Welcoming Contraception Failure? Towards a Flexible Model of Reproductive Decision-Making

Lea Taragin-Zeller discusses the lived experience of contraceptive choice and childbearing.

Today, we have come used to thinking of every child as either “planned” or “unplanned”. Children are either a calculated choice of rational parents or a “mistake” made by irresponsible parents. But, while I was conducting research among Israel’s Orthodox Jews, I realised that many people don’t think about their reproductive choices in such black and white terms. In fact, as I collected their reproductive stories I found it hard to decide whether or not their children were a product of choice.

Here is a short example. Esther, a 38-year-old Haredi housewife living in Israel, shared the following narrative:

“After my fourth child, I wanted to take a break. Hormones were driving me crazy and just the thought of an IUD was unbearable. At the end, I found the perfect method of birth control – the diaphragm … it was a perfect fit for me. It had a 96% success rate. You know I didn’t want another pregnancy, and I wanted to try to prevent another one. But if there really is a soul that wants to come down into this world, who am I to stop it?”

According to Esther, modern statistics enabled her to make an optimal contraceptive choice. Since the method is not infallible, she claimed, other agents could take part in her decision. This reproductive approach undermines many of the binary categories we use when describing reproductive decision-making. Typically, when a woman gets pregnant despite using a diaphragm, it is usually considered an “unintended” result. However, Esther constructed her utilization of birth control so that any outcome would be welcomed. By creating a “grey zone,” she blurred the distinction between wanted and unwanted pregnancies. This reproductive strategy represents an approach that is hard to define, in which a child born to a parent using birth control is nevertheless wanted, intended and even planned.

In my recent paper, I focus on the intersection between reproduction and religion in everyday life of religious men and women.  Since procreation has traditionally been perceived as a divine realm, the ability to take charge of and fully manage reproduction creates particular anxieties, paradoxes and tensions for people of faith. I demonstrate how these tensions bring forward creative narratives, practices and original reproductive models.

I use the term flexible decision-making to demonstrate how couples try to avoid and welcome pregnancies simultaneously, enabling (almost) inconceivable situations in which children are both wanted and unwanted, avoided and planned. Further, as reproduction decision-making is negotiated within and through many actors and systems of authoritative knowledge, flexible decision-making also enables other factors, beside the immediate self/couple, to take part in the decision-making, such as rabbis, professional advisers, the woman’s own body, and the souls of unborn children.

Yet, these nuances rarely appear in the social scientific study of reproduction. Based on these findings, I call to medical anthropologists, demographers and other scholars of reproduction to further unravel the illusion of a binary model of planned/unplanned parenthood. We must find nuanced models to understand what multi-voiced and flexible reproductive decision-making actually entails.


Lea Taragin-Zeller, PhD, is a research fellow at the Woolf Institute and an affiliated researcher at the Reproductive Reproductive Sociology Research Group (ReproSoc), University of Cambridge. Her research interests lie at the intersection of gender, body, ethics, reproduction and religion.


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