Pro-life, pro-contraception

Yep, posting in the wee hours of the morning on Christmas Eve. That’ll bring in the readers in droves! Well, nobody ever accused me of having good timing, and it’s taken this long to recover from the end-of-semester crunch and stop falling asleep randomly in the evenings. (I suspect that the rapid approach of the third trimester might have a little something to do with the latter, as well.)

I saw a remark the other day on JivinJehosaphat (which, although I disagree with a lot of what’s posted there, I generally find interesting) that wasn’t anything new or unusual but nonetheless tripped my trigger:

“According to mythology, having contraception widely available should dramatically lower abortion rates, right?”

Well, according to mythology, sure. According to rational people who actually advocate for contraception, having it widely available is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for preventing unplanned pregnancy and abortion. It’s one tool, not the whole toolbox, and if other tools are missing it’s not surprising that contraception doesn’t get the job done by itself.

This is a case of presenting the weakest formulation of your opponent’s argument, and then heroically defeating it. I’d call it a strawman, except that there probably are some not-very-deep thinkers out there who do believe that you can just throw contraceptives at the problem and call it a day. They’re just about as representative of thoughtful contraception advocates as people who believe that all you have to do to stop abortion is make it illegal are representative of thoughtful pro-lifers.

More generally, I’m tired of the anti-contraception voice being the only one that’s ever heard on the pro-life side.

According to a poll conducted for the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association, 80% of people who identify as pro-life support access to contraception. The reporting of the poll leaves a lot to be desired, and I have e-mailed them asking them to provide the questions asked and more details about the polling methodology. But given the near-universal acceptance of contraception in U.S. society generally — and given my experience with ordinary pro-lifers — it sounds pretty plausible to me. So why are there no major pro-life organizations which take a stand in favor of contraception, and so many which are outright against it? When was the last time you even heard a prominent pro-life figure who wasn’t named Tim Ryan talking about contraception and sex ed as tools for reducing the abortion rate? Why do the 20% have such a stranglehold on the discourse?

Sure, the people who oppose artificial contraception* are more organized and outspoken than those of us pro-lifers who think it has an important place in responsible sexuality. But whose fault is that? We leave or just don’t join groups that are anti-contraception; they join or stay in groups that are for it and change them.

Witness Feminists for Life, which used to affirm a right to contraception even as they acknowledged disagreement within the membership about whether it was the best approach. Now, they simply “take no position”. Witness Democrats for Life, whose original “95-10” plan for slashing the abortion rate as proposed by Representative Tim Ryan would have expanded access to contraception by mandating contraceptive equity in insurance coverage. Over the ensuing months, they quietly dropped any mention of contraception from 95-10, until they finally ended up entirely dropping their support for Ryan’s Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act and backing a different bill.**

Reportedly, one reason Democrats for Life withdrew its support from Ryan’s bill was that money for contraception programs would go to Planned Parenthood and other abortion advocates. Well, hey, you know what would be a great way to address that problem? Establish some pro-life, pro-contraception alternatives!

It’s really not good enough to say, “we’re not opposed to contraception; we simply take no position”, either. In my opinion, given the climate of so many pro-life groups being actively anti-contraception, that is taking a position — that contraception isn’t worth defending.

Why does this happen? I’m honestly not sure. I’ve written to FFL and DFL about their abandonment of contraception, and have never gotten a response. I’d be interested in hearing others’ experiences. I suspect that they simply got more flack, in terms of people complaining and threatening to withhold donations, for supporting contraception than they got for ending their support.

Maybe pro-contraception pro-lifers need to stay in groups like FFL, DFL and others and advocate loudly to keep them from sliding to the anti-contraception side. Maybe we should join anti-contraception and faux-neutral groups in great numbers (the great numbers we do have, after all) to try to change them from the inside. Or maybe we need our own groups. But it’s absolutely vital that we speak up. The people opposed to contraception aren’t going to look at the stats and decide, “Oh, they make up 80% of pro-lifers; maybe we should let them have a say after all.” People don’t work that way. It’s our job to work as hard to have our point of view heard as they have.

* I don’t buy the argument that fertility awareness, aka natural family planning, is anything but contraception by other means when it’s used to prevent pregnancy.

** Mind you, DFL’s preferred bill, the Pregnant Women Support Act, is helpful as far as it goes. But if anyone at DFL thinks that they can reduce abortion by 95% in 10 years by focusing entirely on support after conception and ignoring prevention before conception, they’re kidding themselves.

7 thoughts on “Pro-life, pro-contraception

  1. Hi Jen,
    I probably should have been more clear in that post. I’m not “anti-contraception” (in fact, my wife and I use contraception), I’m just very skeptical of the idea which is often put forward by some pro-choicers and pro-choice organizations (certainly not all) that making contraception more widely available or giving it away for free will dramatically lower the abortion rate in the United States.

    For example, all the claims about Plan B from Planned Parenthood about how making it over the counter it would dramatically lower the abortion rate/pregnancy when studies showed giving college students various levels of access to Plan B didn’t change the pregnancy rate at all for the various groups. Or the arguments that certain countries in the Europe have the lowest abortion rates because of their contraception initiatives. Or the Alan Guttmacher Institute giving California and New York high grades in preventing unplanned pregnancy simply because they gave Planned Parenthood money and inspite of their high pregnancy and abortion rates.

    That’s more of the idea (if only all birth control was free then there would a much, much smaller number of abortions) I was going after. I wasn’t trying to say that all contraception is bad or that contraception doesn’t play a role in preventing unplanned pregnancies.

    I hope this clarifies my view and I’m sorry for not being more precise in my post.

  2. Hi! I’m very glad you commented, and thanks for clearing up the confusion. And I’m a little sorry that I picked on you, but really your post just crystallized something that’s been frustrating me in general for a long time.

    I think it is absolutely the case that we won’t lower the abortion rate *without* having contraception widely available, so in that narrow sense the groups you refer to are correct. It just doesn’t end there. People also need to be empowered to have healthy, equal sexual relationships — including relationships in which they can say “no” if that’s what’s best for them. They need to use contraceptives correctly and consistently. They need to not feel like being prepared makes them sluts.

    I’m not going to defend anybody who claims that all you need to do is throw a lot of condoms and pills around and the problem is magically solved. But there are plenty of people with much more sophisticated and intelligent strategies for preventing unplanned pregnancies, and I think more pro-lifers should be engaging and working with these people.

    Or the arguments that certain countries in the Europe have the lowest abortion rates because of their contraception initiatives.

    I think that the contraception initiatives *are* a big part of that, though, along with universal comprehensive sex education and a general difference in cultural attitudes toward sex in those countries. They seem to send far fewer mixed messages about sex (everybody has to have it / it’s wrong and shameful) than are sent in the U.S. They’re obviously doing something right — not only are their abortion rates much lower than ours, but so are their rates of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

    I do like your blog, BTW. I check it almost every day. I particularly appreciate the stem-cell information.

  3. Hi Jen,
    I’m glad you visit and like my blog. I appreciate you visiting.

    Contraception is widely available. I can hardly turn my TV on without seeing some kind of contraceptive commerical (there’s that new shorter period one on right now). I don’t have a problem with that. I have more of a problem with people thinking that contraception will solve the abortion issue or somehow make it go away. I think prolife groups typically shy away from the contraception issue because of their ties to Catholic groups and their Catholic supporters. There is also a belief among some prolifers that birth control pills prevent the implantation of an embryo.

    What proponents of abortion also miss with those countries is those countries typically made abortion legal after the U.S. did. So they had a longer time to have contraception when abortion was illegal and focused on preventing nplanned pregnancies as opposed to seeing abortion as some kind of back up birth control. They also have tighter restrictions on abortion. I would also like to some day find some kind statistics on how often unmarried people in various countries have sex. Would the U.S. be higher or lower?

    I’m not certain if I think the lack of consisent contraceptive use is a result of attitudes about sex or access to contraceptives. It could be but I don’t see it. Consider where some of the highest abortion/pregnancy rates are. I typically see the highest abortion rate per capita in large cities like New York, Atlanta, D.C., L.A., Detroit, where attitudes about sex are more open/liberal and contraceptives are often paid for by the state. Those are also areas where the age when people get married is typically higher.

  4. Hi Jen, I hope you don’t mind if I return the favor and leave a comment on your blog!

    This is an excellent discussion on contraception, and you are correct that unfortunately some pro-lifers and many pro-life organizations either avoid the topic completely or wrongly overstate their position. I have done extensive research on emergency contraception, for example, and I believe the pro-lifers have made a big mistake in focusing on a theoretical post-conception mechanism of action for the medication.

    On the other hand, looking at the research on the subject, there have a plethora of studies that looked at the effect of increased access to regular and emergency contraception on groups of women. These studies usually split women into groups where they give them varied access to contraception. One group may have a free supply of pills, and another may only get a prescription. Many of these studies use women who are post-abortive – under the belief that women who have experienced abortion will be more motivated to prevent another pregnancy.

    In almost all cases, the group with increased access to contraception had no decrease in pregnancy, abortion, or STD rates from the group with less access. Mind you, every one of these studies are done by pro-contraception researchers.

    This is why I sincerely doubt that increased access to contraception will decrease the problem of unwanted pregnancy.

    Some of these studies can be found at the LTI blog under emergency contraception. I may post some others soon.

    Thanks again for visiting Jen. Blessings to you.


  5. Let me say, that I am a college student, writing an research paper on increasing access of contraceptives and abortions to minors.

    In the studies you posted, what types of contraceptive methods were used?
    The pill and the condom are not the best methods for everone. So conducting an experiment and not taking into account the personal lifestyle of that person could be counter productive. Some women can not use the pill method because it need to be taken at about the same time every day. There are other methods where you can get a patch every month, get an implant and last a couple month ect.

    If all women could recieve the proper type of contraceptive for their specific lifestyle then there would be a decrease in unwanted pregnancies and thus abortions.

  6. I am please to see that at least some pro lifers do support access to contraception. However, the fact remains that pro life organization are vehemently opposed to contraception, sex education and sex without procreation. Some are even opposed to the HPV vaccine because they believe it may encourage young women to have sex.

    It’s not just abortion, it’s a whole package designed to turn the clock back for women. The “Pregnant Women Support Act” is fine and good, but even if I lived in a mansion and had a housekeeper, chef and nanny, I still wouldn’t want to have a baby every year.

    Making abortion illegal will not stop it from happening, we only have to look at the situation of women in countries where abortion is illegal. WHO estimates that around 68.000 women die each year around the world due to unsafe abortion.

    If sincere pro lifers are serious about reducing the need to abortion, perhaps they should consider pouring their vast resources into research for better, safer more reliable contraception instead of pandering the “abstinance” and “pill and IUD kills babies” mantra.

    Reliable and affortable contraception -free for teenagers and those with low incomes- combined with no-nonsense sex education from an early age, will go a long way in preventing abortion and reducing teen pregnancy.

    Compared to Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, American teenagers have the highest pregnancy rate:

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