“There are two key ways to reduce abortion—by making it less necessary or by making it less available,” as Jessica Arons and Shira Saperstein write for the Center for American Progress.
The former means preventing unwanted pregnancies, by reducing sexual abuse, domestic violence and rape; by enabling couples to make better choices through, for example, comprehensive sexuality education in schools (and, above all, better educational and economic opportunities in general); and by improving access to contraception.
The latter means restricting or banning abortion. In pluralistic industrial societies such as the United States and Canada, the former is a more effective strategy for lowering abortion rates. In fact, arguably the most effective anti-abortion organizations in North America—defined as the organizations that have most reduced the abortion rate—are the US and Canadian federations of Planned Parenthood. (The lowest abortion rates in the industrial world are in countries such as the Netherlands where the procedure is free, legal, and unstigmatized; sex between loving adults is considered normal and healthy; and public policies and social norms both strongly reinforce safe sex practices.)
Prevention also ought to be the main ground for cooperation among pro-choice and pro-life movements. It ought to be, but it isn’t.
The reason, as argued recently in the New York Times Magazine (and on this blog some months ago), is that the “pro-life” movement is actually held together not by opposition to abortion but by opposition to sex.
This little-understood fact could be a huge political opportunity for pro-choice forces. By assertively promoting a prevention-focused agenda as the best way to reduce abortion rates, pro-choice forces can drive a wedge between moderate and extremist anti-abortion organizations. And they can isolate extremists by unveiling their opposition to contraception and to responsible sexuality as most North Americans now understand it.
By this logic, the appropriate response to the “baby killer” rhetoric of the anti-abortion extremists (you’ll see plenty of it in the 300-some comments on my father’s day op-ed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) is not defensiveness, nor a reasoned exposition of the moral case for women themselves to make the hard choices about abortion. The best response may be, “Why do you want to ban birth control pills? Why do you hate contraception? What have you got against responsible sex?”
And so, if there’s a silver lining in the approaching abortion storm clouds—Roberts, Alito, South Dakota, etc.—it’s the possibility that a Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade might elevate abortion to the top tier of political issues at the exact moment when the anti-abortion coalition is vulnerable to fissure.
As Nancy Northrop of the Center for Reproductive Rights told USA Today recently, “[Overturning Roe] is going to make abortion the center of every local race for office, every state legislative race, of every state judicial race, of every state executive race, not to mention a battle for federal elections.”
And if every one of those debates were to shine a spotlight on “pro-life” forces’ opposition to contraception, abortion policy might end up settling about where it stands—early abortions legally protected—while reproductive choices advance thanks to a stronger coalition for prevention.
Less-welcome outcomes are more likely, I suspect. But even dark moments sometimes hold opportunity. The prevention agenda may be one such opportunity now.