Journalist William Saletan thinks he has come up with a novel, “common ground” idea for ending the culture war over abortion: Pro-choicersand especially the Pro-Choicer-in-Chiefmust begin to really preach contraception. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, "must stop seeing contraception as a ‘sin.’”
Putting aside how conservatives may or may not view contraception for a moment, is preaching contraception new? Contraception has been touted as the solution to the problem of abortion for decades. The variety, availability, and acceptability of contraceptives have exploded over the last forty years in this country; every drug store in America has shelves of them. “Safe sex” campaigns have made contraceptives not only acceptable, but also celebrated. Gynecologists everywhere push them, and the first question from an obstetrician to a new mom is, “What kind of birth control can I put you on?” Let’s also not forget that for decades sex-ed programs have done little else but teach and preach contraception, so much so that a homeschooling movement was founded, in part, just to get kids away from this dominant ethos.
Let’s try contraception to end abortion? Please. The United States is awash in a contraceptive culture, yet more than one million American children die every year through abortion. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, “Virtually all women (98%) aged 15–44 who have ever had intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method.” That means virtually all women of childbearing age (a) know about contraception, (b) know how and where to get it, and (c) have, in fact, used it. Saletan admits this.
The plain fact is that more and more contraception over the years has not meant fewer and fewer abortions. Ironically, there is evidence to suggest the effect may be just the opposite.
In Sweden, for example, an increase in affordable access to contraception and the presence of free contraceptive counseling have paralleled a substantial increase in the teen abortion rate. The abortion rate climbed from seventeen abortions per thousand teens in 1995 to twenty-two and a half abortions per thousand teens in 2001. In his 2005 article, “Habit Persistence and Teen Sex: Could Increased Contraception Have Unintended Consequences for Teen Pregnancies?” Duke University professor Peter Arcidiacono suggests that increasing teenagers’ access to contraception “may actually increase long run pregnancy rates.” Even research by the Alan Guttmacher Institute supports this corollary: In its March 2005 “Contraceptive Use” brief, Guttmacher reports that a 2-percent decrease in contraceptive use from 1995 to 2002 did not accompany a rise in the annual number of abortions but, in fact, a drop in the number, from 1,359,400 to 1,293,000.
While this correlation might be counterintuitive, it is certainly not mysterious: More contraception tends to mean more sex, and more sex means more chances for unexpected pregnancies. But it’s more than just a numbers game. Contraception is the promise of child-free sex, and when something goes wrong and a child is conceiveddue either to the technical failure rate of contraception or to the possibility of human error in anything we humans undertakeabortion takes that child-free promissory note to the bank.
No matter how well the contraception ethic is preached, even if proclaimed from the president's bully pulpit, there will never be 100 percent compliance, just as there is never one hundred percent compliance with any preached ethic. Unplanned pregnancies will always be with us.
It is a factually inaccurate, but persistent theme in pro-abortion rhetoric that pro-lifers “only show up after a woman is pregnant.” The pro-life movement is four-square in support of the abstinence movement, but given that there will always be unplanned pregnancies, there also will always be the question: What now? Moreover, it is perfectly legitimate for a movement dedicated to protecting the unborn and aiding women in crisis pregnancies with truly compassionate help to commit itself primarily to answering that question.
In his patronizing dismissal of abstinence programs, Saletan speaks of “mating”meaning sexual intimacyas an unstoppable force of nature. There is nothing natural or inevitable, however, about a teenage girl giving in to sexual demands from young men. In fact, it goes against much of human nature, and women's self-protective inclinations used to be supported by the people and institutions around her. Not today: Her school, her culture, often her family, and sometimes even her church are no longer on her side. Now Saletan wants her president to get in line against her resolve.
Finally, Saletan’s admonition that “conservatives” need to “face the truth” that “birth control isn’t a sin” is a classic straw-man argument. There is no such tenet in conservative political philosophy, of course, nor is this opinion shared even among most religious conservatives. His argument makes sense only if aimed at the Catholic bishops, and even here it falls short because, if surveys are to be believed, most Catholics are not listening. The claim that “many” pharmacists refuse to dispense oral contraceptives is patently untrue. On the rare occasion when one does, it tends to make national news. If it is the “Morning After” pill or Plan B medication to which Saletan is referring, this drug can work after conception to end a newly conceived human life, and so the controversy here again is abortion, not contraception.
There is one simple reason the editors of the New York Times and the likes of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews find Saletan’s answer to the culture war on abortion so compelling: It allows pro-choice politicians to change the subject. This is not a public-policy alternative but a political strategy designed to mask the left’s efforts to soften pro-life concerns and thereby garner votes. That’s bad medicine and bad policyand just plain phony.
Cathy Ruse is Senior Fellow for Legal Studies at Family Research Council. Austin Ruse is president of the New York and Washington DC–based C-FAM (Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute), a research institute on international social policy.