If You Don’t Want a Baby, Just Don’t Have Sex?

If You Don’t Want a Baby, Just Don’t Have Sex? November 5, 2012

One common objection to my pro-life movement post was to my emphasis on birth control. Several commenters argued that  abortion would disappear if people would just stop having sex unless they were open to having children. Sex and procreation should always be linked, additional readers insisted. Now as I have discussed before, we now have the technology to separate sex and procreation and there is no reason outside of religious dogma why we shouldn’t separate the two. The idea that sex needs to have “consequences” is based in socially constructed beliefs about sex, not in any sort of universal absolute.

The objection, however, was based on the assumption that a zygote/embryo/fetus is a baby with a right to be carried to term. Birth control, as the objection went, could actually serve to raise the abortion rate by encouraging people not ready to have children to have sex at the risk, however small, of becoming pregnant. After all, birth control does have a failure rate and the only completely foolproof way to avoid pregnancy is abstinence from sex. Along with this objection came the suggestion that I must not have understood all of this when I was pro-life, or else I would not have been so willing to embrace birth control as the solution. While I no longer have moral qualms about abortion, I think this objection is worth addressing.

A Moral Obligation

Yes, I am aware that if everyone was abstinent and avoided intercourse unless open to having a baby, the demand for abortion would drop like a rock. I’m aware of that now and I was aware of that then. The thing is, I was also aware that I cannot make people stop having sex. I knew that I was dealing with reality, not an ideal world. When I was pro-life, I thought the primary goal was decreasing the number of babies being murdered, not stopping people from having sex I believed was wrong. Yes, I knew that getting people to stop having sex would bring the abortion rate down. But given that my primary goal was to stop the murders of unborn babies, I was willing to consider and adopt any of a variety of tactics in order to do this. With future murders on the line, I was not willing to refuse to consider any tactic outside of getting people to stop having sex. If it is about ending the murders of unborn babies, and not about sex, then a pro-lifer should be morally required to consider a variety of tactics.

But perhaps these commenters are more right than even they realized. I did misunderstand the goals of the pro-life movement. I mistakenly thought that the goal was preventing the murders of unborn babies, and that we should therefore naturally consider a variety of tactics in order to do this. I guess I didn’t realize that any tactic that didn’t involve stopping people from having sex should be off the table before the conversation even began. I guess I was too focused on my desire to end the murders of unborn babies to get that memo.

The Birth Control Failure Rate

Yes, birth control has a failure rate. You see, this is the conversation we should be having! Rather than putting birth control off the table and focusing on getting people to just not have sex, why not look at what science says about the failure rates of the various types and encourage those that work best, or better yet, work toward developing birth control methods with lower failure rates? If the goal is simply to prevent unborn babies from being murdered, this would seem to be a moral imperative

The Mirena IUD, for instance, has a 0.7% failure rate over its five years of use. This means that for 1000 women who use a Mirena IUD, over the course of five years 7 will become pregnant. That’s only a little over one woman per year, out of 1000. And that’s not just the perfect use rate either, it’s the typical use rate.


Let’s try a little experiment. Let’s imagine for a moment that this 1000 women were sexually active over the course of five years and used no birth control at all. Eighty-five percent of them would become pregnant in the first year alone, meaning 850 pregnancies. What if they used condoms instead, with a typical use failure rate of 18%? The result would be 180 pregnancies in the first year alone. What if they used the birth control pill instead, with a typical use failure rate of 9%? The result would be 90 pregnancies in the first year alone. (Let me point out that part of the reason the typical use failure rates on these things are so high is lack of education about proper use. At perfect use, only 10 of 1000 women on the pill become pregnant each year, and only 20 of 1000 women using condoms.) The Mirena IUD? Only one or two pregnancies in that first year for that entire 1000 women.

Now, let’s imagine encouraging a sample of 1000 women who would otherwise be sexually active to just not have sex. Let’s imagine that three-fourths of them abstain, and the other quarter don’t. The result would be 212 pregnancies in the first year, more pregnancies than either the sample using condoms or the sample on the pill, even when using typical use rates rather than perfect use rates. Now let’s imagine that the quarter of the encouraged-to-abstain sample have sex only half as frequently as they would have otherwise. The result would be 106 pregnancies in one first year, still more than those on the pill at typical use and significantly more than those on either the pill or using condoms at perfect use. And remember, of the 1000 women using the Mirena IUD only 1 or 2 would get pregnant in that same time.

One reason that Europe has a lower abortion rate is that more European women use IUDs and other more reliable forms of birth control. Why do comparatively few American women use IUDs? In large part because they are pricey, running from $700 to over $1000 to have them put in. If IUDs and other more effective means of birth control are offered free of charge, this changes.

Free birth control led to dramatically lower rates of abortions and teen births, a large study concludes. The findings were eagerly anticipated and come as a bitterly contested Obama administration policy is poised to offer similar coverage.

The project tracked more than 9,000 women in St. Louis, many of them poor or uninsured. They were given their choice of a range of contraceptive methods at no cost – from birth control pills to goof-proof options like the IUD or a matchstick-sized implant.

When price wasn’t an issue, women flocked to the most effective contraceptives – the implanted options, which typically cost hundreds of dollars up-front to insert. These women experienced far fewer unintended pregnancies as a result, reported Dr. Jeffrey Peipert of Washington University in St. Louis in a study published Thursday.

But for all my time in the pro-life movement, I never heard this sort of thing discussed. Not once. Instead, the focus was all on banning abortion, on talking women out of having abortions by whatever means possible, and on things like abstinence education. I mean, my goodness, I remember one pro-life banquet I attended with my Students for Life group in college where an abstinence education group that goes from school to school making presentations gave a talk about their efforts. And the thing is, much of it was scare tactics, all about how if you have sex you won’t succeed academically, or about how the condom and the pill aren’t actually effective, or that if you have sex with someone you’ll never be able to bond with anyone in the future, etc.

Instead of harping on the birth control failure rate, why not work to develop more effective methods of birth control and to encourage the use of the more effective means we currently have? The reason I changed my focus to birth control was that I knew that we couldn’t just make women stop having sex. I knew that that would not be an effective way to achieve the goal, if the goal was preventing the murder of unborn babies. My goal was to decrease the number of abortions, and in that effort I was willing to consider all sorts of strategies to achieve this end, including birth control. If the goal is to keep babies from being murdered and not to control sex, then those who are pro-life should be pouring money into developing more effective methods of birth control and into paying for women who can’t afford it to be able to use the most effective birth control methods, like the Mirena IUD or an implant.


When the emphasis is placed on trying to convince people to not have sex unless they are open to having a baby, even when making effective means of birth control more widespread and available would actually be more effective in bringing down the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions, well, it becomes pretty clear that I did misunderstand the pro-life movement as a child, teen, and young adult, and this was the point of my original point. I thought the primary goal was preventing the murder of babies, and that in order to do that we should be willing to examine a variety of different strategies to go about achieving the goal, things like improving the social safety net for mothers or making birth control more effective and widespread. But if the only solutions the pro-life movement is willing to pursue are urging people to be abstinent, banning abortion, or doing whatever possible to keep women who are already pregnant from having abortions, well, it really does start to sound like it’s about believing that sex should always be attached to procreation and needs to have “consequences” and not about preventing the murder of unborn babies.

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