An answer to Ross Douthat on birth control and second-trimester abortions.

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 2 2010 10:09 AM

Rethinking Roe and Contraception

An answer to Ross Douthat on birth control and second-trimester abortions.

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Pro-lifers have long argued that contraceptive availability hasn't produced the expected reduction in unintended pregnancies. They're right. The core of their argument is that unintended pregnancy is more than a technical problem. It's a cultural problem. Douthat made precisely this point in an essay last week, responding to the pope's recent comments on the merits of condoms. Fourteen years ago, he noted, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who is now Pope Benedict) said of birth control:

[W]e cannot resolve great moral problems simply with techniques, with chemistry, but must solve them morally, with a life-style. It is, I think—independently now of contraception—one of our great perils that we want to master even the human condition with technology, that we have forgotten that there are primordial human problems that are not susceptible of technological solutions but that demand a certain life-style and life decisions …

Exactly. This is what critics on the right, and many proponents on the left, have misunderstood about contraception. It can't just be a technology. It has to be a moral commitment. One of the world's leading experts on this subject, James Trussell, explained at Princeton why contraception has disappointed the hopes of its proponents: Condoms don't work when you leave them in the drawer.

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I don't mean to detach contraception from the larger question of taking sex seriously. The Catholic Church and other advocates of sexual morality have important things to say about that topic generally. What they misunderstand is how birth control fits into the equation. Properly applied, it isn't part of a licentious lifestyle. It's part of an ethic of respecting yourself, your partner, and the gravity of what you're doing.

It will also reduce the abortion rate way more than second-trimester restrictions would. When you compare the annual pregnancy rates for unprotected sex, natural family planning, and contraception, it's simply inconceivable that people who use contraception will have more unintended pregnancies and abortions than people who don't. Even if contraception emboldens many people to have more sex, they can't have enough of it to make up the difference. But this equation only works if they use birth control religiously. And money alone can't make that happen.

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