Family planning: cultural and religious perspectives

Hum Reprod. 1993 Jun;8(6):969-76. doi: 10.1093/oxfordjournals.humrep.a138176.


The world population explosion has caused political leaders to look upon national and regional birth control projects as vital. Support for regulation of individual fertility has been evident in all cultures, and at all times, even in those societies in which social and religious rules have favoured the abundant production of children. As the secularization of Western society and scientific enquiry gained momentum during the modern period, knowledge of reproduction increased and was applied to control human population growth. The various methods of contraception and their development through the years from the ancient ideas to the modern era are presented. Each approach to fertility control has its advantages and disadvantages. No one method is perfect for everyone, for every clinical setting, and in every culture. Higher levels of fertility have been associated with 'traditional', religious prohibitions on some forms of birth control, 'traditional' values about the importance of children and the priority of family, and 'traditional' family and gender roles reinforced by religion. The attitude of the main religious groups to contraceptive practice is discussed.

PIP: Discussion of cultural and religious perspectives on family planning was traced from ancient times to the present. The roles of the main religious groups: Jewish, Roman Catholic, Prostestant, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist and the roles today of religion were covered. Traditional methods are indicated for females, males, and both, with additional focus on those methods most used today. There has always been support for regulation of individual fertility regardless of whether the religious rules favored many children. In ancient times, population growth was slow due to poor harvest, famine, war, poor nutrition, epidemics; and natural causes. Modern preventive medicines and modernization have had a positive effect on population growth. The current growth rate is .7% or 170 persons/minute. Since the world fertility surveys of the 1970s, there has been strong support for fertility control in almost all societies, but a gap still exists between desire and practice. In ancient times, withdrawal or anti conception rites were used; there was also evidence of quasi-scientific techniques such as female seed pod condoms or root tampons. The Greeks articulated and wrote about population control, including methods; abortion and infanticide were accepted. Both Aristotle and the ancient Egyptians recommended covering the cervix and vagina with Cedar oil. In the Medieval period, Arabic sources suggested prolonged nursing as an anti conception technique. During this period, St. Augustine promulgated for Christians the notion that contraception was sinful; abortion and homicide were equated. In the early modern period, the condom gained popularity, particularly for disease prevention. Knowledge of reproductive physiology advanced the possibilities for contraception. The occlusive pessary, which was based on ancient Egyptian devices, was developed and is still used today as the cervical cap. Experimentation was conducted with cervical rings at the turn of the century; oral contraceptive empirical research was conducted during the 1930s, but was not applied for another 30 years. There has been a convergence in birth patterns in modern times for the main religions in low fertility countries, but there have been differences in form of contraception used. Religious expression and values continue to influence the family, but education is an important means of achieving effective contraceptive use.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Contraception / history*
  • Culture*
  • Europe
  • Family Planning Services / history*
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, Ancient
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Internationality
  • Protestantism
  • Religion and Medicine*
  • United States