Babies and border fences

Richard Stith makes an interesting argument against the idea of promoting contraception to reduce the abortion rate:

The second crucial element of any truly pro-life position is that it be pro-child, not merely anti-abortion. Opposing (even hating) abortion by promoting more contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies misses the fundamental point. The deep problem is callousness toward the unborn child. To propose contraception as a means to cut down on the numbers of abortions is like proposing a border fence to reduce the number of discriminatory acts against immigrants to the US. Even if contraception and fences do cut down on the number of wrongful acts, they may at the same time heighten the hostility that leads to such acts.

Stith’s point that all pro-life efforts must be undertaken with an attitude of respect, not opposition, to the unborn child is well-taken. Some groups, especially those trying to reduce teen pregnancy, promote the attitude that having a baby is horrible and will ruin your life, so you’d better use birth control! Among its many other failures, this approach isn’t exactly likely to lead to increased respect for the life of the child.

However, I think there are a couple of problems with the border fence analogy. I use analogies all the time myself, so I’m aware that they’re never perfect, but I think the flaws here are relevant and instructive. Building a border fence to keep immigrants out is an action against existing human beings, one which deprives them of the ability to travel freely, to visit family members, and to seek employment. Contraception doesn’t deprive an existing human being of anything.

Hostile acts against immigrants generally have at their root bigotry and xenophobia (albeit often spurred by economic and social insecurity). Wanting to postpone or avoid childbearing, on the other hand, doesn’t usually stem from animus toward children. Even under the best of circumstances, childbearing is a profoundly life-altering experience. It’s legitimate to prefer not to take it on, and to take whatever non-violent steps one chooses — whether total abstinence, periodic abstinence, outercourse, or contraception — to try to actualize that preference. None of those non-violent measures is necessarily anti-child in itself; what matters is the attitude motivating them.

There’s a real risk that people will feel entitled not to have a baby because they used contraception, and will abort if a pregnancy occurs anyway. I think this is what opponents usually call “the contraceptive mentality”. I don’t see that as an argument against contraception, but as an argument for realism and responsibility in our sexual behavior. Ideally, couples who use contraception would do so knowing that they might conceive despite their plans, and prepared to support their child if that happens.

That may sound utopian, but it’s actually pretty common. About 50% of unplanned pregnancies in the U.S. end in abortion — which means about 50% don’t. That’s not nearly enough, but it should encourage us to find out more about what influences women to choose life for their unplanned children.

Contraception is a tool. Just as it takes more than a hammer to build a house, contraception access by itself won’t ensure safe, healthy sexual behavior. But it’s a tool that most pro-lifers, and most Americans, think should be available to everyone who wants it, and we’ll fight to keep it available.

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