William Saletan’s much-discussed February 21st New York Times op-ed offers some thoughtful compromises in the ongoing culture war over sanctity-of-life issues. While most pro-lifers will find little to like in his proposals, Saletan does the pro-life movement an extremely valuable service by effectively debunking the notion that better access to contraceptives will significantly lower abortion rates. In so doing, he inadvertently succeeds in making the case that a more chaste culture is the only way for pro-lifers to achieve their long term objective of assuring that every unborn child sees the light of day.
Early in the article, Saletan concisely and effectively makes the case that greater access to contraceptives will do little to stop abortion. Saletan cites a study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which until recently was Planned Parenthood’s research arm. Eight years ago, the Guttmacher Institute surveyed 10,000 women who had abortions. Among those who were not using contraception at the time they conceived, 8 percent said that they lacked access to contraceptives and 2 percent said that they could not afford contraceptives. Given all the already existing programs, it is by no means clear that there are policy instruments that could increase contraceptive use among this subset of women.
Oddly enough, however, contraception plays a key role in two of Saletan’s three compromise proposals on sanctity of life issues. Now his first, and incidentally best, proposal has nothing to do with contraception. Saletan suggests giving the national abortion rate more attention. This would actually be a good idea. Every fall, the Centers for Disease Control releases abortion data with little fanfare and less coverage. The pro-life movement should claim more credit for the progress visible in these numbers, a 20 percent decline in the abortion rate since the early 1990s. It provides tangible evidence that pro-life outreach and pro-life legislative efforts have been effective. Doing this would draw attention to some of the legislative strategies in the states that have succeeded at reducing the incidence of abortion.
This suggestion, however, would encounter political problems. Democrats would be reluctant to give serious attention to declining abortion rates, as they receive a considerable amount of support from abortion providers and pro-choice activists. The former probably do not want to see declining abortion numbers and the latter often see lower abortion rates as evidence of “lack of access.” Additionally, while Republicans will often support incremental pieces of pro-life legislation that enjoy broad support, many Republicans feel uncomfortable discussing overall abortion numbers. Some Republicans might fear that an emphasis on the national abortion rate might create conflict between pro-life incrementalists and pro-life absolutists who feel that small victories , however real, are never enough.
The other two compromises that Saletan proposes both deal with contraception and have the unique characteristic of being both ineffective and impractical. His second suggestion is for family planning counselors to “speak bluntly to women having unprotected sex.” However, it is unclear how often sexually active women who are not using contraception interact with family planning counselors. Furthermore, the contraception statistics that Saletan cites indicate that this proposed compromise will accomplish little.
Third, he suggests that pro-lifers who oppose contraception change their minds and support, or at least tolerate, birth control methods other than natural family planning. Saletan, like the rest of the media, tends to overstate the influence of pro-lifers who oppose contraception. While there are certainly anecdotes of doctors who will not prescribe birth control and pharmacists who refuse to carry contraceptives, Saletan’s own statistics, again, clearly indicate that greater access to contraceptives will not have a significant effect on the abortion rate. Furthermore, most pro-lifers who oppose the use of artificial contraception do so at least in part for religious reasons. As such, expecting them simply to reconsider seems a bit unrealistic.
So where does this leave the pro-life movement? Unfortunately, and wrongly, Saletan dismisses current pro-life efforts as ineffective. Saletan says that pro-lifers tend to “show up after a woman is pregnant,” which he argues is too late. However, there exists a substantial body of peer-reviewed research indicating that parental involvement laws and public funding restrictions do reduce the incidence of abortion. Furthermore, there exist hundreds of crisis pregnancy centers which assist countless women every year who are facing unplanned pregnancies.
Despite the presence of both protective laws and crisis pregnancy centers, a significant number of women facing unplanned pregnancies still seek abortions. The statistics that Saletan cites, however, clearly indicate that more access to contraception will do little to reduce the incidence of unplanned pregnancies. Under the Roe regime, it seems, the only way to reduce the abortion rate substantially seems to be to encourage greater sexual restraint.
Not surprisingly, Saletan is quick to dismiss this idea. As a stand-alone national policy, abstinence is “foolish” he says. Furthermore “mating has overpowered every stricture put in its way.” It should be noted, though, that there was a time when the culture was certainly less promiscuous. The Guttmacher Institute’s own analysis indicates that among people turning 15 between 1964 and 1973—after the advent of the birth control pill—only 39 percent were sexually active by age 18. For the same age cohort 20 years later, that figure increased by 20 percentage points. Interestingly, Guttmacher’s latest figures indicate that among the youngest age cohort, the rate of premarital sex is falling, albeit slightly. Perhaps abstinence education is having some effect after all.
That said, Saletan is partly correct. Creating a more chaste culture will pose a substantial challenge for the pro-life movement. Decisions about sexual activity tend to be resistant to any changes in public policy, and getting people to change their sexual behavior will doubtless be difficult. Pro-lifers need to realize this. At the same time, Saletan and his allies need to realize that a promiscuous culture is never going to support significant restrictions on abortion, regardless of the availability of contraceptives. No contraceptive is one-hundred percent effective and when contraceptives fail in a sexualized culture, there will be significant demand for legal abortion.
Indeed, the damage done by Roe v. Wade went beyond the legalization of abortion in all fifty states. Roe gave abortion rights mainstream political credibility. More importantly, it shifted sexual and cultural mores in such a way as to make the enactment of pro-life laws more difficult. Now, the reversal of Roe would do considerable good for the pro-life movement. It would further stigmatize abortion and remove judicial barriers from the enactment of pro-life legislation. Overturning Roe, however, is only the first step. Indeed, creating a more chaste culture is a battle that the right-to-life movement must engage for years to come.