Do Pro-Lifers Oppose Birth Control? Polls Say No.

Think again.
Jan. 15 2014 10:07 AM

Do Pro-Lifers Oppose Birth Control?

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These Lifestyles fit right in with the lifestyles of most pro-lifers.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Are pro-lifers—people who claim to oppose abortion on the grounds that it’s the taking of a human life—against birth control?

Many of you seem to think they are. Here are excerpts from the comments on yesterday’s post about reducing the abortion rate through birth control:

MrsLiv: I think you're missing the whole point of the pro-life, pro-choice fight. Pro-choice isn't about abortion, any more than pro-life is about babies. One side thinks that humans should have freedom to control their reproductive lives, and the other side thinks if a woman chooses to have sex, she should face the "consequence" of raising a child. … [Conservatives] don't actually care about all the abortions, or they would support the policies we know lower the abortion rate. They care about doing their best to control other people and punish those who don't follow the rules they want them to follow.
Ominous_silence: Whatever their motives, it's hard not to conclude that the anti-abortion side objects to a women's right to make medical decisions in private.
Dannni: Pro-life supports nothing but fetal life, generally screaming about fetal murder without supporting birth control access, sex ed, or social programs. 
felagund: We don't have to satisfy "pro-life" objectives at all. And one objective we won't satisfy is to pretend that "pro-life" people are actually pro-life. Lord Saletan and his ilk are misogynists who want to see women suffer.
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The assertion that pro-lifers don’t really care about abortion—that what really motivates them is misogyny, controlling other people’s bodies, and forcing anyone who has sex to have a baby—is morally comforting to a lot of pro-choice people. It reassures us that we’re on the side of compassion, justice, and progress, and that there’s no reason to feel ambivalent about this issue. We have nothing to heed or learn from our enemies. Our only challenge is to defeat them.

This is one of those echo-chamber beliefs that won’t survive a reality test. Here are some results from a Gallup poll of U.S. adults, taken in May 2012:

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Let’s assume, to be as generous as possible, that every person who said any of these things was morally wrong also said that abortion was wrong. Then let’s subtract the percentage who said the other things were wrong from the percentage who said abortion was wrong. In that case, here’s the math: Forty-two percent of the sample said that abortion and having a baby outside marriage were wrong; 9 percent said that abortion was wrong but did not say that having a baby outside marriage was wrong. Ditto for abortion versus “gay and lesbian relations.” Thirty-eight percent of the sample said that abortion and sex between unmarried people were wrong; 13 percent said that abortion was wrong but did not say that sex between unmarried people was wrong. Twenty-five percent of the sample said that abortion and divorce were wrong; 26 percent said that abortion was wrong but did not say that divorce was wrong. Eight percent of the sample said that abortion and birth control were wrong; 43 percent said that abortion was wrong but did not say that birth control was wrong.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

Now let’s take these remainders—9, 13, 26, 43—and express them as percentages of the 51 percent who said abortion was wrong. Here’s what we get. Among people who said abortion was wrong, 18 percent did not say that having a baby outside of marriage was wrong. Similarly, 18 percent did not say that gay and lesbian relations were wrong. Twenty-five percent did not say that sex between unmarried people was wrong. Fifty-one percent did not say that divorce was wrong. Eighty-four percent did not say that birth control was wrong.

In fact, let’s assume, to be generous again, that every person who did not explicitly say that birth control was morally acceptable was a person who said abortion was wrong. After subtracting that 11 percent, we find that 40 percent of the entire sample said that abortion was wrong but that birth control was acceptable.  Divide 40 by 51, and here’s what you get: At a minimum, 78 percent of all respondents who said abortion was morally wrong also said that birth control was morally acceptable.

What was that again about pro-lifers doing their best to control other people? About making women face the consequences of sex? About objecting to a woman’s right to make medical decisions in private? About wanting to see women suffer?

If you’re determined to insist that pro-lifers really oppose birth control, these numbers won’t sway you. You can always argue that they’re against “access” to birth control. It’s true that the absolutism of pro-life political leaders has driven them to attack all public funding of family-planning organizations that perform, or even counsel women about, abortions. If you think they’re foolish and wrong to do so, I agree with you. But that’s an argument about policy and consequences. It’s not about motives. And the further the pro-life movement ventures in this direction, the further it strays from the pro-life public.

Pro-lifers don’t oppose birth control. They support it overwhelmingly. Three of every four people who regard abortion as morally wrong believe not just that you have a right to use contraception, but that using it is morally acceptable. That’s not my opinion. It’s a fact.

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