By KIRA FARNSWORTH
In The Family: A Proclamation to the World, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints states, “We declare that God’s commandment for his children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.”
Most Latter-day Saint couples accept the proclamation as church doctrine, but many are unclear about the church’s policy about the use of birth control.
President Gordon B. Hinckley counseled young adults about family planning at a 1983 BYU Devotional.
“I am offended by the sophistry that the only lot of the Latter-day Saint woman is to be barefoot and pregnant,” he said. “It’s a clever phrase, but it is false. Of course we believe in children. The Lord has told us to multiply and replenish the earth that we might have joy in our posterity, and there is no greater joy than the joy that comes of happy children in good families. But he did not designate the number, nor has the church. That is a sacred matter left to the couple and the Lord.”
The church’s current General Handbook of Instruction further clarifies the church’s policy about the use of birth control.
“It is the privilege of married couples who are able to bear children to provide mortal bodies for the spirit children of God, whom they are then responsible to nurture and rear. 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.”
The handbook also instructs Latter-day Saints to understand that “sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a means of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife.”
Coke Newell, the manager of Media Relations for the Church Public Affairs Department, said the policies in the General Handbook of Instruction were revised in 1998 to the current standards.
“The 1998 statement [about family planning] is still the active statement, and that’s the only direction given to priesthood leaders in the church,” Newell said.
Newell said Latter-day Saints need to remember that children are a critical part of the Creator’s plan.
“The principle of having families has been given by the Lord,” Newell said. “Our moral agency is one of the leading characteristics in that relationship.”
Douglas Brinley, a BYU professor of Church History and Doctrine, said LDS couples should remember why families are important to the Lord.
“We have a three-fold mission as a church that requires righteous people to carry out its mission,” Brinley said. “We are very pro-family and we are very much interested in rearing righteous children. It’s just that nobody is going to specify numbers because numbers are not the issue here.”
Brinley said some issues to consider include the mother’s health, both mental and physical, and a commitment to rear a righteous posterity.
“I think what President Hinckley was saying [in 1983] is that if people understand the big picture, then he’s willing to let each couple figure out how they are going to build their families,” Brinley said.
BYU Health Center Medical Director Robert Romney said doctors at the Health Center do not have the right to encourage the use of birth control, except to address rare medical concerns, but they are free to prescribe it if a married or soon-to-be married woman or couple requests it.
“The church doesn’t teach birth control use, but it also doesn’t condemn its use,” Romney said. “The church grants each couple their free agency to utilize in the circumstances of their own lives and encourages them to seek council from Heavenly Father.”
Romney said at least 80 percent of the women who come to the Health Center for pre-marital exams request some form of birth control.
Romney, who is also a gynecologist, said it is not immoral to use certain techniques of birth control to prevent pregnancy. All women who receive birth control prescriptions from the Health Center are also given an information packet about it before they leave.
Matthew Richardson, associate dean of religious education at BYU, said LDS couples need to remember the principles of marriage and family when making a decision about how to practice them.
“The church teaches principles and also teaches guidelines of practice,” Richardson said. “Sometimes we get so caught up with the practice that we miss the principle.”
Richardson said the principles behind procreation and family planning are finding joy in family and in posterity.
Richardson said alterations to the General Handbook of Instruction from previous council do not discount the past but adjust the guidelines to the present situation.
“We have living prophets, seers and revelators to help us understand and live the principles according to the circumstances of our times,” Richardson said.
Richardson said LDS couples should remember to make gospel principles their first priority.
“If you’re waiting for convenient times to live the gospel of Jesus Christ, you may not spend much time living it,” Richardson said.
Young Latter-day Saint couples said they had mixed feelings about using any method of birth control when preparing for marriage.
Kristin Jones, a recent BYU graduate from Louisville, Colo., who asked not to be identified by her real name, said she was planning on using birth control when she got married before she ever met her husband.
“It never occurred to me that my future husband might be uncomfortable with it,” she said.
Jones said when she got engaged her fiance was uneasy with the idea until they discussed their plans for a family.
“When I brought up using birth control with him, I don’t think he was opposed to it so much as surprised and hesitant about it,” Jones said. “When I explained to him my reasons and feelings for wanting to use it, he was OK with it.”
Shelby Ferrin, a graduate of BYU, said he did not understand the different reasons for using birth control until he was in college.
“When I was younger, I assumed methods of birth control were only for promiscuous people,” Ferrin said. “It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that people use birth control to plan for their families. I learned that many people use it proactively instead of as a defense against illegitimate pregnancies.”
Ferrin’s wife, Annie, said she also had some misunderstandings about the uses of birth control when she was in high school, but she learned more about it as her friends at BYU got married.
“In high school it was never really talked about, but people just knew who was using it,” she said. “At BYU, I heard about it as my friends prepared for marriage and planned for families, but I never heard anyone say they were using birth control because they never wanted to have children.”
The Ferrins said they decided to use birth control methods for a short while when they got married so they could get used to being a couple before bringing children into their family.
“There is a different dynamic when you get married, and I think it was important for us to develop a marital pattern before introducing new factors like children,” Annie Ferrin said. “However, we were very prayerful all along about when the right time was for us to start a family. It’s an ongoing prayerful process between us and the Lord.”