How many children should we have, and why? Can we use birth control?
Excerpted from “This is My Beloved, This is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate Relations” A paper of the Rabbinical Assembly Comission on Human Sexuality, 1996
Both men and women have indispensable roles in procreation and child rearing….
If couples are going to use contraceptives, Jewish law prefers those forms which prevent conception in the first place over those which abort an already fertilized egg. That is because in most cases Jewish law forbids abortion….Jews are often misinformed about this because they have heard, correctly, that Jewish law requires abortion when the woman’s life or health – physical or mental – is threatened by the pregnancy and that Jewish law permits abortion when the risk to the woman’s life or health (again, physical or mental) is greater than that of a normal pregnancy but not so great as to constitute a clear and present danger to her…[However, this does include] the right to abort simply because the woman does not want to have another child.
Abortion, then, may not be used as a postfacto form of birth control, and the contraceptives which prevent conception in the first place are preferable to those which abort a conceptus afterward. Thus from the point of view of Jewish law the diaphragm is the most favored form of contraception, for it prevents conception and has little, if any, impact on the woman’s health. If the contraceptive pill or implant is not counter-indicated by the woman’s age or body chemistry, those are usually the next most favored forms of contraception….
The only non-permanent, male form of contraception currently available is the condorn. As we noted above, in Jewish law the male is legally responsible for propagation, and that argues against the man using contraception at least until he has fulfilled that duty.(41) Condoms, moreover, sometimes split or slip off,(42) and even if they remain intact and in place, they do not always work. Nevertheless, condoms must be used if unprotected sexual intercourse poses a medical risk to either spouse, for condoms do offer some measure of protection against the spread of some diseases, and the duty to maintain health and life supersedes the positive duty of the male to propagate. So, for example, if the previous history of either one suggests the possibility of HIV infection, whether through previous sexual encounters, drug use, or through a blood transfusion, they must use condoms and take a blood test. If either spouse tests positive for the HIV virus, the use of condoms is not enough: abstinence is necessary, for life must take precedence over the joys of sex.” (43)
It should be noted, though, that even those rabbis who pemit contraception for non-therapeutic reasons never anticipated that Jews would postpone having children as long as many Jewish couples now do and that, even with modern medical advances, the late teens and the twenties are biologically still the best time for the human female to conceive and bear children…Too many couples who wait long beyond their twenties, however, find that when they am ready to have children, they cannot. Therefore, even if young couples choose to use contraceptives for a time, they are well advised, both medically and Jewishly, not to wait too long to have children.
Another factor must be mentioned. We Jews numbered approximately 18 million before the Holocaust, and we lost a third of our numbers during those terrible years. Even if we forget about replenishing the numbers we lost, we are not replacing ourselves as we are now. To do that, we would need a reproductive rate of 2.2 or 2.3 (that is, statistically 2.2 or 2.3 children for every two adults); it must be more than 2.0 to account for those who never marry, those who marry and cannot have children, and those who have only one child. The present reproductive rate of Jews in North America is about 1.6 or 1.7. That means that we are endangering ourselves demographically as a people. The world’s overpopulation problem is real, but Jews are only 0.2% of the world’s population, and so even if the reproductive rate of Jews increased to the replacement rate, the impact upon the world’s population problem would be minimal. That would still be true even if the Jewish people increased to replenish the six million lost in the Holocaust.
Sacrificing the existence of the Jewish people is neither an effective solution nor a warranted one to reduce the world’s problems of overpopulation and limited resources….
….If we are serious as a community in our attempt to replenish our numbers, we must develop policies and programs to encourage larger families which are also deeply Jewish. Greater discounts could be given, for example, to each added sibling at Solomon Schechter day schools, at Camp Ramah, and at United Synagogue Youth programs; and as a movement we could and should support pro-family legislation such as laws which provide for family leaves for both mothers and fathers and for high-quality, affordable day care. We must, in a phrase, “put our money where our mouth is.”
…couples should seriously consider having three or four children when the time comes. The obligation in Jewish law to propagate is fulfilled when one has a minimum of two children, but one is not supposed to stop there, for, as Maimonides says, “if one adds a soul to the People Israel, it is as if s/he has built an entire world.”(44)
Once again, those who cannot have children are exempted from this obligation, but those who can should. In the end, we must all be reminded of the way in which our tradition thinks of children and the way in which many people experience them – i.e., as a true blessing from God.