The Battle over Contraception in the Pro-Life Movement

In poking around the website of the National Association of Evangelicals looking for a statement of beliefs for another post, I stumbled upon a booklet and video they had posted regarding abortion. In addition to embracing waiting periods and parental consent laws, the video also embraces contraception as a means of reducing the number of abortions that take place, even if that means young unmarried evangelicals using contraception. I was momentarily taken completely aback, but then I remembered a post I wrote some months ago about leading conservative evangelical news source World Magazine roasting the NAE for selling out on contraception.

You know that post I wrote about losing faith in the pro-life movement? In addition to pointing out some hypocrisy regarding whether pro-lifers really see zygotes as people equal to you or me, my main point was that if the pro-life movement’s goal is to reduce the abortion rate they should be focusing on things like contraception and a social safety net that makes raising children more affordable. When they instead focus only on overturning Roe and banning abortion – the goal of all of the major pro-life organizations – one begins to wonder if the goal really is to save “unborn babies” from being “murdered” as is claimed.

My husband Sean has for weeks been insisting that while the pro-life movement began as a movement aimed at controlling sex and controlling women, and while the “save the babies” rhetoric was initially just a smokescreen to cover this, the “save the babies” rhetoric has taken on a life of its own and has overtaken the other original goals of the movement. Sean’s suggestion is that the reason the movement still appears to be about controlling women and controlling sex is that it hasn’t changed to make its practices align with its new goals.

I think Sean has a point inasmuch as if the pro-life movement is actually interested in saving babies, rather than in controlling sex and through it controlling women, it will change its methods to become consistent with that goal. In my post on the pro-life movement I argued that the movement itself – the major organizations and leaders – cannot truly be about “saving babies” given that their actions don’t back up their words, and that those pro-life individuals on the ground who may actually believe the zygote/embryo/fetus is a person and who may actually care more about decreasing the abortion rate than about making sure people aren’t having sex without consequences have been taken in by the movement as a whole. I think Sean’s point makes sense inasmuch as those who are sincere will, if they are sincere, either leave the existing pro-life movement and start their own or transform the pro-life movement in an effort to make it more in line with its stated goals.

The National Association of Evangelicals, interestingly enough, is doing just that.

YouTube Preview Image

Start at the 1:00 mark if you want to catch the most important bit.

Here is the text:

A significant majority of evangelicals support a wide range of methods for decreasing the abortion rate, including parental consent, waiting periods before abortions, efforts at making adoption, pre & post natal care more available, and easier access to contraceptive information and services.

The brochure first states that 80% of unmarried evangelicals between 18 and 29 have had sex, that 30% of them have been pregnant, and that 32% of those have chosen abortion. It then says that “Preventing an unplanned pregnancy is more acceptable than having an abortion.” Yes, yes it does! There is a shift in the NAE toward being okay with unmarried evangelicals who are sexually active using birth control. Yes, the brochure still condemns premarital sex as against God’s plan. But that it would suggest that leaders should encourage unmarried evangelicals who are going to have sex should go ahead and use birth control because contracepting while having premarital sex is more acceptable than having an abortion? Just, WOW.

And then, too, there is this bit:

46 percent of women who had abortions had not used birth control during the month in which they became pregnant. However, of the 54 percent of women who had an abortion and who did use birth control during the month they became pregnant, 76 percent used birth control pills and 49 percent were condom users, and both groups reported having used their method inconsistently. Different planning options include behavioral, barrier and hormonal methods. As any contraceptive method can fail, couples should discuss how they would respond to a pregnancy. A life-affirming plan for unexpected pregnancy can reduce the couple’s stress and ensure respectful care for a prenatal child.

You have to understand that this statistic – that 54% of women who have unplanned pregnancies used birth control during the last month – is commonly used by the pro-life movement to show how ineffective birth control is and how it is therefore clearly more of a problem than it is part of the solution. I once attended a pro-life banquet where a group of abstinence only sex educators gave a presentation about how they go from school to school working to scare teens out of using contraception – the goal, of course, being to scare teens out of having sex altogether. However, in this brochure the NAE does not use this statistic that way. In fact it correctly points out that those who used birth control sometime in the month before having an unplanned pregnancy were using birth control inconsistently. While the quote here admits that “any contraceptive method can fail,” it does not play up that failure rate and instead speaks affirmingly of birth control use - and not just within marriage.

This is huge, really truly huge.

And this, quite simply, is why World Magazine responded so scathingly to the NAE’s new direction on the issue of birth control use among young, unmarried evangelicals. There is a battle going on here. What matters more, lowering the abortion rate even if that means encouraging contraceptive use among those who aren’t married, or ensuring that sex has consequences and is tied to procreation even if that in practice leads to a higher abortion rate? The pro-life movement establishment, partly because of Catholic influence, has long eschewed the former position and embraced the later. But as more people take seriously the rhetoric about “saving babies,” there may be a shift as more groups and individuals move toward the former position and reject the latter.

There are a few things to take away from this. We can continue to call out pro-lifers who aren’t consistent, who see keeping sex within marriage and tied to procreation as more important than their stated goal of saving the lives of unborn babies, but even as we do so, the number of pro-lifers who are consistent and who really are about saving babies and not about controlling sex may increase. On the one hand, this is a good thing, as these actually consistent pro-lifers will likely be more compassionate towards women who are pregnant (less likely to dismiss them as sluts) and more in favor of methods that will reduce the abortion rate without impinging on choice (i.e. birth control, affordable maternity care, and a social safety network that makes raising children more affordable). This allows for room for cooperation. On the other hand, though, this shift highlights the importance of making ourselves clear on issues like fetal personhood and not abandoning rhetoric of compassion or life to those who oppose abortion.

Maybe once the framing of the conversation moves away from hangups about sex and toward an actual and for real focus on personhood, we can have an actual conversation on that subject. You know, one where tropes like “sex needs consequences” or “if you can’t afford a baby you shouldn’t have sex” aren’t thrown around like so much confetti. Or maybe I am overly optimistic.

It also strikes me that one thing going on here is a divide between evangelicals and Catholics. While some pro-lifeevangelicals may be increasingly willing to consider promoting contraceptive use even by those who are unmarried in an effort to cut the abortion rate, the Catholic hierarchy will not and cannot accept this. The Catholic Church, after all, regards birth control as a mortal sin, placing it in the same category as abortion. In other words, using birth control is no more acceptable than getting an abortion. So if evangelicals actually move from trying to control sex to backing up their “save the babies” pro-life rhetoric by embracing birth control, there may well be a split in the pro-life movement. For now, though, enough of the evangelical pro-life contingent continues to oppose an embrace of birth control as a tool to cut the abortion rate, as seen by World magazine’s scathing response to the NAE’s tentative embrace of it, that this potential split likely will not become an issue for some time.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Gordon

    “Catholics will not and cannot accept this.” – Except most Catholics do. Most Catholics have no problem with birth control. Most Catholic women use it. Bishops claim to speak *for* all Catholics, but they cannot even speak *to* most Catholics.

    • abra1

      The easiest way to avoid this conundrum is to refer to the “Catholic hierarchy”… in the US right now in particular there is a pretty substantial schism between the hierarchy and the faithful over issues like abortion, birth control, and gay marriage.

      If you haven’t read about Patty Crowley and the Birth Control Commission that ran at the same time but was not part of the Second Vatican Council, it makes for some interesting reading. Talk about control…

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        Fixed.

  • jose

    It’s scary that the tiresome “objective truth of factual true human nature of natural reality” schtick makes catholics more extreme than evangelicals.

    • machintelligence

      Catholics might be more extreme than evangelicals (I couldn’t easily find a breakdown on these numbers), but check out this Gallup poll done this year for some eye opening statistics:
      http://www.gallup.com/poll/154799/americans-including-catholics-say-birth-control-morally.aspx
      90% of Americans overall approve of birth control. 82% of Catholics do as well. The anti-birth control stance of the pro-life movement reflects the opinion of only a small minority.

  • Falls apart

    I respectfully disagree with your statement about Catholics. While, as a Catholic, I personally would not use birth control, I would rather someone else use birth control than get an abortion. It is more important to me to decrease the abortion rate–through contraception, through comprehensive sex education, through availability of affordable day care–than it is to force my own, personal beliefs on others.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      I amended my post to read “the Catholic hierarchy.” The trouble is that it’s that hierarchy that appears to exert influence on the pro-life movement, not ordinary Catholics who don’t want to force their personal beliefs on others. I respect your position and I wish the Catholic hierarchy saw the issue the way you do. :-)

      • Katherine

        I’m not sure how this jives with the Catholic hierarchy as a whole (I’m not a Catholic or even a Christian, I’ve read the books, but keeping up on what a specific religious institution officially believes from day-to-day often falls by the wayside) but I once was at a friend’s Catholic church for a service, and at one point the priest mentioned abortion. I bristled, and was about to walk out before the slut-shaming began, but instead he went on to explain how, in an effort to lower the abortion rate, their particular church was taking up a fund to pay for the medical expenses of women with unwanted pregnancies who were choosing adoption. I firmly believe that the decision to carry (or not carry) a pregnancy to term should ALWAYS rest with the person who is carrying the pregnancy, but I also can not find fault with trying to make adoption a more realistic option for those who would prefer it. I was pretty awed by it at the time.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia lucrezaborgia

        Why not a fund to help them keep their child? Why only for adoption? Catholic charities have been in the adoption game for far too long and were complicit in forcing women to give up their babies during the BSE.

      • Ariel

        Unfortunately, lucrezaborgia, enough money to allow someone to carry a pregnancy to term is inevitably less than enough money to allow someone to carry a pregnancy to term and then raise their child. This sounds like a pragmatic decision in order to stretch the money to as many unplanned pregnancies as possible. (At least, I really hope that’s the reasoning…)

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        It may be the reasoning but it doesn’t change the fact that many women with unplanned pregnancies have made and still do make the “choice” of adoption under some degree of coercion from organizations like these.

      • Christine

        While a fund of that nature might not offer its clients as many choices as would be enjoyed by a woman who isn’t facing financial difficulties, it still increases the number of choices available.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia lucrezaborgia

        How so? Medicaid in almost all states will pick up the tab for birth expenses and then go after the father for reimbursement. Adoptive parents will also pick up the birth expenses. I don’t think you understand the amount of financial coercion that is involved in adoption. Finances should not be a reason a parent is separated from a child.

      • Christine

        I agree, finances should not be a reason, hence me saying that a fund won’t give as many choices, but having no group to give money would not result in any more choices being available. Can the father be dunned for the pregnancy expenses, as well as the ones involved with the birth? (And I mean all of them. “Sorry, you’re poor, so you have to deal with morning sickness, carpal tunnel syndrome and losing 3% of your brain mass because we’re not paying for you to avoid them” doesn’t cut it).

  • abra1

    I think it is interesting that you refer to it as a “problem” that there would be a split within the “Pro-Life” movement between the dogmatically anti-contraception Catholics and the contraception-accepting Evangelicals. Yes, it would probably be a problem for the “Pro-Life” movement but I think it may have the very salutary effect forcing a very public reckoning about the difference between the stated goal (reduce abortions) and the apparent goal (control sex & women*) based on hard data. It has been an unholy alliance between Evangelicals and Catholics from the start and I think a split would probably help move the ball in a good way.

    *I do not disagree with the desire to control sex and women but I think it is also legalistic hand washing of the responsibility for abortion — God can’t hold them responsible if they’ve come out publicly against this sinful practice — which is not only the easy way out but the only way to make anti-abortion work with Ayn Rand economic policies.

  • http://mymusingcorner.wordpress.com Lana

    Very true. My friend is on the pro-life board in town, and is the only protestant on board. The Catholics have dominated this sphere and its holding us back. I have no problem with giving out birth control.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Their heart is in the right place, I guess (even if I still really disagree), but I wonder how much effect the acceptance of birth control among the unmarried will have when they are STILL insisting that non-marital sex is a sin. It’s well-known that people are less likely to be responsible about having sex when they feel guilty about having it to begin with–instead of planning on it and acting accordingly, they’re more likely to “let it happen” so they can claim that they got “caught up in the moment” etc. I hope that his new turn has a real effect but I do have my doubts as long as they’re hanging on to the “Sex outside of marriage makes Jesus sad” thing.

    • Doe

      I think that is a huge contributor to pregnancy among young Christians. My youth group when I was in high school really pushed the “second virginity” thing, meaning that if you had already had sex then you could still be pure if you promised to stop until marriage. I remember the youth leader’s wife telling us (girls only of course) that she knew it would be difficult to stop if you were in a good relationship but that God required it. It was sinful to expect that you would have sex again and plan accordingly.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Right, and “planning accordingly” is kind of necessary for proper birth control use. My fear is that not much will change and that they will consider encouraging birth control be a failed strategy. Because the root of the problem is their teachings on sexuality in general, not just their stance on when birth control is appropriate. Is saying to unmarried evangelicals “Sex is still bad, bad, bad but if you absolutely cannot stop yourself from being a sinful weakling, please use a condom” really going to get them to take a positive, proactive attitude towards their sexual health?

      • Doe

        It’s also a self fulfilling prophecy. They teach that if you have sex you will get pregnant, and people don’t teach or learn about birth control because that’s Wrong, so then someone gets carried away and whoops, they’re pregnant at the wedding. And then the church elders use them as a cautionary tale.

        It makes me so very angry. I don’t think the various religions are going to give in though. We better start improving secular sex ed and making it mandatory for public schools.

      • smrnda

        I think these people are concerning with creating guilt around sexuality above all. If you have ‘premarital sex’ but don’t use a condom and aren’t on birth control, it shows you were a good Christians who just had a moment of weakness. If you plan and prepare to have safe sex, it shows you don’t think it’s such a shameful thing after all, and that’s what really counts.

        Plus, if unplanned pregnancies occur, then a bunch of 17 and 18 year olds can become poster children for early marriage, which is encouraged in some denominations.

  • Fawn

    This may not be relevant, but the only extreme “pro-life” Catholics I personally know – where contraception is as evil as abortion – all used contraception (even vasectomy) in their child-bearing years. Now that they are older and can no longer become pregnant (or their wives can not), they spout nonsense about how awful contraception is, how now they know better, and how they wished when they were younger they had “left it all up to god.” That’s all easy to say when you’re 63, and your husband had a vasectomy in his early 30s. More than half of their lives they’ve been able to have sex with no worry of pregnancy. They want to impose restrictions on people that they never would have tolerated.

    • Lizzy

      The only one that I personally know is my step-brother. He’s positively rabid about how only the church knows the right path for our lives, blah, blah, blah. He just moved his wedding date up 3 months so that it wouldn’t be obvious that his bride is pregnant at their wedding.

  • Beguine

    I wonder if this may represent a generational shift in the leadership. Now that the generation who grew up believing that it really was all about the babies is coming into their own, they’re starting to try to move policies in line with what they were told growing up, and the old guard who were just using “the poor wittle BEH-BIES!” as a palatable excuse to control sexuality is fighting them on it.

  • Katherine

    I think that part of the problem here is that, because the pope is supposed to be infallible, most Catholics that I know stay kind of quiet about their ok-ness with birth control. One interesting affect of the way the Catholic hierarchy is set up is that it is virtually impossible for many ordinary people on the ground to believe everything that they are “supposed” to believe. As a non-christian, I find that I often get along with Catholics better than many other sorts of Christians because they are very used to navigating differences of belief, even within their own religious community. I hear a lot of things like “I think the church’s stance on homosexuality is ridiculous, but I still get a lot out of going to mass” for example. A couple of years ago, when many of my Catholic friends were getting married and the church required that they take a Natural Family Planning course, along with their pre-marital counseling, the attitude amongst Catholics I know was unanimously “so we’re going to shut up and take the class so that we can get married in the church that we love, but after that, we’re going on the pill.”

    The problem is that the hierarchal nature of Catholicism makes it so that ordinary people can not put pressure on their religious institution from below, and that is a damn shame.

    • Emmers

      “because the pope is supposed to be infallible”

      This represents a pretty severe misunderstanding of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility within the Catholic Church. Sadly, I suspect many Catholics are just as ignorant of it…

      • smrnda

        With all the thousands if not millions of pages of Catholic doctrine that exists, how can anyone keep it straight?

      • abra1

        No argument but they are placing increasing emphasis on obedience… precisely because we/they (I am having through deciding) aren’t being… because they are wrong because they are ignoring sensus fidelium.

  • smrnda

    I’m going to second that most Catholics that I know are moderate or even liberal politically and most of them dismiss the hierarchy’s stance on birth control. What I find strange is that given the theological differences, you’ve got evangelicals voicing support for Catholic doctrines on birth control at times and offering support for Catholic organizations that don’t want to provide contraception coverage. The impression I get is that these actions make me think that many conservative evangelicals might as well say “Well, we think you’re a cult of idolatry and a bunch of heretics, but preventing people from having consequence free sex is just a higher priority.”

    I’m wondering why young evangelicals stay in church when the church is guilt-tripping them over sex. Evangelical Christianity doesn’t have the deep cultural roots of say, Catholicism so I can’t see the drive to stay. Do they feel guilty, or do they just figure it’s an issue where church leadership is just behind the times?

  • chris buchholz

    I don’t see it ever changing except very slowly and only by eliminating faith as much as possible and replacing it with reason. Examining why were these things called sin in the first place can tell us what to do about them now. But faith, by its nature, does not and cannot question.

    We have many prohibitions: sex, drugs, and all of which we punish instead of help. We punish drug addicts instead of helping them, along with those who use illegal drugs but are not addicts. We punish those who commit other crimes, even though we know prisons do not work except to warehouse the most violent and dangerous, they are not good for anything else, not for reforming people or protecting society, yet we continue to punish. Why? (other than racism)?

    I think we LOVE to punish others. Perhaps there is some genetic component, (animals have been observed punishing overly violent and dangerous members of their tribe). It could be that punishing the dangerous was successful in the past. But nowadays our ethics has evolved beyond hunter gatherer and small tribes. What was dangerous for them – unprotected sex with no technology to avoid pregnancy or stds – is not dangerous anymore. Extra mouths to feed, or adults that could not work due to addiction, can have a huge affect on a small self-sufficient society – but not anymore, and not to us.

    We can use love, reason, and technology to help people in need without giving in to our baser instincts that love to punish and harm others and put ourselves above them. It’s funny, but it seems to me that “evolution” and “nature” is on the side of punishing and harming people we disagree with. Chrisitians usually stand for rising above those base instincts.

    • chris buchholz

      I hope no one thinks I’m conflating sex and drug use. :) I meant, there are a lot of ancient rules that have no bearing on today’s societies, such as prohibitions on sex, and other prohibitions.

      And even if something is still considered “bad” – like harming others – we know and have better ways of dealing with them than ancient people did.

      • smrnda

        I think you make a good point, that many things are regarded by many people as ‘wrong’ without adequate evidence that they are actually harmful. These taboos get passed from generation to generation; I don’t know if most people feel good about punishing or condemning other people, but I think that it’s taught as a sort of duty. If you’re raised to believe something is bad, your status within your group depends on upholding the rules. Whether it’s religious people denouncing sex outside of marriage or a group of kids who don’t want to hang out with people who wear the wrong type of clothes, you have to tow the party line to keep being accepted by others. I’ve talked to many Christians who kind of admit that they can’t make a rational case against homosexuality, but who feel that they’re ‘bad Christians’ if they fail to be vocally opposed to it.

        Progress comes when we ask why something is good or bad and demand a good reason for any prohibition. Perhaps if you can’t avoid pregnancy or STDs, it makes sense to have stricter sexual ethics the way that it’s bad to use drugs if you can’t be sure of the product quality. If you could make sex safer (or using drugs safer for that matter) it doesn’t really matter as a moral issue any more.

    • machintelligence

      We can use love, reason, and technology to help people in need without giving in to our baser instincts that love to punish and harm others and put ourselves above them. It’s funny, but it seems to me that “evolution” and “nature” is on the side of punishing and harming people we disagree with.

      Oddly enough it is. There are pretty definitive studies that show that it is not sufficient to reward good behavior to achieve compliance to cultural norms; bad behavior must also be punished in some manner. Since humans do a pretty good job of anticipating the future, the phrase “We can’t make you do the right thing, but we can make you wish you had” carries some weight. See the TED talk by Johnathan Haidt.
      http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html
      You can start at 11:30 if you don’t want to watch the whole thing.

  • http://thechurchproject.me Tracey

    Yes, Papal Infallibility doesn’t mean the pope is infallible. Basically, the infallibility thing is limited to certain statements the pope makes in specific circumstances. He’s not infallible all the time. Even so, Catholicism is pretty dang rigid in its hierarchy. And the pope is at the top. So the point being made is still a valid one.

  • Twist

    “A significant majority of evangelicals support a wide range of methods for decreasing the abortion rate, including parental consent, waiting periods before abortions, efforts at making adoption, pre & post natal care more available, and easier access to contraceptive information and services.”

    While it’s an improvement on “keep your legs closed, slut”, the parental consent and waiting period things bother me. Mainly parental consent. The need for parental consent in order to obtain an abortion can mean a risk of a teen being disowned, abused or even killed, and I find the suggestion that a good way to reduce the abortion rate is to allow parents to force their underage daughters to carry unwanted pregnancies to term inhumane at best.

    The waiting period thing seems nonsensical, are they suggesting that it’s common for women to have abortions on a whim, when they would happily have had and raised the baby if only they’d had more time to think about it? Or do they plan to enforce a waiting period during which they lay on the pro-life propaganda until they’ve guilted/frightened a woman out of an abortion? Again, inhumane, along with a hint of “women are too stupid/impulsive to make their own decisions” thrown in.

    That said, acceptance that access to contraceptives is one of the best ways to lower the abortion rate is a big step in the right direction, and it would be silly to expect a complete reversal of views overnight. I just think that there’s still too little consideration of the rights of the girls and women involved.

  • Nurse Bee

    As a pro-life person who supports birth control and comprehsive sex ed, I think this is a step in the right direction. However, having been raised in an area with a large amount of Catholics, it seems while the catholic church condemns birth control, catholics themselves do not.

  • BabyRaptor

    It ‘s bloody sickening that these people see “sexual abuser dad won’t let his daughter abort his rape baby” as an acceptable way of forcing your beliefs on people.

  • SatsumaSunshine

    Interesting perspectives. For all the discussion about the Catholic Church’s position on artificial contraception, I don’t see a link to the document that started the discussion, namely Humanae Vitae (http://bit.ly/asbYqZ). This is a mere 31 brief sections extolling the dignity of women, the value of self-control, the promotion of purity, and pastoral directives for each of several groups of people. Any discussion of the “Church’s position” must begin here – with this prophetic document. Unfortunately for many Catholics, this letter written in 1968 did not receive the press it deserves. The secular cries in those years were for “Freedom!” Little did we know that we were in effect shouting for Slavery in some other horrid sense. How ironic!

  • Pingback: White evangelicals and contraception: reversal and revision redux

  • Andres Riofrio

    “The Catholic Church, after all, regards birth control as a mortal sin, placing it in the same category as abortion. In other words, using birth control is no more acceptable than getting an abortion.”

    AFAIK, the Catholic hierarchy condemns abortion and contraception, but in different ways. The Church says that abortion is wrong AND that it is so wrong that we should do what we can to stop it (e.g. make it illegal, reduce poverty, offer adoption/child-raising help, etc.) The whole Church (including the hierarchy) is actually pretty liberal when it comes to social programs! The Church also says that contraception is wrong, but it is NOT so wrong that we should do what we can to stop it. While Catholics cannot in good conscience promote contraception, we have as much interest in reducing contraception use as we have interest in reducing big lies (both grave sins and, we hold, harmful to society!). [The Church's opposition to the HHS Mandate is primarily about the consciences of the faithful, not about the spread of contraception use.] So, in the eyes of the Church, abortion is murder, while contraception is like big lies.

    The Church does say that no sin is acceptable, no matter how grave it is. However, it still recognizes that some sins are graver than others: “The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.” CCC 1858


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