Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Contraception and Abortion: Common Ground and the Protestant-Catholic Divide

abstinence.jpg Efforts to achieve common ground on abortion often stumble over the role of contraception. For pro-choicers, it’s a no brainer: if you want to reduce abortions, reduce unintended pregnancies – and the best way to do that is through better family planning.
But the pro-life movement usually opposes family planning for a wide range of reasons, practical (they think it doesn’t work), philosophical (it sends a mixed message) and religious (it’s against God’s law)
However, probe deeper and you find a very important area of disagreement within the pro-life movement — one which stems from ancient theological differences between Catholics and Protestants, and which may hold the secret to some common ground breakthroughs.
The Catholic Church has opposed contraception on the grounds that the divinely-sanctioned purpose of sex is pro-creation. Some Protestants agree.
But many Protestants — even conservative, pro-life evangelical Protestants – disagree with the Catholic Church’s teachings on this. For instance, Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says the traditional Protestant view is that while procreation is a blessing, the point of sex , according to the Bible, is creating an intimate marital bond. “Procreation is not the primary reason god gave sex,” Land said. “Primary reason was… ‘the two became one flesh.'” (Mark 10)
This theological difference enabled conservative evangelicals to support distribution of condoms in Africa as part of an effort to curb the spread of AIDS. As Rick Warren’s church website declared, “We can’t prevent many other diseases that plague mankind, but we know how abstinence, monogamy, and condoms can go a long way toward stopping HIV in its tracks.”
Condoms3.jpgIf pro-life evangelicals could support condoms there, could they support them here? A few points to consider.
First, the approach that gained evangelical support in Africa was often called ABC — Abstinence, Be Faithful and Contraception. Evangelicals accepted this approach as long as the condom education was combined with a strong message about abstinence and fidelity.
Studies have shown that efforts that combine all three elements are more effective than efforts that only try one approach.
Second, the efforts in Africa were geared toward adults. Evangelicals ought to have no problem backing ABC-style efforts here targeted toward adults.
What about ABC efforts targeted toward teens? “Possibly,” said Land. The key: it would have to focus on education and not include the distribution of contraception, which Land (and most conservative evangelicals) fervently opposed. (“That’s giving people permission to have sex.”) Still, that’s a big difference from supporting just abstinence-only.
And it would need to be done at the right age level, Land says. “Sixth to eight grade? No. Eleventh and twelth grade? Possibly. College? Yes.”
So, the common ground elements for a new family planning initiative might include:
— An ABC approach that emphasizes abstinence and faithfulness as the preferred approach, but educates about contraception, too. Call it, “Abc with a capital A”.
–Distribution of contraceptive information to older minors but no distribution of contraception itself to teens in public schools.
–Government-sponsored explicit how-to-have-safe-sex education targeted to older teens, not younger children, especially in schools. If parents, churches or private groups want to offer sex ed to younger kids that’s their choice. (Note: family planning advocates claim that sex ed is already age appropriate but much “common ground” work would need to be done to convince conservatives of that).
Many pro-choicers will bristle at these parameters. But before rejecting them out of hand consider this: most research has shown that an inability to pay for contraceptives is NOT the primary reason for unintended pregnancy. The much bigger problem is improper or inconsistent usage of contraception.
So if government helped improve family planning but didn’t distribute condoms to school kids, it would still be achieving a great deal. Only a small percentage of public school sex ed programs actually distribute contraception so I’m not sure why pro-choicers would dig in their heels on this.
What about including abstinence in the pitch? Pro-choicers, I suspect, would split on this. Some believe that teenage sex is inevitable and/or fine so preaching abstinence is largely a waste of time. Others believe that the desire for sex is powerful but that we’d all be better off if sex were delayed as long as possible so that the abstinence message can help. President Obama articulated this idea during the campaign when he declared that we should teach young people that “sexuality is sacred.”
Politically, the White House has a difficult balancing act. Catholics are crucial to Obama’s political coalition so the White House is not going to want to overtly side with Martin Luther over Pope Benedict on a matter of theology but it also knows that rank and file Catholics don’t share the Vatican’s views on the contraception. As a practical matter, the White House should probably give up on creating a prevention plan that the Catholic Church can endorse, and instead recognize the subtle but important differences within the pro-life ranks.
It was a huge development when conservative evangelicals accepted contraception as a part of their anti-AIDS efforts in Africa. An important left-right coalition was built in Africa; it’s time to import it to America.
Wonky footnote below:


The mechanics of how you’d achieve those goals are complex. Would this all go through Title X or some other mechanism? How much government money should go to private non-profits for distributing contraception to younger teen who ask for it? Would the common ground approach be just for additional new money, leaving the current programs as is? Evangelicals supported condom distribution to adults in Africa; how would they define “adults” here? A 19 year old? These questions and many others remain unsanswered. My main point is more that as a political matter, it makes sense to take advantage of evangelical buy-in to the ABC approach in Africa. .
An inevitable political question from pro-choicers will be: why should we compromise at all on what we think will be most effective in reducing unintended pregnancies just to get some conservative support? It’s a legitimate question. Beyond the most obvious answer — “because Obama promised” — pro-choicers will need to look at whether getting conservatives to accept some family planning money for the first time is worth some policy compromises. It may mean that the whole package is better financed than it would have been and therefore pro-choicers will get a more subsantial government commitment to family planning, and possibly less money for abstinence-only programs.
It also will mean that it will be safer in the long run, including after Democrats lose power, as they eventually will. It’s a simple reality of American politics: programs with the broadest political support, flourish most in the long run.

Comments read comments(8)
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Jen R

posted July 15, 2009 at 2:32 pm

You’re not talking about finding common ground between supporters and opponents of abortion. You’re talking about finding common ground between supporters and opponents of family planning. That’s fine if that’s what you want to do, but I wish you wouldn’t continue to conflate the two.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Sex education is bad because, “That’s giving people permission to have sex.” I don’t NEED your permission! MY CHILDREN don’t need your permission. NOBODY needs your permission.
So give with the education BEFORE it’s needed and keep your permission. It’s not like that’s something of value, after all.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 6:17 pm

An interesting proposal.
Especially your reference to the inevitable return to power of the christianists.
Unfortunately, they have already shown that they have no respect for the Constitution, the Judiciary system and the legislative bodies (except when they control them).
After 18 months here at beliefnet., I’ve come to the conclusion that it is pointless to seek compromise with them. Let’s teach our children how to value themselves, respect others and use contraception properly.
Make contraception freely available to all without parental approval.
Provide women with the alternative of abortion the first 12 weeks for medical reasons.
And stop wasting our time trying to work with the christianists.

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LeAnna Benn

posted July 16, 2009 at 10:44 am

I am an evangelical who has worked for 30 years promoting abstinence and fidelity. The education methods and atmospher are very different from promoting services and devices. The real danger of this compromise for sex education is that the deal is with a group that has different motivations. The goal is sex with no holes barred. This is much like bargaining w/a large hungry snake sitting in the sun. It looks beautiful, seems harmless and slow but the moment the prey is close, death is inevitable. Sex educators are not the same as those teaching abstinence and fidelity especially to children who are under the age of legal consent. Society can condone sex but will condemn STDs and pregnancy. This is a hurtful double standard. Also, they lie about the effectiveness for contraception for pregnancy and STD prevention. Once abstinence funding is gone the focus will be gone. Beware Do not provide for the occasion of sin.

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posted July 16, 2009 at 5:57 pm

Absolute nonsense.
Proper education in both the joys and responsibilities of sex – including contraception for heterosexuals – is the only sane approach to preparing our children and youth to approach their sexuality responsibly.
Anything else is simply the attempt of hateful christianists to force their perverted world view on the rest of us.

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Connie Connie in Wisconsin

posted July 17, 2009 at 10:20 am

I see most of the lies about contraception coming from so-called pro-life people.

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Robert Mortenson

posted July 17, 2009 at 6:33 pm

I don’t like this Beliefnet website to begin with. It is not a worthy forum for discussing religious belief issues. Mr. Waldman’s views (epistemological in particular) are the “religous” side of the Progressive view. His glib modern assumption is that one cannot know truth in any form to any degree. But the search for truth is as old as the human race. And the belief that truth is knowable to some extent even in this world… and that we are responsible to the Creator as human beings both to seek after truth and to follow it… this is also is the epistemological view human beings have held time immemorial. The question to be asking is: “What are God’s desires regarding social norms and in particular sexuality for the human race? How can we inculcate this in our citizens?” We in America have the worst record in the world regarding sexuality and relationships. See the current Time magazine for a good article making this point.
Regarding this web site one has only to read the comments offered above. I see one thoughtful evangelical and several emotional reactions to the question from a Progressive view point.
A culture’s inability to discipline its common sexual life has destroyed countries and cultures from the beginning. It is in the process of happening in America I am sad to say.

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posted July 22, 2009 at 11:58 pm

christians who think sex is for procreation need to read, or re-read the song of solomon. whoo-boy! that is quite some steamy stuff there! also, there was this non-christian movie called ‘opposite of sex’, and in it is my favorite depiction of sex: “what if sex wasn’t about procreation or recreation? what if sex was about concentration?” also, i’m a gay man and a christian and sorry, but neither of those seem to change over time although i’m sure god could turn me into a penguin, but he seems to point me to the little section about paul’s thorn in the flesh and say “you need to read that again”. and also, i’m kind of sort of dealing with full blown aids. lemme tell you, it’s not the disease, it’s the meds! i’m the most liberal person you could meet, or so i thought, and i’m the world’s number one abstinence advocate. first, the non-aids diseases. second, the non-disease emotional mess. third, going to the bathroom in your pants with no warning because of the aids meds. fourth, oh, the virus. i almost died from it last year. it was actually the most peaceful time in the past few decades of my life. and it was also the first time in over a decade i have slept fitfully and comfortably (after a lot of tossing and turning) without taking pills or having horrifying dreams. i had good nice cozy warm dreams, i got some of the best quality rest in years. i actually was kind of mad at god when i didn’t die and “got better” and now it’s back to the drugs and the bills and the reality shows and the traffic and the christians telling me i’m going to hell and the gays telling me there is no god and the christians saying i have to marry a woman and the gays telling me i have to marry a man, when i really don’t want to get married or have sex or even look at my naked rear in the mirror, much less anyone else’s. yeah, i kind of was mad at god for a while for not taking me when *i* was ready and had made my peace and all. but then again, god doesn’t exactly do what we want when we want it. and sometimes i suspect it’s intentional, just to out-stubborn me. as for me, i don’t know heaven-etiquette in front of the almighty, but the first thing i do when i see god is, i’m gonna jump in his lap and hug him. and i hope i see all the people i love, and i even hope i see all the people i hate, because i used to love them until they hurt me. and i think it was james who said mercy wins over judgement, so eventually god will fix me and i won’t be gay or straight or male or female or anything in between, and i won’t have to take pills every day, and more pills to help the side effects of the other pills. he will fix my inabilities to love and forgive, he will fix me. and no more pills! until then, this big ole homo wants to tell every teenager, sew it up, cut it off, it’s just not worth it.

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