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As the nation awaits the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the topic of abortion dominates the editorial pages of major news outlets. If, after nearly 50 years, the legal stranglehold Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey have on states’ ability to craft laws restricting abortion is broken, abortion supporters know every state immediately becomes an abortion battle ground. Heavy efforts are underway to frame the issue and lay the rhetorical groundwork on which to build public support for permissive abortion laws throughout the United States.
In a recent New York Times editorial entitled “The Anti-Abortion Movement Could Reduce Abortions if It Wanted To,”1 lawyer and journalist Jill Filipovic makes the case that an unhealthy preoccupation with birth control at the expense of limiting abortions exposes some ugly truths about the pro-life movement. According to Filipovic, pro-lifers are more interested in controlling women’s bodies than they are in pursuing measures that reduce the numbers of abortions, those measures being free access to long term contraception and comprehensive sex education. Filipovic characterizes “many” pro-life individuals as mistakenly believing that contraception causes an abortion. These same people work to deny access to sex education and family planning, preventing the most vulnerable members of society — those most likely to experience unplanned pregnancies and seek abortions — the ability to use the most effective forms of contraception.
The editorial is an oddly argued ad hominem attack. She condemns the prolife movement for not doing things to limit the number of abortions, which she believes are a fundamental right for all women and a good thing she has no interest in limiting. In an amazing coincidence, the measures most likely to serve the pro-life cause of reducing abortion happen to line up with the author’s own agenda for free contraception and progressive ideas on sex education. Filipovic draws on multiple lines of evidence to support her central claim.
- She cites a study from Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood’s research arm, claiming the most likely explanation for the decrease in incidents of abortion in the United States is the increased access to long term contraception like IUD’s.
- She accuses many conservatives of being opposed to contraception and of pushing abstinence in sex education programs instead of comprehensive sex education.
- When former President Trump cut Title X funding to clinics, which paid for family planning to key demographics, he demonstrated conservatives are more committed to politics than helping reduce abortions.
- The conservative Supreme Court fought contraception access when they decided in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, finding that smaller, closely held, privately owned businesses could appeal to a religious exemption to escape providing effective contraception as part of the healthcare insurance coverage for their employees.
Filipovic frames the editorial around a question: “Why would groups that want to end abortion not support the most efficient way to make abortions less common?” The answer to that question is more complex than she leads her readers to believe. A closer evaluation of each enumerated claim above demonstrates there is far more going on than the lazy accusation of indifference or misplaced priorities indicates.
The Abortion Rate Decline
Filipovic makes a broad claim about abortion rates in her editorial: “The U.S. abortion rate is at a record low because of a significant decrease in unintended pregnancies, which Guttmacher Institute researchers say ‘is most plausibly explained by more and better contraceptive use.’” The cited study by Guttmacher Institute examines the possible causes for a steepening in the decline of the abortion rate observed from 2008–2011.2 After assessing the probability that this decline could be explained by changes in public attitudes on sex, an increasing respect for the value of human life in general, or restrictive laws on abortion access, the researchers conclude that the most plausible explanation for this decline is an increased usage of long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARC) like IUD’s.
The study offers only explanations for the decline seen in those years and does not explain the general decline in incidents of abortion in the United States, which began all the way back in 19903 and continued for nearly 30 years. A more recent Guttmacher article claims that increased LARC use likely played some role in the decline of abortion rates through the year 2017.4 The authors of this later research admit that more abortion restrictive laws passed by pro-life state legislatures around 2011 and afterward may play some role, as does a possible decrease in sexual activity across the board. They also speculate mail-ordered abortion drugs (misoprostol and mifepristone) are possibly raising incidents of self-managed abortion, which would mean the abortion rate might not be falling to the extent reported.
This does not come close to supporting Filipovic’s broadly stated claim. The decline in abortion rates since 1990 cannot be accounted for by pinpointing one cause. The arc of reduction is too long and crosses too many demographic and cultural changes. It is bizarre to claim that decades of reduction can be explained by one cause and then support that claim with a study examining only four years while ignoring decades of previously observed decline and subsequent studies.
The Pro-Life Movement and Contraception
Filipovic’s accusation that many pro-lifers oppose contraception is certainly true. We can concede that point because the word “many” can mean almost anything. Many pro-life individuals oppose the use of contraception based on Roman Catholic belief that sex is a unifying act between a husband and a wife from which children are derived as a blessing. Contraception reduces sex to something detached from greater reproductive and spiritual purposes. Many other people believe some forms of contraception — oral contraception and IUD’s — are abortifacient. Filipovic mocks that view while providing a link to an article complaining the FDA encourages this idea by refusing to remove a warning that oral contraceptives can inhibit implantation,5 therefore destroying a life that began at fertilization. A University of Michigan Health page on understanding contraception repeats the same claim: oral contraception and IUD’s negatively impact implantation.6 Even if one is inclined to believe that the best science doesn’t support such a claim, believing institutions such as the FDA and University of Michigan hardly makes people worthy to be mocked. Additionally, many pro-life individuals do not share either of the former concerns.
For the record, many pro-life individuals oppose the death penalty, and many don’t. Many oppose eating meat as animal cruelty, and many more do not. That is the problem with this approach. Without definitions and a better source to clarify her terms, we can admit she is right without that admission being evidence of a larger movement. It is hopelessly vague.
Comprehensive Sex Education in Schools
It can also be accepted that conservatives, and by extension pro-lifers, often resist what Filipovic terms comprehensive sex education being taught in public schools. Certain people don’t trust the government to exhibit restraint in teaching sexual values rather than basic biological information. Believing the government is poorly equipped to teach children values surrounding something as important and vital to their physical, emotional, and spiritual health as sex does not make an individual anti sex education.
A Northern California mother recently sued her daughter’s middle school because two teachers there encouraged her daughter to join a club promoting views in opposition to her mother’s and even encouraged her daughter to embrace the idea she is transexual.7 This comes on the heels of leaked documents and audio from a California Teachers Association Conference where a topic of discussion was how to secretly advance gender and LGBTQ issues in school districts with conservative parents.8 Is it any wonder parents worry about what is meant by comprehensive sex education for their children? These parents are not against sex education. They oppose outsourcing parental responsibilities to teach their children sexual values to government employees who often express open hostility toward those values.
Title X Funding
Title X is a federally funded program to provide family planning and contraception to the members of our communities who are most in need, at little to no cost. In 2019, then President Trump placed a restriction on the use of Title X funds. Any organization that received funds must not provide abortions or counsel women toward abortion. His political opponents named this the “Domestic Gag Rule.” Multiple states and nearly a thousand U.S. clinics dropped out of the Title X program altogether.9 This greatly reduced the number of women and families benefitting from the program, according to President Trump’s critics. President Biden has already reversed this policy and is acting to help restore funding to levels far beyond what they previously had been.
Restrictions on how organizations receiving federal funds are allowed to communicate are not new. Faith-based organizations are not allowed to mix federally funded services with “inherently religious” activities.10 A homeless ministry accepting federal funds can share the gospel and it can provide food and shelter, but it can’t tie those two activities together. Some organizations abstain from taking federal funding for exactly that reason, they don’t want to separate the gospel from their other services. It is too important to them.
Oddly, the organizations and states that dropped out of the Title X program in protest of the “Gag Rule” made exactly the choice Filipovic accuses the pro-life community of making. They had the option to provide family planning and contraception to at-risk communities with government grants or to provide counsel toward abortion and perform abortions. They made the decision to stay ideologically pure on abortion even if it meant fewer people could be helped in other areas.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Contraception Access
Filipovic claims the Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores further denied access to affordable contraception. This is disingenuous. The decision establishes that owners of a closely held private business can seek exemption on religious grounds from being required to pay for contraception they sincerely believe to be abortifacient. A review of the details reveals the case decision was made public on June 30, 2014. By August 22, 2014, the Obama administration announced the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services created alternative means to supply contraception excluded from the coverage of any privately owned business that filed for exemption.11 This contraception was offered at no cost to either the company or the women. The Hobby Lobby decision did not prevent people from getting anything. It simply changed how they got it. It added an extra bureaucratic step, but that seems a small price to pay to protect the freedom of religious business owners from having to violate their conscience to stay in business.
Is limiting Abortion Enough?
Filipovic has no interest in limiting abortion. In the end, she champions contraception because she sees it logically and legally connected to permissive abortion laws. The right to contraception leads to the right to abortion. She approaches it as a war on two fronts whether the facts support such a charge or not. Supporting contraception and Filipovic’s ideas of comprehensive sex education cannot guarantee the results she claims and threatens to draw people into areas that undermine their personally held values and violate their conscience.
At our best, the pro-life community champions a clear message. Every human being ought to be treated with dignity and respect. Human beings are the imago Dei, the image bearers of God. Embryonic and fetal humans are one of us, and establishing a culture that protects their lives is better for us all. It elevates us to see the most vulnerable members in our community as worthy of our personal sacrifice. It gathers the community to seek creative solutions to life’s most difficult problems rather than seeking a minimally disruptive path that destroys human lives deemed inconvenient. The benefits of a clear and passionate call to respect life are obvious. If we can become convinced to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, the change will immediately protect those most at risk — the unborn — but also those who would destroy the unborn out of fear or selfishness. We endeavor to end abortion because any amount of abortion in our community hurts us all.
Jay Watts is the founder and president of Merely Human Ministries, INC., an organization founded to equip Christians and pro-life advocates to defend the intrinsic dignity of all human life.
- Jill Filipovic, “The Anti-Abortion Movement Could Reduce Abortions if It Wanted To,” New York Times, December 14, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/14/opinion/abortion-contraception-pregnancy.html.
- Joerg Dreweke, “New Clarity for the U.S. Abortion Debate: A Steep Drop in Unintended Pregnancy Is Driving Recent Abortion Declines,” Guttmacher Institute, March 8, 2016, https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/2016/03/new-clarity-us-abortion-debate-steep-drop-unintended-pregnancy-driving-recent-abortion.
- “Abortion Statistics in the United States,” Wikipedia, December 11, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion_statistics_in_the_United_States.
- Elizabeth Nash and Joerg Dreweke, “The U.S. Abortion Rate Continues to Drop: Once Again, State Abortion Restrictions Are Not the Main Driver,” Guttmacher Institute, September 18, 2019, https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/2019/09/us-abortion-rate-continues-drop-once-again-state-abortion-restrictions-are-not-main.
- Pam Belluck, “Abortion Qualms on Morning-After Pill May Be Unfounded,” New York Times, June 5, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/06/health/research/morning-after-pills-dont-block-implantation-science-suggests.html.
- “How Birth Control Methods Prevent Pregnancy,” University of Michigan Health, October 8, 2020, https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/tb1025.
- Associated Press, “NorCal Mother Alleges Teachers Manipulated Child to Change Gender Identity,” KTLA, January 21, 2022, https://ktla.com/news/california/norcal-mother-alleges-teachers-manipulated-child-to-change-gender-identity/.
- Abigail Shrier, “How Activist Teachers Recruit Kids,” The Truth Fairy, November 18, 2021, https://abigailshrier.substack.com/p/how-activist-teachers-recruit-kids.
- Ruth Dawson, “Trump Administration’s Domestic Gag Rule Has Slashed the Title X Network’s Capacity by Half,” Guttmacher Institute, April 15, 2021, https://www.guttmacher.org/article/2020/02/trump-administrations-domestic-gag-rule-has-slashed-title-x-networks-capacity-half.
- “What Are the Rules on Funding Religious Activity with Federal Money?,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, August 11, 2014, https://www.hhs.gov/answers/grants-and-contracts/what-are-the-rules-on-funding-religious-activity-with-federal-money/index.html.
- Lyle Denniston, “Rules for Birth-Control Mandate after Hobby Lobby,” SCOTUSblog, August 14, 2014, https://www.scotusblog.com/2014/08/rules-for-birth-control-mandate-after-hobby-lobby/.