"Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception" by Sam and Bethany Torode

David VanDrunen
Tuesday, May 15th 2007
Sep/Oct 2003

In recent years, conservative Roman Catholics and Protestants have found themselves on the same side of many contentious social and moral issues, a convergence that has undoubtedly served as an important impetus to ecumenical discussions and even joint doctrinal statements. The use of contraception, however, remains one moral matter that has continued to divide most Protestants from conservative Catholics. Sam and Bethany Torode, finding little literature from fellow Protestants critical of contraception, present here their own case for what is often thought of as a distinctively Catholic position.

Open Embrace is a short book and a quick, warm, and engaging read. The Torodes are a young couple (married only since 2000, when Bethany was 19) who investigated these matters and came to the conviction that all contraception should be avoided. While they are not professionally trained theologians or ethicists, the Torodes have evidently done a great deal of research and reflection on the subject. And, although their style is more informal and conversational than that of a sustained scholarly argument, they deal with a great number of the important issues crucial to moral debates about contraception and anticipate many of the obvious objections to their position. They are also perceptive in addressing a number of topics that cannot long be separated from discussions about contraception, such as the marriage relationship more generally, child-rearing, and attitudes and policies toward abortion.

One weakness of this work is that its real purpose is left surprisingly unclear. Is the aim to argue against contraception because Christian couples should be having loads of children? In the opening chapter, the Torodes assure their readers that they will make no recommendations about how large families ought to be, and in several places throughout the book state that there are legitimate reasons to avoid pregnancy (at least temporarily). This is safe ground, and enables them to avoid proscribing all forms of "birth control" (and not just so-called artificial means) or to neglect the difficult (but important!) details of just when it is responsible for couples to pursue pregnancy. Nevertheless, the Torodes do spend considerable time later in the work commending procreation and encouraging readers not to be afraid to have children. Hence, a certain degree of ambiguity: no moral demand to have large families is explicitly made, yet a desire to increase Christians' rates of procreation seems quite high on the Torodes' agenda.

Maybe the purpose of this work is rather to argue against contraception because it is evil per se. Again, the assurance at the beginning of the book does not exactly match the arguments as they unfold. The Torodes tell readers that they are unconcerned whether contraception is intrinsically sinful-they intend only to argue that it is "not ideal" and that there is a "better way." However, it is difficult to imagine how one who is convinced by the Torodes' arguments could not conclude that use of contraception is immoral. The Torodes argue that each sexual act ought to be uninhibited, open to procreation, and a complete self-giving of one spouse to the other. Use of contraception seems to be presented not as a less preferable though morally acceptable action, but as a practice that is a serious violation of the marriage relationship.

A third alternative: is the purpose of the work to argue against contraception because there is a better form of birth control? This clearly is an argument that the Torodes wish to make. They prefer "natural family planning," a method not to be confused with the infamous rhythm method. What seems to be the most important reason for favoring natural family planning over contraception is that the former honors women's natural fertility cycle while contraception fights against it.

It is interesting to observe that the principal arguments in this book, despite its subtitle, do not seem to be distinctively Protestant in any sense. Rather, they are largely recastings either of medieval arguments that centered around what is "natural" or contemporary Roman Catholic arguments that focus upon the sexual act in the light of personalist philosophy. In my judgment, the Torodes do not advance either of these arguments enough to overcome the deficiencies that they have displayed in Roman Catholic hue. Nor does the slippery-slope argument that the "contraception mentality" (never clearly defined) leads to permissiveness about abortion seal their case. Despite these drawbacks, this book is worth reading-with certain caveats-by those interested in moral questions related to contraception.

Tuesday, May 15th 2007

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