Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception

By Sam and Bethany Torode
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2002). xviii + 123 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Grisanti
13.2 (Fall 2002) : 297-298

 The authors are a young couple who seek to critique modern ideas about sex, marriage, and contraception. As they approached their own wedding day, both became convinced that Natural Family Planning (NFP) represented the ideal approach to the question of the spacing of children. At the outset they avoid saying that other (non-natural) forms of contraception (those processes, devices, or actions that prevent the meeting of the sperm and egg) are intrinsically sinful. Rather, their main point is that those kinds of contraceptive methods are not ideal. They correctly reject out of hand all contraceptive methods that work after conception occurs. They also do not view any sterilization procedure as proper for a Christian.

This little volume is divided into three sections. Bethany writes the first and third part and Sam authors the middle section. The book ends with a listing of various printed materials and websites that make available more information for the interested reader.

The authors utilize various arguments to make their case against birth control. Since humans are made in God’s image, they should not regard their spouses merely as sources of personal gratification (19). The “one flesh” pattern of marriage precludes holding back anything from one’s spouse, including fertility (25). They contend that lovemaking should always be life-giving, even when it does not generate a new life, and suggest that contraceptives represent a selfish withholding of something important from one’s spouse (30). They propose that one cannot make any legitimate “disconnect” between the use of contraceptives and the practice of abortion. The mindset that justifies the former also legitimizes the latter (65-71). They devote several pages to the abortifacient qualities of birth control pills in general (73-83). Finally, since the “universal church” opposed birth control until the 1930s, why do Christians today so warmly accept the use of contraceptives (59-63)?

In place of birth control, the authors suggest that Natural Family Planning provides a better alternative for married couples. By monitoring three different fertility signs (detailed in the book, 45), the couple can make an informed decision of when to have intimate relations. They distinguish this approach from birth control since it involves nothing artificial. They also contend that this method (NFP) represents much more than a way to space one’s children (55).

What is one to make of these arguments? On the one hand, this reviewer (as the father of eight children) believes that many Christians all too often approach this issue with a “pagan” mindset. Do believers give enough attention to the biblical value placed on children and carefully examine the motivations behind not having children?

Regardless of that concern, the book under review merits evaluation and critique. The authors of this volume make various statements that do not appear to have exegetical basis. Does the truth of the image of God and the “one flesh” pattern for marriage clearly demonstrate that the use of contraceptives is an act of sinful selfishness? What is the basis for saying that conjugal relations should always be “life-giving”? They have made a valid point that the widespread acceptance of contraceptives (used without thought almost) has created an environment that views children in general as an inconvenience. However, this reviewer does not believe that attitude requires one to view all contraceptives as sinful. Also, he does not regard as convincing the authors’ efforts to distinguish clearly NFP from a method of birth control. To this reviewer, any attempt to affect the timing of the birth of a child represents a form of birth control.

This book provides an interesting approach to an important pastoral issue. The authors clearly communicate their desire to think biblically about children and the great value God places on them. However, in too many cases it appears that their belief about birth control has driven their interpretation of certain passages and theological concepts.