The Religious Right’s Counterproductive Positions On Contraception And Abortion

It comes as no surprise that many in the religious right are not satisfied with the data released earlier this month showing a decrease in abortions. Margaret Talbot discussed their reaction:

One problem was that the groups didn’t like the messenger. The report, which showed that between 2008 and 2011 the rate of abortions had fallen to its lowest level since 1973, came from the Guttmacher Institute. Guttmacher produces scrupulous research on reproductive health; it also supports abortion rights. But the bigger problem was the message itself, because the report made a persuasive case that the right-to-life movement cannot take credit for the decline in abortions. Since 2008, states have enacted more than a hundred laws related to abortion, most aimed at limiting access to the procedure. The researchers, however, concluded that the new laws, with few exceptions, had had little impact on the number of abortions. Instead, much of the decline is probably attributable to more effective contraception, some of it available through the federal funding—“Uncle Sugar,” in Mike Huckabee’s creepy coinage—that Republicans like to rail against.

As the goals of the religious right are based upon a desire for control and using government to impose their religious views on others, we have known for quite a while that they also sought restrictions on birth control, even if this would be inconsistent with a lone goal of reducing abortions. Talbot pointed out a couple of additional counterproductive and seemingly contradictory aspects of the position of the religious right. Their extension of opposition to choice beyond abortion prevents possible compromise with liberals who would support measures to reduce abortions which do not involve denying choice. The actions of the religious right also increase the possibility that abortions will be obtained later in the course of pregnancy. While the religious right often devotes a lot of their rhetoric to later-term abortions, these are actually very rare, and their actions are contrary to a claimed goal of reducing these:

Nonetheless, the new laws do place additional burdens on women seeking abortions, and, perhaps more important, they may also be erecting obstacles to a consensus position on abortion—one that most Americans could abide. For reasons both moral and practical, most Americans think that if an abortion is to be performed it should be done early in the pregnancy. Yet many of the laws that right-to-life groups have pressed for in recent years have tended to produce the opposite effect, resulting in later abortions. Consider the case of medical abortions, induced by the drug mifepristone, the so-called abortion pill. The Guttmacher report shows that, between 2008 and 2011, there was a striking increase in the percentage of such procedures—in 2011, they accounted for twenty-three per cent (up from seventeen per cent) of all non-hospital abortions—even as the over-all rate declined. By definition, these are early abortions: they are performed before nine weeks’ gestation. (Unlike surgical abortions, they can be done almost as soon as a woman receives a positive pregnancy test.) From the public-health, reproductive-choice, and moral-comfort points of view, an increase in the percentage of abortions performed this way is beneficial.

Yet the latest vogue in anti-abortion legislation is to ban medical abortions. One approach has been to short-circuit programs that allow mifepristone to be prescribed through telemedicine. A program started in Iowa, in 2008, allowed a woman to receive ultrasounds and talk to a counsellor at a satellite clinic, and then video-conference with a doctor in another location. The doctor could remotely unlock a drawer in the clinic and the necessary medication was dispensed to the woman. After the program began, women seeking abortions in Iowa tended to do so earlier; nevertheless, the over-all abortion rate in the state declined. The program’s safety record and women’s reported satisfaction with it were solid. (It was especially helpful in rural areas.) But in 2010 Iowa elected an anti-choice Republican governor, who appointed new members to the state medical board, and it subsequently ended the program. A judge stayed the ban in November, and the matter is now being litigated. Meanwhile, legislatures in fourteen other states have prohibited the use of telemedicine for medical abortion—“Webcam abortion,” as opponents call it—even though the system hasn’t even been tried on any significant scale in those states.

All this brings to mind the bizarre inability of certain prominent Republicans to understand the importance of contraception in our society. Making it more difficult for women to get an abortion early in an unintended pregnancy—or to prevent an unintended pregnancy in the first place—makes their lives harder. Yet Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul have been on a tear recently, insisting that focussing on reproductive rights patronizes women. Unlike Democrats, Huckabee says, Republicans want women to be “something other than victims of their gender,” who are “helpless without Uncle Sugar” to “control their libido or their reproductive system.” It shouldn’t be necessary to say it again, but a woman’s ability to exert control over her reproductive system is at the heart of her ability to control her destiny in many other ways as well.

The right’s anti-abortion crusade must be seen not as actions being promoted with the sole goal of reducing abortions but as a campaign to exercise control over the rights of others. Ed Kilgore argues that “antichoice activists almost universally regard the very contraceptive measures most associated with reduced abortion rates, especially the highly effective IUD, not as contraceptives at all but as ‘abortifacients,’ because they operate (or might operate) to interfere with the implantation of fertilized ova on the uterine wall.”  He concluded his discussion of Talbot’s article by writing:

None of this, however, is the least bit surprising if you think all abortions—including the “abortion” of fertilized ova that may occur when an IUD or a Plan B pill—or any other hormonal birth control method—is used—are equally horrific acts of homicide. That is the position of virtually every “right to life” group in the country. So their propaganda focus on late-term abortions is entirely strategic. For all the millions of tears shed about the “barbarity” of the tiny handful of late-term abortions performed legally (or illegally, as was the case with Dr. Kermit Gosnell, whose clinic antichoicers have seized on with enormous glee), the antichoice goal is as it has always been to use widespread instinctive unease with late-term abortions as a stepping stone to a total abortion ban, which would extend to “abortifacient” devices like IUDs. Nobody should forget that for a moment.

While to a certain degree true, the problem remains that many on the religious right see the use of contraception by others as something they have the right to regulate, regardless of the mechanism of action. BooMan responds to this by asking, “should we consider these people to just be deluded? Or, should we consider them to be primarily concerned not about abortion, but with preventing women from having sex out of wedlock? Is the idea basically that if women can’t separate sex from child-bearing that they will save themselves for marriage?”

I hate to try to say what the motivation is of others, but I suspect that for most who seek to restrict reproductive rights the prevention of sex out of wedlock is only part of their motivation for opposing both abortion and contraception. Their desire to control reproductive rights and the bodies of women extends to married women and is not limited to preventing sex out of wedlock, as much as they might desire to do this.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice