Sexual Ethics and the Sanctity of Human Life
Written by J. Alan Branch |
Monday, June 20, 2022
Biblical sexual ethics advocates a morality of restraint in which the best interests of both women and children are affirmed. Biblical sexual ethics entails the sanctity of human life because when the act of sex is treated as a gift from God to be celebrated within God’s moral parameters, then children conceived via sex are also treated as gifts from God.
Sexual ethics and the sanctity of human life are two inseparable moral issues. Unbiblical views of sexual ethics go hand in hand with devaluing human life, particularly women and children. If one treats sex cheaply, then one will treat other people cheaply, and when sexual ethics are cheapened, women and children become the victims of males’ unrestrained sexual appetites.
In the sexual revolution, the demand for sexual freedom preceded the loosening of abortion laws. Because the “free love” generation divorced sexual activity from ethical responsibility, it is no coincidence that the so-called “Summer of Love” in 1967 was followed a few years later in 1973 by legalized abortion. Liberalizing abortion laws is the logical conclusion to the abandonment of sexual restraint.
The sexual revolution claimed to liberate women from what feminists considered the oppressive confines of marriage. But unrestrained sexual ethics actually serve to devalue women as mere objects for sensual gratification, and this contributes to disregard for children. Sexual permissiveness has conditioned our culture, particularly men, to think of children as a bothersome intrusion instead of a gift to be received. The moral issues of sexual ethics and the sanctity of human life are intricately connected, and biblical sexual morality dignifies both women and children. To demonstrate this thesis, five propositions will be presented: First, various forms of unbiblical sexual ethics devalue both women and children by viewing pregnancy as an undesirable outcome of sexual intercourse; second, biblical sexual morality properly connects sexual ethics to the sanctity of human life by teaching that pregnancy is a welcome outcome to sexual intercourse; third, when pregnancy is a welcome outcome to sexual intercourse, women are dignified as being more than merely objects for sexual gratification; fourth, when pregnancy is a welcome outcome to sexual intercourse, not only are women dignified, but young children are honored as welcome additions to a family; and finally, biblical sexual morality creates a culture which is safer for women and children as they are honored as co-bearers of the image of God.
I. Various Non-Christian Forms of Sexual Ethics
To demonstrate the connection between sexual ethics and the sanctity of human life, first we must see how various unbiblical forms of sexual ethics devalue both women and children by viewing pregnancy as an undesirable outcome of sexual intercourse. Daniel Heimbach’s True Sexual Morality suggests four counterfeit views of sexual morality: Romantic, Playboy, Therapeutic, and Pagan sexual moralities. Each of these views are various expressions of an unrestrained view of sexual ethics, and each of them though different in focus share an emphasis on hedonism and moral autonomy. In none of these views is pregnancy viewed positively.
The first unbiblical view is Romantic Morality, which says all that is necessary for sex to be moral is for the participants to be “in love.” In this case, love is an amorphous feeling of affection for another person, and affection is expressed as sexual attraction. Heimbach explains, “Romantic sexual morality so glorifies the importance of sentimental affection in sexual relationships that sex is justified based on feelings alone. It says couples have only to decide if they are in love, and if they are, then sex is moral whatever else might be the case.” From this perspective, marriage may or may not be an intended goal. Just because someone professes love for a sexual partner does not necessarily mean he or she intends to marry the person.
Since the Romantic view is based in ephemeral feelings of attraction, pregnancy interferes with the excitement of romance. As sex is occurs outside of marriage, conception is undesired and children are usually not wanted. In many cases, a man will insist his professed love for his sexual partner does not include love for any children conceived between the two of them. Tragically, Romantic sexual morality destroys the affection it promises. As Heimbach observes, “God designed sex to create a total union between persons at all levels at once, but romantic morality tells individuals to avoid unconditional commitments and hinders partners from pursuing total union.”
Because Romantic Morality destroys the affection it promises, it contributes to the devaluing of human life. Love is divorced from a covenant, and instead is grounded in fleeting emotions which may or not remain present if pregnancy ensues. And here we see the connection between Romantic Morality and abortion. While there are usually a complex set of reasons which contribute to a decision to abort, a 2013 survey of abortive women found that 31% of respondents gave partner-related reasons as influential in the decision. To be clear, only 6% mentioned the father of the child as the only reason for aborting. But one wonders how the variable of an unsupportive father amplified the perceived reality of other stressors, such as finances or an inopportune time for having a baby. All this to say, not only does Romantic Morality destroy the affection it promises, it destroys the children resulting from this purported “love.”
While the Romantic view is founded in vague feelings of love, Playboy Morality builds an entire system based pleasure. As the Feinbergs explain, “[The Playboy morality] says sex is a natural human impulse or instinct. . . . Greater human happiness is attained if people can take whatever pleasure they can get from sex without the burden of moral guilt, as long as they do not satisfy their sexual urges by using a partner involuntarily, hurtfully or deceitfully.” Heimbach adds, “Playboy sexual morality begins with the physical pleasure associated with sexual experience and proceeds to construct an entire framework of moral thinking based on it.” Quite simply, this approach to sexual ethics says any natural impulse that produces pleasure is good and should be allowed free expression.
This Playboy Morality is reflected in many popular songs. One example from the era of the sexual revolution is Foghat’s 1972 version of Willie Dixon’s I Just Want to Make Love To You, which says:
I don’t want you, wash my clothesI don’t want you, keep a homeI don’t want you to be trueI just want to make love to you
In this song, sex is completely divorced from any sense of marriage — “I don’t want you, keep a home” — or fidelity — “I don’t want you to be true.” Instead, the woman is merely seen as a target of opportunity for sexual gratification with no commitment beyond the sexual encounter itself. Pregnancy is not a desired outcome and children are not wanted. All that is wanted is sexual pleasure.
Playboy Morality exhibits the danger of the hedonic paradox — the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake does not result in pleasure, but frustration. For example, Ecclesiastes 2:1–11 describes the hedonistic pursuit of wine, accumulation of wealth, aesthetically pleasing surroundings, and sexual encounters, only to conclude by saying, “And behold all was vanity and striving after the wind and there was no profit under the sun.” (Eccl 2:11) Pleasure, especially sensual pleasure, is an insufficient starting point for ethics. The danger of the hedonic paradox was recognized by Aristotle who was critical of using pleasure to determine morality and said, “It appears to be pleasure that misleads the mass of mankind; for it seems to them to be a good, though it is not, so they choose what is pleasant as good and shun pain as evil.” Indeed, when physical pleasure is seen as the telos of life in and of itself, one is deceived about the true value of other people and other humans become a means to achieve the ends of one’s own pleasure.
The third unbiblical view is Therapeutic Morality, an ethic of which sees sex as a means to human fulfillment and personal growth. Though not denying the vague form of love in Romantic Morality or the pleasure associated with Playboy Morality, advocates of Therapeutic Morality contend that limiting sex to marriage denies the single person of something essential to his or her personhood. Heimbach says: “Therapeutic sexual morality justifies sex based on ideas about human psychology. Sex is regarded as moral or immoral depending on how it relates to things such as mental health, personal development, or social success. . . . No sexual behavior is right or wrong in itself because what matters is a person’s inner sense of satisfaction.”
Planned Parenthood best fits in the category of Therapeutic Morality because they see sex as a part of any well-rounded person’s life, married or unmarried, adult or teenager. For them, emotional wellbeing assumes one is having sex. In answering the teenage question, “What should I do if I think I’m ready for sex?,” they suggest the teenager ask himself or herself questions such as: “Do I have a healthy relationship? Can I talk with my partner about things that are bothering me?,” as well as asking, “How would I deal with an STD or unintended pregnancy?” Setting aside obvious questions about how a teenager only a couple years removed from cartoons and toys is supposed to “deal with an STD or unintended pregnancy,” Planned Parenthood assumes it is normal and healthy for teenagers to have sex. The idea that one would wait until marriage is barely even suggested, though the group glibly adds, “And some people choose to never have sex — that’s totally okay too.” And in case teenagers do get pregnant, Planned Parenthood offers abortion as a coping mechanism. In this way, both young men and women are conditioned to see each other only as objects of sexual pleasure and children as a bothersome obstacle to human fulfillment.
The final unbiblical view is Pagan sexual morality. This moral stance can encompass vague notions of love ( Romantic Morality), pleasure-based ethics ( Playboy Morality), and vacuous concepts of human fulfillment ( Therapeutic Morality), but combines all of these ideas into using sex as a vehicle to connect with the divine. Pagan sexual morality emerges from the monistic worldview integral to paganism: “All is one and all is God.” Based on this premise, all humans are seen as partially divine or having some form of divine spark. Such religious language serves as a camouflage for radical autonomy, and as Heimbach says, “Indulging sexual desires is therefore good no matter what form it takes.”
Pagan sexual morality and fertility cults associated with it are clearly seen in the Roman god Mutunus Tutinus and his Greek parallel, Priapus. In Rome, Mutunus Tutinus was a phallic image deity with a shrine on the Velian Hill. The god was embodied in a sacred phallus on which the bride was required to sit before the consummation of marriage. But while the pagan gods were invoked for fertility within marriage, the diminutive deities of the pagan pantheon engaged in sexual promiscuity and there was no moral rule against the common practice of exposing unwanted children.
Modern neopaganism has revived the sexual ethics of ancient polytheism. Neopagan author Amber Laine Fisher proclaims the goodness of sex without moral boundaries and says, “Goddess religion and goddess spirituality endeavor to release us from the taboos of sex and sexuality, to untie our hands, freeing us from certain paradigms or ideals that we are taught to accept as normal.” And Pagan sexual morality devalues human life. For example, California-based psychologist Ginette Paris grounds pro-abortion arguments in a pagan worldview. In her 1992 work The Sacrament of Abortion, Paris urges women to abandon a Christian worldview and instead worship Artemis, and she considers abortion a sacrifice to Artemis.
Each of these views share the one purported rule of mutual consent. Both parties are supposed to be willing participants in the sexual encounter. But the tenuous restraint of the canon of consent is seen in the salacious revelations about Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. One of the most powerful men in the entertainment industry, for years Weinstein forced himself upon women. A serial sexual predator and rapist, Weinstein was convicted of rape and sexual assault and sentenced to twenty-three years in prison on March 11, 2020. Christians grieve with and for the women violated by this evil man. But our grief is heightened when we see an entertainment industry which repeatedly sexualizes women in song and film, and catechizes young people into a culture of unrestrained sexual desires. And yet, this industry which communicates such unholy messages is surprised when a man objectifies and abuses women. When sex is divorced from a restrained view of ethics and separated from marriage, other people are valued only objects of sexual gratification. Women in particular become vulnerable targets of opportunity for predatory males. And for such men, children are undesired outcomes from sex.