Article in Science / Social Sciences
In wake of the 2015 Supreme Court Decision legalizing same-sex marriage, all eyes turned to the other “hot-button” issue of the decades old “culture wars.” In 2008, Hilary Clinton told a questioner that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare, and by rare I mean rare.”

John Scanzoni, Ph.D

Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Criminology & Law

University of Florida

In wake of the 2015 Supreme Court Decision legalizing same-sex marriage, all eyes turned to the other “hot-button” issue of the decades old “culture wars.” In 2008, Hilary Clinton told a questioner that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare, and by rare I mean rare.” Though she did not define “rare,” a 2015 Associated Press report on recent trends in abortion rates prompted me to wonder whether the US might perhaps be moving in that direction. AP found that:

“Abortions are Declining Greatly across Most of the US,” and “Changes in Laws Do Not Appear to Affect Trends. …Nearly everywhere, in red states and blue, abortions are down since 2010.”

The AP research confirmed studies published in 2014 by the Guttmacher Research Institute showing that abortion rates have indeed dropped to “historically low levels.” Though neither AP nor Guttmacher could be certain why abortion rates are dropping, advocates on both sides of the issue offered contrasting explanations. Those on the conservative (anti-choice) side argued that recent state laws limiting access to abortion (e.g., mandatory waiting periods, sonograms, parental consent, etc.) are the chief reason why rates have been driven down. Spokesperson Charmaine Yoest remarked that “the broad decrease in abortions reflected a change in attitudes among pregnant women. ‘There’s an entire generation of women who saw a sonogram as their first baby picture. …There’s an increased awareness of the humanity of the baby before it is born.’’’

But those on the progressive (prochoice) side responded that stringent state laws are not a credible argument re why abortion rates are declining. First, they note that rates dropped recently in almost every state—red and blue alike, not just those with restrictive laws—and in every major region of the country. Indeed, “five of the six states with the biggest declines — Hawaii at 30 percent, New Mexico at 24 percent, Nevada at 22 percent, and Rhode Island and Connecticut — have passed no recent laws to restrict abortion.” Ironically, the only states with significant increases in abortion rates since 2010 are two that did in fact pass highly restrictive anti-abortion laws—Louisiana and Michigan.

The second reason why progressives dispute the argument that restrictive laws force and/or motivate women to forgo abortion is that “the decline in abortion between 2008 and 2011 coincided with a steep national drop in the birthrate (9%). If restrictions in fact forced large numbers of women with unplanned pregnancies to give birth instead of obtain an abortion, one would expect to see births replacing abortions—resulting in a corresponding increase in the birthrate.” But quite the opposite actually occurred: “Between 2008 and 2011, abortions declined by about 150,000, but births by roughly twice as much (down about 300,000).”

Intriguingly, at the same time that women’s actual abortion behaviors seem to be changing, the Pew Research Center discovered that American’s opinions re the legality of abortion “have remained relatively stable for more than 20 years.” In 2013, Pew found that “51% of U.S. adults say it should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 43% who say it should be illegal all or most of the time.”

But if opinions are steady, and if restrictive laws have only minimal impact, what then does account for the declines in rates? Most progressive advocates concur with Guttmacher that “improved contraceptive use [is] the most likely explanation.” By “improved” Guttmacher meant three things: First, the research shows that fewer and fewer women under age 30 (the category most at risk for unintended pregnancy) are having unprotected sex—more and more women are using contraceptive methods of some kind to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.

Second, growing numbers of women at all ages are opting for LARC-type methods—long-acting, reversible, contraceptives, such as the IUD and the implant. LARC methods “have several important strengths: They are more than 99% effective at preventing pregnancy, last 3–12 years and do not require women to remember to use their method every day or every time they have sex.” One progressive group christened LARC methods as “Whoops Proof Birth Control” to contrast them vividly with the notorious unreliability of traditional methods such as condom, diaphragm, and others. In a subsequent study, researchers from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists confirmed that the numbers of women opting for LARC methods continue to trend upward: “During the most recent time period surveyed, use of LARC methods … increased …”’ Regrettably, despite their ease of use and widespread popularity, some conservatives oppose LARC methods on the dubious grounds that they are tantamount to abortion—an allegation with no scientific standing.

Third, adolescents are behaving very much like older women by having less unprotected sex, and by relying on LARC methods that help them escape the stereotype of being prone to risky sexual behaviors: Adolescents’ “pregnancy, birth and abortion rates … all dropped to record lows between 2008 and 2010.”

To be sure, women’s increased use of LARC methods masks a vital distinction by socioeconomic status: Advantaged (upper-middle-class and above) women of any age are able to pay for LARC and the attendant medical accoutrements. But less-advantaged (lower-middle-class, working-class, and poor) women lacking sufficient resources have been able to rely on “publicly funded [reproductive] services provided through programs like Title X and Medicaid.” Guttmacher calculated that “Publicly supported contraceptive care enables women to avoid 2.2 million unintended pregnancies each year, 760,000 of which would have ended in an abortion. Absent these services, U.S. rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion would be two-thirds higher than they are.” Clearly, those programs are working—they play a vital role helping to reduce negative reproductive outcomes among less-advantaged women of all ages.

Given the mounting evidence that LARC methods are acceptable to women of all ages and social classes, and given that the goal of reducing abortion rates is universally shared, it seems mystifying that some citizens would try to block public funding for contraceptive services implementing that goal. In Colorado, for example, conservatives recently vetoed public funding for a program with a remarkable track record in reducing abortion rates. Using private funds, Colorado had earlier sponsored a six year experiment offering less-advantaged women and teens free access to LARC methods that they adopted “in a big way, and the results were startling. The birthrate among teenagers across the state plunged by 40 percent from 2009 to 2013, while their rate of abortions fell by 42 percent …” Officials reported that those declines “were particularly pronounced in the poorest areas of the state.” Still, conservatives disregarded its success and rejected the governor’s appeal for public funds to keep the project alive.

At the federal level, recent conservative threats in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood would likewise have far greater impact on undermining reproductive services than it would on reducing abortion rates. Indeed, quite the opposite—those rates would likely rise because many less-advantaged women unable to obtain the needed services from PP or elsewhere may experience an unwanted pregnancy which they might then terminate. The research reveals that when less-advantaged women become desperate enough,

“They will endure significant hardship for themselves and their family to navigate and overcome the myriad restrictions states have thrown up in front of them. The toll of navigating restrictions can be steep, especially for women who are low-income, young or otherwise disadvantaged. Women will often divert money meant for rent, groceries or utilities to pay for the procedure. In addition, women often have to take unpaid time off of work and arrange for child care, transportation and even lodging.”

Although the historical record shows that women have for eons attempted to prevent pregnancies (with limited success), and also to terminate unwanted pregnancies (often with disastrous outcomes for the woman), it was not until the late 19th century that contraception and abortion became live political issues in the US. Influential public figures such as President Theodore Roosevelt objected to contraception on moral grounds. In 1903, he described “family limitation” as “a frightful and fearful immorality … an utter and pitiful failure in sense of perspective.” Roosevelt and others were alarmed by sharply declining birth rates among privileged families in the US, calling it “race suicide.” Roosevelt believed that American couples must breed larger families in order, among other things, to compete on the world stage: “’Germany dominated Europe,’ Roosevelt wrote, because she won ‘the warfare of the cradle…’”

Over time, contraception shook off its negative political connotations, but could not escape its stigma of being morally repugnant. Many Americans believed strongly that the right and moralthing to do was to welcome as many children as God (or fate) gave into the bosom of one’s family—a perspective reinforced by Roman Catholic (mostly) and Evangelical Protestant (to some degree) teachings that the use of “artificial” (as opposed to “rhythm”) methods of any sort violated God’s laws. Finally, human law in the form of state statutes buttressed moral and religious strictures. New York, for example, “made it a misdemeanor for anyone to ‘sell, lend, or give away,’ or to advertise, loan, or distribute, ‘any recipe, or medicine for the prevention of conception.’”

Margaret Sanger and her colleagues—founders of the early 20th century Family Planning movement—observed wryly that although advantaged couples paid lip service to prevailing ideals, they nonetheless accessed the most effective contraceptives available. Conversely, observed Sanger, less-advantaged couples—regardless of their ideals—had limited or no access to effective contraception. She and her colleagues were outraged by the injustice of the ensuing paradox: Couples who could afford many children actually bore relatively few; but couples who could not afford many children were forced to bear them anyhow. Not only did having “too many” children further imperil their family’s shaky economic circumstances it took a frightful toll on the health and well-being of mothers. But when Sanger and colleagues opened a “birth control” clinic in New York City in 1916 to provide reproductive services for less-advantaged women comparable to those enjoyed by advantaged women, they were arrested, convicted of a crime, and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Although Sanger frequently expressed her preference for contraception over abortion, she famously argued that if women are denied the former they will invariably gravitate toward the latter despite the life-threatening perils of abortion during those pre-Roe days. For example, in 1918 she wrote:

“There is the case in a nutshell. Family limitation will always be practised as it is now being practised—either by birth control or by abortion. The one means health and happiness … The other means disease, suffering, death.”

Abortions were legal throughout the US until the last quarter of the 19th century when, for the first time, they got branded as criminal. The upshot was that until 1973 (Roe v. Wade) abortions were marked by another paradox rooted in socioeconomic status—a paradox displayed brilliantly in the Mike Leigh film, Vera Drake. Despite being illegal, advantaged pregnant women could afford access to safe, hygienic abortions (though needed less frequently) performed by competent physicians. Conversely, the less-advantaged pregnant woman wishing to terminate had but two options—both equally grim and leading all too often to the ominous consequences Sanger described. The woman could try to induce the abortion herself, or else resort to the “back-alley butcher,” thus gambling on a practitioner of dubious repute and minimal concern for proper hygiene and safety.

Drawing from his experiences in the ERs of New York City hospitals during the 1950s, Dr. Waldo Fielding described all too vividly the horrors surrounding illegal, pre-Roe abortions. Fielding remarked that “The familiar symbol of illegal abortion—the infamous ‘coat hanger’ … is in no way a myth. In my years … several women arrived with the hanger still in place. Whoever put it in—perhaps the patient herself—found it trapped in the cervix and could not remove it.” Roe, said Fielding, did not suddenly permit abortions nor would overturning Roe magically eradicate them. All Roe did, he added, was to declare “that ending a pregnancy could be carried out by medical personnel, in an [approved] setting, thus conferring on [less-advantaged] women, finally, the full rights of first-class [advantaged] citizens …”

Fielding would no doubt concur that “full rights” also includes access to LARC methods that, in recent years, have made it less imperative for women to exercise their abortion rights. Accordingly, one might say that Hilary Clinton’s view of abortion as a legal, though increasingly rare, option does not seem to be an entirely implausible policy objective. As long as that objective stays buttressed through delivering reproductive services to less-advantaged women, there is every reason to expect that abortion rates would continue to decline. Hence, why wouldn’t conservatives heed the entreaty made by two of their own flock to “tolerate” contraception—a means shown to reduce abortion’s incidence? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is murky, as Guttmacher observed:

“… Even as they work to restrict access to abortion care, leading U.S. antiabortion organizations and their political allies have essentially no agenda to help women avoid unintended pregnancy in the first place. Their positions on contraception range from outright hostility to, at best, proclaimed neutrality, and their political allies have slashed—or attempted to do so—funding for family planning services. Their pregnancy prevention agenda, if any, is generally limited to promoting abstinence outside of marriage and periodic abstinence within marriage, including via discredited abstinence-only programs that withhold information about the benefits of contraceptive use.”

New York Times columnist Gail Collins posed the same issue for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi: “Are the people who want to put [Planned Parenthood] out of business just opposed to the abortions, or are they against family planning, period?” “I’m telling you,” replied Pelosi, “It’s family planning. …They decided that was their target long ago.” But why, despite its obvious benefits, would conservatives “target” contraception? Why would they expend so much political capital trying to subvert it?

It seems to me (a sociologist, and erstwhile evangelical now morphed into a progressive person of faith) that unscrambling this byzantine puzzle begins with Church teachings that shaped Western views of sexuality. St. Paul judged the sexuality (hetero and homo) of his Greco-Roman world to be intrinsically vile, loathsome, and repugnant. Still, he argued that marriage purged sex of its essential depravity, and thus sanctioned it in the eyes of God. He set the parameters for sanitized sex with phrases such as, “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled.” The faithful learned that heterosexual marriage makes sex moral if done to procreate and to alleviate lust. That this Benchmark has been, throughout the centuries, “a custom more honor'd in the breach than the observance” was, of course, an open secret.

Nevertheless, the Benchmark encountered no overt challenges until the newly prosperous urban bourgeoisie in 19th century Europe and America invented the novel idea that married couples might have intercourse chiefly for pleasure, and not just to bear children or relieve lust. The idea caught traction because advantaged couples could afford the contraceptive methods entering the marketplace at that time. Still, permission for marrieds to enjoy sexual pleasure, alongside access to effective methods, simply tweaked the Benchmark but left it firmly in place.

Though conservatives were distressed over the penetration of the marriage-bed by pleasure and by artificial methods, they became infuriated when 20th century progressives started supplying contraceptives (the Pill in particular) to singles—especially adolescents. Progressives were, however, able to rally public support for the notion that singles should have access to contraceptives in order to prevent undesirable outcomes—pregnancy, abortion, birth, STI. Advocates argued that although it was indeed better to wait until marriage, singles who could not abstain should be protected. Though by no means formally endorsing it, the public thus lent tacit approval to behavior that the Church castigated as “fornication.” While quite distressed and highly offended by this insidious example of “cultural decay,” conservatives could take comfort in the fact that aside from a few “radicals,” no one was seriously proposing to undercut the unique standing of marital sex—the Benchmark reigned preeminent.

Today, as we move into the 21st century, it seems to me there is at least one (among others perhaps) plausible explanation for why many older conservatives are resolutely determined to “target family-planning,” as Pelosi put it. Michael Gerson & Peter Wehner wrote recently that many of their older fellow-conservatives suffered a massive shock when they lost the battle over gay marriage. They wrote that conservatives “who have had [political] power, and have watched it slip away, feel afraid and frustrated.” Older conservatives were, they said, plunged into “bitterness and despair” because the astonishing outcome of their epochal struggle was a menacing signal that the culture wars were not going well—their political clout was slowly receding. Conservatives feared that secularists were in fact gaining the upper hand in their apparent campaign to wrest American culture away from its historic moorings in Judeo-Christian values including, of course, the Benchmark.

Moreover, as though it were not bad enough that secularists appear to be winning, older conservatives sense that they are simultaneously losing ground among their own youth. Gerson & Wehner concurred with Deborah Jian Lee that even the “Young Religious Right is Leaning Left” … “Evangelical millennials are supporting progressive issues” … [They are a] generation that is no longer galvanized by opposition to abortion and gay marriage.” Losing sway over their own millennials is a significant blow to older conservatives for obvious reasons: If they are unable to throw back the sexual/contraceptive values embraced by progressives (values that began penetrating American culture in the 1960s) while their own younger generation embraces those same values, then their fears re the ultimate resolution of the culture wars are seriously magnified. Those anxieties were expressed in 2012 by a Southern Baptist leader when he lamented: “…The entire moral landscape has changed. An increasingly secularized America understands our positions, and has rejected them.”

Several implications of our shifting “moral landscape” permeated a talk given in August 2015 by University of Michigan assistant dean of students, Ms. Sarah Daniels. From the perspective of older conservatives, Daniels’ discourse was a recurring nightmare: It was another instance of an establishment representative giving formal recognition to a set of values that in recent years has been chipping away at the Benchmark, thus eroding its preeminence. Daniels spoke to her residence hall advisers on how UM expects them to manage the controversial issue of campus sexual assault. Her talk was entitled Sexual Misconduct and Bystander Intervention: What It Is and What to Do about It. She focused on both the students’ sexual liberty and on the RAs’ task to cultivate within them a sense of sexual responsibility by saying:

“We want people to have sex with people they want to have sex with…

You are the front lines…

You can be a role model, step in and say, ‘It’s not O.K.,’ or, ‘Be safe!’”

Thereupon, reported the Times journalist, “The room erupted in appreciative finger snapping (the new clapping).” The RAs applauded Daniels for voicing the twin, indivisible aspects of emergent 21st century sexual standards—freedom with responsibility. Daniels and her RAs are concerned that many UM students (men in particular) have embraced freedom more readily than responsibility. They either have no awareness of the Benchmark or, if they do, view it as archaic. Accordingly, Daniels wants her RAs to communicate that although UM approves their sexual liberty, students must grasp that their freedom is moral only if it is responsible. Responsibility and thus morality are embedded in the principle endorsed by virtually all world religions and philosophical systems: Love your neighbor as yourself. Hence, exercise of one’s sexual freedom is irresponsible and immoral if it violates the freedom of his/her neighbor. In practical terms, that means (among other things) that sex must be entered into voluntarily, and that mutual consent must govern each ensuing step of the way. Coercion, abuse, violence, and assault are obvious examples (along with others) of irresponsibility and thus of immorality.

Pivotal to the RA’s mission is helping students comprehend that “loving one’s neighbor” requires the use of effective contraception which today implies LARC methods. One RA told the Times journalist that when she speaks with “students about consent and contraception methods … someone will say, ‘Oh, at my high school we were just taught not to do it’ … I am often wondering if students are just sitting there, confused.” They are indeed “confused” because it is counterintuitive to apprise youth that pledging allegiance to abstinence actually increases their chances for pregnancy/STI. The RAs acquaint students with the research showing that conservative youth who commit to abstinence tend either to ignore contraceptives or else bungle their use. The upshot, report the studies, is that in today’s charged sexual climate those contraceptively naïve youth are more likely to stumble unwittingly into pregnancy/STI than are their peers who have no illusions about abstinence and are contraceptively savvy.

To reinforce their case, RAs might advise students to consult Bedsider—a “cool” website whose message to youth is that sex is normal, and that eradicating the specter of pregnancy/STI enhances their sexual enjoyment: “Love your body; have fun; use birth control” is a core Bedsider message. RAs emphasize that because UM (as do most colleges) offers ready access to LARC (and other) methods, there is no reason for any student not to be contraceptively savvy, and thus free from that specter.

Until this time, public funds have provided comparable access for women not in college and who are economically less-advantaged. Though perhaps not deliberately discriminating by social class, conservatives who “target family planning” threaten those women—citizens least able to afford contraceptive services. While by no means necessarily a decision arrived at consciously, conservatives may sense that the political symbolism inherent in withholding effective contraceptives from as many women as possible is a weapon in their arsenal to reinforce Benchmark sexual values, thus forestalling yet another stinging defeat in the culture wars. Despite the odds, conservatives appear determined to resist the tide of history and delay the inevitable for as long as they can. Unhappily, to make “family planning” their target is an act of desperation dripping with irony because the sad thing (besides being mean-spirited) about their strategy is that it does little except boost the chances for the very event (abortion) they dread most.

Still, the optimistic takeaway from this depressing scenario is that some of their millennial offspring are swimming with the tide of history despite their elders’ lament that they are “capitulating to the culture.” Millennials respond that supporting emergent sexual/contraceptive values is not capitulation, but rather one way to help achieve their shared generational goal of “rare” abortions.

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About the Author 

John H Scanzoni
John Scanzoni is Professor Emeritus of sociology at The University of Florida. He has done extensive research on changes in family patterns

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