Religion & Birth Control

MT 60 Yrs — 2nd Year No 53 — Friday 12 August 1955

The bitter opposition of the Roman Catholic to birth control is well known. As the Rev Duncan MacGillivray’s letter in Advance showed, however, not all Christian churches agree with the Roman Catholics.

What is the attitude of non-Christian religions?

The Moslem position

Apart from the Roman Catholics, who claim over 421 million adherents, the Moslem religion has the biggest number of adherents: over 316 millions. And the Moslem religion definitely supports birth control.

A series of permissive rulings – or fatwas – on the subject have extended from centuries ago to 1937. The latest fatwa, dated the 12th of Dhi al Qaada 1355 (January 25, 1937), was issued by His Worship the Supreme Teacher Sheikh Abdel Mayid Selim, Mufti of the Egytian Realm. Asked if a husband or wife should “be allowed to take certain measures, recommended by medical men, to avoid frequent child bearing so that a long interval may elapse between one childbirth and the next”, the Mufti replied (after lengthy deliberation and consultation with lawyers of the Hanafy School, the most important of the Four Schools of Islamic Law and Religion): “It is permissible for either husband or wife, by mutual consent, to take any measures… in order to prevent conception.” The complete text of the Mufti’s reply makes it clear that “any measures” includes artificial as well as natural measures.

The Muslim religion is the state religion of Pakistan. In December 1951, the Pakistan journal Medicus published an editorial which quoted a Tradition of the Holy Prophet of Islam in which the Holy Prophet Himself gave permission for contraception even for reasons other than medical. Quoting the Koran, “He created for you mates from among yourselves that you may derive comfort from them and He has put love and mercy between you”, the Medicus argues that procreation is not the sole purpose of marriage. It supports birth control and family planning as essential to Pakistan’s economy and declared that Pakistan’s most vital need was “shiploads of contraceptives”.

The Buddhist Attitude

There is nothing in the Buddhist religion comparable to the Pope as an authority on tenets of the faith; nor is there any supreme theological body to which application can be made for interpretation or guidance on the meaning of any texts. Therefore one has to deduce what is the Buddhist attitude to birth control from (i) the general principles of Buddhism, and (ii) the attitude of the priestly orders to the subject.

The goal of the Buddhist is to cease to be bound to the Wheel of Life in endless reincarnations. Therefore, by strict logic, birth control cannot be wrong. Bryce Ryan, of Cornell University. USA, dealt with Buddhism and birth control in an article Hinayana Buddism and Family Planning in Ceylon (published in New York in 1954). He asks if wilful interference with the metaphysical process of birth — i.e. birth control – is wrongful behaviour; and if preventing conception is the same as the taking of life, which to the Buddhist is, of course, anathema. (The moral principle of not killing or harming any form of animate life is known as ahimsa.)

He answers his questions with the conclusions that wilful interference with the cycle of rebirths is not wrong; and that ahimsa cannot properly be extended to preventing life from ever existing. Therefore, by logic, birth control is not wrong to the Buddhist.

What do the priests say? Ryan found in Ceylon, by interviewing bhikkus (priests) representative of the main sects, that there is acceptance of the principle of birth control. Buddhism stresses motive and principle more than dogma, and the motive behind birth control is considered good: it is considered to be toward human well-being, which is certainly good.


As La Vie Catholique lost no time in pointing out, Gandhi has opposed birth control. Yet birth control methods acceptable to Gandhian thought are practised in India, and the Government of India included education in birth control methods in its first Five-Year Plan. A United Nations report on birth control research in India says “a major assumption in propagating the rhythm method in India is that the cultural background of its people has made them accustomed to follow some pattern of abstinence for socially accepted reasons.” Abstinence from intercourse on religious festivals is part of the Hindu tradition; so we see once again that a great religious body is aligned on the side of birth control and family planning.

(MT – 12 August 1955)

* Published in print edition on 18 December 2015

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