Population Ethics: III. Religious Traditions: F. Protestant Perspectives

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Protestantism generally includes all Christian movements, denominations, and sects whose histories can be traced to or related to the sixteenth-century Reformers, especially Martin Luther and John Calvin. Hundreds of such Christian bodies exist worldwide. They represent very diverse theological orientations and forms of church discipline. It is possible to characterize a "mainstream" position on many theological and ethical issues held by major denominational families associated with the World Council of Churches (WCC), including Anglicanism (or Episcopalianism), Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Methodism, Congregationalism, and various national united churches, such as the United Church of Canada and the Church of North India. Many other Protestant bodies, such as the Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists, and Jehovah's Witnesses are outside such a consensus. Even within the so-called mainline churches sharp differences exist. On many issues, some Protestants take positions completely at odds with others even within their own denominations while finding themselves in agreement with persons in other denominations or even with non-Christians. In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in numbers of Protestants in traditionally Roman Catholic Latin America, in Africa, and in parts of Asia. At the same time, there has been a marked falling off of active participation in the churches in such traditionally Protestant countries as Sweden and the United Kingdom.

It is therefore difficult to generalize about any one Protestant position on population ethics. This article focuses primarily on the mainstream churches and theologians for three reasons. First, these bodies represent the main currents of Protestant Christian history. Second, these bodies have taken the most explicit positions on population issues. Third, theologians representing these bodies present us with the clearest connections between distinctively Protestant theological emphases and ethical applications.

Early Protestant Thought on Population

The Reformers did not have theories about population as such, although their views on human sexual relations and procreation are relevant to discussions about methods of limiting population growth. Both Luther and Calvin understood sexual relations within marriage as a morally acceptable outlet for sexual drives quite apart from the purpose of procreation. Both, especially Calvin, also viewed sexual relations within marriage as an expression of loving companionship between a husband and wife (Fagley). Early Protestantism coincided in time with the decimation of Europe's population through the plague and the Hundred Years' War, so discussions of population during that period—which were mostly by secular writers—emphasized the need for population growth, not limitation. In contrast, Robert Malthus, whose demographic theories, published in 1798, first expressed alarm over excessive population growth rates, was a Protestant clergyman. His views derived more from economic thought than from Protestant theology, but the laissez-faire economic theories that exerted primary influence upon him may themselves have been encouraged by individualistic aspects of Protestant thought, especially the heightened importance of the "calling" each person has from God and the demand that each person respond, through faith, to God's grace (Weber).

Population issues were not intrinsically important to nineteenth-century Protestant thought except at three points. First, Malthus's pessimistic views of population growth were countered by various Protestant divines who considered them an impious reflection on the goodness of God's providence (Hutchinson). Second, in Anglo-Saxon countries, attitudes toward sexual relations during the Victorian era were often repressive. This gave rise to some rejection of contraceptive methods of birth control early in the twentieth century. Third, the nativist movement in North America, which sought to inhibit immigration from Roman Catholic countries, arose almost exclusively among Protestants. That movement exerted influence on subsequent anti-immigration legislation until the mid-twentieth century.

Theological Support for Family Planning

Protestant support for planned parenthood dates from early in the twentieth century. The early American movement in support of family planning and use of artificial methods of birth control, exemplified especially by Margaret Sanger (1883–1966, founder of Planned Parenthood), was more secular and humanist than Protestant, but it began to attract a serious following among Protestant thinkers and churches. The Lambeth Council of worldwide Anglicanism declared in 1930 that contraceptive methods could be justified when there is "a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence" (Noonan, p. 125). During the thirty years thereafter, a strong consensus developed among mainline denominations and theologians in support of that position.

The preeminent Protestant theologian of that period, Karl Barth, wrote, "There is agreement to-day among all serious Christian moralists … that although the choice for or against generation and conception is not a matter for human caprice, it should not be left to chance and therefore lack the character of true decision, but must always be a matter of free obedience and therefore free consideration and decision" (Barth, p. 273). Artificial means of contraception must not, he wrote, be considered evil "just because they are so manifestly artificial" (Barth, p. 275). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another European theologian of the midcentury, wrote, "It would not be right for blind impulse simply to run its course as it pleases and then to go on to claim to be particularly pleasing in the eyes of God; responsible reason must have a share in this decision" (p. 177). While Bonhoeffer strongly opposed abortion, on the grounds that in the pregnancy "God certainly intended to create a human being" (p. 176), he explicitly related support for planned parenthood to rapid population growth rates, which concerned him.

Barth's and Bonhoeffer's views are ultimately grounded in their respective views of creation. God's purposes for human life can be supported or obstructed by events in the natural order, including human interventions. When couples have children for which they are not prepared, this falls outside God's life-giving intentions. The same can be said of whole societies or of the world in general: Too rapid population growth can diminish the possibilities for humanity to find its God-intended fulfillment in the created order. Barth, therefore, did not limit his ethical perspective on family planning to decisions by individual couples about what is right for them. There was also the question of what was best for society as a whole. Humankind, in his view, is no longer under the divine command of Genesis 1, "Be fruitful, and multiply."

A leading American liberal theologian, Albert C. Knudson, expressed typical American Protestant thought in insisting (1) that procreation is not the only purpose of sexual intercourse; (2) that "there is nothing in the use of contraceptives that is inconsistent with a sincere faith in Divine Providence," since there is no religious duty to let nature run its own course; and (3) that the general improvement in the standard of living requires lowering the rate of population growth (pp. 209–210).

The first two of these points have been so generally characteristic of mainline Protestant thought and official denominational statements that one is hard pressed to find exceptions. The third has been in some dispute.

The Evolution of Protestant Views in the Twentieth Century

We may broadly characterize three main periods in the middle to later twentieth-century Protestant church teaching on population matters.

The first period, roughly from the Lambeth statement of 1930 to the late 1960s, emphasized the companionate, love-enhancing possibilities of sexual intercourse within the bonds of marriage while deemphasizing the moral obligation of married couples to have children. Contraception was generally accepted as a morally legitimate means toward the end of expressing love within marriage for its own sake. Birth control, or "planned parenthood," was, however, considered mainly within the family unit. Couples should be able to have as many children as they wish: no more, no less. Since the real issue was whether people could decide to limit their family size by conscious decision and employing contraceptive means, the net effect of such teaching was to encourage a diminishing birth rate. But during this period comparatively little attention was given to the world population growth rate.

The second period, coinciding with the emergence of the environmental movement in the late 1960s and 1970s and the publication of neo-Malthusian literature on the "population explosion," found Protestant teaching focusing primarily on the dangers of population growth and a corresponding moral responsibility by societies to find ways to limit it. Many of the mainline church declarations date from this period, with revisions added in subsequent years.

The third period, beginning in the late 1970s and corresponding to the growth of the liberation theology movement (the movement that began in the 1960s and that emphasizes freedom from external oppression as a central theme of Christian faith), witnessed greater criticism of neo-Malthusianism as a way to avoid social justice issues in the distribution of the world's resources. There was less inclination to treat population growth rates themselves as the primary problem. During this period, the mainline denominations continued to affirm the importance of family planning and to recognize the morality of the use of contraceptive measures of birth control. But there was a growing tendency to consider population limitation as a by-product of increased social justice and economic prosperity rather than the reverse.

In the United States, this period also witnessed the rise of evangelical Christian movements critical of mainline denominations and of what was taken to be their laxness in sexual morality and family values. Evangelicals often deemphasized the population issue while reemphasizing the restriction of sexual intercourse to marriage and strongly opposing abortion. Evangelicals, as a force in U.S. politics, played a role in the decision by the administration of President Ronald Reagan to oppose the United Nations Fund for Population Activities at the Second World Conference on Population (Mexico City, 1984) and to withdraw funding from the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Official Positions of Mainline Protestant Churches

Official statements by mainline denominations illustrate the continuing importance of views developed in each of these three periods.

Among the mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church developed what may be the most systematic position on population ethics. The principal outlines of its position were adopted in 1972 as part of a broader declaration of social principles. Subsequent revisions did not substantially modify this position, although various resolutions adopted by the denomination's General Conference show the influence of the third period of Protestant thinking. In its 1992 form the United Methodist statement cites the strains on food, mineral, and water supplies by growing populations and asserts, "People have the duty to consider the impact on the total world community of their decisions regarding childbearing, and should have access to information and appropriate means to limit their fertility, including voluntary sterilization" (p. 40). A 1980 resolution by that denomination adds a theological rationale: "Our goal in history is that everyone may have the conditions of existence necessary for the fulfillment of God's intentions for humanity. Our context in history is the preciousness of life and the love of God and all creation" (p. 345).

The United Methodists have also dealt at length with questions related to the migration of populations. While stopping short of supporting unlimited movement across national borders, the Methodist statement reminds its readers of biblical support for strangers and sojourners, and calls upon the leaders of all nations "to welcome generous numbers of persons and families dislocated by natural disasters, war, political turmoil, repression, persecution, discrimination, or economic hardship" (p. 510). This document also calls upon governments "to alleviate conditions and change internal politics that create a momentum for the migration of people over the world" while seeking "protection of the basic human rights of immigrants … for both documented and undocumented, permanent or transient refugees or immigrants" (pp. 509–510).

Another mainline denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (and its predecessor denominations), advocated voluntary planned parenthood and population limitation as early as 1965. In that year, the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA; one of the predecessor communions) called upon the United States to "assist countries who request help in the development of programs of voluntary planned parenthood as a practical and humane means of controlling fertility and population growth." In 1971, that body came to "recognize that reliance on individual desires and private decisions to effect voluntary [birth] control, however well supported by information and means, will not be sufficient to provide the necessary limitation of population growth unless there is a radical and rapid change in the attitudes and desires." This document challenged "the assumption that couples have the freedom to have as many children as they can support," asserting that "we can no longer justify bringing into existence as many children as we desire." In 1984, the Presbyterian General Assembly again voiced its awareness "of the increasing size of the world's population and conscious[ness] of the potential consequences of unlimited growth, of resource limitations, of insufficient public responses, and of unmet population needs." It called "upon the U.S. government to participate fully in the International Conference [on population] and to give generous and continuing financial and logistical support to United Nations programs designed to address specific population needs."

The American Baptist Churches adopted a policy statement in 1976 supporting "efforts to develop programs which encourage family planning in an environment of free individual choice." Subsequent declarations emphasized social and economic justice without much specific application to population questions. A 1988 resolution indicated the denomination's internal divisions on the abortion question while opposing abortion "as a means of avoiding responsibility for conception" or "as a primary means of birth control" (1988, p. 9).

The Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) has long supported family planning, but that position receives comparatively little emphasis in statements adopted during what I have characterized as the third period in the evolution of Protestant views on population. A lengthy 1987 statement on a variety of social-political-economic issues, for instance, merely repeats the FCNL's "support for safe and non-coercive family planning as one element of an effective national population policy" (p. 5).

The same 1987 statement does, however, contain a much lengthier section dealing with immigration and refugees. That section expresses the belief that "the world should evolve toward a global community whose people can choose freely where they wish to live and work" (p. 6). The FCNL's "long-range ideal" is, therefore, "a world of open borders that ensures both asylum for refugees escaping oppression and freedom to migrate for those who hope to improve their living conditions" (p. 6). Such a world would require "a more equitable distribution of the world's wealth, more respect for human rights, and greater tolerance of differences than exist at present" (p. 6).

The Unitarian Universalist Association continues to support family planning as a response to "the crush of overpopulation" that "is frequently associated with increasing the pollution of the water, air, soil, and ozone shield, and further depleting the earth's finite resources" as well as being a factor in "aggressive and destructive behavior." This denomination, like the other mainline churches, supports full access to contraception while going further than most in its direct support for "the right to choose abortion" (p. 56).

This sampling of denominational statements on population-related issues in the latter third of the twentieth century suggests no diminution of commitment to planned parenthood and the full rights of access to contraceptive technologies. At the same time, churches devoted less attention to population issues during the 1980s and 1990s and seemed more reluctant to grant full moral legitimation to abortion.

Protestant denominational statements do not generally enjoy the authoritative status of Roman Catholic papal encyclicals, though they do reflect deliberation by official bodies. When the official statements are seriously inconsistent with the deeper convictions of members, mechanisms are usually present to enact changes. That fact itself reflects a deep historic theme in most Protestant theology: God has immediate access to every believer. Consequently, the views of every church member, when expressed in good faith, must be taken seriously. Not surprisingly, therefore, Protestant viewpoints on population policy and other issues can change without threat to the basic body of shared doctrine. It is more difficult to ascertain the extent to which denominational statements on such issues reflect nontheological socio-cultural influences. But the deliberative process of decision making in Protestant churches generally affords ample opportunity, over time, for purely secular influences to be criticized on the basis of shared faith traditions.

Protestant Positions into the Twenty-first Century

Projecting the future of Protestant views on population, there seems little prospect that the basic commitments to planned parenthood will change during the period ahead. The amount of emphasis given to the issue may well vary, however, with perceptions of the effects of population growth rates and patterns of migration. Protestant churches worldwide will doubtless continue to reflect a wide variety of views on these and other subjects. Historically, however, Protestant views on such issues have tended to be framed in response to empirical problems and opportunities. Evidence mounts that the churches will increasingly have to respond to global environmental problems, and the continuing growth of world population will remain a significant factor in that (Nash). The churches' response to population migration may be even more interesting as the world moves into the twenty-first century. Toward the end of the twentieth century, ethnic nationalism was felt as a major political force in some parts of the world, such as the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia, and the former Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the growing integration of global economics, increased facilities for communication and transportation, and the conclusion of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union all point toward greater pressure on the increasing irrelevance of national boundaries. While addressing problems related to population growth, religious bodies may find it equally necessary to respond to archaic restrictions of movement.

j. philip wogaman (1995)

SEE ALSO: Abortion; Adoption; Christianity, Bioethics in; Coercion; Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Bioethics in; Embryo and Fetus: Religious Perspectives; Eugenics and Religious Law; Feminism; Fertility Control; Freedom and Free Will; Genetic Testing and Screening; Harm; Infanticide; Informed Consent; Justice; Life; Natural Law; Race and Racism; Rights, Human; Sexism;Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives; and other Population Ethics subentries


American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. 1976. Policy statement on hunger, Valley Forge, Pa.

American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. 1988. Resolution concerning abortion and ministry in the local church, Valley Forge, Pa.

Bainton, Roland H. 1962. Sex, Love and Marriage: A Christian Survey. London: Collins.

Barth, Karl. 1968. Church Dogmatics, tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1955. Ethics, tr. Neville Horton Smith. New York: Macmillan.

Fagley, Richard M. 1960. The Population Explosion and Christian Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press.

Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL). 1988. FCNL Washington Newsletter, January.

Hutchinson, Edward P. 1967. The Population Debate: The Development of Conflicting Theories up to 1900. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Knudson, Albert C. 1943. The Principles of Christian Ethics. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press.

Lucas, George R., Jr., and Ogletree, Thomas W., eds. 1976. Lifeboat Ethics: The Moral Dilemmas of World Hunger. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Nash, James A. 1991. Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Noonan, John T., Jr. 1986. "Contraception." In The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, pp. 124–126, ed. James F. Childress and John Macquarrie. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. 1991. Social Policy Compilation. Louisville, KY: Author.

Unitarian Universalist Association. 1990. Resolutions of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Boston: Author.

United Methodist Church. 1992. The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church, ed. Neil M. Alexander. Nashville, TN: United Methodist Publishing House.

Weber, Max. 1950 (1904–1905). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, tr. Talcott Parsons. New York: Scribner.

Wogaman, J. Philip, ed. 1973. The Population Crisis and Moral Responsibility. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press.

[Note: Official declarations on population-related issues by Protestant and ecumenical church bodies are rarely available in libraries or in trade publication form. They generally can be obtained from denominational or ecumenical offices.]

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