How is contraception like abortion?

Contraceptive pillsAs the debate surrounding insurance coverage of contraception has become more public, more people have become aware that many within the pro-life movement regard contraception as essentially equivalent to abortion, especially hormonal contraceptive methods, and perhaps especially the “morning-after” pill.

“They can and do prevent implantation or can cause ejection even after implantation,” said Richard Land, the head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, referring to morning-after pills and citing medical advisers to his group. “IUDs emphatically do allow conception and do not allow implantation,” he added.

Scientists generally agree that this is not true (as summarized in the article linked above), but nonetheless many pro-lifers feel that there is a basic similarity. One possible response is to jump in with the scientific evidence, and plenty of people have done so—for example, during the contest over Mississippi’s personhood law last year. These kinds of arguments don’t appear to have much impact on those already convinced that the pill is an abortifacient.

I’m all for spreading accurate science, but I also grow frustrated with what seems to be a continual cycle of outrage-response-further outrage-more heated response. I’m reminded of Greg Bateson’s term schismogenesis: as the conflict continues, the rift between opponents simply hardens. So where might we get if we take the claim seriously for a moment? What does contraception have in common with abortion?

This afternoon I was looking back over the older but very good work Faye Ginsburg did on abortion rights activists (pro and con) in North Dakota in the early 1980s. [1] Certainly the political landscape has changed in 30 years, but I continue to find her insights helpful. One element of her work I particularly appreciate is her ability to see the common ground shared by activists on opposite sides of the protest line. In short, she observes that both pro-life and pro-choice women related their activism to their own trying to negotiate the contradictions between their roles as mothers and the working world.

Work-life balance is a familiar key issue for feminists: paid work in the US rarely fits easily with parenthood and family life. This is one reason why pro-choice activists so often stress the importance of women being able to choose when or whether to have children. Children bring extra expenses; childcare responsibilities often interfere with other work. The pro-choice, mainstream feminist answer is to support that choice with reproductive rights, and also to establish more legal and institutional support for working parents—lactation rooms, affordable daycares, and so on. In practice, few women (or men) currently have this kind of support, especially at lower-paid jobs.

Ginsburg finds that pro-life activists experienced the same conflicts, concern that the march of capitalism has taken a severe toll on families, that materialism runs rampant, and that people have begun to view all relationships in commerical terms. In this view, when a woman says she can’t afford to have a child, the deep problem is that children are viewed mainly as an economic decision. (I would also suggest that this is one way in which the slogan “respect life” resonates. It seems inhumane for children to be a cost-benefit calculation, rather than an opportunity to nurture human life.)

This “commercialization of human relations” becomes possible, Ginsburg writes, because we now possess the technical means of separating sex from reproduction.

“In concrete terms, the threat [to the nurturing family] is constituted in the public endorsement of sexuality disengaged from motherhood. From the right-to-life perspective, this situation serves to weaken social pressure on men to take responsibility for the reproductive consequences of intercourse” (631).

Sex divorced from childbearing means that neither society as a whole nor men must bear responsibility for supporting motherhood. This, then, is one way in which contraception and abortion are essentially the same. Even if they do work by different mechanisms (and they do, despite Richard Land’s claims otherwise), it may be irrelevant to many pro-life activists.

There may be other ways; I haven’t been doing the updated research myself. And there may be major differences between the views of Catholic bishops, Republican presidential candidates, and the many grassroots activists in cities around the country. So what do you think—how else is contraception like abortion?

[1] I’m away from the library, so my quotes are coming from Ginsburg’s 1987 article “Procreation Stories: Reproduction, Nurturance, and Procreation in Life Narratives of Abortion Activists” in American Ethnologist 14(4): 623-636. This article is available on JSTOR for anyone with access. Her later book Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community (University of California Press, 1998) is an excellent read and an important work on abortion, reproductive politics, and political activism.


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