Religious conservatives are increasingly opposing birth control. The Bush administration has shifted funding from sex education endorsing condoms to programs preaching "abstinence only." And Bush F.D.A. appointees spent three years blocking nonprescription use of the "morning after" pill, despite overwhelming evidence of its safety. Shockingly, there has been an increasing number of Christian pharmacists refusing to fill contraceptive prescriptions--in some cases even for ordinary birth control pills for married women. What is behind this disturbing hostility to reproductive freedom?

Religious conservatives insist that their growing opposition to contraception is not the product of some sort of puritan, anti-sex agenda. What they are concerned about, they claim, is irresponsible sexual indulgence. They decry what they see as a culture of mindless promiscuity spawned by the advent of effective and easily available birth control.

But blaming birth control for the irresponsible actions of those who misuse it is like blaming Sudafed for crystal meth addiction. Like any other technology, contraception is a tool that can be used rationally or abused--and used properly it enables people to be more responsible about sex. It is bizarre to crusade against irresponsible sexuality by crusading for the renunciation of responsibility: the conscious, deliberate rejection of rational family planning in favor of reproductive roulette. Clearly, there is something deeper underlying the growing antagonism to birth control.

It is significant that in opposing contraception, conservatives declare that sex must be inextricably tied to reproduction--that it is morally wrong to pursue sexual pleasure while deliberately preventing pregnancy. "To demand sexual pleasure without openness to children is to violate a sacred trust," writes Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. But this implies a certain hostility to sexual pleasure, as such: not its irrational, promiscuous pursuit, but the very act of enjoying sex as something separate from reproduction. What explains such hostility?

Consider that sexual desire is a response to personal values. For a rational person, it is not a desire for mindless, indiscriminate indulgence, but a feeling that results from the embodiment in one's lover of one's highest, most important values. For a couple in a serious, committed, romantic relationship, sex is a celebration of their love--an expression, in the form of intense physical pleasure, of the joy that each partner derives from the other.

But such joy is a selfish pleasure--a rationally selfish pleasure. It is a pleasure that people pursue for the sake of their own enjoyment and happiness, whether they choose to have children or not. And this, fundamentally, is what religious conservatives have against it.

Virtue, according to Christianity, consists of sacrificing one's desires and goals in the name of fulfilling one's duties to God. Sex, on this premise, is at best a necessary evil--a sinful act, justifiable only by the duty to procreate. To deliberately prevent pregnancy by using birth control is to assert one's right to enjoy sex purely for its own sake--not as a means to procreation, but purely as an end in itself. And this is what conservatives find unacceptable. What they object to is that a couple using birth control is placing their own, personal happiness above obedience to religion. They object to contraception not despite the fact that it removes the fear of unwanted pregnancy, but precisely because it removes that fear.

To proclaim categorically, as Mohler does, that "every marriage must be open to the gift of children" is to demand that a couple sacrifice their own dreams and long-range goals to an alleged duty to "be fruitful and multiply." Even a couple who wants to have children must, on this premise, do so out of submission to divine will--not because they value children as a source of personal joy. The rejection of birth control is the demand that couples surrender the power--crucial to their own happiness in life--of choosing when, or whether, to have children, and instead allow themselves to be reduced, by means of their healthy sexual desires, to the role of stock farm animals, breeding uncontrollably.

Though they claim their intention is not to condemn sexuality as such, but merely its indiscriminate pursuit, religious conservatives are in fact opposed to sexual happiness. They are opposed to the fact that sex is an exalted pleasure that people pursue as an end in itself. Their war on contraception is not a war against the alleged excesses of the "birth control revolution"--it is a declaration of war against the pursuit of happiness.