The pro-life movement's contraception problem.

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 3 2009 7:58 AM

Rubber-Baby Money Lumpers

The pro-life movement's contraception problem.

Does the nation's leading pro-life organization oppose contraception?

Officially, the National Right to Life Committee takes no position on birth control. Its legislative director, Douglas Johnson, has restated this neutrality many times. I'm inclined to believe him, because I take people's stated motivations seriously.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

Johnson, however, doesn't take such statements seriously. He relentlessly characterizes his opponents as "pro-abortion," even though they don't like abortions. They call themselves "pro-choice" or "pro-abortion rights." But Johnson insists on an objective standard: Do you support legislation that funds abortions or people who defend them? If so, you're pro-abortion.

By this standard, NRLC is against contraception.

Condom.
Does the nation's leading pro-life organization oppose contraception?

Johnson's latest targets are Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Rachel Laser, director of the culture program at Third Way. Together with Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Ryan and Laser have assembled a coalition of pro-choicers and pro-lifers to promote the Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion, and Supporting Parents Act. The bill includes contraceptive and sex-education funding, an abstinence-friendly curriculum, a bigger adoption tax credit, and financial support for women who continue their pregnancies.

Ryan claims to be pro-life. Laser, who is pro-choice, claims to share Ryan's interest in reducing the number of abortions. Johnson rejects both claims. In a comment posted in Slate's Fray last Wednesday, Johnson repeats that Laser is "pro-abortion" and that she is now using "false flag operations," serving "the public policy goals of the pro-abortion lobby, with a methodology that employs misleading rhetoric, labels, and props intended to disguise the substance of that agenda," thereby providing "camouflage for the pro-abortion politicians." He dismisses the Ryan-DeLauro bill and its themes of abortion reduction and common ground as "phony," a "smokescreen," and a "prop" in a "political charade." He calls Ryan a "front man" for this pro-abortion scheme and accuses him of voting "against all the real pro-lifers."

In short, Johnson calls Laser and Ryan liars. Their true motives, he argues, can be discerned from objective evidence:

Why did Third Way sponsor a "common ground" press conference on Capitol Hill on July 23? Ostensibly to promote the Ryan-DeLauro "abortion reduction" bill, but really, for the primary purpose of furthering the abortion lobby's attempts to undercut efforts by bona fide pro-life members of the House … to amend the Obama-backed health care legislation to prevent subsidies and mandates for abortion. … On July 21, two days before the Third Way "common ground" press conference, Ryan sent a public letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proposing a "common ground" compromise on abortion in the health care legislation. … [U]nder the Ryan-Pelosi-Waxman scheme, the huge new federal subsidies would flow to health plans that fund elective abortions.

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I'll give Johnson the benefit of the doubt and assume he genuinely believes that the press conference was scheduled to facilitate the health care compromise Ryan floated in his July 21 letter. But he's wrong. The press conference was scheduled before the letter was written. The bill and the press conference were going forward regardless of what Ryan did or didn't do in the health care fight. I know this because I know where things stood on July 20. Johnson may not want to believe the bill's architects are sincere, but they are.

So Johnson's characterizations of Ryan's and Laser's motives aren't merely uncharitable. Objectively, insofar as they're based on the legislative timeline, they're false. So is Johnson's description of Laser's employer: "Third Way is devoted to advancing and consolidating the public policy goals of the pro-abortion lobby." Hoo, boy. I don't know which side would laugh harder at that line—Third Way or the pro-choice groups. Let's just say they didn't exactly see eye to eye on Ryan-DeLauro.

Johnson's critique is also incoherent. While dismissing Laser as a "career pro-abortion activist" prior to her current job, he spurns Ryan as fake pro-lifer because, after standing with NRLC on 80 percent of scored votes through 2006, the congressman began voting the wrong way. In other words, Johnson seems to think that around three years ago, Laser's record became fake and Ryan's became real. You just have to ignore everything Ryan did before that moment and everything Laser did afterward.

But what about Johnson's record? If we apply his method of evaluating motives, what can we conclude about the agenda of the National Right to Life Committee?

Johnson says Ryan "did not cast a single pro-life vote in 2007, 2008, or 2009." As evidence, he invites Slate readers to look up Ryan's score card on the NRLC Web site. Let's do that.

From 2003 to 2006, the score card lists 22 key House votes. On these, it shows Ryan voting with NRLC 17 times, voting against it four times, and not voting once. Three of the four votes on which Ryan split with NRLC involved contraception, stem cells, or cost controls on prescription drugs. Of the 22 roll calls scored, 15 were directly about abortion. On these, Ryan voted with NRLC all but once.

From 2007 to 2009, NRLC scored only 10 votes. Four of the first five were on stem cells or cloning. On these, Ryan voted against NRLC twice, and the other two times, he didn't vote. Lots of other anti-abortion legislators, such as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, vote for stem cells and cloning, and NRLC doesn't call them fakers, so those two votes don't explain why NRLC has denounced Ryan. The fifth vote on the NRLC score card was on the Medicare Prescription Drug Price Negotiation Act. NRLC says this vote was a pro-life test because "the bill would result in the imposition of price controls that would limit access to and discourage the development of innovative life-saving medicines."

At this point, we've gone through half of the votes NRLC scored since 2007. None of them was on abortion.

Let's try the next one. Here's NRLC summary:

Under President Bush's pro-life "Mexico City Policy," private overseas organizations that "perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning" are not eligible to receive funds under the U.S. foreign aid program for "population assistance." The Fiscal Year 2008 State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill (H.R. 2764) contained language … requiring the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide such pro-abortion organizations with certain U.S.-funded contraceptive supplies. Pro-life Representatives … offered an amendment, which was strongly supported by NRLC, to remove the pro-abortion language from the bill, but the amendment failed, 205 to 218.

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