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 Questions From Readers

Since Sterilization Procedures Are Now Said to Be Reversible on Request, Might a Christian View Them as a Birth-Control Option?

Since Sterilization Procedures Are Now Said to Be Reversible on Request, Might a Christian View Them as a Birth-Control Option?

Sterilization has become the most widely used means of family planning. For many people, its acceptability seems determined by social and educational background, as well as by religious views. The aspect of religious belief comes into play with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who share the psalmist’s desire: “Instruct me, O Jehovah, in your way, and lead me in the path of uprightness.” (Psalm 27:11) What is involved in sterilization procedures?

Male sterilization for birth control is called a vasectomy. Two small sperm cords, or tubes, in the scrotum are cut and blocked. This can be done in various medical ways, but the intent is to make it impossible for sperm to pass from the testicles. Female sterilization is called tubal ligation. It is usually done by cutting and tying (or, burning) closed the Fallopian tubes, which carry eggs from the ovaries to the uterus.

It was long considered that these steps were permanent—that they produced irreversible sterilization. But some people, because of regretting their step or as a result of new circumstances, have sought medical help to undo a vasectomy or tubal ligation. With the advent of specialized instruments and microsurgery, attempts at reversal have been more successful. It is not uncommon to read that with selected candidates there can be 50 to 70 percent success in reversing a vasectomy by rejoining the severed ends of the tiny tubes. Rates of 60 to 80 percent success for reversing female tubal ligation are claimed. Some who have learned about this have felt that sterilization need no longer be viewed as permanent. They might believe that a vasectomy and tubal ligation can be viewed as being in the same category as oral contraceptives, condoms, and diaphragms—methods that can be discontinued if a pregnancy is desired. Yet, some sobering aspects should not be ignored.

One is that prospects for a reversal can be hurt dramatically by such factors as the amount of damage to tubes during the sterilization procedure, the amount of the tube removed or scarred, the number of years that have passed since the procedure, and in the case of a vasectomy, whether antibodies against the man’s sperm have resulted. And not to be ignored is the fact that facilities for microsurgery may not be available in many areas, or the expense may be prohibitive. Thus, many who might desperately wish to have a sterilization reversed would not be able to. For them it is final. * So the above-noted rates for reversals are really just theoretical, not dependable averages.

Some facts bear on the realities. An article published in the United States on reversing a vasectomy commented that after the $12,000 operation, “only 63 percent of patients can impregnate their partners.” Moreover, just “six percent of men who get a vasectomy eventually seek a reversal.” In a German study about central Europe, some 3 percent of men who chose to be sterilized later sought reversal. Even if half of those attempts could succeed, it would mean that for 98.5 percent, having a vasectomy amounted to permanent sterilization. And the rate would be higher in lands with few or no microsurgeons.

Consequently, it is unrealistic to treat male or female sterilization lightly, as if it were temporary birth control. And for the sincere Christian, there are other aspects to consider.

A central point is that reproductive powers are a gift from our Creator. His original purpose  included procreation by perfect humans, who would “fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28) After the Flood cut earth’s population to eight, God repeated those basic instructions. (Genesis 9:1) God did not repeat that command to the nation of Israel, but Israelites viewed having offspring as something very desirable.1 Samuel 1:1-11; Psalm 128:3.

God’s Law to Israel contained indications of his regard for human procreation. For example, if a married man died before producing a son to carry on his lineage, his brother was to father a son by brother-in-law marriage. (Deuteronomy 25:5) More to the point was the law about a wife who tried to help her husband in a fight. If she grasped the privates of her husband’s opponent, her hand was to be amputated; significantly, God did not require eye-for-eye damage to her or her husband’s reproductive organs. (Deuteronomy 25:11, 12) This law would clearly engender respect for reproductive organs; these were not to be destroyed needlessly. *

We know that Christians are not under Israel’s Law, so the regulation at Deuteronomy 25:11, 12 is not binding on them. Jesus neither ordered nor implied that his disciples must marry and have as many children as possible, which many couples have considered when deciding on whether to use some method of birth control. (Matthew 19:10-12) The apostle Paul did encourage passionate ‘younger widows to marry and bear children.’ (1 Timothy 5:11-14) He did not bring up the permanent sterilization of Christians—their voluntarily sacrificing their reproductive potential to bear children.

Christians do well to weigh such indications that God esteems their reproductive ability. Each couple must determine if and when they will employ appropriate methods of family planning. Granted, their decision would be particularly telling if there were confirmed medical assurances that mother or child faced grave medical risks, even a probability of death, with a future pregnancy. Some in that situation have reluctantly submitted to a sterilization procedure as described earlier to make sure that no pregnancy would threaten the life of the mother (who may already have other children) or that of a child who might later be born with a life-threatening health problem.

But Christians who are not facing such an unusual and distinct risk would certainly want to use ‘soundness of mind’ and shape their thinking and deeds by God’s esteem for reproductive potential. (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; 2:2, 5-8) This would reflect mature sensitivity to Scriptural indications. Yet, what if it became publicly known that a Christian blithely disregarded God’s evaluations? Would not others doubt whether he (or, she) was a good example, having a reputation of making decisions in harmony with the Bible? Such a disturbing blemish on one’s reputation could, of course, affect a minister’s being qualified for special privileges of service, though that might not be so if one had in ignorance had this procedure performed.1 Timothy 3:7.

^ par. 6 “Surgical attempts to reconnect the [vas deferens] have a success rate of at least 40 percent, and there is some evidence that greater success may be achieved with improved microsurgical techniques. Nevertheless, sterilization by means of vasectomy should be considered permanent.” (Encyclopædia Britannica) “Sterilization should be regarded as a permanent procedure. Despite what the patient may have heard about reversal, reanastomosis is expensive, and success cannot be guaranteed. For women who undergo reversal of tubal sterilization, the risk of ectopic pregnancy is high.”Contemporary OB/GYN, June 1998.

^ par. 10 Another law that might seem relevant said that no man whose genitals were severely damaged could come into God’s congregation. (Deuteronomy 23:1) However, Insight on the Scriptures notes that this evidently “had to do with deliberate emasculation for immoral purposes, such as homosexuality.” Hence, that law did not involve castration or the equivalent for birth control. Insight also says: “Jehovah comfortingly foretold the time when eunuchs would be accepted by him as his servants and, if obedient, would have a name better than sons and daughters. With the abolition of the Law by Jesus Christ, all persons exercising faith, regardless of their former status or condition, could become spiritual sons of God. Fleshly distinctions were removed.Isa 56:4, 5; Joh 1:12.”