I saw it again today: the argument that birth control is a way for women to have sex without consequence; that somehow single motherhood is the punishment for having a sexual relationship before marriage.

Let us tease that apart a bit.

Mother and child
Photo: Michal Zacharzewski / RGBstock

First, let us acknowledge that there are women who desire to be mothers. Many of these women are, or plan to be, married; while others are not. So being a mother is not inherently punitive.

Let us also acknowledge that – despite the physical toll it takes on the body – most women find pregnancy, on balance, to be a positive thing. So being pregnant is not inherently punitive.

Let us not forget those women who have become mothers, but the lives of their children were cut short. They are mothers still, their arms empty but their hearts full. Their too-brief time with their children was not punitive.

And let us also recognize that there are many women who are unable to become pregnant. Were a miracle to occur (one may think of Sarah, mother of Isaac; and Mary, mother of Jesus), these women would not find their pregnancy and motherhood to be punitive.

Yet somehow there is a recurring concept that women are trying to have sex without consequence – without paying for their actions. This implies that, in those cases where sexual intimacy is considered immoral, pregnancy and motherhood are punishments.

And if that were not enough, single mothers are often judged to be immoral as well. It’s as if being a single mother is a sort of registry for female sexual offenders – when the offense is sex before marriage.

But pregnancy and motherhood are not, and should not be, a punishment for sexual behavior. We should never consider the creation of new life as an 18+ year sentence.

What does it say to the child of a single mother? What does it mean to be the punishment, the negative consequence, of one’s mother’s – and father’s – choices? What does it mean for one’s very existence to be the sentence for an act of love?

What does it say to people who desperately desire to be parents? What does it mean to desire something that is, in some cases, considered the sentence for moral transgression?

What does it say to people who have chosen parenthood, whether they are married or not? What does it mean to have chosen to live out a punishment?

What does it say to victims of sexual assault, often shamed as somehow complicit in the crime committed against them? What does it mean to be punished with a child for the sins of your attacker?

What does it say to people who have become parents unexpectedly? What does it mean to be responsible for a new life that is also a punishment?

Complicating this is the fact that there are people who identify as male but who have the ability to become pregnant. When a transgender man becomes pregnant, it is considered a spectacle, and people judge him for it.

Granted, many faith traditions have moral objections to sex outside marriage. Still, pregnancy and parenthood should not be considered the penalty.

People have the right to decide when – and if – they are prepared to become parents. And every child has the right to be a wanted, desired child. Even when a pregnancy is unplanned, we ought never consider children to be a penalty for sin.

On this day after Mothers Day, let us put aside the idea that becoming a mother – or a father – is punishment for anything. While we may differ on the morality of sexual intimacy in various situations, let us agree that every child should be loved, and that no child is a punishment.

Let me say that again:


No child is a punishment for anything.


13 thoughts on “The Pastoral Is Political: Parenthood Is not Punishment

  1. I find it amusing that anti-choice activists sometimes throw around the slogan, “It’s a child, not a choice,” then some of them turn around and say, “Women must bear the consequences of their actions.” If “It’s a child, not a choice,” then neither is it a “consequence.”


    1. Thanks, revsharkie. That’s the sort of rhetoric I keep encountering, and I think it encourages a very toxic way of understanding parenthood.


  2. Thank you so much for this posting! This idea that pregnancy is punitive also reaffirms the double standard between men and women about sex. Men have often been socialized to be conquerors when it comes to sex and they are celebrated for this. Women, on the other hand, are often socialized to be virginal, chaste and pure…that sex only occurs in the context on marriage, and only for the purpose of procreation. A woman who acts outside of this norm is a “whore”.

    I believe that this is one of those areas that we really need to talk about in terms of sexism, colonization (of the body…and if we also examine the intersections of race and ethnicity in this issue, then we understand that it’s am even more complex issue), and liberation for women (and men). And we need to repeatedly demand to hear the voices of women for whom their bodies become the battleground of politics.


    1. Anna, that’s a very real issue. I’ve been reading about convicted rapists suing for visitation and/or custody. Some of this starts to sound like a version of A Handmaid’s Tale.


  3. Good thought provoking questions. yes lets examine how society treats male on this subject also. If you are pro-life, then lets help out those young women who have the child and do not have a support system in place.


  4. Well written, Cindi. It always bothered me that women’s bible studies (where 90% were mothers or wanted to be) held up childrearing as this magical, mystical, wonderful task. And the weeks where that was emphasized were the weeks I was not exactly delighted with being a mother.


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