The pro-life case for contraception.

Science, technology, and life.
Sept. 30 2006 8:07 AM

Where the Rubber Meets Roe

The pro-life case for contraception.

The issue that never changes is finally changing.

If you're one of the millions of Americans who don't like abortion but also don't like the idea of banning it, good news is on the way. In the last three weeks, two bills have been filed in the House of Representatives. Without banning a single procedure, they aim to significantly lower the rate of abortions performed in this country. Voluntary reduction, not criminalization or moral silence, is the new approach.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Advertisement

How do you stop abortions without restricting them? One way is to persuade women to complete their pregnancies instead of terminating them. The other is to prevent unintended pregnancies in the first place. And there's the rub—or, in this case, the rubber. The two House bills used to be one proposal, backed by an alliance of pro-life lawmakers and organizations. The alliance split because one faction wanted to fund contraception and the other didn't.

In short, the good news is that we no longer have to fight about abortion. The bad news is that we're now fighting about contraception. The old question was abortion as birth control. The new question is abortion or birth control. To lower the abortion rate, we need more contraception. And that means confronting politicians who stand in the way.

In the last two years, Hillary Clinton, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and many pro-choice House Democrats have conceded that abortion is tragic and that its frequency must be reduced. Third Way, a progressive think tank, has pushed hard in this direction.

Meanwhile, Democrats for Life of America, which has eight members of Congress on its advisory board and works with 30 more, has devised a plan to cut the abortion rate by 95 percent "by helping and supporting pregnant women." Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, was set to lead the charge.

Then Ryan looked at the data and realized that to get anywhere near their target, he and his pro-life colleagues would have to provide more birth control. That's when the squirming began.

Some of Ryan's allies worried that morning-after pills might prevent embryos from implanting, so he omitted such pills from his bill. They opposed requiring private insurers to offer contraceptive coverage, so he took that out, too. They complained that other pregnancy-prevention bills hadn't emphasized abortion reduction, so he put abortion reduction in the title. They wanted sex education programs to emphasize abstinence; they got it. The only troublesome thing left in the bill was birth control.

It broke the deal. Democrats for Life abandoned Ryan and launched a contraceptive-free alternative. With it went Americans United for Life, the National Association of Evangelicals, and 13 pro-life House Democrats, led by Rep. James Oberstar, the Democratic co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-life Caucus. Ryan added his name to their bill, but they refused to add their names to his. Focus on the Family, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Rush Limbaugh, and Rep. Chris Smith, the Republican co-chairman of the Pro-life Caucus, excoriated Ryan's bill. The Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, based in Ryan's district, sent him a letter asking him to withdraw it.

The objectors make several arguments. They point out that birth-control pills, like morning-after pills, can block implantation of an embryo. But there's no evidence that this has ever happened. The risk is theoretical, and breast-feeding poses the same risk, so you'd have to stamp that out, too. Critics also note that many birth-control methods can fail. That's true, but it's an argument for using two methods, not zero.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Even if You Don’t Like Batman, You Might Like Gotham

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

John Oliver Debunks the Miss America Pageant’s Claim That It Gives Out $45 Million in Scholarships

Trending News Channel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Over There
Sept. 22 2014 1:29 PM “That’s Called Jim Crow” Philip Gourevitch on America’s hypocritical interventions in Africa.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 1:37 PM Subprime Loans Are Back! And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 2:55 PM Nuptial Expert Sarkozy Worries About Gay Marriage and the Family
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM Escaping the Extreme Christian Fundamentalism of "Quiverfull"
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 3:16 PM Watch the Best Part of Beyoncé and Jay Z’s On the Run Tour
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 12:14 PM Family Court Rules That You Can Serve Someone With Legal Papers Over Facebook
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 22 2014 12:15 PM The Changing Face of Climate Change Will the leaders of the People’s Climate March now lead the movement?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.