Q: My wife and I have five children. She wants to be done, but my understanding is that the commandment to “be fruitful and replenish the earth” means we keep having kids until Heavenly Father stops sending spirits to us. She’s asked me to have a vasectomy. Is it a sin to prevent pregnancy in marriage?
A: This is a fantastic question and one that many Latter-day Saint couples wrestle over. It’s easy to see why. The fact is that while principles and doctrines haven’t changed, the specific application and emphasis has. Some get confused when what was said in decades past differs from what’s said today.
President Ezra Taft Benson said: “The most important prophet, so far as we are concerned, is the one who is living in our day and age.” It’s important to keep this in mind with regards to birth control. If past teachings seemingly don’t gel with current teachings, we go with what the Lord has revealed for our time.
The Divine Responsibility of Parenthood
For starters our leaders, past and present, have always emphasized the duty of Latter-day Saint couples, when physically able, to birth God’s spirit children into the covenant. In 1942 the First Presidency declared
“The Lord has told us that it is the duty of every husband and wife to obey the command given to Adam to multiply and replenish the earth, so that the legions of choice spirits waiting for their tabernacles of flesh may come here and move forward under God’s great design to become perfect souls, for without these fleshly tabernacles they cannot progress to their God-planned destiny. Thus, every husband and wife should become a father and a mother in Israel to children born under the holy, eternal covenant” (in Conference Report, October 1942, 11–12).
For decades Church leaders largely condemned birth control in all forms. President Kimball, in particular, laid it down when he said that “relatives and friends and even mothers sometimes encourage birth control for their young newlyweds. But the excuses are many, mostly weak. . . . The Church cannot approve nor condone the measures which so greatly limit the family” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 328–29).
► Related Reading: Birth Control: What the Prophets Have Actually Said
Case closed, right? Well, not so fast. Remember that “we believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Article of Faith: 9). In recent years, and in response perhaps to changing circumstances, the Lord has revealed more on this subject.
You and the Lord Decide How Many Children to Have and When
Elder Neil L. Anderson beautifully stated that “We express deep gratitude for the enormous faith shown by husbands and wives (especially our wives) in their willingness to have children. When to have a child and how many children to have are private decisions to be made between a husband and wife and the Lord. These are sacred decisions—decisions that should be made with sincere prayer and acted on with great faith” (“Children,” October 2011 general conference). This principle has been echoed by other apostles and prophets in our day.
When deciding how many children to have, and when to have them, it’s crucial to consider the well-being (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual) of the mother. President Gordon B. Hinckley taught that:
“Of course we believe in children. . . . But he did not designate the number, nor has the Church. That is a sacred matter left to the couple and the Lord. The official statement of the Church includes this language: ‘Husbands must be considerate of their wives, who have the greater responsibility not only of bearing children but of caring for them through childhood, and should help them conserve their health and strength’ (General Handbook of Instructions , p. 77)” (Cornerstones of a Happy Home, 6).
David O. McKay, while affirming the ideal of allowing children to come naturally, added that “in all this, however, the mother’s health should be guarded. In the realm of wifehood, the woman should reign supreme” (Gospel Ideals, 469).
What Is Sexual Intimacy For?
Elder J. Reuben Clark exemplified the teaching of his day when he stated “the prime purpose of sex desire is to beget children. Sex gratification must be had at that hazard" (J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Conference Report 1949, Oct: pp. 194-95). Now, however, the focus has shifted slightly to make room for sexual intimacy for intimacy’s sake. The Church Handbook of Instructions states that:
“Married couples should also understand that sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a way of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife” (Handbook 2, 21.4.4, “Birth Control”)
Birth Control: What’s Okay? What’s Not Okay?
Since couples can determine, with the Lord, the pacing of having children (and no one is advocating marital abstinence as birth control), it stands to reason that certain forms of birth control are okay. So, what types of birth control are admissible? Abortion, it should be known, is considered a grievous sin except in cases of abuse, rape, incest, or life-threatening conditions to baby or mother. As for contraceptives, pills, condoms, and the like, there’s no current restrictions.
About the topic of birth control, lds.org states: “Husband and wife are encouraged to pray and counsel together as they plan their families. Issues to consider include the physical and mental health of the mother and father and their capacity to provide the basic necessities of life for their children. Decisions about birth control and the consequences of those decisions rest solely with each married couple. Elective abortion as a method of birth control, however, is contrary to the commandments of God.”
But what about surgical procedures such as “getting her tubes tied,” hysterectomies, and vasectomies? The Handbook states that:
“The Church strongly discourages surgical sterilization as an elective form of birth control. Surgical sterilization should be considered only if (1) medical conditions seriously jeopardize life or health or (2) birth defects or serious trauma have rendered a person mentally incompetent and not responsible for his or her actions. Such conditions must be determined by competent medical judgment and in accordance with law. Even then, the persons responsible for this decision should consult with each other and with their bishop and should receive divine confirmation of their decision through prayer” (21.4.15, Surgical Sterilization).
Strong language, to be sure, and for many that will be the definitive word on the subject. It is here, however, that I hasten to add the insight of Elder Dallin H. Oaks:
“Now, brothers and sisters, if you are troubled about something we have just said, please listen very carefully to what I will say now. . . .
“If you feel you are a special case, so that the strong counsel I have given doesn’t apply to you, please don’t write me a letter. Why would I make this request? I have learned that the kind of direct counsel I have given results in a large number of letters from members who feel they are an exception, and they want me to confirm that the things I have said just don’t apply to them in their special circumstance. . . .
“As a General Authority, I have the responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. . . . But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord” (“Dating vs. Hanging Out,” Ensign, June 2006).
Remember what Joseph Smith taught: “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. . . . This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is” (History of the Church, 5:135).
So, does the counsel of President Oaks and the Prophet Joseph Smith apply to surgical sterilization, or did the Lord give the final word on the subject through the Handbook of Instructions?
In my opinion, tying all these readings together, I believe that there is always room for the Lord to give personal revelation to a couple or individual. For example, He commanded Israel “thou shalt not kill” but told Nephi to slay Laban. We must be careful, however, that we’re not deceived into believing something because we want to believe it. The adversary is skilled at leading us to believe that impressions that are “pleasing to the carnal mind” are divine when they actually are not inspired (see Alma 30:53). Living close to the Spirit through faith, repentance, and obedience will help us to discern.
I do think it’s possible for the Lord to approve a vasectomy or a “tube-tying” if the couple has fulfilled the divine mandate to bring children into the world and the Spirit confirms that they are done. I’d personally not recommend a hysterectomy because, unlike a vasectomy or tube-tying, that procedure is irreversible.
I’ll just say it: if a procedure is to be done, in my opinion, it is the man who should do it. The wife has already endured the grueling ordeal of childbirth, likely multiple times. Time for the husband to take one for the team!
Of course that, like the entire decision regarding birth control, is not for me to decide for you. That’s between you, your spouse, and God, carefully weighing teachings of the prophets and seeking revelation through prayer and fasting. Maybe you never use birth control in any form and let those little spirits come as they will. Maybe you opt to use contraceptives but not surgical sterilization. Or maybe you opt for a vasectomy or a tube-tying procedure.
In weighing these options, consider this:
“The decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord. Church members should not judge one another in this matter.” (Handbook 2, 21.4.4, “Birth Control)
I hope this has shed some light. God bless you in this journey together.