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The Prohibition of Birth Control: Comment on Tanakh Talks 10/19/20

David Dirlam

This week’s Tanakh Talks focused on the issue of abortion. Biblical texts revealed the existence of abortion herbs since Babylonian times. A number of texts dating to the Torah pointed to the concept that life begins at birth. The Rabbi’s conclusion was that the consequences of pregnancy fall mainly on the woman, and so it should be her decision.

During the discussion, I suggested that the ban on contraception was related to the commitment to maintain or increase membership in particular cultural/religious systems, especially Roman Catholic. Ruth argued that evidence against this view was the fact that their “best and brightest” were required to take an oath of chastity. This comment brought the issue of abortion into the broader contexts of birth control, sexual behavior, and overpopulation. It sent me to explore the academic literature.

A recent article in Science that examined ancient and enduring changes in ecological communities (“Novel Communities are a Risky Business” 10/9/20) has interesting implications for the viability of the birth-control prohibition in human communities. That article showed that ecological communities have been changing since the early days of life due to four factors. Drift and selection, the first two factors, have a high risk of resulting in extinction if they occur too quickly. In contrast, dispersal and speciation result in colonization. 

From a social point of view, drift (the random variation of populations) involves chance encounters with alternatives to the prohibition while selection involves the laws and norms that may hinder the prohibition. Both are threats to the continued existence of the prohibition in our society. In contrast, social dispersal is analogous to immigration or conversion of commitments, whether to nations, religions, neighborhoods, or online communities. This factor spreads the prohibition. Finally, another spreading device is innovation, the social analog of colonization. Many religions are reinventing their conceptions of birth control in the face of the world population crisis and discoveries of the complex nature of life.

So, what are the social analogs of the species that compete with the birth-control prohibition? Sexual freedom is one. Adoption is another. Child welfare is a third. Maternal health and the right to self-protection are also competing memes. All these were brought up in the discussion. 

The Science article chastised conservationists: “A nostalgic longing for a lost Garden of Eden…is not supported by what we know of the past and expect in the future...The dynamic nature of community composition provides an argument for conservation goals to focus on rates of change rather than aiming for particular states.” Maintaining cultural diversity is as important to human welfare as maintaining biological diversity. Since fast change is so dangerous to diversity, my conclusion is that we should not seek to bury the birth-control prohibition but slow down the change, including allowing the competitors to prosper.

To see a video of the full discussion, click here

Fri, December 3 2021 29 Kislev 5782