No, There Isn’t Any Common Ground on Choice

No, There Isn’t Any Common Ground on Choice April 9, 2014

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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