Waiting for the Condom Crusade

Dear Will,

This discussion is an unusual experience for me: Usually I’m the moralistic person hurling lightning and thunderbolts! Your post is eloquent and closely argued, like everything you write—I always learn from reading you. But, as in your Times op-ed, you forgot to establish your premise. You don’t explain why, exactly, you, a pro-choicer, find abortion so outrageous, so terribly morally offensive, so wrong. You simply say you think this way and that vast numbers of those who want Roe preserved agree with you. Well, maybe they do, or maybe their views are layered and complicated and not easily captured by pollsters, or maybe abortion goes on the long list of things they officially disapprove of—like getting drunk, lying, not believing in God, sex outside marriage—but that they don’t think about a whole lot unless they have to, and when that day comes, they are very glad to avail themselves of the legal medical procedure they tell pollsters they find morally unacceptable. I really doubt most people who say they are pro-Roe but anti-abortion bring to the subject the vehemence and intense judgmentalism you do. When people are asked what the country’s biggest problems are, abortion doesn’t get many votes. According to a 2006 Gallup poll, abortion ranked 24th among non-economic problems.

Why does this question of premises and passion matter? You think there is a large slice of the pro-Roe population waiting for the pro-choice movement to cleverly harness their intense negative feelings against abortion to a crusade for wider access to birth control, emergency contraception, realistic sex education, and so on. According to you, there are lots of people who abhor abortion, want it to be legal, and support birth control but who are sitting on their hands until the head of Planned Parenthood declares that abortion is a great social evil and ideally should never ever happen even once. I’m not sure why you think they need to hear these magic words—I mean, how brilliant do your pro-Roe abortion-haters have to be for the light bulb to go off in their heads: D’oh! Birth control! It’s almost as if you think these people don’t really like contraception, either, and can only be moved to support it by reminding them that it prevents something even worse.

In any case, the pro-choice movement has been making the more-contraception-equals-less-abortion connection for decades and pushing for all the programs you (and I) want on those very grounds. Where do people go for birth control and emergency contraception? Planned Parenthood, the nation’s brand-name abortion provider. What does the abortion clinic give patients to take away? A supply of pills and a referral to a birth-control clinic. Who wants to give kids accurate information about condoms and other methods? Pro-choicers. I’ve seen and read countless interviews and speeches in which pro-choicers like Faye Wattleton and Kate Michelman and Hillary Clinton make the obvious point that the way to lessen abortion is through contraception. It was Bill Clinton who said abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” The campaign to make emergency contraception available over the counter is quite explicitly about preventing abortion. 

You seem to think the pro-choice movement presents abortion as morally trivial or even a fun afternoon. It’s been decades since the visible, mainstream pro-choice groups defended abortion as anything but a sad necessity and/or something that had to be legal because women have a right to make their own mistakes. They always portray abortion as a “decision,” often a “difficult” one, made reluctantly. That is a way of emphasizing women’s moral agency but also a way of saying that abortion is a morally serious, very unfortunate event. It’s true you won’t hear pro-choice leaders attacking accidental pregnancies as, in your words, “a personal failure.” Perhaps that is because they are more realistic than you are about how those pregnancies happen. Every method has a failure rate, even the pill. Rates of unplanned pregnancy are closely tied to education and income levels—for example, lots of women lack personal doctors they can call if, say, they need to change their brand of pill because of side effects. So, they go off the pill, and by the time they get a clinic appointment, it’s too late. But even in the privileged classes, people are only people. Life is extremely complicated, especially about sex. Probably there are a few readers out there who have never taken a chance, who never had sex except in full armor, and never had a pregnancy scare. Most people can’t make that claim.

You want to use shame to get people to avoid unwanted pregnancy: A woman should feel she has messed up hugely. That’s pretty much the way they feel now! Even women who are raped blame themselves. In our culture, the shame about accidental pregnancy is inextricable from the shame about having had sex. That disapproval of sex is one reason our record with contraception is so poor. If you’re not supposed to be sexual, you don’t plan for sex. You cross your fingers and hope for the best. I realize that to you this must sound counterintuitive, but if we really want to lower unintended pregnancy rates, we’d do better to turn down the emotional-moral flame and think about it as a practical matter of public health.

You want to intensify our culture’s already broad, deep strain of sexual Puritanism, shame and blame, and attach it to contraception. It won’t work, because contraception is really about other values—pleasure, health, self-expression, self-protection. It comes from a different part of the national soul, the anti-Puritan side that says sex is good, has many meanings from sacred to silly, is a natural part of life, and that women should not pay a price for having a sex life. Anti-choicers mostly don’t have this view, and that is why they aren’t so keen on birth control despite the obvious fact that blanketing the nation with contraceptives would lessen the rate of something they consider to be outright murder.

And that is why there is no movement of pro-Roe abortion-hating contraceptive enthusiasts, just waiting for Barbara Boxer to sound the trumpet.