National Council of Churches Supports Birth Control

Continuing in its liberal tradition and recognizing changing world events such as the population explosion, the National Council of Churches issued a proclamation supporting married couples’ use of birth control.

Summary of Event

In 1961, the National Council of Churches (NCC), a federation of twenty-five major Protestant denominations and eight Eastern Orthodox communions representing more than thirty-nine million people, made a startling announcement. Married couples, under certain conditions, would be allowed to utilize artificial birth control to foster responsible parenthood and strong, viable Christian families. National Council of Churches
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[kw]National Council of Churches Supports Birth Control (Feb. 24, 1961)
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[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Feb. 24, 1961: National Council of Churches Supports Birth Control[06860]
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Miller, J. Irwin

The forms of birth control condoned included occasional abstinence, which is the method of choice for the Eastern Orthodox churches; periodic abstinence (rhythm method) and artificial contraception were approved by the Protestant church members. In both cases, the means were to be acceptable to both partners and noninjurious to health. The NCC proclamation stated that the rhythm method was not morally superior to other methods as in the Protestant view; motives, not methods, form the moral basis for family planning. Voluntary sterilization was condoned primarily for reasons of health or other obligations of parenthood. Abortion or any life-destroying method, however, was declared absolutely unacceptable except when the life and health of the mother are at risk.

The stated reasons for family planning included the right of a child to be loved, cared for, educated, and trained in Christian principles. The needs of existing children were to be considered in a couple’s decision to have or not to have another child. Possible genetic or other abnormalities the parents might transmit to the child, as well as the mother’s need to safeguard her health by spacing her children’s births, were also listed as appropriate reasons for using contraception.

World conditions such as overpopulation and its negative consequences also qualified as justification for birth control. The overriding purpose of the proclamation was that of providing a Christian doctrine of parenthood that would be relevant to husbands and wives in contemporary society. The document noted that contraception requires the services of the medical community and other family-serving professionals. Therefore, any laws that prohibit giving birth control information, technology, or counsel to married couples violate that couple’s civil and religious rights.

Furthermore, in the light of the fact that aid given by the United States was in part responsible for the global population problem, individual Christians and government and voluntary agencies have a moral duty to assist those less-developed countries (LDCs) requesting assistance in alleviating their overpopulation problems. Material conditions in these countries, the document states, must be improved so that their people can achieve human dignity, freedom, justice, and peace.

The points made in the NCC proclamation were radical for their time. Birth control had long been a controversial issue in the United States. In the late 1910’s, Margaret Sanger Sanger, Margaret , a nurse and major crusader for contraception in the United States, argued that birth control should be allowed for the unfit and to alleviate the suffering of overly prolific and poverty-stricken immigrants, a view that attracted middle-class reformers who were drawn to the idea, called eugenics Eugenics , of biologically regulating and thereby improving society. Sanger argued during this period that many social problems—feeble-mindedness, crime, poverty, and degeneracy—could be eliminated if birth control were legal and available. All welfare programs could be dismantled if, through scientific management, only the fit could breed. The eugenics movement remained strong throughout the 1920’s.

Birth control was equated by some with racism, in that the immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were considered to be members of inferior races who were making America’s cities uninhabitable and who were taking jobs from native workers. This reactionary branch of the eugenics movement supported contraception for the inferior races and the unfit. They believed that America had to be kept “pure.”

It has been estimated that in 1938 American women spent more than $200 million on birth control products (labeled as “feminine hygiene” products to avoid the censors) purchased from magazine advertisements and department store catalogs. Most of these products had no medical backing or proof of efficacy. In 1937, the American Medical Association (AMA) officially endorsed contraception; by 1940, physicians were beginning to accept the idea of voluntary family planning at the individual’s discretion. Before this, physicians would provide contraception only for pathologic conditions such as tuberculosis or pelvic deformity.

The White House supported family planning during the years of World War II, as war industries desperately needed female workers. Contraception for women in the war industries was controlled by physicians and overseen by the government. After World War II, the Federal Council of Churches (FCC), which became the NCC in 1950, counseled Christians to have large families if they could afford them. This was a strong procontraception statement for the group at the time.


The FCC, Christianity;interdenominational cooperation officially formed in December, 1908, emerged from a long and sometimes turbulent history of conflict with the evangelical churches, which held to a stricter, more Calvinistic theology. The churches that came together as the FCC had a liberal view: Human nature is essentially good, and evil in society is essentially attributable to environmental factors that can be ameliorated through proper Christian interventions. The mission of Christian churches was, in part, to improve social conditions, and this mission could be achieved best through a union of churches working together.

The FCC’s philosophy and theology closely paralleled the ecumenical movement in Europe that resulted in the formation of the World Council of Churches World Council of Churches (WCC) on August 23, 1948. The FCC’s and NCC’s activities in the United Nations are a reflection of this larger, proactive worldview. The NCC’s 1961 statement on the responsibility of Christians to assist the world’s downtrodden and to do something about overpopulation is an extension of this liberal theology. The ecumenical movements in Europe and the United States have long supported advances in technological knowledge that improve health, food production, and the general quality of life. Missionary activities by individual denominations, work within the United Nations, and work by bodies of the FCC, NCC, and WCC reflect this.

The FCC, NCC, and WCC, however, were becoming concerned about overpopulation Overpopulation . In their missionary work and in the accumulating statistics gathered by the United Nations, they saw the misery and degradation that too many children could bring to a family, a community, or a society. By 1961, people in the United States of all religious persuasions were practicing family limitation. The number of children couples stated that they wanted and the number they actually had was a close match, and survey research indicated widespread support of family planning among Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish husbands and wives. In many states, however, these couples found it difficult to receive birth control information or devices, as dispersal of such information, even by a physician to a lawfully married couple, was illegal.

The NCC’s 1961 pronouncement, under its president J. Irwin Miller, was a culmination of a long, liberal, proactive history and theology. The pronouncement focused on the civil and religious rights of couples to make their own determination of proper family size. Accordingly, the state had no right to interfere. The 1961 declaration was also a reflection of current events and the actual behavior of married couples. The NCC validated birth control for couples who had long been practicing it. The declaration took birth control out of its secretive, sometimes guilt-ridden closet. In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Griswold v. Connecticut, ruled that state bans on contraception were unconstitutional. National Council of Churches
Christianity;on contraception[contraception]

Further Reading

  • Duff, Edward. The Social Thought of the World Council of Churches. New York: Association Press, 1956. Discusses the ecumenical movement’s critique of economic, political, and contemporary international developments. Good background material. References provided.
  • Jacobson, Jodi L. Planning the Global Family. Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute, 1987. A pamphlet-sized book containing international data on birthrates, family planning, and maternal death rates. References provided.
  • Kennedy, David M. Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971. Excellent source on birth control and family planning before 1945. Sanger is the “mother” of the birth control movement. College-level reading. References provided.
  • Pratt, Henry J. The Liberalization of American Protestantism: A Case Study in Complex Organizations. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1972. Factual analysis of the NCC’s organization and policies. The NCC’s development is compared with that of other liberal organizations. Good background material. College-level reading. References provided.

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