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 ...

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