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.

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

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.

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.

Ryan flunked this test. He voted, in NRLC's words, to provide "U.S.-funded contraceptive supplies."

The next scored vote came a month later. According to the score card:

Title X ("Title 10") of the Public Health Service Act provides more than $300 million annually for grants to state and private entities for "family planning" programs. Although federal law does not permit such funds to be used to pay for abortions, large amounts of Title X funds go to organizations that operate abortion clinics, including affiliates of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), the nation's largest abortion provider. On July 19, 2007, during consideration of the Fiscal Year 2008 appropriations bill for the federal Department of Health and Human Services, pro-life Congressman Mike Pence (R-In.) offered an amendment to prohibit any Title X funds from going to any arm of Planned Parenthood. The amendment did not reduce the amount of money appropriated for Title X overall.

Again, Ryan flunked. He voted to keep Planned Parenthood eligible for family-planning grants based on the premise, acknowledged by NRLC, that "federal law does not permit such funds to be used to pay for abortions."

The next vote was on the Foreign Relations Authorization Act. NRLC explains:

The bill contained a section to establish an Office for Global Women's Issues, headed by an ambassador-at-large who will report directly to Secretary [Hillary] Clinton. Given the clear evidence that the Obama Administration State Department is determined to campaign for abortion, NRLC informed House members that NRLC opposed the bill, unless the House added an amendment proposed by Congressman Smith to prohibit the office from engaging in activities to change foreign abortion laws. However, the House Rules Committee—which is an arm of the leadership of the Democratic majority that controls the House—refused to allow the House to vote on the Smith Amendment, so NRLC opposed passage of the bill.

Again, Ryan flunked. He voted to fund the State Department, even though the secretary of state favored abortion rights.

So far, we've been through eight of NRLC's 10 scored votes for the last three years. They've been on stem cells, drug price controls, contraception, and funding the State Department. Not until two weeks ago did NRLC finally score a vote that was directly on abortion. Here's NRLC's description:

The District of Columbia is a federal jurisdiction which, under Article I of the U.S. Constitution, is completely under the legislative authority of Congress. Therefore, the entire budget for D.C. (including locally generated revenues) is appropriated by Congress as part of the annual "Financial Services appropriations bill." … in 2009, at the urging of the Obama White House, the House Appropriations Committee inserted new language in the bill to allow the D.C. city government to use locally generated (but congressionally appropriated) funds for abortion on demand. The House Democratic majority leadership did not allow the full House of Representatives to vote on an amendment to restore the traditional pro-life provision. Thus, NRLC opposed passage of the bill …

Ryan voted to let the D.C. budget go through because, as he put it, "Congress shouldn't tell the District of Columbia that it can't use its own money to fund abortions." NRLC's position is that there's no such thing as D.C.'s own money, since even the District's "locally generated revenues" are "appropriated by Congress." That's a defensible position. But while invoking this bookkeeping technicality, NRLC rejects such technicalities in the case of Planned Parenthood. Money for contraception? Money for abortion? In NRLC's view, it's all the same thing, no matter what the law says. Based on this view, NRLC flunked Ryan one more time on July 24, when he voted to let Planned Parenthood receive family-planning grants, again with the understanding that "federal law does not permit such funds to be used to pay for abortions."

Those are the 10 votes NRLC has scored since 2007. Of the first five, four were on stem cells; the other was on drug price controls. Of the most recent five, one was on abortion funding, another was on State Department appropriations, and three were on contraception. Compare this to 2003-2006, when 15 of the 22 votes scored by NRLC were directly on abortion, and Ryan's record on those 15 votes was, from an anti-abortion standpoint, nearly perfect. In 2007, Ryan began to flunk the scorecard because the scorecard was no longer primarily about abortion. It wasn't Ryan who changed. It was NRLC.

The same can be said of Democrats for Life of America. As evidence that Ryan isn't a "real" pro-lifer, Johnson points out that DFLA "kicked Ryan off their advisory board last year—and no, it wasn't because he supports contraception." Really? Let's check the record. In an article posted at Catholic Online two weeks ago, DFLA Executive Director Kristen Day explained Ryan's ouster this way:

[I]n the last year or so Congressman Ryan's voting record has become more and more pro-abortion. After his last vote in favor of taxpayer funded abortions, his credibility as a pro-life legislator has crumbled with the national pro-life community. These developments forced DFLA to quietly remove Congressman Ryan from the National Advisory Board last year.

Last year. That was 2008, before the votes on D.C. appropriations and the Obama State Department. The only funding votes Ryan had flunked at that point were on contraception. DFLA excommunicated Ryan for the same reason NRLC did: He disagreed with them on birth control.

I'd like to think NRLC and DFLA are anti-abortion, not anti-contraception. But when I look at them as Johnson would, ignoring their stated motives and focusing instead on their records, I can't really defend them.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1) Two critiques of abortion reduction. 2) China's new two-child policy. 3) Baseball and DNA testing.)