A few months back, while updating Abort73’s state abortion statistics, I came across a surprising news release on the Guttmacher website. I say surprising because the Guttmacher Institute is unequivocally committed to abortion rights, and the referenced study turns a long-held pro-choice mantra on its head.
The mantra goes like this: The best way to eliminate abortion is to increase the use of birth control. Turns out, such thinking is backwards—as evidenced by the title of the news release: “Women in States With Restrictive Abortion Policies More Likely Than Others to Use Highly Effective Contraceptive Methods.”
Said differently, the best way to increase vigilant contraceptive use is to eliminate abortion. Though that suggestion is anathema to everything the Guttmacher Institute holds dear, it hits much closer to the truth than the reverse.
Increasing the use of birth control will never—can never—eliminate abortion. Even as Guttmacher boasts of a slight decrease in contraceptive failure rates, consider this disclaimer from the World Health Organization (WHO):
Even if all contraceptive users were to use methods perfectly all the time, there would still be nearly six million accidental pregnancies annually. Thus, even with high rates of contraceptive use, unwanted pregnancies will occur which women may seek to end by induced abortion.
Linda Gordon is a long-time feminist author, historian, and professor who has written the definitive history of birth control in the United States. First published in 1976 as Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, it was revised and republished in 2002 as The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America.
Though I disagree with Professor Gordon’s position on abortion, I appreciate her candor with regard to the origins, limitations and even dangers of birth control. She writes:
This relation between contraception and abortion must be emphasized, for it is inaccurate to see them as alternatives. No method of contraception yet developed can eliminate the need for legal abortion. Indeed, from a historical perspective, contraception at first may have increased the clientele for abortion because it accustoms people to planning reproduction and makes them unlikely to accept loss of control.
According to Gordon, it is silly and naive to expect contraception to function as a “magic bullet”—vanquishing unplanned pregnancy forever. There is no such thing, she tells us, as “a contraceptive medicine that will have no side effects, require no sexual responsibility, and produce 100 percent protection.”
As such, Gordon insists that there is no way to morally or ideologically separate birth control from abortion. Why? Because she believes that abortion is birth control—and birth control is abortion.
Her basic point is this. Once you accept the moral legitimacy of birth control, you must accept the moral legitimacy of abortion.
Though she’s trying to move people into a more liberal embrace of abortion, the migration can also work the other way—causing those who reject the moral legitimacy of abortion to seriously question the moral legitimacy of birth control.
Throughout most of human history, Gordon points out, “little or no distinction was made between abortion and contraception; reproduction [was] a process with no sharply differentiated stages prior to birth.”
It is only in the last hundred years that birth control advocates made the pragmatic decision to ideologically distance birth control from abortion. In Gordon’s words:
Historically, contraception [was] legitimized in part at the cost of delegitimizing abortion: the campaign for the legalization of contraception in the early twentieth century had, for the first time, placed contraception and abortion into different moral categories. Throughout this process, many birth control experts and advocates have contrasted “bad” abortion with “good” contraception, and some have predicted that advances in contraception would reduce or even eliminate the need for abortion.
More than forty years after the Supreme Court struck down all state prohibitions against abortion, birth control advocates continue to sell contraception as a panacea for virtually all of society’s ills.
Father Paul Marx, who died in 2010, was the founder of Human Life International. Though Gordon quotes him with a bit of derision, she admires his ability to recognize the inextricable connection between abortion and birth control. He states:
[Contraception] is the gateway to abortion. Not one of the 81 countries I’ve worked in has “clean” contraception without abortion—not one. Once there’s contraception—separating sexual activity from procreation and teaching people to use other’s bodies for selfish pleasure—abortion is always used as a backup.”
Father Marx has recognized the fly in the ointment, so to speak. Birth control does not just prevent a certain outcome; it also prompts a certain behavior.
The reason that virtually all early feminists opposed contraception is because they recognized its capacity to further objectify and oppress women. Gordon writes that the capacity to become pregnant had long served as “a self-protection for women, a means of enforcing men’s responsibility for their sexual behavior.”
Voluntary motherhood advocates believed every woman should have the right of refusal, but “feared contraception as a means by which men could exploit, even rape, women with impunity.” Gordon continues:
The double standard of the Victorian sexual and family system, which had made men’s sexual freedom irresponsible and oppressive to women, left most feminists convinced that increasing, rather than releasing, the taboos against extramarital sex was in their interest, and they threw their support behind social purity campaigns… Almost all the sexual reform movements of the nineteenth century, especially those with a feminist orientation, [were] unanimous in their commitment to the principles of monogamy and marital fidelity, and this commitment was one reason they preferred abstinence to contraception as a form of birth control… The provision of good contraception often made the situation even more difficult for women, depriving them of an excuse for saying no. There was nothing inherent in sexual freedom that challenged the double standard, and, in fact, the double standard was easily adapted to allow the manipulation of women in new ways.
Today, we see the same thing. Abortion is sold as a liberator of women, and then demanded of them by the manipulative and predatory men who impregnate them.
Ironically, anyone who calls foul is then accused of being anti-women. And anyone who questions the moral imperative of birth control is called “anti-science,” or worse.
It’s worth noting, of course, that the scientific community had a very different view of birth control when it first began to gain mainstream acceptance. Gordon writes:
Most physicians in the early 1920s remained opposed to contraception. The predominant position among prestigious doctors was not merely disapproval but revulsion… Many doctors believed that they had a social and moral responsibility to fight the social degeneration that birth control represented… Even had birth control never had its reputation “damaged” by association with socialists, anarchists, and free-lovers, its content still could not be disguised… Birth control was subversive of conventional morality in its substance, and no form of persuasions could fool those who liked the conventional morality.
There is simply no denying the fact that the widespread embrace of contraception has fundamentally changed the nature of our sexual relationships—and more.
For anyone who values the import of the nuclear family, the changes have been devastating. Gordon observes with brutal candor that “the rejection of marriage, of the traditional family, of propriety and dress and behavior” can all be traced to the normalization of contraception.
In large measure, she celebrates these rejections, viewing such institutions as oppressive and patriarchal. But these rejections come at a cost. Even Gordon sees this.
In “offer[ing] themselves to men and to a larger social and political community without the usual protections of these institutions,” women exposed themselves to new dangers. “For men,” Gordon tells us, “the unacceptableness of hiring prostitutes, and the acceptableness of lovemaking with unmarried women for free, grew together and reinforced each other.“
What is the cost of this unfettered lovemaking? In the United States, the cost has been close to 60 million human beings—along with their future progeny. And these aren’t just any human beings; they are the most innocent and helpless members of the human community, whose lives were taken from them without consent.
Sixty million. That’s almost the population of California and Texas combined.
We want what we can’t have (consequence-free sex), so we kill to get it—and what we deem social progress is often nothing more than a desperate attempt to mitigate the natural consequences of dangerous, immoral behavior.
Is this liberation, or a new kind of bondage?
I’ll close with one more excerpt from Linda Gordon:
A majority of births throughout the world remain unplanned and perhaps unintended. But these children are by no means necessarily unwanted; indeed, the equation of desire with planning, the assumption that unplanned means unwanted, is an ahistorical, ideological view of self-determination. The notion of “planned parenthood” is, from a historical perspective, relatively recent, a unique product of twentieth-century industrial civilization, small-family preference, individualism, women’s employment, and the high cost of rearing children.
To me, this is a declaration of hope—a reminder that our calculated and narcissistic view of children is not the historic norm, nor is it a norm in most of the world. I pray it will be a blip on the historic radar.
Though widespread social change takes time, we needn’t despair. After all, it starts in our own homes. It starts with the man (or woman) in the mirror.
Birth control isn’t the only realm in which we’ve been programmed to replace self-discipline with self-indulgence. Our efforts to game the system are myriad. We want to be healthy without having to exercise. We want to be slim without having to eat right. We want to be rich without having to save. We want to be wise without having to study.
We want to be successful without having to work. And we want to have sex without ever getting pregnant. Try as we might, it rarely works that way.