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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Nathaniel

    Aw, c’mon Adam. Must you be so shrill? As with everything, the truth is firmly in the middle. Which means that obviously birth control is half-abortificiant.

  • “Rebecca”

    Really good post, thank you.

  • John

    If I remember the numbers right, even without contraceptives about half of fertilized eggs fail to implant naturally. So does that mean their god is an abortifacient?

  • GabeS

    The pill hasn’t changed that much. That’s why all of our grandmothers got pregnant when they were 15. But weren’t people so much better back then? That’s also why both of my grandmother’s got touched by their uncles. I think that was fairly common back then. Especially in the “Bible Belt.”

  • Science Avenger

    “…having more children, planned or not, is an intrinsic good.”

    As long as you are the right color that is. If not, you’re a welfare-queen taker mooching off us real-Merkin job creators.

    Seriously, given the condition of our biosphere, and humanity itself, the notion that having lots of kids is an intrinsically good thing is about as goofy as it gets. China really beat the the world to the moral high ground on this one. Its not a question of whether the rest of us join them, its when, if humanity is to survive.

  • Elizabeth

    And you have to be the right kind of white person too. Those damn hipsters do not count.

  • Improbable Joe

    This is why I’m aggressively pro-abortion. There’s good eating on a fetus. I only oppose abortion in the case of trying to create a fetus-in-amber jewelry business. I think we should have a 10% extra abortion cushion set aside every year just in case some embryos slip through the cracks. I’m OK with adoption up to 6 months past birth, a year in cases of rape, incest, or risk to the health of the mother.

  • DonnaDiva

    Except that anti-choice laws disproportionately impact women of color. It’s certainly true that racists want more white babies and that there is racism in the anti-choice movement, but the movement is dedicated to depriving all non-rich women of reproductive rights.

  • DonnaDiva

    Anti-choicers are furiously pushing the “low birthrate” panic, as a way to get the elites to embrace their policies. It might work.

  • Guest

    No, failed implantations are strictly the work of the devil.

  • annejumps

    Also a factor in the low birthrate panic: racism.

  • annejumps

    Gotta have more serfs.

  • annejumps

    The thing with condoms is, that’s the male-centric form of birth control, so they’re reluctant to start in on that because men might notice.

  • 8DX

    Exactly what I was taught as a Catholic. Contraception = evil so it *can’t* ever be a solution to abortion. The solution to abortion was just not to have them, ever, a moral mandate to accept every pregnancy and the resulting child no matter what and to encourage spawning because bigger families are better families. Exactly – and furthermore contraceptives occasionally stop zygotes from implanting, so contraception = abortion. Condoms are bad because *any* barriers in sex are bad, and as all birth control they are a rejection of the reproductive capacity of the partner and therefore a rejection of them as a person, because love must be whole!

    There was and is no common ground.

    The Culture of Life™ has no overlap with the Culture of Death™.

  • 8DX

    God can do whatever he wants. Because Nature. (Wait, did I just get those two mixed up?)

  • 8DX

    Actually, Catholics have been harping on about condoms since forever (did you miss the RCC backlash to condoms for Africa when the AIDS crisis started there?) Since the same people have lots and lots to say about how masturbation is bad (especially for boys, girls don’t masturbate of course), and “pulling out” is just horribly frustrating and unromantic and ruins your sex life, I’d say these people don’t have much of a problem mangling male sexuality. (Spoken as a male who was so mangled).

    But it’s true that condoms aren’t equated to abortion, yet and most blame for all this is placed on women.

  • John

    Low birthrate? And here I thought we were worried about overpopulation.

  • Science Avenger

    I have relatives, both brilliant and racist, that support public funding for abortions for precisely this reason.

  • Tommykey69

    “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.”

    To which I reply, “Yeah, and?”

    These people never seem to want to harp about technological improvements in other areas of our life.
    “Prior to the airplane, there was a good chance most people would never be able to visit other countries.”

  • Azkyroth

    And women have three fifths of the right to control their own bodies.

  • J-D

    Put any two people together, they’ll agree about some things and disagree about others. They’ll have ‘common ground’ to the extent they agree, but no further than that. For example, Thomas Suozzi and I evidently agree that abortion should not be criminalised, so we have at least that much common ground.

    In a more general way, though, saying, in a political context, ‘let’s focus on the things we agree on’ means agreeing to change only those things that even conservatives want to change. On that principle, the issues that are the subject of disagreement are tacitly dropped, which means that in those areas things stay the way they are. So, when I do the political mathematics, ‘let’s focus on the things we agree on’ cancels out to ‘let the conservatives win’.

  • DonnaDiva

    Your relatives, while racist, are not anti-choice activists.

  • DonnaDiva

    Yes, there are racists who fear a diminishing white population and yes, white babies are highly coveted for adoption. But anti-choice policies are colorblind and happen to disproportionately impact poor women of color. Those women are not getting a free pass out of the anti-choice laws for having the “wrong” kind of babies.

  • annejumps

    Well, I was being kinda flip, but it’s not a mainstream thing in the U.S. (Yet)

  • annejumps

    And they exploit racist feelings to help achieve it.

  • B Dallmann

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who sees the one-child policy as essentially a good thing. Sure, they went about it in some sketchy ways, but the idea was right.

    And when it comes to those who think having a ton of kids is intrinsically good…it makes perfect sense to them, even in a world bordering on destruction. The line is, “God will provide.” So no matter how much we fuck up the world, God will fix it for us because that’s what he wants.

  • Gregory Lynn

    And it’s not even true. The first recorded use of condoms, if I remember correctly, was in ancient Rome; they were made of sheep intestine and designed to be washable so they could be reused.

  • Bigguns McGee

    not in most industrialized countries. Without immigration most of them would be shrinking (with devastating repercussions for an unsustainable capitalist economy)

  • Tracy Burgess

    Women are full and complete human beings. Not breeders. Women should have the right to full personhood now. The right of women to have control of their reproduction organs is not up for debate. Should never be debated. That there are people perfectly happy to sacrifice the lives of women in order to appease their angry god is horrifying.

  • DanD

    And all those things that every generation thinks they invented that can’t result in pregnancy? Yeah, they’ve been going on as long as humans existed.

  • dmoisan

    It gets even better than that! There was a Greek island with a stand of plants that had contraceptive qualities. Silphium, it was called. The Romans picked that plant *to extinction*. Does not exist anymore.