Should Pro-lifers Be Pro-Birth Control?
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.
I first came across this objection several years ago when doing pro-life outreach with the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform at a local college. A student approached me, and demanded to know why I spent so much time “shaming women”, instead of giving out condoms or promoting birth control 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 argue 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. 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 that 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.
Let’s suppose pro-life advocates called the bluff of their critics. Suppose we said “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, which raises a follow-up question: Why bring it up in the first place? If there is nothing morally wrong with abortion, then they should be able 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 that 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 do need 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 bears examining: Good intentions alone are not enough to justify significant 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. 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.1
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 or forgo the use of birth control methods. Because of this, the chance of 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
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 sex without responsibility.