No, There Isn’t Any Common Ground on Choice

In 2005, the then-county executive of New York’s Nassau County, Thomas Suozzi, gave a speech at Adelphi University in which he expressed the hope to find “common ground” on reproductive choice:

“As a Democrat, I do not often find it easy to talk with other Democrats about our need to affirm our commitment to the respect for life and how we need to emphasize our party’s firm belief in the worth of every human being,” he said. “As a Catholic, I do not often find it easy to talk with other Catholics about my feeling that abortion should and will remain safe and legal, and that we should instead focus our efforts on creating a better world where there are fewer unplanned pregnancies and where women who face unplanned pregnancies receive greater support and where men take more responsibility for their actions.” (source)

Although this particular quote is old, I wanted to talk about it because it’s so perfectly emblematic of a mindset I’ve seen a lot of lately (a 2011 column by Nick Kristof is another example). That mindset proclaims that, for better or for worse, abortion isn’t going to be outlawed, and therefore pro-choice and pro-life groups should stop squabbling with each other and should focus on a goal that everyone can agree on, namely reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies through birth control and sex ed. This will reduce the need for abortion, which is purportedly something that both sides are in favor of.

This all sounds very moderate, very centrist, very above-it-all. It’s the kind of proposal that usually attracts lavish praise from those sometimes called the Very Serious People. There’s just one problem with it: it’s founded on an assumption that’s utterly, demonstrably false. It presumes that reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies is a goal shared by both sides in the culture wars – and nothing could be further from the truth.

The Roman Catholic church, the oldest and largest of the denominations opposed to abortion, explicitly denies that reducing unplanned pregnancy should be a goal. The church hierarchy and its apologists preach that all people should be “open to life“, meaning that couples should only ever have sex in ways that make it possible to conceive, regardless of whether they want more children or can realistically care and provide for them. Catholic dogma bans the use of artificial contraception, no matter what (even when the woman is already pregnant), and Catholic hospitals categorically refuse to perform sterilization even when it’s medically indicated.

And while it used to be the case that Protestants, at least, were on board with birth control, that’s rapidly changing. An anti-contraceptive mentality that used to be the sole province of Catholicism has taken root among the American evangelical right. Increasingly, they too are embracing the idea of opposing birth control as an end in itself and denouncing contraceptive use as sinful.

The most extreme example of this is the Quiverfull cult, which considers it a sacred duty for “godly” couples to have as many children as they possibly can. But the same thinking can be seen in currents closer to the mainstream of the religious right, like Al Mohler, who infamously wrote a column lashing out against the “contraceptive mentality“.

“I cannot imagine any development in human history, after the Fall, that has had a greater impact on human beings than the pill,” Mohler continued. “It became almost an assured form of contraception, something humans had never encountered before in history. Prior to it, every time a couple had sex, there was a good chance of pregnancy. Once that is removed, the entire horizon of the sexual act changes. I think there could be no question that the pill gave incredible license to everything from adultery and affairs to premarital sex and within marriage to a separation of the sex act and procreation.” (source)

To bring along the evangelicals who are wavering on this, the latest political strategy of the religious right has been to decry IUDs, the Pill, and most forms of hormonal contraception as “abortifacients” and lump them in with their already existing opposition to abortion. (As I’ve written before, even I can’t guess how they’ll demonize condoms as the moral equivalent of abortion, but that day is undoubtedly coming.) And this viewpoint is increasingly being translated into action, as in the ongoing legal battle about whether religious employers should be allowed to refuse to cover contraception for their employees. Remember, in the most famous case, the Hobby Lobby suit, the plaintiffs aren’t Catholic, but evangelical.

Across the theological spectrum, the anti-abortion movement in America is increasingly defined by the belief that women should relinquish all control of their fertility, that birth control of any form besides celibacy is a sin, and that having more children, planned or not, is an intrinsic good. What’s at stake in this fight isn’t just the morality of abortion, but a more fundamental push to undo the past few hundred years, to go back to a world where gender roles were strictly defined and circumscribed by religion. The idea of finding “common ground” with people who believe this, however high-minded it may sound, is foolishness.

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  • KB

    *sigh* I knew this blog was too good to be true. I have been reading your breakdown of Atlas Shrugged, voraciously. The way you have pinpointed how simplistic and unrealistic Ayn Rand’s world is has been at the least, amusing, at the most, enlightening. Which is why, as a progressive atheist, who sees that we can have no higher morality than in helping and protecting the least of us, it is depressing to have come across posts like these.

    “Across the theological spectrum, the anti-abortion movement in America is increasingly defined by the belief that women should relinquish all control of their fertility, that birth control of any form besides celibacy is a sin, and that having more children, planned or not, is an intrinsic good. ”

    No. Granted, I am hardly the face of the pro-life movement. I can’t even claim a majority position (I’m an atheist, so that automatically bars me, but based on a previous post, I see you’ve got a similar amount of condescension for atheist pro-lifers as well). But I can say that even if there are those who see anti-abortion measures as a way to control female fertility, even if some use it as a way to morally police women, that is not the heart of the movement. There is one reason to be pro-life and one reason only. That is because we care about our fellow human beings and as an atheist, I don’t want anyone to be robbed of this life, the one and only experience we can be sure to have, all because of an accident of where I started it all, where I was conceived.

    Personally, I am absurdly pro-contraception. (And sex positive, and gender egalitarian) I think BC should be more than available. It should be free and available on every street corner like candy. Along with people there instructing the correct way to use it. And as a progressive, I care about the child that is born. I support stronger programs that help the mother and post-natal child, educational opportunities for both, and a strong adoption system for those women who do not want to be mothers.

    Are there pro-lifers who are against contraception? Yes. And I argue against them regularly. However, even I have to concede that for the most part, they aren’t anti-contraception because they want women to have more babies or pay for sex. A lot of them commit the naturalistic fallacy (toxic chemicals in our bodies are yuk!). Even more are fiscally conservative and are not anti-contraception, but anti-paying for other people’s contraception. Their standpoint is obviously flawed, but not because they are pro-life, but because they, like Ayn Rand, lack a comprehensive understanding of how cost and social pressures limit a person’s access to these things, and how having birth control easily obtainable is a common good. That is a much bigger conversation to have, and it isn’t constructive to simply paint strawmen of them.

    I don’t agree with Suozzi on his stance on the abortion debate, but I do agree with him that there is common ground to be had. Again, there are those who push the anti-contraception, anti-post-natal support structures, but they aren’t the majority. They are the majority of talking heads at best. If you consider that the vast majority of americans, whether on the pro-choice or the pro-life side, you will see an overwhelming support for birth control. I agree, let’s work on that. Let’s put all of this righteous rage on either side to good use for some proactive good. And yes, you will work with people who you know, if they had their way, they would be outlawing abortion in some way or another, and I will be working with people who I know, would have been fine with the idea of my mother killing me 30 years ago. I can get over the butthurt if you can too.

    Honestly, I think sometimes political opinion gets developed according to what the opposite camp proposes. If you want to paint pro-lifers as rabid, anti-women, anti-sex, religious zealots, that is what is going to stick out most in your blog posts. You aren’t going to go out searching for rational people who have their intelligence and experience coming to a different conclusion. If you’d rather this not be such a tribalistic war of words, then engage with those who do have rational, although opposing, ideas on the subject. Don’t support the message if you don’t agree with it, but support their approach at the issue. Make a loyal opposition, rather than enemies.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    But I can say that even if there are those who see anti-abortion measures as a way to control female fertility, even if some use it as a way to morally police women, that is not the heart of the movement.

    You are cordially invited to supply evidence for this statement. The post you’re responding to cited several lines of evidence to the contrary.

    Personally, I am absurdly pro-contraception.

    Good to know. But since you yourself admit “I am hardly the face of the pro-life movement”, it’s hard to see why that should be considered relevant in any larger sense.

    If you want to paint pro-lifers as rabid, anti-women, anti-sex, religious zealots, that is what is going to stick out most in your blog posts.

    Yep. And I do want to paint them that way, since I consider that depiction generally accurate.

  • KB

    Here are some links then to help you on your way. Of course, like the pro-choice crowd, I can’t say the pro-life crowd is monolithic (although it’s not the pro-bc thing that makes me rare among pro-lifers, it’s the atheist thing), so these are links to people and organizations with whom I might not agree with in every detail, but the take home message is that they are 1) pro-woman, 2) pro-contraception, and still, 3) pro-life

    http://www.fnsa.org/fall98/reed.html
    http://riotgrrrlsforlifeprolife.blogspot.com/2014/05/taking-back-bodily-autonomy.html
    http://democratsforlife.org/index.php/62-legislation/860-does-democrats-for-life-oppose-contraception
    http://blog.secularprolife.org/2014/07/you-can-be-pro-life-and-pro.html
    http://www.prolifehumanists.org/
    http://www.plagal.org/geninfo.html#nonviolence
    http://www.gargaro.com/lifefem.html
    http://www.feministsforlife.org/our-mission-organization/
    http://www.lifenews.com/2012/02/28/confessions-of-a-pro-life-atheist-why-i-fight-abortion/
    http://www.lifenews.com/2014/02/11/atheist-on-why-she-is-pro-life-were-not-dealing-with-tissues-or-blobs/

    Sorry about the lifesite news links. Mostly, they are terrible, but they did do a series on prolife atheists. And let’s not forget the women who led the first wave of feminism, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, (and the list goes on).

    I reiterate, if that is how you are going to paint us, that is what you are going to selectively see, and that is all you are going to continue to see as “generally accurate”. If I painted my picture of pro-choicers based on those pro-choicers I hear about in the news, I’d have a pretty poor view of pro-choicers. It’s far more important to get an idea of what people with nothing to lose actually think on the subject, because that is where inroads can actually be made.

    The consequence for either side strawmanning each other is the utter alienation of the more moderate sides of the argument. The result is that the “pro-life” legal victories in the US now are really not great (its abhorrent that the places where clinics are closing down are the places with the worst social support networks), while the “pro-choice” victories don’t really reflect the majority of Americans, at least by the polls either (with a majority disagreeing with second and third term abortions). http://www.gallup.com/poll/160058/majority-americans-support-roe-wade-decision.aspx

    We can keep doing this, each side puffing its breast among its followers and demonizing the opposition, or we can actually have a conversation on what is clearly not a cut and dry issue.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Here are some links then to help you on your way

    So it’s your contention that a couple of random Blogspot blogs and a tiny “secular” pro-life group (in reality, the membership of such groups is mostly religious people) represents the essence of the pro-life movement in a way that the Catholic church, the Quiverfull movement, the Southern Baptist Convention, and Hobby Lobby do not?

    but the take home message is that they are 1) pro-woman, 2) pro-contraception, and still, 3) pro-life

    If you advocate the denial of women’s right to autonomy over their own bodies, then you are not “pro-woman”, however much you may try to pretend otherwise.

  • GCT

    Nowhere in these 7 paragraphs was one mention of the pregnant woman.