Our Alleged “Contraceptive Mentality” is a Straw Man That Needs to Die

Our Alleged “Contraceptive Mentality” is a Straw Man That Needs to Die August 4, 2015

The still-unfolding Planned Parenthood video scandal is an opportunity for all who are disturbed by the videos’ content, regardless of whether we identify as pro-life or pro-choice, to define and discuss our common ground. I believe that abortion needs to remain legal but I also agree with pro-life friends and colleagues on several key points.

I agree that providing support for vulnerable women and children is a vital step in reducing abortions, and that the pro-life movement is sometimes unfairly maligned for not caring about babies once they are born. I also think there is some substance to this criticism of the pro-life movement, in that many people who advocate for abortion to become illegal also advocate against government expenditures on social supports, believing that such supports are better provided by private citizens and organizations. I simply don’t believe it’s feasible for private citizens and organizations to provide the level of support that’s required. But by supporting adoption (on both a policy and personal level) and crisis pregnancy centers, many pro-life Christians do aim to care for vulnerable women and children.

I agree that abortions of fetuses prenatally diagnosed with a genetic or other disorder are overly influenced by a culture that devalues the lives of people with disabilities, and overvalues traits such as self-sufficiency, high intellectual capacity, and earning power. The result is a culture in which people mistakenly assume that those with disabilities are more burden than blessing, and that their (our) lives are defined more by great suffering than great love. We must improve how the medical system approaches prenatal diagnosis, by ensuring that any expectant parent who receives a prenatal diagnosis receives comprehensive information on the condition involved, including the opportunity to talk with families living with that condition. We must also advocate for greater social supports for those with disabilities, including adequate income provided via government disability payments, high-quality and well-funded special education services, respite care for overwhelmed caregivers, and insurance reforms and government benefits that allow families to care for significantly disabled family members at home when possible.

But one point on which I vehemently disagree with some of my pro-life friends? The notion that our culture embraces a “contraceptive mentality” in which sex is all about fun without consequences, and babies are commodified products that we order up based on what we consider desirable and convenient.

It’s not that some aspects of this “contraceptive mentality” aren’t real. They are. Contraceptives have contributed to a cultural shift in which sexual activity outside of marriage, engaged in for pleasure more than procreation, is no longer a taboo in the wider culture. Our cultural values are overly skewed toward ending what are perceive as “problem” pregnancies rather than providing social and practical supports to encourage women to continue such pregnancies. Having multiple sexual encounters and partners is not necessarily an empowering thing, and can be terribly damaging thing.

But I disagree that the sexual revolution exemplifies either a complete turn-around or a tragic reversal compared with the good ol’ days in which everyone waited until they were married to have sex and everyone welcomed pregnancies with open arms. People have always pursued sex outside of marriage, and have always had unplanned pregnancies that they have sought to end. They just did the deeds in secret, which led to all kinds of bad consequences, including double standards whereby women were disproportionately blamed for sexual indiscretions, and illegal and unsafe abortions that killed women or rendered them infertile. By and large, I believe it’s a good thing for our sexuality to be out in the open, perceived as a natural and good aspect of our natures, so that we can talk about it. It’s a good thing that victims of sexual abuse are no longer shushed and told to deal with their pain in private because it’s forbidden to acknowledge that sex doesn’t always or only happen between married people. It’s a good thing that couples who have sex outside of marriage have an opportunity to work out the inevitable tricky stuff that happens between sexual partners before they commit to marriage.

(I’m not convinced, by the way, that the Bible presents a crystal-clear moral imperative of sex as meant only for married partners–a topic I hope to cover in debate format later this year. I’m also not entirely convinced that God made procreation as central a thing as traditional Biblical theology asserts, and will be writing this fall about a new scholarly book coming out making that very argument. And finally, while the perception of sex as more of a fun thing than a sacred/procreational thing can indeed be problematic, I’d rather live in a culture in which sex is seen as a pleasurable activity between two consenting adults than a power play that men can demand from women regardless of the consequences, which is what sex has been for many women throughout history and is still today in cultures in which women are not allowed to refuse sex even with their husbands, regardless of whether more babies are a good thing for her and her family.)

I disagree with pro-life arguments positing that “natural family planning” or NFP provides the best and only antidote to hormonal contraceptives and the “contraceptive mentality.” Data indicate that NFP has approximately 75 percent efficacy in preventing pregnancy, far lower than many other methods. Proponents say that when done right, NFP can be as effective as other methods. Maybe so, but I know more than one couple who was following NFP protocol to the letter and got pregnant anyway; bodies are mysterious and unpredictable things. (I also think it’s kinda silly to argue that a method that people clearly find hard to do the right way is the perfect solution if only people would do it the right way! I also wish proponents of NFP would stop marketing basic knowledge of how human fertility works as a revolutionary new “system” and groundbreaking “technology.” This makes proponents look like they have no idea what words like “technology” actually mean. Please just stop.)

I find the theology of NFP to be very beautiful; I just don’t think it’s the best method for many people, including me. NFP proponents often fall back on the natural=good, unnatural=bad dichotomy that undergirds some of our most passionate cultural conversations, such as those around vaccines—a dichotomy that is, quite simply, false and, as writer Eula Biss has said so eloquently, “is almost certainly a product of our profound alienation from the natural world.”

Much discourse railing against the contraceptive mentality rests on the notion that taking control of our bodily functions using “unnatural” methods such as devices and medications goes against God’s will for our bodies. Not only does this notion rest on the false unnatural/natural dichotomy, but it’s also a privileged position that makes far more sense for those whose healthy bodies have always done just as they desired and who have access to health care, high-quality food, and other benefits that make it possible for them to maintain their bodies in the best possible condition. This mindset also assumes that we human beings can’t possibly know what we really need, that seeking control over our lives is by definition sinful, and that the ultimate test of whether or not we love God is whether we give God control over our lives and bodies instead of insisting that such control belongs to us.

When I argue that I need the sense of control and the 99 percent efficacy of a hormonal IUD for the good of my mental, physical and familial health, I am claiming my right and privilege to name my own needs. I don’t think it’s disobedient to speak of my deepest needs, and to claim the ways that I’ve chosen to meet them. Words like “choice” and “need” and “self” get a bad rap among Christians.  The contraceptive mentality, people accuse, is part of a culture in which we dare to speak aloud our deepest needs and claim the means to meet them, in which we fail to allow God to tell us what we most need and leave our well-being in God’s hands.

But this argument sounds suspiciously like the arguments used throughout history and today, in cultures claiming a divine mandate that women are to submit to men. Arguments in which women, in particular, can’t possibly know what we really need. In which women, in particular, must tame our selfish impulses and do what is best for others. In which women, in particular, are expected to hand our bodies and our babies and our very selves over to outside forces and make do with whatever comes as a result, even when what comes is an abusive husband, or being forbidden to exercise our gifts beyond the walls of our own homes, or more babies than our wombs, our breasts, our hands, our minds, and our resources can support.

In Genesis, one of God’s first gifts to humankind was the ability to choose, the ability to engage in self-determination. Humankind showed, of course, almost immediately that we are capable of making very bad choices. But God didn’t rescind the gift.

I know what I need. I believe God honors that knowledge, even if I sometimes get things wrong. One thing I—and many women around the world—need is a highly effective form of contraception. This isn’t a poisonous “contraceptive mentality”; it’s the fundamental human desire to do what we need to do in order to thrive within the limits imposed by our bodies, our habitats, and our relationships. That we are limited by nature and design is also written into the biblical creation narrative, as is God’s willingness to let us figure out how to thrive within those limits.

But the biggest reason I object to the notion of a “contraceptive mentality”? Because it is a generalized statement that fails to engage with the stories of many people. Yes, you can find people who blithely abort a child prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome because they didn’t sign up for that kind of child. Yes, you can find people for whom contraceptives make possible a rotating cast of near-anonymous sexual encounters entered into solely for pleasure and not for relationship. Yes, you can find people who spend thousands of dollars on fertility treatments and for whom selective abortion to reduce a multiple pregnancy is simply a practical matter to make things manageable rather than a serious ethical concern.

But those stories are not typical. Ascribing such a mentality to everyone who chooses hormonal contraception or abortion or sex outside of marriage assumes that the worst side of human nature is the prevailing one.

I’ve talked over the years with many people who have made wrenching choices about pregnancies and children. To a person, everyone I’ve ever talked to who has chosen to abort a child after a serious fetal anomaly was diagnosed has done so only after giving it great thought and out of love for their child, just as everyone who has chosen to continue her pregnancy has done so only after giving it great thought and out of love for her child.

One woman, for example, whose baby was diagnosed with a heart condition that would likely be fatal and require her infant to undergo many surgeries, saw her choice to terminate the pregnancy as akin to turning off a ventilator or withholding artificial means of feeding from someone with a terminal illness. She withheld the “life support” provided by her body because she believed that it was her maternal duty to allow her baby to succumb to her fatal disorder rather than fight it. She wanted to spare her child the agonies of medical treatments unlikely to change the ultimate outcome, and felt that terminating would submit her baby to far less pain than withholding treatment after her birth. You may not agree with her perspective or her decision. You may feel sure that you would have done differently under the same circumstances (though anecdotal evidence indicates that your certainty about your own potential action is misplaced). But casting her decision as one of convenience, one influenced more by an insidious “contraceptive mentality” than her desire to love her baby as best she could under awful circumstances, would be inaccurate, unfair, cruel.

When we really listen to the stories behind the use of hormonal contraceptives or decisions to have an abortion, it becomes impossible to ascribe all of these decisions to some overarching “contraceptive mentality” focused on convenience, comfort, and selfishness.

The way forward for those who care about abortion isn’t dumbing down our arguments by claiming a single “mentality” that everyone who supports access to contraception and safe, legal abortion subscribes to.

The way forward on abortion requires seeking common ground with those on a different side of abortion debates, and paying more attention to stories of individuals (realizing that such stories rarely conform to stereotypes) than to questionable “mentalities” that make it far too easy to categorize and then dismiss the valid concerns of people for whom these debates are far from hypothetical.

As always when I write about controversial issues, I am committed to maintaining a safe and respectful comment section. Before you click “post” on your comment, ask yourself: Is my post inflammatory? Is my post derogatory toward an individual or group? Is my comment more about scoring rhetorical points than moving the conversation forward? If the answer to any of these is “yes,” please consider rephrasing because I will probably delete your comment.


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