An objection becoming more and more common in street level discourse surrounding abortion involves the alleged unwillingness of pro-life advocates to promote access to birth control programs intended to lower the rate of unplanned pregnancies, and by extension, the abortion rate.
During a recent pro-life outreach event, a student approached me, and demanded to know why I spent so much time “shaming women”, instead of doing things to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies by giving out condoms or promoting comprehensive sex education programs if my “real” goal was to reduce the number of abortions taking place. Allegedly, because I wasn’t promoting the use of condoms or other forms of birth control, I was more interested in being cruel to women than in ending abortion.
The objection suffers from a number of problems.
First, it misses the point entirely. Pro-life advocates are arguing that abortion unjustly takes the life of an innocent human being. While lowering the number of abortions per year is a worthwhile achievement, it is not the end goal of the pro-life movement. The end goal is to ensure the unborn are recognized as fellow members of the human family, and protected within law and the culture. Framing the pro-life movement as concerned with merely reducing abortion numbers paints the issue as one of mere preference; that pro-lifers simply don’t like abortion, and thus want to see fewer abortions take place.
The objection turns out to be a strawman argument. Pro-life advocates contend it is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings. Abortion does that. Therefore, abortion is wrong. The essential pro-life argument leaves no room for preferences. Whether someone likes or dislikes abortion is ultimately irrelevant if the unborn are members of the human family. If the unborn are members of the human family, then pro-life advocates have every right to focus their time calling attention to the inhumane ways they are treated before birth.
Second, the objection is a red herring. That is, it serves as a distraction from the issue at hand.
Let’s suppose pro-life advocates called the bluff of their critics. Suppose we responded, “Okay, let’s compromise. If we proposed a law banning all abortions, but also providing full funding to birth control and sex education programs, would you support such a law?”
The more intellectually honest critic would have to say yes. Unfortunately, most critics will say no, to which we can follow with: Why bring it up in the first place? If there is nothing morally wrong with abortion, then it shouldn’t be difficult to defend that premise, instead of bringing up the alleged inconsistency of pro-life advocates. The claim that if pro-life advocates were truly “pro-life” then they would be giving out condoms ends up being a smokescreen to distract from answering the charge abortion unjustly kills innocent human beings.
Third, while there are many pro-life advocates who do support greater access to birth control, the grandiose claims of birth control advocates deserve to be viewed with a significant degree of skepticism.
Thomas Sowell’s book Visions of the Anointed should be required reading for anyone considering questions of drastic public policy changes. Even if you disagree with many of his points, his overall thesis in the book bears examining: Good intentions alone do not justify sweeping social changes.
In chapter one, Sowell tackles arguments related to sex-education and contraceptive programs, pointing to data showing that at the time the programs were being called for in the late 1950s and early 1960s, rates of teen out of wedlock births and incidents of sexually transmitted diseases were already declining. However, as the programs continued to be implemented across the country in the 1960s and 1970s, rates of both teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases increased.(1)While correlation is not causation, and it would be hard to establish these programs as the cause of the increases, it does raise significant questions about their stated effectiveness.
The problem with birth control programs has to do with the law of unintended consequences. When you remove a barrier or obstacle to a particular behavior, you will get more of that behavior. Both birth control and to an extent, abortion, have helped change societal thinking about sex and procreation (in addition to the unitive nature of sexual relations between men and women). This means more people engaging in sexual intercourse, including people who will forget to use or forgo the use of birth control methods. Because of this, the chances someone will experience an unplanned pregnancy will also increase. Giving out condoms like they were candy on Halloween will not change this fact.
Defenders of abortion recognize this. Writes one author,
“The myth that with effective contraception women will no longer need abortion is both dangerous and incorrect. Whilst there is a choice of safe and effective contraceptive methods in developed countries, the imperfections of contraception, the imperfections of human beings and the consequence of ambivalence about getting pregnant, the influence of alcohol and drugs, moments of passion and unplanned encounters can never be eliminated.”(2)
Indeed, as another author summarizes,
“High quality care and good access to contraception is essential; the same holds true for abortion. Contraception choices and efficacy have improved dramatically in developed countries over the last couple of decades, but abortion will always be necessary.”(3)
Finally, it bears mentioning that pro-lifers who don’t support comprehensive sex education programs or the distribution of free birth control often have other moral objections to doing so, objections unrelated to the abortion issue. For one, it has been argued that the marketing of casual sex and sexual promiscuity has been a cause of much suffering in itself. Think about the sheer amount of emotional pain resulting from poor decision making when it comes to sexual activities. Broken relationships and marriages, emotional damage to children, and even violence can often be linked to poor sexual ethics.
On the other hand, there is an interesting amount of support for the conservative sexual ethic. A recent study found that couples who refrained from sexual promiscuity reported the highest levels of marital stability and satisfaction, whereas those who were considered “most experienced” sexually experienced the least amount of satisfaction.
It turns out that throwing free condoms and encouraging a “free” sexual ethic is not the best way to secure human flourishing; it may actually disrupt it. Pro-lifers who oppose distributing free birth control as a means of lowering abortion rates are not doing so without good reason.
Pro-lifers are right to reject birth control as the end all solution to the killing of the unborn, and shouldn’t be swayed by critics who raise the issue. It’s also worth asking what the motivation is behind the push for birth control: To protect the unborn, or to protect the ability to have as much sex as one wants without responsibility.