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Sherry F. Colb
Oct 14, 2015

Why Don’t Pro-Life Advocates Champion Contraception?


Many Republicans and other pro-life advocates are currently waging war on Planned Parenthood. Members of Congress are trying to defund the organization, and the Republican presidential candidates at the second debate were falling over one another in their respective efforts to demonize it. Meanwhile, the silence about funding alternative sources of contraception is deafening. Given that contraception avoids unwanted pregnancy and unwanted pregnancy generates abortions, why wouldn’t pro-life members of Congress, presidential candidates, and others be champions of providing contraception to sexually active adults? In this column, I will explore one possible answer to this question.


The Puzzle


The puzzle that I explore here is the lack of pro-life enthusiasm for contraception. I would acknowledge that some forms of contraception (such as the IUD) could, in theory, operate as an abortifacient, if it prevents the implantation of an already-formed embryo. Most forms of birth control, however, operate solely by preventing conception from occurring in the first place. These include diaphragms, birth-control pills, condoms, sponges, cervical caps, hormonal implants, and spermicides.


I would acknowledge as well that some religious people believe that contraception is sinful. But the pro-life religious position regards abortion as a far worse sin than contraception, since the latter is—in the pro-life view—tantamount to murder. Moreover, some people who are pro-life do not ground their opposition to abortion in religion. Accordingly, if one’s goal is to protect embryos and fetuses against murder, one would seemingly be expected to actively promote the use of a device or medication that has the effect of reducing the number of embryonic and fetal lives ended in abortion.


According to the Guttmacher Institute, “[i]n 2013, publicly funded family planning services helped women in Texas avoid 68,600 unintended pregnancies, which would likely have resulted in about 34,000 unplanned births and 23,400 abortions.” (emphasis added). Also in Texas, “[c]ontraceptive services provided at Title X-supported centers . . . helped prevent 40,000 unintended pregnancies, which would likely have resulted in about 19,800 unplanned births and 13,600 abortions.” The Texas experience illustrates that increasing access to contraception dramatically decreases the number of abortions that women have. Is that not a victory for the pro-life movement that its leaders should celebrate by seeking to make contraception as available as possible?


Deontology Versus Consequentialism


This might be a good place to introduce the distinction between two leading philosophical approaches to morality: deontology and consequentialism. Deontology holds that actions are right or wrong because they either respect or violate another individual’s interests or entitlements and that the rightness or wrongness of an act cannot be adequately measured simply by calculating projected consequences. Acts are to be judged in and of themselves. Consequentialism, by contrast, measures the morality or immorality of a proposed act by calculating its projected consequences, in terms of maximizing pleasure (or preference satisfaction, or whatever one’s theory aims to maximize) over pain (or preference frustration, etc.) for all beings who can experience pleasure or preference satisfaction and pain or preference frustration (and yes, that rightly includes all sentient animals, not only humans).


Killing one person to save five might satisfy a consequentialist calculus, but it would violate a deontological commitment to treating each individual’s bodily integrity as a kind of “do not trespass” sign that precludes instrumentalizing one for the sake of another. Likewise, a deontologist might say that torturing someone is always wrong, no matter what stands to be gained, while a consequentialist might maintain that torturing a terrorist to save a hundred people from a torturous death is not only morally permissible but in fact mandatory. Thus, consequentialists view some action that deontologists think immoral as morally praiseworthy or even obligatory, and vice-versa.


How does this bear on the abortion and contraception question? People who oppose abortion and think of the procedure in deontological terms believe that whenever a person (a woman, in this case) terminates her pregnancy and thus kills her growing embryo or fetus, she commits a grave harm against a rights-bearing individual. People who oppose abortion but think of the procedure in consequentialist terms, by contrast, believe that each abortion causes a quantifiable amount of net harm, in the form, for instance, of lost opportunities for pleasure and preference satisfaction by the embryo or fetus that never becomes a born individual.


So far the outcomes might seem indistinguishable: if a woman asks an anti-abortion deontologist and an anti-abortion consequentialist, “Should I have an abortion?,” both philosophical consultants would reply “No, you should not.” But to the question “What should activists do to combat the harm of abortion?,” the deontologist and consequentialist might have very different responses to offer.


For the deontologist, the goal might be primarily to dissuade or stop pregnant women from having abortions. To have an abortion would be to commit a wrong against an individual, so an opponent ought to persuade the woman who could be guilty of committing that wrong to refrain from doing so and to, instead, take her pregnancy to term. Alternatively or in addition, the deontologist might want to erect barriers in the path of someone who wishes to either have or to facilitate having an abortion (i.e. providers and clinics) by requiring waiting periods or by legally prohibiting the procedure and punishing its violation with criminal penalties.


People who perform abortions, then, would suffer the consequences, and people considering abortion would be subject to persuasive (or coercive) advocacy urging them to reconsider, in the light of the wrongfulness of their contemplated conduct. To protect embryos and fetuses against abortion would be to take living, existing, embryos and fetuses and ensure that no one kills them or to punish those who do, for the sake of eye-for-an-eye retribution.


For a consequentialist, the primary question might have more to do with minimizing the number of abortions than with trying to persuade or force pregnant women or providers not to have or to seek abortions. Fewer abortions would be a victory, regardless of whether the reduction is a result of fewer extant pregnancies terminated or fewer pregnancies altogether. Women’s use of an easier and more effective form of contraception would yield a drop in the number of abortions just as worthy of celebration, for the consequentialist, as women deciding that they ought to take their pregnancies to term. Indeed, the former might be even better than the latter because it would not require any ongoing moral instruction—people generally prefer to use an easy and effective method of contraception than to have an abortion, so the availability of such a device or medication would be self-sustaining for a lower cost.


The deontologist, on the other hand, would not be very concerned about the cost of advocacy—or the cost of punishment. It is deontologists who emphasize the importance of retribution in the criminal law, while consequentialists are primarily concerned with how effectively punishment deters crime and protects the public. In a sense, then, saying that “prison does not work” would be a non sequitur for a retributivist. As a deontologist, a retributivist sees prison as an end in itself, and thus prison cannot be said not to “work” except in the unlikely event that it fails to deliver suffering to convicted inmates. The same could be true for measures that penalize abortions.


Are Consequences Completely Irrelevant to Deontologists?


Yet deontologists are not indifferent to consequences. Those who oppose abortion are, after all, very upset that after the decision in Roe v. Wade, the rate at which women terminated their pregnancies rose relative to what it was before legalization. Deontologists’ primary focus, though, is not on the sheer number of abortions (and thus the sum total of harmfulness) but rather on the morality of the decisions that people are making and the responsibility that people are taking for their decisions, both of which are components of living an ethical life.


Though deontologists of good faith could disagree about this, one perspective on contraception is that it enables people who might otherwise face a difficult moral dilemma to take the “easy way out.” Contraception enables people to behave in all of the same ways as those confronting an abortion dilemma, but without having to face the “natural consequences” of their behavior. If a woman wishes to “ethically” avoid having a child, then she can do so through sacrifice, by refraining from having sex. But if a woman chooses to have sex, then the natural consequence is for her eventually to become pregnant, and the sacrifice then required is have to take the pregnancy to term. To have sex whenever one pleases without having to worry about the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy is, in some sense, “cheating,” if one views these decisions in grave moral terms.


I suspect that this logic explains why there is not more enthusiasm for contraception among religious conservatives and other pro-life advocates. From their perspective, the use of a medicine or device that allows for sex without pregnancy is very different from a woman’s decision (whether voluntary or coerced by the law or by overwhelming guilt) to take her pregnancy to term. The latter actually saves lives through morality-based intervention, while the former just removes the moral dilemma from a woman’s life.


By the same token, though “fewer abortions” sounds like a worthy goal, it is not as good as (and certainly not the same thing as) “more full-term births.” Better to have people doing the right thing or refraining from doing the wrong thing, from a deontological perspective, than to have them skipping the dilemma altogether by doing the easy thing. In this sense, pregnancy is the proper cost for having the pleasure of sex, and people should either be willing to pay the cost or be prepared to forgo the pleasure. This perspective, I believe, partly explains why pro-life advocates in this country have chosen not to embrace the urgency of access to contraception as part of their anti-abortion message and strategy.


Sherry F. Colb, a Justia columnist, is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell Law School. Her most recent book, Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger?: And Other Questions People Ask Vegans, is currently available on Amazon.

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