service was held at the same church for Grissom, 40, who attended there. It was conducted by Roy Van Tassell, minister at the Church of Christ in Mitchell, Indiana, where Grissom had retained his membership. “The real person is not just a body any more than a home is just a house,” Van Tassell preached. “Jesus spoke of Lazarus’ death as sleep. Death is just a door from this life to the next. We take off the garment of mortality and put on the garment of immortality. I’m sure that is the feeling Virgil Grissom had when his time came. He was ready to go.”
Chaffee was the youngest of the trio (31) and the only one who had not been in space before. At a service for him at Webster Presbyterian Church—the day before the services honoring his fellow astronauts—the Rev. Ernest A. Dimaline said Chaffee died in a mission to “create, discover, search, and find answers.” He tied man’s space quest to God’s command in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” The preacher added, “This is man’s purpose because man is the highest form of creation now known to us.”
After White’s death, Mrs. Kenneth Done of Salt Lake City, a Mormon religious instructor, reported the contents of a letter White had sent her when she asked about his beliefs after the 1965 walk in space:
“I can tell you I believe that law and order exist in God’s creation and that God has surely given life to others outside our earth. There could be places where there is life similar to our own. We would be egotistical to believe ours is the only life among all those possible sources. As to evidence of God’s presence during our journey and that short period I walked in space, I did not feel any nearer to him there than here, but I do know his sure hand guided us all the way.…”
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