Protecting life or regulating sex?

Despite the culture-war rhetoric on both the left and the right, there’s mostly agreement in the abortion debate. The American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman has spent decades analyzing public opinion on this topic, and in her most recent dispatch she wrote, “Most Americans do not want to repeal Roe v. Wade. At the same time, however, they are willing to put significant restrictions on abortion. Majorities of Americans favor notification of spouses, parental consent, and 24-hour waiting periods. They support first-term abortions, but oppose second and third trimester ones.”

Even libertarians argue about it. It’s an issue that, for most Americans, is colored in shades of gray.

But what about those who protest? Is it really just a battle between those who want to protect the “right to life” versus those who want to protect a woman’s “choice?” Or are the loudest culture warriors using pro-life rhetoric as a veil for the regulation of sex?

In recent weeks, a series of articles and medical reports have built up the evidence for the latter.

First came Russell Shorto’s brilliant cover story in the New York Times Magazine, where he compellingly demonstrated that for many opponents of abortion, the war on contraception is of equal importance.

“For the past 33 years,” Shorto wrote, “American social conservatives have been on an unyielding campaign against abortion. But recently, as the conservative tide has continued to swell, this campaign has taken on a broader scope. Its true beginning point may not be Roe but Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 case that had the effect of legalizing contraception.”

From birth control pills to condoms, from emergency contraception to sex education, this battle–waged by just a few–has manifested itself in so many facets of the American polity that it can only be described as a War on Sex. At the urging of these culture warriors, the Bush administration has politicized the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), shortchanged funding for condoms in Africa, and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on abstinence-only education in American schools. Never mind the fact that many of these efforts have brought about disastrous outcomes.

In April 2004, the FDA’s own advisory council voted overwhelmingly to support over-the-counter status for Barr Laboratories’ emergency contraceptive Plan B. Despite that recommendation, however, the FDA denied that status. Although it is theoretically possible for Plan B to prevent a fertilized egg from making it to the womb, the drug usually works–just like birth control–by preventing ovulation. Experts cited by Planned Parenthood estimate wider access to Plan B could prevent 800,000 abortions each year. Inflated? Surely. But preventing even a fraction of that figure should be a worthy goal.

When it comes to AIDS relief in Africa, American money is allocated according to a very specific formula, which mandates that at least 33 percent of all money dedicated to preventive efforts must be spent on abstinence-until-marriage programs. A moral aversion to condoms has arguably contributed to the deaths of countless Africans. Even the Catholic Church, citing the prevalence of AIDS in Africa, may be modifying its position in the condom debate.

And when it comes to abstinence-only education, millions are spent on a program that, as we learned in 2004, teaches such nuggets as “a pregnancy occurs one out of every seven times that couples use condoms”; “‘in heterosexual sex, condoms fail to prevent HIV approximately 31 percent of the time”; and “forty-one percent of heterosexual teen girls and 50 percent of homosexual teen boys have HIV.” As one could probably guess, most studies suggest that condoms are effective in preventing pregnancy and protecting against HIV at least 98 percent of the time. And those HIV figures are laughable.

Soon after Shorto’s New York Times Magazine essay, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) launched a campaign encouraging women to ask their doctors for advance prescriptions for emergency contraception. Needless to say, ACOG’s crusade has infuriated many cultural conservatives. At Townhall.com, commentator Nathan Tabor wrote, “what’s to prevent the pill from getting into the hands of the woman’s impressionable 13-year-old daughter, who sees the pill as a good excuse to ‘hook up’ with a boy she barely knows?”

Longtime political analyst Norm Ornstein–a radical centrist, if there is such a thing–blames these trends on “a sliver of the pro-life movement” that is “[most] interested in seeing sex as something that should be sharply discouraged and punished.” Thus, he went on to say, “any moves made that could encourage people to have sex–even if the process of doing so would substantially reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies–are going to result in a sharp, visceral, emotional opposition from a core group of conservatives.”

Ornstein was most passionate when discussing Gardasil, a vaccine for cervical cancer that works by effectively blocking the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that afflicts at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women at some point in their lives. Leading, in rare cases, to cervical cancer, Gardasil was finally approved by the FDA this past week. But the drug caused much consternation among culture warriors, because, as Steven Groopman of the New Republic wrote, “the Christian right [seems] to view the vaccine as a license for promiscuity.”

But the battle over the cancer vaccine is just beginning. While public health advocates are already lobbying for Gardasil to be added to the list of mandatory inoculations, many social conservatives stand ready to wage war.

In a carefully worded statement issued earlier this year, Focus on the Family offered their support for “widespread” availability of the vaccine, but announced their strong opposition to “mandatory HPV vaccinations.” As their statement argued, “the seriousness of HPV . . . underscores the significance of God’s design for sexuality to human well-being. Thus, Focus on the Family affirms–above any available health intervention–abstinence until marriage and faithfulness after marriage as the best and primary practice in preventing HPV[.]”

As Ornstein explained, “The tradeoff on the cervical cancer vaccine is that many, many women die unnecessarily because the vaccine may prevent a tiny number of adolescents who otherwise wouldn’t have sex from doing so. No reasonable person can accept that as a trade off.” Just like condoms in Africa and emergency contraception in the U.S., Ornstein continued, “you’ve got people that are just blind to the notion that there are tradeoffs here.” By ignoring “the real trade offs” in order to “promote a greater morality,” he argued, “tens of thousands of people die.”

As a nation that enshrines the “pursuit of happiness” in our founding document, it’s hard to contend that there’s any place for the regulation of sex. And considering that 98 percent of women who have ever had sex used contraception, it’s hard to imagine that many Americans disagree.

That “sliver of the pro-life movement,” however, wields an outsized political clout, and their pro-choice counterparts on the far left of the spectrum find it difficult to focus on anything but Roe v. Wade. But there is still a chance for sanity.

Late last month, London School of Economics philosopher Luc Bovens published a paper that took direct issue with those who condone the rhythm method as a form of birth control. Because that method is successful due to less viable embryos, Bovens argues that the pro-life line of reasoning should find that the rhythm method is even more deadly than condoms, birth control pills, IUDs, and emergency contraception. The blogosphere erupted upon its publication, because besides banning sex, there’s not much left for the culture warriors to lobby for.

And in last Sunday’s Washington Post, an anonymous, married, 42-year-old mother penned an op-ed about her recent abortion. As she explained, “One Thursday evening this past March, [my husband and I] managed to snag some rare couple time and, in a sudden rush of passion, I failed to insert my diaphragm.” Unable to purchase Plan B over-the-counter, and with a gynecologist who wouldn’t prescribe the drug, the op-ed’s author took her chances–and wound up pregnant. She decided to have an abortion.

As Norm Ornstein explained, “[this abortion] would be decried by the very people who made sure she didn’t have Plan B available. As you see more stories like that, I think it’s going to change the nature of the debate.”

Or so one can hope.

David White, a former assistant editor at The American Enterprise, is a writer in Washington.

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