Dispelling Myths: Contraception as Murder

It is a mistaken belief that the Reformers and early fathers erroneously condemned family planning through ignorance because they considered the spilling of seed to be actual murder. First, consider that Luther referred to Onan's sin not as murder, but as a Sodomitic sin:

Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed. Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime to produce semen and excite the woman, and to frustrate her at that very moment. He was inflamed with the basest spite and hatred. Therefore he did not allow himself to be compelled to bear that intolerable slavery. Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed. Therefore God punished him.

[Luther's works, vol. 7 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 38-44 (Ge 38:9-10)]

In fact, it was believed by most of those who came before the modern age that life (ensoulment) did not even begin in the womb until "quickening" occurred (when fetal movement became detectable). I do not have the reference, but Augustine declared that abortion, though a grave sin, is not murder until after quickening. In 1140, Canon law confirmed that abortion is murder only after quickening. Indeed, for centuries, both English common law and American law (during both colonial and national periods) permitted women to have abortions until the time of quickening.

We have certainly corrected this erroneous position regarding the beginning of life, but in the opposite direction. My point is only this: that since abortion (though always considered a sin against life) was not considered by these theologians actual murder until after quickening, that likewise, contraception was not considered actual murder but a sin against life, against the wife, and, most grievously, against God, the author, creator, and sustainer of all life.


Eric Phillips said...

Yes, the fathers sometimes make a distinction between murder and contraception, and between the killing of a pre-quickened infant and the killing of a post-quickened one. Other times they blur the lines most suggestively. This is because they thought the sperm carried the whole form of the child, and the womb did nothing but flesh it out. They thought it was literally a seed, in the same way an apple seed is a seed. They did not understand that the sperm is actually only HALF the seed, understood in this way. Thus, whether one prevented it from being planted or rooted it up before ensoulment, they considered this to be the destruction not just of a "potential child," but of an _actual_ CHILD that had the potential to LIVE. Abortion was worse than contraception, and abortion of a quickened child was worse than abortion of a non-quickened child, but they were all on the same continuum, as different degrees of killing, even if only the worst kind drew the name "murder."

In this quotation, Chrysostom is not talking about contraception at all. Immediately before Caspar's quotation, he says:

"Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? where there are many efforts at abortion? where there is murder before the birth? for even the harlot thou dost not let continue a mere harlot, but makest her a murderess also."

He is preaching against the practice of consorting with whores. He is saying, not only is the act itself vile, but prostitutes do their best to kill their children unborn, so if you impregnate one, you're turning her from a whore into a murderer too. He doesn't say anything about contraception; he says prostitutes will try to "destroy the fruit"--NOT the seed, and expounds on this by talking of "many efforts at abortion" and "_murder_ before the birth."

Notice also, there is no nice distinction here between pre-quickening abortion, and post-quickening abortion in this passage.

At the end, when Chrysostom speaks of "something worse than murder," the translation quoted by Caspar makes it sound as if he really is talking about contraception, "for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation." However, this translation disagrees with the translation in the Post-Nicene Fathers series:

"You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing BORN, but prevent its being BORN."

I don't have the Greek available right now (this will require a library visit, probably), but the PNF translation makes more sense in light of the rest of the text. It also makes more sense in another way, because one can understand how murdering a child before it got out of the womb might be considered worse than murdering it before it even had a chance to breathe, but not how preventing the child from being formed in the first place would be worse than murdering it.

Also, it's happened one other time that Caspar quoted something (from Augustine that time) that contained a crucial mistranslation upon which the whole argument depended. I found the Latin that time, and was able to prove it. If this Chrysostom source comes from the same anti-contraception quote-collection as that Augustine passage did, then it is _prima facie_ suspect, and not to be trusted over the Post-Nicene Fathers' rendering.

Nevertheless, I'll find the Greek and report back later.

Eric Phillips said...

...as for the Luther quotation, it's interesting to me that he really seems to be playing up the injury done to Tamar, much more than I had noted before. I wonder what he would have said of a situation in which Tamar had happily consented to contraception for a time, and Onan had loved her, and gone on to give her children later?

Eric Phillips said...

Okay, I haven't looked at Chrysostom's Greek yet. Hopefully I'll have a chance to do that tonight.

I want to apologize to Caspar, though, because I made an error in my first response to this post. I recalled a time when someone made this same argument, this time using an Augustine quotation (the same one Caspar refers to without referencing, I think), and a large part of the argument hinged on a bad translation. I thought this someone was Caspar, but I was remembering incorrectly.

Here's the conversation I was talking about, if anyone is interested:


I also find, on re-reading that conversation, that the bad Augustine translation (“conceived seed” for _conceptos fetus_) came from the Post-Nicene Fathers translation, so clearly it's not from the same source as Caspar's Chrysostom quotation.

Caspar said...

Apology accepted.

Caspar said...

I have edited the above post, removing the Chrysostom quote (still available in the comments above) because of the Greek Eric Phillips has provided me with via e-mail. I originally quoted it as found in Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, by John T. Noonan, Jr., Harvard Univ. Press, 1986. He references the same Greek text Eric checked for me, Migne's Patrologiæ Græcæ. Here's the info Eric sent me:

The words in question are _techthenai_ ("to have been born") and _techthenta_ ("something that has been born"), both from the verb tikto, which means "to bring into the world, to bear, to beget, to engender."

It's possible that Noonan was mistaking these words for forms of the verb _technazo_ instead; "formed" would be a reasonable rendering if so. Migne is in no doubt though; the Latin translation he includes reads "neque enim quod _natum est_ occidit, sed ne _nascatur_ prohibet."

Thanks, Eric, for doing the research on this. The Post-Nicene Fathers translation you posted was obviously correct, as you surmised, and Noonan's was not. Nevertheless, it does not alter my overall position. It just removes this particular quote as being supportive of it. But neither does it contradict my position.

It is very important, however, to keep our quotations accurate and true. You were right on this one, and I thank you.

Throughout the historic teachings on procreation, family planning is not described as a sin primarily for its debatable relationship to murder, but rather a sin of unchastity and, more importantly, unbelief. It is often noted as being contrary to natural law. The lack of knowledge of the biology of conception prior to the modern period has absolutely no bearing on these aspects of the sin of family planning.

In addition to the above Luther quote, I have a collection of quite a number of ancient fathers and Lutheran theologians' comments on family planning, especially on the sin of Onan, and rarely is murder mentioned.

Augustine provides a prime example of the argument:

"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 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."

Caspar said...
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Eric Phillips said...

You're welcome about the Greek. Thanks for caring about accuracy.

Re: the Augustine quotation, let me remind you again that he said the same thing about a husband having sex with his pregnant wife.

Also, the link-to-murder argument doesn't have to come up all the time for it to be significant. All these natural law arguments are much more compelling to someone who has, lurking in the back of his head, the thought, "also, it's a near thing to murder."

Caspar said...

I wouldn't place too much value on what you presume to know about what's lurking in the back of someone's head when they're making an argument based upon entirely different principles.

With that attitude, we might as well stop talking, because I'm quite certain that there are erroneous biases based upon misunderstandings and lack of knowledge lurking in your head and mine too. Unless, of course, your only purpose in talking is psychoanalysis.

Evaluate an argument based upon its merits, not upon speculatory assumptions of what baggage you think someone is carrying around in their subconscious.

You're sounding like Freud! The real reason Augustine was against birth control is that he was secretly in love with his mother, and he knew that if his grandparents had used birth control his mother would never have existed!

Eric Phillips said...


You know that I DO evaluate arguments on their own merits. You've seen me do that with other anti-contraception arguments. I'm hardly trying to reduce the whole discussion to this one issue.

I'm just saying that a high percentage of the anti-contraception quotations I have seen from Fathers and Reformers do link it in some way, explicitly or implicitly, to murder. That is a significant piece to this puzzle. We can't just forget about it, even when evaluating the other traditional arguments.

Caspar said...

"A high percentage?"

You're reading some different Fathers and Reformers than I have, and I've read quite a few on this subject. Perhaps you haven't read enough. Or, perhaps your idea of a "high percentage" is much lower than mine.

Regardless what the percentage is, there is certainly a great deal of writing by the Fathers and Reformers on family planning which doesn't mention murder in any way. These are the arguments I'm asking you to evaluate on their merit without bringing in what you believe are the other "faulty" arguments based on the connection to murder.

While you say you are not trying to reduce the whole discussion to this one issue, you have tended in the past to color the issue with a broad stroke of this issue, saying that the reason previous generations were against contraception is that they considered it murder due to their mistaken assumptions about biology. I only ask you to admit that there is a great deal more to the arugments against family planning than the debatable connection to murder.

Just for the record, however, I actually agree with the fathers that there is a connection to the sin of murder, even though I have a thorough understanding of the biology of the issue. I'll post more about that in another post sometime. But even if that connection were false, and I admit that it may be, the other points of the argument are much more foundational to my reasoning, and I do not admit to any possibility of those points being in error. I do not base my argument on the murder connection. Take out that questionable brick and the whole house still stands firm.

So, if you are to keep your mind open on this whole question of family planning, I suggest you just put the whole issue of murder aside and evaluate the other stronger arguments. Perhaps if you stop coloring your own thoughts with that factor you might see "the rest of the story" in a more favorable light.

Eric Phillips said...


I've made my refences to murder when they were appropos to the quotation being offered. I have not used it as a catch-all argument. In fact, I believe I have said that the biggest reason for the negative patristic attitude towards contraception is bad theology re: sex and virginity. That was certainly Augustine's problem.

Caspar said...