War on contraception, revisited

New York Times Magazine packs a punch with a comprehensive reminder of how the people who oppose abortion now want your birth control pills.

Published May 9, 2006 4:01PM (EDT)

The cover story of the weekend's New York Times Magazine falls into the "Tell us something we don't know" department, but we're still glad for the hefty word count devoted to the "war on contraception." (See Salon's wallop of a feature on the subject.) Here's the thesis: Conservatives long have been fighting abortion; now they're taking on contraception -- the very thing that's supposed to prevent the need for an abortion in the first place. (People like Judie Brown, president of the antichoice American Life League, are quoted as saying that contraception has made people so "anti-child" that even if it fails, "the couple already have this negative attitude toward the child. Therefore seeking an abortion is a natural outcome.")

Even if we've covered these issues separately, it's alarming to see them in one big soup like this. So to recap: We've got Plan B dilemmas, such as state legislatures wrestling with whether pharmacists have the right to refuse to fill prescriptions and whether Catholic hospitals can refuse Plan B to rape victims. One member of the Food and Drug Administration panel considering whether to make it available over the counter has said he's concerned it would lead to teen sex cults. More insurance companies are refusing to cover contraceptives. The Bush administration is pushing for abstinence-until-marriage education. The FDA is reevaluating the so-called abortion pill RU-486. The antichoice camp is taking advantage of ignorance about how Plan B and RU-486 actually work to blur the definitions of contraception and abortion. Now, some Republicans in Congress are arguing that condoms supposedly aren't that great at preventing pregnancy and STDs. And people are actually debating the moral significance -- not to mention the alleged health risks -- of how regular old birth control pills work. One Christian group calls it a "chemical abortion." Whew!

Writer Russell Shorto argues that after abortion, contraception is now at the forefront of a new culture war led by conservatives and Christians. It's being blamed for promiscuity, adultery, premarital sex, sexual deviance and sexual obsession in and outside of marriage. Others say a "contraceptive mentality" has separated sex from relationships, family and values. Even President Bush allegedly has skirted the question of whether he supports the right to use contraception. "Many Christians who are active in the evolving anti-birth-control arena state frankly that what links their efforts is a religious commitment to altering the moral landscape of the country. In particular, and not to put too fine a point on it, they want to change the way Americans have sex," Shorto writes.

And now, instead of giving women control over their bodies, contraception supposedly objectifies us. Check out this gem from Dr. Joseph B. Stanford, who opposes contraception but was still appointed in 2002 to the FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee: "Sexual union in marriage ought to be a complete giving of each spouse to the other, and when fertility (or potential fertility) is deliberately excluded from that giving I am convinced that something valuable is lost. A husband will sometimes begin to see his wife as an object of sexual pleasure who should always be available for gratification," he tells Shorto.

So what's going on? "What's the nature of the opposition to something that has become so basic a part of modern life?" Shorto asks. The Roman Catholic Church is sounding the trumpet to enjoy sex for procreation. Debate over restrictions on abortion -- and bans in South Dakota and possibly other states -- has made people rethink all things reproductive, he argues. And "new abortion and contraceptive drugs have changed the dynamic as well," he writes. "The battle line, in other words, is shifting backward, from viability to implantation."

At the very least, we're looking at a future of more abstinence education (which has been shown to increase unplanned pregnancies) and "purity balls." At the very worst, heaven only knows.

By Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at sarah@saraherichards.com.

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