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.

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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.

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