Do you love your wife enough to not have sex with her? That is one of the provocative questions raised by the book, Birth-Control—a small volume of Gandhi's collective teachings on the subject. I discovered and ordered the book some months ago because I was curious about Gandhi's position on abortion. I finally got around to reading it while doing research for "The Antithesis of Peace." It left me with plenty to think about. Though the book doesn't deal directly with the question of abortion, there can be no doubt as to Gandhi's opinion of it. All of his arguments against artificial birth control are even more applicable to abortion. Consider the following excerpts:
It is wrong and immoral to seek to escape the consequences of one's acts.
Nature is relentless and will have full revenge for any such violation of her laws.
In the West, indeed, people have transgressed all bounds. They indulge in sexual pleasures, and devise measures in order to evade the responsibilities of parenthood.
If it is contended that birth-control is necessary for the nation because of over-population, I dispute the proposition.
Reading that last remark, you might conclude that Gandhi did not see unchecked population growth as a legitimate threat to humanity. That would be incorrect. Gandhi was concerned about population growth, but he regarded birth control and abortion as "solutions" that were infinitely worse than the problem. The human population must be regulated, he argued, in accord with natural law. In his own words:
There can be no two opinions about the necessity of birth-control. But the only method handed down from ages past is self-control… It is an infallible sovereign remedy doing good to those who practice it. And medical men will earn the gratitude of mankind, if instead of devising artificial means of birth-control they will find out the means of self-control.
Increase in population is not and ought not to be regarded as a calamity to be avoided. Its regulation or restriction by artificial methods is a calamity of the first grade whether we know it or not.
Birth-control by contraceptives no doubt regulates to a certain extent the number of new-comers and enables persons of moderate means to keep the wolf from the door. But the moral harm it does to the individual and society is incalculable.
Birth-control according to methods suggested today and recommended in the West is suicidal. When I say 'suicidal', I do not mean resulting in the extinction of the race; I mean suicidal in a higher sense of the term, that is to say, these methods make man lower than the brute; they are immoral.
In one sense, the moral demise Gandhi had in view was specifically connected to the sex ethic. Artificial birth control, he predicted, would be devastating to the institution of marriage and would eventually lead to the widespread normalization of homosexuality. He prophetically argued:
I urge the advocates of artificial methods to consider the consequences. Any large use of the methods is likely to result in the dissolution of the marriage bond and in free love.
If mutual consent makes a sexual act moral whether within marriage or without, and by parity of reasoning, even between members of the same sex, the whole basis of sexual morality is gone and nothing but 'misery and defeat' awaits the youth of the country... Divorce of the sexual act from its natural consequence must lead to hideous promiscuity and condonation, if not endorsement, of unnatural vice.
The reader should know that even persons of note have been known to approve of what is commonly known as sexual perversion. He may be shocked at the statement. But if it somehow or other gains the stamp of respectability, it will be the rage among boys and girls to satisfy their urge among members of their own sex.
In Gandhi's mind, these were the threats artificial birth-control posed to the cultural understanding of sex, but his concerns actually went much deeper—and had nothing to do with religious dogma. Rather, his condemnation of the practice was built on the conviction that it promotes the utter abandonment of self-restraint. Why is that such a big deal? Because Gandhi took a holistic view of life. The man who cannot control his "animal passions" in one context will be unable to control those passions in any context. To enable cowardice and self-absorption in one realm is to enable them in all realms. He writes:
The use of contraceptives bids fair to kill the desire for self-restraint.
He who attempts to control only one organ, and allows all the others free play, is bound to find his effort futile.
Spread of contraceptive knowledge and practice can only aid the growth of self-indulgence and abuse and its inevitable concomitants, misery and disease.
If we begin to believe that indulgence in animal passion is necessary, harmless and sinless, we shall want to give reins to it and shall be powerless to resist it.
It is a sin to bring forth unwanted children, but I think it is a greater sin to avoid the consequences of one's own action. It simply unmans man.
When Gandhi asserted that the use of contraceptives "unmans man," he said this not as a male chauvinist but as one who was deeply concerned about the sexual objectification of women. It is women, Gandhi believed, who bear most of the misery meted out by the widespread use of artificial birth control. And it is on this point that his philosophy deserves the most consideration. Almost everything Gandhi says in this book would be scoffed at by the enlightened, secular mind—which is a bit ironic. Gandhi is revered in the abstract, but we have culturally rejected almost everything he stood for. This may be nowhere more evident than in the context of contraceptives. The world has embraced artificial birth control on the assertion that it is good for women. Gandhi took exactly the opposite position—arguing that contraceptives do not liberate women but enslave them. Here's why:
In my opinion it is an insult to the fair sex to put up her case in support of birth-control by artificial methods. As it is, man has sufficiently degraded her for his lust, and artificial methods, no matter how well-meaning the advocates may be, will still further degrade her.
Man must understand that woman is his companion and helpmate in life and not a means of satisfying his carnal desire. There must be a clear perception that the purpose of human creation was wholly different from that of the satisfaction of animal wants.
My argument is only addressed to those who regard marriage as a sacrament and woman not as an instrument of animal pleasure but as mother of man and trustee of the virtue of her progeny.
Contraceptives are an insult to womanhood. The difference between a prostitute and a woman using contraceptives is only this that the former sells her body to several men, the latter sells it to one man.
When Planned Parenthood founder, Margaret Sanger, travelled to India in 1936 to try and sell Gandhi on the merits of birth control, this was his response to her:
When [people] want to satisfy animal passion without having to suffer the consequences of their act it is not love, it is lust… Love becomes lust the moment you make it a means for the satisfaction of animal needs. It is just the same with food. If food is taken only for pleasure, it is lust. You do not take chocolates for the sake of hunger. You take them for pleasure and then ask the doctor for an antidote. Perhaps you will tell the doctor that whisky befogs your brain and he gives you an antidote. Would it not be better not to take chocolates or whisky? [You do not accept the analogy] because you think this sex expression without desire for children is a need of the soul, a contention I do not endorse... Why must people be slaves of this passion when they are not of others?
When it came to sex education, Gandhi was no less counter cultural. This is the kind of sex-ed he supported:
The sex education that I stand for, must have for its object the conquest and sublimation of the sex passion. Such education should automatically serve to bring home to children, the essential distinction between man and brute, to make them realize that it is man's special privilege and pride to be gifted with the faculties of head and heart both. (37)
My quarrel with the advocates of contraceptives lies in their taking it for granted that ordinary mortals cannot exercise self-control.
We need, not lessons in the use of contraceptives and helps to our being able to satisfy our animal appetite, but continuous lessons to restrain that appetite.
It is no argument against the possibility or desirability of abstinence to say that it is difficult for the vast majority of mankind.
If the possibility and desirability of abstinence be admitted, we must find out and devise the means of attaining it… life must be remodeled, if we are to live under restraint and discipline. We may not, as the vulgar saying goes, eat the cake and have it too.
The use of contraceptives is infinitely more tempting than the whisky bottle. But it is no more lawful than the sparkling liquid for its fatal temptation. Nor can opposition to the use of either be given up in despair because their use seems to be growing. If the opponents have faith in their mission, it has to be pursued. A voice in the wilderness has a potency which voices uttered in the midst of 'the madding crowd' lack.
It is the philanthropic motive that no doubt impels many birth-control reformers to a whirlwind campaign in favor of the use of contraceptives. I invite them to contemplate the ruinous consequences of their misplaced philanthropy. Those whom they want to reach will never use them in any appreciable numbers. Those who ought not to use them will, without doubt, use them to the undoing of themselves and their partners.
At this point, Christians in the West might be tempted to celebrate Gandhi's opposition to abortion, homosexuality, gluttony, and drunkenness, along with his staunch opposition to Planned Parenthood and its amoral approach to sexual education. But before we do that, we must first reckon with those of his beliefs which cut across our grain—namely his teachings on marriage. You may have already noticed the tension. If you advocate for the moderation of family size and you are universally opposed to all forms of artificial birth control, it doesn't leave you with a lot of options. As such, Gandhi advocated abstinence for those who are unmarried, and in most circumstances, he advocated abstinence for those who are married. In his words:
Man has no right to touch his wife so long as she does not wish to have a child, and the woman should have the will-power to resist, even her own husband.
I hold that the right education in this country is to teach woman the art of saying no even to her husband, to teach her that it is no part of her duty to become a mere tool or a doll in her husband's hands.
If a [husband] may indulge in animal passion for the (mere) sake of it, what is he to do whilst he is, say, away from his home for any length of time, or when he is engaged as a soldier in a protracted war, or when he is widowed, or when his wife is too ill to permit him the indulgence without injury to her health notwithstanding the use of artificial methods?
Reading Gandhi's thoughts on marriage, including his belief that husbands and wives should not sleep in the same bed, it becomes apparent that Gandhi believed that marriage, as its practiced in the mainstream, is just as devastating to women as artificial birth control. And he may be on to something. His solution was not to do away with marriage, but for husbands to start honoring their wives as partners instead of sex objects. It also becomes apparent that Gandhi's position does not come from a place of asceticism, but from the honest conviction that marriage as it's generally practiced sexually brutalizes women. So before we trot out Paul's admonitions in I Corinthians 7:5 and 9, we would do well to consider Gandhi's critique. Is marriage the antidote for sexual desire or is it Spirit-filled self-control? If we're honest, we must concede that the pictures we see of marriage in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, are fairly horrendous. God-fearing men haven't always treated their wives in God-honoring ways. How many Christian wives would prefer to be treated as Gandhi treated his wife than as their own Christian husband treats them? How much suffering and abuse has been piled on top of Ephesians 5:22?! I'll close with one last excerpt:
We vainly expect to be free from outward manifestations of lust, while harboring it in our minds, with the result that physically and mentally we become utter wrecks, and our lives… become a living lie or hypocrisy personified.
We may criticize Gandhi for seeming to take an overly austere view of life, but there is no question that most Christians in the West are far more cavalier with our fleshly appetites than Gandhi ever was. His relentless pursuit of holiness should challenge us all—and give us pause to reexamine our own understanding of sex and marriage. Do we love our spouse because we have unconditionally pledged ourselves to their well-being, or because we simply use their body to satisfy our own desires?
Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.