Where the Rubber Meets Roe

By William Saletan
Sunday, October 1, 2006

The issue that never changes is finally changing.

If you're among the millions of Americans who don't like the idea of abortion but also don't like the idea of banning it, good news is on the way. In the past several weeks, two bills have been filed in the House. Without banning a single procedure, they aim to significantly lower the rate of abortions performed in this country. Voluntary reduction, not criminalization or moral silence, is the new approach.

How do you stop abortions without restricting them? One way is to persuade women to complete their pregnancies instead of terminating them. The other is to prevent unintended pregnancies in the first place. And there's the rub -- or, in this case, the rubber. The two House bills used to be one proposal, backed by an alliance of antiabortion lawmakers and organizations. The alliance split because one faction wanted to fund contraception and the other didn't.

In short, the good news is that we no longer have to fight about abortion. The bad news is that we're now fighting about contraception. The old question was abortion as birth control. The new question is abortion or birth control. To lower the abortion rate, we need more contraception. And that means confronting politicians who stand in the way.

In the past two years, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton , NARAL Pro-Choice America and many House Democrats who support abortion rights have conceded that abortion is tragic and that its frequency must be reduced. Third Way , a progressive think tank, has pushed hard in this direction.

Meanwhile, Democrats for Life of America , which has eight members of Congress on its advisory board and works with 30 others, has devised a plan to reduce the abortion rate by 95 percent " by helping and supporting pregnant women ." Rep. Timothy J. Ryan (D-Ohio) was set to lead the charge.

Then Ryan looked at the data and realized that to get anywhere near that target, he and his colleagues would have to provide more birth control. That's when the squirming began.

Some of Ryan's antiabortion allies worried that "morning-after" pills might prevent embryos from implanting, so he omitted such pills from his bill. They opposed requiring private insurers to cover contraception, so he took that out, too. They complained that other pregnancy-prevention bills hadn't emphasized abortion reduction, so he put abortion reduction in the title. They wanted sex education programs to emphasize abstinence; they got it. The only troublesome thing left in the bill was birth control.

It broke the deal. Democrats for Life abandoned Ryan and began a contraceptive-free alternative. With them went Americans United for Life, the National Association of Evangelicals and 13 House Democrats, led by Rep. James L. Oberstar (Minn.), the Democratic co-chairman of the congressional Pro-Life Caucus. Ryan added his name to their bill, but they refused to add their names to his. Focus on the Family, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Rush Limbaugh and Rep. Christopher H. Smith (N.J.), the Republican co-chairman of the Pro-Life Caucus, excoriated Ryan's bill. The Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, based in Ryan's district, asked him to withdraw it.

The objectors make several arguments. They point out that birth control pills, like morning-after pills, can block implantation of an embryo. But there's no evidence that this has ever happened. The chance is theoretical, and breastfeeding poses the same chance, so you'd have to stamp that out, too. Critics also note that many birth control methods can fail. That's true, but it's an argument for using two methods, not zero.

Third, they protest that federal family planning money supports Planned Parenthood, which performs abortions. But only 14 percent of this money goes to the organization, and fewer than 9 percent of Planned Parenthood clients go there to have an abortion.

Above all, the critics insist that contraception will backfire. As the Youngstown diocese puts it, "Promotion of contraception leads to more extra-marital sexual intercourse, which leads to more unwanted pregnancies, which leads to more abortions."

The belief that you're protected does make it easier to say yes. But denying that contraceptives reduce your risk of pregnancy is as crazy as denying that an umbrella reduces your risk of getting wet.

Does the increased risk from more sex outweigh the decreased risk from more protection? Do the math. On average, contraception lowers the odds of pregnancy by a factor of seven. If you're capable of having seven times as much sex, congratulations. The rest of us will get pregnant less often, not more.

And that's what the data show. Ryan's bill targets women with family incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line, since they have higher rates of unintended pregnancy and more difficulty finding or affording contraception. Among these women, the percentage using contraception declined from 1995 to 2002. As predicted by contraception opponents, the rate of sexual activity also declined, though only slightly. Even better, from an antiabortion standpoint, when these women got pregnant unintentionally, the percentage who chose abortion fell.

Less contraception, less sex, more women choosing life. So, the abortion rate among these women went down, right? Wrong. The decline in contraception overwhelmed the decline in sexual activity, resulting in a higher rate of unintended pregnancy. And the increase in unintended pregnancy overwhelmed the increase in women choosing to have the baby, resulting in more abortions. From an antiabortion standpoint, trading contraception for "choosing life" was a net loss.

That's why Ryan insists on birth control. He's tired of pious slogans and symbolic bills crafted to save more congressional seats than babies. He has had enough of the debate between life and choice. He wants a new abortion debate. "You're either for reducing the number, or you're not," he says. He has made his decision. Now make yours.

William Saletan covers science and technology for Slate, the online magazine at

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