The Battle over Contraception in the Pro-Life Movement

The Battle over Contraception in the Pro-Life Movement November 12, 2012

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.

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.

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