You may be wondering what in the world is going on with this whole contraception debate. While Republican leaders are trying desparately to make the issue be about religious freedom, their words and actions are betraying them. Their sudden concern about birth control also makes social conservatives’ anti-abortion rhetoric seem extremely hollow, given that widespread birth control use has been conclusively shown to decrease abortion rates.
While many argue that anti-abortion advocates are simply motivated by anti-woman sentiment, I have long denied this. The reality is that most anti-abortion activists really do believe that the zygote/fetus is a person with a soul, an individual life, and that killing one is murder. For them, whatever the effects of their policies, opposition to abortion really is about “saving babies.” The current debate, though, seems to throw the evidence into the court of those who argue that their motives revolve around controlling women’s sexuality.
Many, if not most, social conservatives really do see their opposition to abortion in terms of saving babies. It’s just that ending abortion isn’t their only goal. They also want to confine sex to marriage, which explains their current opposition to making birth control widely available. These two issues are of course related, but social conservatives see them as related in a very different way than pro-choice activists like myself do.
Setting the Stage
You may have already seen the appalling video of Foster Friess, Rick Santorum’s billionaire, explaining that contraception really isn’t that expensive – in his day, after all, women just kept their legs shut.
Here is the pertinent transcript:
On this contraceptive thing, my gosh it’s such inexpensive. You know, back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.
In other words, women, if you really don’t want to get pregnant, just keep your legs shut. End of story. Easy, right? Problem solved!
In response to this video, Jen of Blag Hag wrote a wonderfully incensed post about the hypocrisy of being anti-abortion and anti-birth control:
If you truly were against abortion, you would be fighting desperately for comprehensive sex education and easy access to contraceptives – things that actually reduce abortions. . . . If you truly were concerned with women’s health, you wouldn’t use HPV statistics to scaremonger young girls about sex while simultaneously fighting against a vaccine.
I’ve written about this before. In an “open letter to pro-life activists” I challenged those who call themselves pro-life to do the things that have been shown to bring down abortion rates – namely, support sex education and easy access to birth control. To those who are pro-choice like myself, this seems obvious, and the hypocrisy of anti-abortion activists seems clear. Just what is going on here?
Abortion, Premarital Sex, and Two Different Goals
Most anti-abortion advocates today really are against abortion because they believe it’s killing “babies.” They really do believe it’s murder. If you try to argue with them, you’ll find that all they will talk about is fetal personhood, that murder is wrong, that zygotes have souls, and on and on. And the thing is, they really do believe that. It’s not a farce.
It’s just that most social conservatives are not simply against abortion. They are also against premarital and extramarital sex. They believe that God’s plan is for sex to be confined to marriage, and confine it to marriage is what they want to do. This is why the oppose comprehensive sex education, unlimited access to contraceptives, and finding vaccines for sexually transmitted diseases: these things, they believe, serve to increase the amount of premarital and extramarital sex people participate in.
Pro-choice activists argue accurately that sex education and widespread use of birth control bring down abortion rates. Social conservatives, in contrast, argue that if people would simply confine their sex to Biblical strictures abortion would naturally disappear. They see all of this extra sexual activity as contributing to the abortion problem; after all, it is all this extra sexual activity that puts women in the situation of wanting an abortion in the first place. For them, then, anything they can do to discourage premarital sex will not only fulfill their goal of confining sex to marriage but also bring down abortion rates.
In other words, social conservatives believe that if they can confine sex to marriage as God intended they can kill two birds with one stone: only proper sex will be occurring, and no one will ever find themselves in need of an abortion. For social conservatives, turning to birth control and sex education to solve the abortion problem is like fighting a house fire with a blow torch, or solving one problem by creating another.
What anti-abortion advocates don’t realize is that they can’t have their cake and eat it too. They can either fight a war against “immoral” sex (i.e. any outside of marriage) by combating birth control and comprehensive sex education and watch as abortion rates go up as a result or fight to keep babies from being murdered by passing out condoms and offering comprehensive sex education, thereby making premarital and extramarital sex risk-free.
Today we live in a sexually liberated world and the vast, vast majority of Americans don’t want to go back. When 98% of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lives in spite of the Pope’s condemnation of birth control as a mortal sin, this reality becomes obvious. This is why the MSNBC host was at a loss for words after Friess’ comment. People like being able to choose how many children they want to have. They like the ability to decouple sex from procreation. And yes, people like being able to have premarital sex without having to deal with pregnancy.
Social conservatives’ attacks on birth control are doomed to fail. They can’t stop people from having premarital and extramarital sex any more than they can make the sun go black. What they can do is try to make premarital and extramarital sex as dangerous and costly as possible, and that is what they are trying to do. They want to make sure that premarital and extramarital sex have consequences, whether that is STDs or unintended pregnancy. What they can’t seem to see is that their struggle to confine sex to marriage is actually shooting their fight against the “murder” of “unborn babies” in the foot.
Social conservatives really can’t have their cake and eat it too. At the moment, though, it’s pretty clear that they think they can.