What pro-lifers can learn from the Princeton abortion conference.

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 16 2010 7:59 AM

Abortion Common Ground: A Pro-Life Agenda

What pro-lifers can learn from the Princeton abortion conference.

Condom.
Should pro-lifers change their stance on contraception?

A few weeks ago, pro-life and pro-choice thinkers met at Princeton's University Center for Human Values for an open-minded discussion of their differences and possible areas of collaboration. There was plenty of disagreement, and in the weeks since, there's been lots of sniping back and forth about whether the conference was slanted, what was agreed to, and the perfidy of the other side. But the conference did illuminate several steps each side could take to advance a common agenda. Today I'll examine the lessons for pro-lifers. Tomorrow I'll examine the lessons for pro-choicers.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

1. Reduce the abortion rate through voluntary means.  In the conference's opening session (videos of all but one session are available here), David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, warned fellow pro-lifers that overturning Roe v. Wade wouldn't address the underlying cultural dynamics that cause abortions. The next day, Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Notre Dame, voiced a similar concern: "We have to see whether prohibiting [abortion] is actually effective in minimizing, reducing the rate of abortion. And so I'm very concerned with the study in 2007 that indicated that societies which criminalized abortion did not succeed in reducing the rate of abortion."

Rather than focus on passing laws, Gushee conveyed an alternative approach: He urged pro-lifers to study data on why women seek abortions and to systematically address those factors. This approach recognizes that the right to life and the right to choose are not antithetical. In fact, they're aligned to the extent that women don't like abortions. Help women avoid pregnancies they don't want, and you'll wipe out the vast majority of abortions without having to enact a single restriction.

I don't expect pro-lifers to stop fighting for restrictions. But I did notice some of them—notably, Helen Alvare, the former spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—using the term "pro-life" to describe the broad spectrum of Americans who are morally but often not legally opposed to abortion. If you're going to claim these people as part of a pro-life majority, represent them. Pursue a culture of life, not a legal regime.

2. Subsidize maternity. Money can't buy everything. But it can make it easier to carry a pregnancy to term and raise the child. To that extent, it can discourage some abortions. After the conference, several pro-life attendees, writing at Consistent Life, noted the hypocrisy of politicians who oppose abortion while gutting welfare programs that make maternity thinkable for women in financial distress. Charles Camosy, the Fordham theology professor who conceived the conference, reported that he and other pro-lifers discussed this project in a meeting after the conference:

Making good on the claim to support pregnant women. This would of course mean supporting legislation that does this, but it means far more than this—especially if we don't want to alienate pro-lifers that are uncomfortable with big government solutions to social problems. I mentioned during the meeting that it is a national embarrassment that the American Catholic Church says the things it does about abortion but doesn't more boldly step up (especially at the local level) to help pregnant women and new mothers. Every parish that can afford to should have a women's shelter designed to support mothers and their newly born children. Perhaps we could come up [with] a 'starter kit' (or something) that we could circulate to parishes that would put them on their way to doing something like this?

3. Embrace contraception. After the conference, Gushee sent this tweet: "Princeton abortion conference largely a failure in finding common ground." That's pretty funny, because during the conference, Gushee made the most important offer I've heard from anybody on either side of this issue. Speaking of the evangelical Protestants to whom he ministers and belongs, Gushee said:

Because these families and churches don't feel comfortable saying, "If you're going to have sex, use contraception," I think it's fair to say that conservative religion is one contributing factor to the remarkably high rate of unintended pregnancies in our culture. … In my world, I sense currently a weakening of opposition to the provision of birth control and birth control information, including in the South. … I think we're in a moment now where you could get, at least in some school districts in Texas or Mississippi or Alabama, you could win the argument that even if one would wish that our young people were not having sex, we should tell them about birth control anyhow, and that that ought to be happening in public schools. …

The morality of contraception is not the intrinsic problem in Protestant thought that it is in traditional Catholic moral thought. … It ought to be possible to work in historically conservative evangelical subcultures to increase the acceptance of contraceptive education and provision, at least as a second best option. I think it might even be possible to get evangelical Protestants on board to support the idea that birth control should be free to anyone who wants it as an aspect of preventive health care. I think that many evangelicals can be brought around to the idea that even if abstinence before marriage is preferable, the one thing worse than sex outside of marriage is unwanted pregnancy, and the one thing worse than that is abortion. And because many, many evangelical Protestants think this way, I think that they may be able to be brought around to supporting contraception.

If this were to happen—if pro-lifers were to embrace contraception and give it moral sanction—it would prevent more abortions than any anti-abortion law would. Another conference participant, Jen Roth of All Our Lives, alluded to surveys indicating that most people who call themselves pro-life, defined broadly, support contraception. Even  Christopher Kaczor, a Catholic philosopher at Loyola Marymount University, noted the vast moral difference between abortion, which in his view kills an innocent human being, and contraception, which doesn't. Honor that difference. Trade abortion for contraception.

4. Early abortions are better than late ones. The best question I heard at Princeton came from Cristina Page, author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America. "Studies show that restrictions on abortions push women later into pregnancy," she told Alvare and Kaveny. "What if we were to find that in fact it [was] pro-choice policies that would reduce the gestational age? And do you think that reducing gestational age of abortion is a common-ground goal?" Kaveny welcomed the suggestion and said she'd like to see the studies. Alvare was loath to accept the legality of killing, but she conceded that later abortions were riskier to the woman than earlier ones. * From a pro-life standpoint, trading late abortions for early ones is hardly ideal. But it's better than nothing, and if you pursue it, nobody will stand in your way.

5. Choose your friends by your mission, not your mission by your friends. Camosy and Jennifer Miller, the pro-lifers who co-organized the conference, have been derided and accused of treachery by colleagues who regard any cooperation with pro-choicers as stupid or evil. Gushee has endured similar treatment. After the conference, Austin Ruse, the President of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which opposes contraception as well as abortion, mocked Camosy and Miller for being young and poorly funded and for "validating" their pro-choice collaborators.

I hope Camosy and Miller don't lose heart. The reason why young, poorly funded people represented the pro-life movement at this conference is that the old, well-funded people who think they own the movement failed to show up. That's the role young people ought to play in history: thinking in new ways and taking on new challenges when the older generation has lost its compass or its courage. If the pro-life movement is going to be a movement and not just a self-congratulatory fundraising machine, it will need people like Gushee and Camosy to lead the way. These forward thinkers may have to choose between preventing abortions and pleasing the pro-life establishment. It's up to them to choose well.

(For what pro-choicers can learn from Princeton, see Wednesday's article.)

Clarification, Nov. 17, 2010: In her answer to Cristina Page, Helen Alvare said: "I have never seen evidence with regard to the relationship between allowing abortion legally and leading to earlier abortions. I would have to really see that. Obviously the position would be that we would like to save women's health when we can, and later abortions are more risky. But I really don't know that there's a relationship between the two. And denying the fundamental principle of not killing is still problematic." The video can be viewed here. Page's question begins in the 81st minute (1:20). Alvare's answer begins in the 85th minute (1:24).

I initially paraphrased this answer as a concession that later abortions were "worse" than earlier ones. I should have specified that Alvare's answer was specific to maternal risk, whereas Page was thinking of later abortions as worse in both senses. In an email to me, Alvare explains her answer and her position as follows: "I stood by my fundamental principle that the unborn child has a right not to be killed no matter whether the abortion is early or late, while acknowledging the medical fact that later abortions are likely more medically threatening to the mother's health." (Return to the revised sentence.)

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