Friday, February 17, 2012

Make Love Not War

For those that have been living in a cave over the last few weeks, you might have missed the furor that exploded in Washington regarding the Obama Administration's initial proposal that - with the exception of health plans offered by houses of worship to their employees - all other health plans in the country would have to include complimentary contraceptives.

The proposal caused outrage among the leadership of the American Catholic community (and in other circles), not only regarding the substance of the proposal, but also out of concern for possible church-state infringement.  There are many religious institutions in this country that are not houses of worship (think seminaries, hospitals, and community centers) who are still, for example, affiliated with the Catholic Church.  Under the original proposal, all of those institutions would on some level have been mandated to 'provide' contraceptives to covered employees who requested it.

President Obama, seeking a compromise, suggested that it would be possible for individuals to still receive contraceptives at no charge, without any financial obligation falling on the employee.  Religious communities could opt out as a matter of conscience, and the government would then direct insurance companies to pick up the tab for the contraceptives.

The debate remains unresolved at this point, and I'll leave the politics of it all to others to sort out.  But this does seem like the perfect time to write a few words about the Jewish perspective on contraceptives, which in my humble opinion are a perfectly kosher component of healthy family planning, and avoiding unwanted pregnancies.

It's worth quoting what my teacher, Dr. Mark Washofsky, writes about this subject in his important book on contemporary Reform Jewish life entitled Jewish Living:
According to Jewish tradition, it is a mitzvah, a religious duty, to have children.  Yet tradition recognizes that there are times when a couple might justifiably not be prepared to have children or to increase the size of their family, and it acknowledges that sexual intercourse within marriage carries a value of its own even when it does not and cannot lead to procreation.  For these reasons, Jewish law permits the use of birth control methods, including some artificial contraceptives, under these circumstances.
Reform Judaism respects the right of parents to determine how many children they shall have, although we emphasize that bringing Jewish children into the world remains a special mitzvah and encourage couples to consider the matter of family size carefully and with due regard to the problem of Jewish survival.  We discourage such permanent methods of birth control as sterilization and vasectomy.  (Page 242, 2001 edition)
From my vantage point: contraceptives are not just for "sexual intercourse within marriage."  We're living in a day and age where the average age of (first) marriage for men is 28.  Women are, on average, 26. If you look at historical trends, those numbers are definitely on the rise.  All of which is a long way of saying - what I know I don't have to tell anyone who is reading this blog - that Americans are not waiting until marriage to have sex.

Which means that it is all the more important to insure that contraceptive devices (be they condoms, birth control pills, etc.) be made available to those that want or need them.  Although our Jewish values teach us an incredible humility when it comes to how we should treat a fetus....And I do believe that that humility should encourage us to work together to minimize the number of abortions that are performed in the world...Nonetheless, I do not believe that Judaism encourages unwanted pregnancies.  What good can come from a parent carrying to term a child that they know they don't want, and won't have the ability to love/raise?  (Unless the parents are committed up front to putting the child up for adoption.)

Part of what it means to be a Jewishly responsible lover is to talk through these issues with your partner before you get into bed together.  What would we do if we unexpectedly got pregnant?  If we don't want to get pregnant, how are we going to prevent that from happening?  Is it the man's responsibility or the woman's to take care of this?  These are incredibly hard conversations to have....especially for those who are younger (or perhaps just less mature).  Nonetheless, our Jewish ethics REQUIRE that you be talking about this with your partner.  To skip these hard conversations is to be terribly irresponsible.

What do you think about all this?  How, if at all, does the Jewish approach to birth control shape your own thinking and/or choices about family planning and intimacy?

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts: privately over email, publicly here on the blog, or on Twitter @RabbiJBrown.

Shabbat Shalom.

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