For the Record

Contraceptives As I mentioned in my most recent post, Chicago Tribune reporter Judith Graham’s article on the Pro-Life Action League’s recent “Contraception Is Not the Answer” conference was, on the whole, fairly balanced. I also noted that it contained a few misleading points, however, some of which I will address here. In the article, Graham notes the following:

Unlike abortion, birth control is part of the daily lives of most women of childbearing age in America. A stunning 98 percent of women 15 to 44 who have had sex report using at least one method of contraception; almost 40 million women of that age use birth control, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

As I noted in a post last month, it’s no surprise that self-styled pro-choicers are making a conscious effort to shift discussion away from abortion, because they know they’re up against the ropes in the arena of public opinion on that issue. Make no mistake: We’re under no illusion that the figures for those opposed to contraception are as high as the figures for those opposed to abortion. But as far as gauging public opinion is concerned, the “98 percent” figure, as Graham reports it, is meaningless. All this figure measures is the percentage of women aged 15 through 44 who, while either single or married, have used a form of birth control at least once while having sex. It does not take into account those women who, for whateaver reason — usually moral or health reasons, or a combination of both — have stopped using birth control. Indeed, there are legions of women (and men, too, of course, although the figures Graham cites pertain only to women) currently in the pro-life ranks who at one time engaged in contraceptive sex but now staunchly oppose the practice. These women, however, would be included in the “98 percent” statistic Graham cites; hence, its misleading nature. Graham cites another misleading statistic:

Meanwhile, 91 percent of Americans agreed that couples should “have access to birth-control options” in a new Harris Interactive poll of 1,001 likely voters, conducted in July.

Asking the question of whether couples “should have access to birth-control options” is the same as asking whether birth control should be legal. It’s interesting to observe the knee-jerk tendency on the part of pro-choicers to assume that those who oppose contraception want to ban it. In a blogging debate on contraception last spring hosted by the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, Cristina Page, author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, insinuated as much to Jennifer Roback Morse — who, incidentally, was one of the speakers at this past weekend’s conference. Dr. Morse’s response to this insinuation was spot-on:

It is probably a safe bet that most pro-lifers believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus. I’m not looking for legislation on the subject any time soon. This illustrates an important assymetry on the two sides of this debate. Many pro-choice policies, and certainly, the most significant pro-choice policies, have been imposed by the judiciary. The democratic process has been short-circuited, because the ordinary give and take of debate has been cut off by the judiciary. Because of Roe v. Wade, a state legislature can not place limits on abortion. Because of Griswold v. Connecticut, state legislatures are limited in how they can regulate contraception. Overturning these Supreme Court rulings does not mean that either abortion or contraception would be outlawed. It would mean that the states could begin the process of deliberation that would allow them to decide what they believe is reasonable and beneficial for their community. Contrary to Cristina’s characterization, pro-life people are all over the map on the contraception question. There are some who disapprove of contraception as a life-style choice, and there are some who couldn’t care less. There are some pro-life people who believe the contraceptive mentality has been destructive. I put myself in that category. There are some pro-life people who would like to ban some forms of contraception, but not others. There are some pro-life people who would ban it all the day after tomorrow if they could. None of these people are going to automatically get their way. Every one of these groups of people recognizes that they have a responsibilty to persuade the public of their views. There is no secret pro-life cabal, plotting to take away people’s diaphrams. Unless large numbers of people agree with the policy change, it isn’t going to happen. And, in my opinion, it shouldn’t happen.

The vast majority of contraception-opposing pro-lifers would agree with Morse’s position. Personally, I’m not aware of any pro-lifer who is seeking to ban the sale of contraceptives. From a prudential standpoint, doing so would be manifestly foolish. Alternatively, we would do well to look at the relative success of anti-smoking campaigns. Smoking has declined considerably over the past few decades, even though no one in the anti-smoking movement would seriously propose making smoking illegal. It seems to me a somewhat similar approach is called for regarding birth control. A ban on contraception — one that 91 percent of Americans would oppose, assuming the Harris poll is accurate — is not the way to go. Rather, we ought to use the means at our disposal to persuade people it’s not a good idea. Graham’s treatment of the abortifacient potential for hormonal birth control is also misleading:

[Rev. Thomas] Euteneuer believes a single argument holds the greatest potential for changing how the anti-abortion community thinks about birth control. “Chemical contraception doesn’t prevent abortions, it causes abortion,” he said in an interview. “If we believe life begins at the moment of conception, we have to defend it against [this] chemical attack.” Euteneuer was referring to the possibility that hormonal birth control, including the pill, the patch, injections and some IUDs, might prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in a womb. Scientific evidence suggests that this occurs infrequently, if at all, and that birth control works primarily by preventing a woman from ovulating. But there is no way to prove that interference with implantation doesn’t occur, which disturbs anti-abortion supporters. “We can’t say it’s true, and we can’t say it’s not true, because there is no test for fertilization” and therefore no opportunity to study the question in humans, said James Trussell, director of Princeton University’s Office of Population Research.

Aside from Graham’s unfortunate use of the unscientific term “fertilized egg” to refer to a human being at the zygote stage, the implication is that “scientific evidence” on the matter is entirely one-sided. This is hardly the case. It’s worth noting that in response to the widely held claim that the morning-after pill has a greater abortifacient potential than the regular birth control pill, Dr. Trussell was quoted in a May 7 New York Times Magazine article as saying:

That is completely wrong. The evidence is about the same for all hormonal methods of contraception. We can’t rule out a post-fertility effect for Plan B, and the same is true for the birth control pill.

Later in the article, Graham quotes Planned Parenthood’s Steve Trombley:

What this boils down to is a case for “women and men having sex only within marriage and only for the purpose of procreation,” said Steve Trombley, president of Planned Parenthood of Chicago, and “I don’t think that’s sellable in any corner of America.”

One wonders if Trombley actually intended to employ a straw man, or if he actually thinks that we believe:

  1. it’s morally wrong for a married couple to have sex during pregnancy; and
  2. it’s morally wrong for a married couple to have sex if they are naturally infertile.

I’m not aware of anyone who holds such a ridiculous, illogical, and indefensible position on sexual morality. But apparently Trombley thinks we do. Suffice it to say, he’s woefully misinformed. All complaints aside, however, I still think the article was fairly balanced, on the whole. Honestly, I don’t think we could have expected much better. I was especially pleased with the concluding paragraphs, which really go to the crux of the matter:

“We’ve been trained to steer clear of discussing contraception, as if it were a distraction,” [Scheidler] said. “I’m tired of this `Don’t get off the subject’ mentality. Contraception is the subject.” “It’s not just a side issue from pro-life, it’s the core issue,” Libby Gray Macke, director of Project Reality, an abstinence program in Illinois, told the crowd Friday evening. “Abstinence is the way to prevent abortion.”

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