Pro-Life Convictions and Preventing Unwanted Pregnancy

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Pro-choicers regularly accuse pro-lifers of favoring policies that increase abortions by (a) being one-issue voters who care only about laws restricting abortion (and politicians who will appoint, confirm, or be judges who will move things back in a direction that allows more of such restrictions), (b) actively opposing laws and policies that will decrease the number of abortions, or (c) promoting policies that will actually increase the number of unwanted pregnancies.

I'm sure there are people who are inconsistent in applying their pro-life principles by doing such things, but there are plenty of unfair ways to make such arguments, particularly when they ignore other beliefs held by many pro-life people that make their position fully consistent.

For example, contraception decreases the number of unwanted pregnancies, it is argued, and therefore pro-lifers who want to decrease the number of abortions ought to promote contraception. So the charge is that pro-lifers who oppose contraception are thus inconsistent.

It doesn't take much reflection to see that this argument is patently unfair to some pro-lifers. Consider the following proposal. Let's kill everyone on the planet. That would surely decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies. But no pro-lifer would advocate it, because it would be wrong to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies by using such a method. Now no one is offering that proposal, but consider the proposal in question. The suggestion is that by promoting contraception we would decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies, and therefore we would decrease the number of abortions. You might think that this proposal is much better than simply killing everyone on the planet, which would also produce that same goal. In fact, it is. I'd be shocked to find anyone, pro-life or not, who wouldn't agree. But a proposal doesn't have to be as bad as killing everyone on the planet to be immoral, and at least one possible view would still consistently hold to pro-life views on abortion and anti-contraception views.

Some pro-lifers are simply opposed to contraception in principle. They think it's immoral. They surely don't think it's as immoral as wiping out all human life. But they do think it would be wrong to participate in it or promote it, and supporting policies that attempt to get more people to use contraception would indeed participate in and promote contraception. To such a person, it doesn't matter if they are opposing a policy that would decrease unwanted pregnancies. Decreasing unwanted pregnancies is a good thing, since it removes the occasion in which some people will do something immoral. But we shouldn't do something immoral ourselves in order to remove the situation where someone else will be tempted to do something immoral. So such a person is consistent with pro-life principles while opposing policies that promote contraception, and it's extremely unfair to such a person's actual views to accuse them of inconsistency before exploring what views they might have for resisting the promotion of contraception.

Similarly, if someone thinks it's immoral to promote economic policies that will put more people in better situations and thus remove some of the concerns that lead to abortions, then they should oppose those policies. Suppose the person is a pro-life economic libertarian of an extreme enough sort that they think welfare amounts to stealing, for example. They won't see the good consequences of welfare for those who are tempted to have abortions as good enough to overcome the wrongness of stealing from one group of people to help others. Preventing one bad situation that prevents a temptation for an immoral act is surely a good thing, but if it means adopting an economic policy that one considers immoral, it might eliminate that method, depending on what moral theory we're working with and how one sorts through potentially conflicting moral principles.

Now the argument is much better when directed against someone who doesn't see the policy in question as being intrinsically wrong but just sees it as a bad idea. Most economic conservatives don't oppose welfare programs at any level. Many pro-lifers don't oppose contraception as intrinsically wrong. In the first case, they have to weigh the bad consequences they expect from an economic policy they disagree with against the bad consequences they should expect if something isn't done to change the unwanted pregnancy rate. A lot more factors come into play here, such as which methods will be most effective at reducing unwanted pregnancies, which methods will have better consequences in other respects, how much energy the person is already putting into attempts that they don't see as having bad consequences, and how effective restrictive laws will be as compared with simply changing people's circumstances.

What about the contraceptive issue with those who don't see contraception as intrinsically wrong? A lot of pro-lifers who don't have a problem with contraception in principle will still be extremely hesitant about efforts to promote it among teenagers (or among the unmarried in general, depending on their views about sexual morality). One reason for this hesitation, I think, is that they see such promotion as endorsement of teenage sex (or unmarried sex), and they would see that as participating in something they shouldn't. Or it might be thought of in terms of promotion of something one wants not to promote. Then the wrongness of promoting something wrong or participating in something wrong might be decisive for someone, and we don't have an inconsistent position after all.

Then there might also be bad consequences to consider. I've seen claims that promoting contraception doesn't decrease unwanted pregnancies but actually decreases them. I've never looked at the details of studies on the subject, but I think the explanation for why this might be is that people who most (but not all) of the time use contraception are more likely to feel safer in avoiding contraception than without contraception-promotion, in which case they might have been more willing to abstain from sex than to engage in contracepted-sex most (but not all) of the time. Now it doesn't actually matter to my argument whether these claims are true. Perhaps this effect isn't very strong, and the effect of promoting contraception in preventing pregnancies is much stronger. What matters is that some people believe this claim to be true, and it's not totally unreasonable, even if a closer look at facts might disabuse someone of it (if in fact it's wrong, which I'm not taking a stand on one way or the other). That means they have a consistent position of why they think the effects of contraception-promotion do not actually decrease unwanted pregnancies, and thus they can consistently hold to pro-life principles and want to reduce unwanted pregnancies without wanting to promote contraception.

I recently listened to a Bloggingheads TV diavlog between Sarah Posner and Michael Dougherty, and along the way one of them (I believe Dougherty) mentioned an argument that I don't think I've ever heard before. Apparently some people have argued against promoting contraceptives because they think such efforts will lead to a bad consequence, not just in other areas, but one that has a direct impact on abortion. It may well be, as far as this argument goes, that promoting contraception will decrease the number of unexpected pregnancies, i.e. the number of pregnancies that were not wanted before they occurred. But emphasizing contraception might at the same time reinforce the sense that pregnancy is a bad thing worth avoiding. Of those unexpected pregnancies, such an increased sense of pregnancy as bad might increase the number of unexpected pregnancies been seen as unwanted. That might then increase the number of abortions resulting from unexpected pregnancies, even if the number of unexpected pregnancies goes down because of the contraception. You'd then have to see if it's possible to figure out which effect would be more significant, and my suspicion is that such a task would be very difficult, if not impossible, which might lead one toward caution about a policy that might have a good effect but might also have a bad effect. That would then contribute toward explaining the hesitation from some pro-lifers with respect to policies that promote contraception.

There are plenty of other things that might come to play here, but this should give enough sense that it doesn't automatically follow from pro-life convictions that one ought to favor policies promoting contraception or supporting economic policies that might have the effect of helping more women at risk for unwanted pregnancies to have more economically-viable situations where they'd be less tempted to have an abortion. Perhaps when all is said and done, the best pro-life policy is to oppose abortion and favor restricting it while also promoting contraception. Provided you don't think contraception is intrinsically immoral, that's going to depend on a number of other factors, including some empirical data that I'm not sure is readily available in an indisputable form. But it's not an automatic implication of pro-life principles, and how people settle those other issues will affect what they might consistently say about efforts to promote contraception. Similarly, it's certainly possible that pro-lifers ought to support some given effort to increase the quality of life of those who might be at risk for having an abortion. But whether they should consistently do so will depend quite a bit both on their other views and on empirical data that isn't easily available to most people and may, frankly, not even exist in any understandable form.

7 Comments

Jeremy, I'm so glad for this post. It made me pretty happy.

Killing everyone on the planet so as to avoid unwanted pregnancies is an over-kill; it would be sufficient to kill either all women or all men exclusively. So pro-lifers have a choice! But what do you mean by ‘pro-lifers who oppose contraception’? There’s an asymmetry here you seem to have missed: Either sex can use contraception while only women can get pregnant. Are these people pushing for legislation to outlaw or regulate the sale of condoms in the US? Because if they aren’t, they’re liable to be accused of misogyny as well as inconsistency.

You can think both contraception and abortion are wrong without thinking they're wrong in the same way. For example, Thomas Aquinas has a well-worked-out theory of which wrong things should be prohibited by law, and it would include the things that are most harmful. He thinks it's good to use human law to promote virtue, but it's especially important to prohibit those who will cause great harm. He would say that the worst sins are more important to legislate against, and all he'd need is an argument that abortion is worse than contraception because killing an actual human organism is worse than preventing the coming-into-existence of a potential human organism. That's not all that implausible on pro-life grounds. Allowing people to be imperfect in virtue because of the difficulty enforcing every virtue is perfectly fine. So I don't it's misogyny not to enforce a moral prohibition on contraceptives, and it's certainly not singling out one sex over the other. That charge strikes me as even more unfair than the inconsistency charge.

I agree that a charge of inconsistency is probably unfair (as most such charges are, I think), but from a practical standpoint, I think the criticism can be legitimate. Consider if I say I am against murder but then also insist that any attempts to rehabilitate, restrain, or punish (depending on one's view of the justice system) are also immoral because I am morally opposed to the use of force to coerce others into proper action (maybe I take a very high view of volition). It would be perfectly reasonable for someone to criticize me by pointing out that my views are highly impractical to hold because it thwarts any attempts to provide a realistic solution to the problem. If I said, "Well, people could just stop committing crimes" or even "It's not really even a problem, in my opinion," you'd be right to laugh in my face.

Yet that's what happens with pro-lifers who oppose contraception, regardless of whether or not that opposition is principled. To suggest that there's no problem is unrealistic, as is the only other real alternative (total abstinence). As someone who isn't really "pro-life" and who certainly isn't opposed to contraception, I don't know how I'd resolve that dissonance: such beliefs, properly enacted, would simply exacerbate the problem, and the only possible solution isn't feasible. That seems, in my opinion, to make this criticism a fairly strong one when framed as an issue of practicality rather than ideals.

But I'm not sure that argument amounts to more than pointing out that you disagree with the moral reasons being given against contraception. If those reasons aren't as strong as the people in question take them to be, then they're getting all in a huff about something inconsequential, and of course it follows that they ought to promote what they think they ought to prevent. From the perspective of someone who disagrees with them, it surely is right to say that they're wrongly relying on moral principles that aren't correct and thus leading to policies that are harmful and unnecessary (assuming the empirical data lines up that way, anyway, which I'm not going to take a stand on at this point).

But this is an issue of consistency, not an issue of whether the pro-life view plus some other set of beliefs not held by the people in question would lead to a different result. So I'm not sure that this point really amounts to much.

I refuse to accept ‘difficulty of enforcing' misanthropy as an excuse for misogyny. It can't be just a coincidence that the imperfectly virtuous never manage to settle for a lesser good only and when it comes to women; why they refuse to compromise over the lesser evil of contraception when the constitution allows the greater one of abortion. Nor can it be a coincidence that the impetus for the imperfectly virtuous to seek to 'enforce a moral prohibition' comes when health expenditure on women is at stake. How's this 'not singling out one sex over the other'? Who's ever bothered to seek to 'enforce a moral prohibition' on condoms in principle?

My comment was tongue in cheek, in part; but since you mention Aquinas, I have the impression that in situations of life and death he’d condone stealing. I understand what you’re trying to do here and I’m not unsympathetic, but your hypotheses are ad hoc. I’m not sure what a ‘fully consistent’ position is worth which involves actively promoting or opposing policies on the basis of arbitrary beliefs about evidence one lacks or can’t make sense of. Is there a suggestion that pro-lifers are less intelligent or educated than the general population? I think you’re buying consistency that’s worth nothing much at a price you can’t afford.

I concede that many parents would rather kids had no sex before they left home. But how many parents would rather their kid got involved with a pregnancy than a condom? Such people, if they exist, must be a tiny religious minority - religious since I can’t think of non-religious premises people may endorse from which it follows that it’s immoral for unmarried people in particular to use contraception, and this could be significant in the US context. The numbers involved in the fringe cannot account for the presumably mainstream policies (a), (b) and (c) you discuss here. On the other hand, people who believe taxation is theft or thereabouts have sufficient reason to oppose universal healthcare in principle. So those who oppose contraception and/or taxation are open to charges of sexism or worse if it's only in connection with the abortion issue that they remember convictions on contraception, and forget convictions on taxation.

Since nobody would want to describe themselves as misogynistic scrooges who oppose healthcare when they can call themselves ‘pro-life’, I suggest that people go along with (a) because it looks positively better than opposing a welfare state in principle, with (b) since its negation incurs public expenditure, and with (c) because there's no evidence that restricting the legal status quo will have any discernible effect on actual abortion rates, so there’ll be no real increase in demand for welfare provision. My alternative hypothesis involves pretence rather than false/arbitrary beliefs but also shows how (a), (b) and (c) can be consistently pursued, and I think is more unified and has greater explanatory power than what you propose.

Wait, are you saying that it's misogyny to enforce a moral prohibition on contraceptives? Exactly how is that supposed to go? The only place I mentioned a difficulty in enforcing was to point out that you can be (1) morally opposed to contraception, (2) willing to enforce certain moral prohibitions by law if they cause much more serious harm, and (3) not enforce your view on contraception by law. Aquinas would, as far as I can tell, be happy with that set of views. How is that misogyny? All I'm saying is that you can treat contraception as an unfortunate evil but think abortion is a stronger evil, and once you do that you can oppose abortion with much more fervor, while still not wanting to advocate contraception.

Given the amount of effort that would be required to overturn Griswold v Connecticut, which enshrined a constitutional right to contraception, a case that was before Roe v Wade, which enshrined a constitutional right to abortion and has served as a precedent for numerous cases on unrelated issues, it would take far more effort to allow a contraceptive ban in the U.S. than it would to continue to stretch the limits of restricting abortion further. If the bad of contraception is taken to be less bad than the bad of abortion (as just about 100% of pro-lifers who oppose contraception would say), then it's pretty easy to see how this position is indeed consistent.

One reason that I took so long to enable this comment and respond to it (among many; I've been very busy lately, and there's been continuous sickness in our family for several weeks) is that I'm getting extremely tired of your constant inferences from (a) something's affecting women more significantly to (b) misogyny on the part of those who support it. That's like saying someone is a racist for supporting testing for admissions to universities, given that some racial groups tend to do worse on college admissions tests. It's an invalid inference, and it tars the motives of well-meaning people.

On the evidence question, I don't think the general population is any more educated. People are politically ignorant on a massive scale. Activists are less ignorant, but they often have their blind spots for only paying attention to the arguments of one side of the issue. In some respects they know more, but in some respects they know less. One thing I was asserting about the evidence on these issues, though, is that the evidence isn't as clear to me as I would be led to believe by either side, and that's grounds for skepticism without spending an awful lot of time probing into the studies, which most people aren't qualified to do, and I don't have time to do even if I'm qualified (and I'm not sure if I am, though I could probably figure out enough to notice fallacies in reasoning and such).

I think the argument in your third paragraph is a good reason for Catholics and others who oppose contraception to consider there to be a secondary moral obligation to use contraception if they are immorally having sex. The Pope has officially taken such a stance, in my view. But it's not an immediate step to agreeing to support funding for condoms and such. Thinking someone doing wrong ought to do it in a way that's not as bad as it could be doesn't mean we should fund the bit that makes it less wrong. Sometimes we should, and sometimes we shouldn't, and it does take some argument to show that we're in a case where we should. So I'm not sure we've got an outright inconsistency here, even given the secondary moral obligation point that the Roman Catholic church's highest position has now officially endorsed (as I read him).

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