Abortion-rights supporters are making contraception a key issue in the 2008 election. Just last week, Planned Parenthood ran an ad in six battleground states showing a clip of Republican presidential nominee John McCain, in which he is unwilling to respond to a question about whether insurance companies should be forced to cover contraceptives in their policies. Pro-choice advocates are also pushing Sen. McCain to denounce the Bush administration’s proposed Health and Human Services hiring and grant-making regulations. They claim these new regulations would make contraceptives less available by providing legal protection to federal employees and grant recipients who have moral objections to contraceptive use.
Pro-lifers typically respond to these sorts of attacks by invoking the conscience rights of insurers and health-care professionals — a reasonable response. But pro-lifers should think harder about how to best handle the politics and policy of contraception, an issue that is unlikely to go away. Many abortion-rights activists think pro-lifers are vulnerable on the contraception issue. They argue that if pro-choice Democrats support the wider availability of contraceptives, they can claim to be pursuing a policy to reduce the number of abortions — and in this way appeal to moderate and conservative voters.
#ad#How successful will this political gambit be? It is certainly true that most Americans support the use and availability of contraceptives. That said, the conscience rights of doctors and nurses enjoy broad public support; and many Americans are skeptical about distributing contraceptives to minors.
From a policy standpoint, it is important that the pro-life movement oppose governmental efforts to encourage contraceptive use — particularly among minors. Indeed, the aggressive promotion of contraceptives would shift cultural norms in ways that would do considerable long-term damage to the pro-life cause.
Building a Culture of Life
Many supporters of legal abortion sharply criticize the pro-life movement for not promoting the sale, use, or improvement of contraceptives as a means to reducing the incidence of abortion. What these pro-choicers fail to understand is that the pro-life movement is actually trying to achieve two separate goals: first, preventing abortions in the short term; and second, creating a culture of life in the long term — instilling the values and attitudes in people that will make abortions less likely in the future.
Most of the time, the twin goals of protecting the unborn and building a culture of life reinforce one another. On occasion, though, they appear to contradict each other.
For instance, pro-lifers are very willing to provide medical, emotional, and even financial assistance to women facing crisis pregnancies through the thousands of privately funded crisis pregnancy centers throughout the country. But pro-lifers typically do not offer large cash bounties to women facing crisis pregnancies in exchange for carrying their baby to term. The costs aside, if pro-lifers bribed women to continue their pregnancies, they might encourage unmarried women to become more sexually active in the hopes a conception might result in a large payoff. Such an incentive would further undermine societal mores against premarital sex, cause more unplanned pregnancies, and fail to advance the goals of the pro-life movement.
Similarly, most pro-life groups do not call for dramatic increases in welfare payments. Again, it is certainly possible that the prospect of higher welfare benefits might persuade some women facing crisis pregnancies to keep their baby. However, the high welfare payouts might further encourage or at least enable sexual activity before marriage. This would again undermine social mores against promiscuous behavior and result in even more crisis pregnancies and possibly more abortions.
Contraception is another issue where pro-life goals of protecting the unborn and fostering a culture of life seem to contradict one another. If sexually active individuals used birth control more often, there would likely be fewer unwanted pregnancies. However, easier access to contraceptives might encourage even more sexual activity among unmarried people. This is especially the case if contraceptives are made available to populations which include a high percentage of sexually inactive people, such as young teens. It would send powerful messages about the sort of sexual behavior that is both expected and acceptable.
The increase in sexual activity among teens during the 1960s provides good evidence of this. The birth-control pill was first approved by the FDA in early 1961 and put on the market later that same year. A study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute (hardly a pro-life outfit) found that women who turned 15 between the mid-1960s and early 1970s were more likely to engage in sexual activity at a younger age than their counterparts who turned 15 between the mid-1950s and early 1960s. Furthermore, the Guttmacher study partly attributes this increased sexual activity to the availability of the birth-control pill. The widespread use of birth control in the 1960s seems to have shifted the culture in such a way as to hasten rather than delay the liberalization of America’s abortion laws.
#ad#So when the pro-life movement faces a situation where protecting the unborn and building a culture of life are at odds with one another, most pro-lifers resolve the tradeoff in favor of a culture of life. This seems prudent for a couple reasons. First, a high percentage of abortions are performed on unmarried women. As such, the best strategy for reducing abortion is to reduce the incidence of premarital sex. More importantly, it will be difficult for the pro-life movement to make substantial legislative progress in a sexually promiscuous culture. As such, the pro-life movement must succeed in building and strengthening a culture of life before it will be successful in restoring legal protection to the unborn.
Now building a true culture of life will doubtless remain a very difficult task for the pro-life movement. Good progress on pro-life legislation has been made in recent years largely because Roe v. Wade shifted policy in such a way that it substantially diverged from public opinion. While relatively few Americans support banning all abortions, most Americans are comfortable with the incremental legislation that has been advanced by the pro-life movement including parental-involvement laws and partial-birth-abortion bans.
In many respects, advocating for sexual restraint may well prove to be a more difficult task than advocating legislation to protect the unborn. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, one can even imagine that efforts to build a culture of life might eventually stall. If pro-life progress is to continue in a post-Roe America, it is a battle that the pro-life movement must continue to engage.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama.