Most religions have been around a long time. Their core beliefs and precepts were developed at a time when the human population was much lower than it is today. All predominant religions are in favour of human procreation as it helps spread the faith, but nowadays most adherents practice some form of family planning. Nevertheless, conservative religious attitudes remain a major barrier to improving uptake of modern contraceptive methods.
Human population numbers when religions were created or codified:
- 7th century BCE – Jainism: 7 million
- 6th century BCE – Buddhism: 10 million
- 1st century BCE – Judaism: 50 million
- 1st century CE – Christianity: 200 million
- 7th century CE – Islam: 500 million
- 8th century CE – Hinduism (Revival): 500 million
- 15th century CE – Sikhism: 700 million
Today, our population is close to 8 billion.
Below is a rough overview of attitudes to family planning across the most common religions. If you disagree with any of the interpretations and can provide alternative sources, please do let us know.
Family planning is a personal matter. Predominantly Buddhist countries such as Thailand and Cambodia have been successful in reducing their birth rate.
Catholicism: Natural family planning is acceptable but artificial methods are not. In practice, the populations of many predominantly Catholic countries such as Italy and Brazil do use modern family planning methods and have relatively low birth rates, while some theologians query the doctrine.
Anglicanism: Contraception is not regarded as a sin or going against God’s purpose. The responsibility for deciding on the number and frequency of children was laid by God upon the consciences of parents ‘in such ways as are acceptable to husband and wife’. Many predominantly Protestant countries have relatively low birth rates.
Hinduism encourages procreation within marriage but does not oppose modern contraception. Some Hindus believe that producing more children than the environment can support goes against the code of Ahimsa, or non-violence. India, which is predominantly Hindu, has a long (and sadly dark) history of efforts to slow population growth.
It is permissible to control the timing of births with the intent of distancing the occurrences of pregnancy or to delay it for a specific amount of time if there is some Shariah need for that in the opinion of the spouses, based on mutual consultation and agreement between them. However, this is conditioned by that not leading to any harm, by it being done by means that are approved in the Shariah and that it not do anything to oppose a current and existing pregnancy. The method of contraception which was known at that time (of the Prophet) was coitus interruptus. Modern methods are equally permissible, provided that they are safe and prevent conception. It is forbidden to end a man’s or a woman’s ability to produce children permanently, such as by having a hysterectomy or vasectomy, as long as that is not called for by circumstances of necessity according to its Islamic framework.
In practice, many predominantly Islamic countries such as Indonesia, Iran and the countries of North Africa have relatively low birth rates.
Jain texts advocate restraint in sexual activities and celibacy. Some Jains use modern methods of contraception with regret.
The first mitzvah or commandment from God in the Torah states: “And God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the Earth and subdue it’” (Genesis 1:28). The Talmud interprets this to mean that every Jewish man should father at least one boy and one girl (Yevamot 61b). Still, Jewish law, Halacha in Hebrew, does permit certain methods of birth control in appropriate circumstances.
Jewish law prohibits men from destroying or wasting seed. Hormonal forms of birth control, such as pills, patches, injections and implants, are acceptable. In contrast, contraceptive methods that destroy or block the passage of seed, such as coitus interruptus, condoms and vasectomy, are forbidden by most orthodox rabbinic authorities. The use of condoms, however, may be acceptable if it is protecting against the spread of an incurable sexually transmitted disease.
While many orthodox Jews believe that God does the family planning and birth control is not a necessity, Jewish law does clearly permit birth control in certain circumstances. The Talmud recognizes the use of birth control by women who are very young or nursing. Birth control is acceptable if a couple already has a boy and a girl. And birth control may even be advised when pregnancy poses a risk to the mother or baby.
The great majority of Jews today use their preferred method of birth control, regardless of whether seed is wasted or destroyed. Orthodox Jews are more likely to use only hormonal methods of birth control and only under certain circumstances.
It is for the couple to decide whether they want family planning or not, and in case the answer is in the affirmative, the mode or technique thereof. Family planning may be necessary for the health of the partners or the nursing or upbringing of existing children. However, natural methods of contraception are preferred to artificial methods and devices. Even so, family planning should not be undertaken without competent medical advice and supervision. There are no injunctions in Sikhism against the use of contraceptives.