Cristina Page is vice president of the Institute for Reproductive Health Access at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex (Basic Books).
The architects of the South Dakota ban on abortion have a bold plan for our country. Certainly, they have already given a jolt to the majority of Americans, or at least the 66 percent who want Roe v. Wade to remain law of the land. But there’s a great deal more the American public should know about these legislative campaigners. Especially since there’s a lot more of their agenda they hope to realize.
They have a plan for you and if you are anything like the 85 percent of American couples who have sex once a week, you’re not going to like it. The pro-life groups who are the most committed to ending legal abortion—and gotten the furthest in their goals—are also leading campaigns against the only proven ways to prevent abortion: contraception. Shocking as it may be, there is not one pro-life organization in the United States that supports the use of contraception. Instead the pro-life movement is the constant opponent of every single effort to provide Americans with the ability to prevent unwanted pregnancies. If the South Dakota ban is upheld and Roe v. Wade is toppled, it’s safe to say the pro-life movement is not going to send out a brigade to furnish Americans with the most effective contraceptives. In fact pro-life groups’ most recent activities suggest the exact opposite.
Take Leslee Unruh, the South Dakota native considered the primary force behind the near-total ban on abortion in her state. Unruh is, in many ways, the perfect representative of the modern pro-life movement. She is lauded in pro-life circles as the president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, a group that promotes abstinence-until-marriage. Under Unruh’s leadership, the Abstinence Clearinghouse has spearheaded campaigns to stop people from using the condom. On the organization’s website, supporters of family planning are derided as the “safe sex cartel” and “condom-pushers.” Her medical advisory board consists of physicians who pledge not to prescribe contraception to sexually active teens. The group’s new project, “Abstinence Africa,” discourages condom use in African countries like Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho where, on average, one in three adults is infected with HIV.
Unruh and her pro-life colleagues have moved beyond attacking the condom, too. For example, when pharmacists refuse to fill birth control prescriptions, the pro-life movement has responded with a favorite tactic: it has moved aggressively to welcome their deeds as acts of “conscience.” The movement has helped pass laws allowing pharmacists to refuse on moral or religious grounds to fill birth control prescriptions in South Dakota—no surprise there—as well as Arkansas and Mississippi. Additionally another 19 states have moved to protect anyone who decides to stand in the way of a woman getting birth control; this conceivably includes cashiers who could choose to refuse to ring up your prescription.
Over the past decade, pro-choice groups have tried to get contraception covered by health insurers as a sensible way to stop unintended pregnancies. Nearly every time, these initiatives have provoked intense battles in state legislatures. Right to Life chapters in Ohio, Delaware, Illinois, Oregon, Wisconsin, Nevada and Missouri all fought against state legislation to get birth control covered. Year after year the Pro-Life Caucus of Congress defeats federal legislation to require health insurers to pay for birth control.
President Bush has complied with almost all the requests of his pro-life, anti-contraception base. He’s attempted to revoke contraception benefits to federal employees, slashed U.S. foreign aid programs that distribute birth control and appointed anti-contraception ideologues to the expert panels charged with approving new contraception methods. He’s also appointed an abstinence-only-until-marriage crusader to direct the Title X program which delivers contraception to the nation’s poor—the majority of Title X clients are not married. It should come as no surprise that Title X’s funding has remained flat, while its clientele has swelled. What’s also not surprising is that the abortion rate among the most indigent in our country has been increasing.
Today, pro-life groups in the United States are reclassifying the most common contraception methods, including the birth control pill, the patch, the IUD, and the Depo-Provera shot, as “abortifacients” by claiming, with no scientific backing, that they cause abortions.
The American Life League explained, “We have been working to prove that prescription contraceptives have nothing to do with woman’s health and well-being but are recreational drugs that prevent fertilization and abort children.”
Some groups will use legal means to put pressure on candidates to adopt their anti-contraception view. For example, Northern Kentucky Right to Life will only endorse candidates who believe the use of the standard birth control pill constitutes abortion.
While the more extreme side of the pro-life movement hasn’t yet advocated violence against those that distribute birth control, they do agree with the concept of "contraception=abortion." Most chillingly, Army of God, a pro-life organization that honors those who murder abortion providers as “heroes,” also classifies birth control as an abortion method. On the “Birth Control is Evil” section of their website, they explain, quite threateningly, “Birth control is evil and a sin. Birth control is anti-baby and anti-child…Why would you stop your own child from being conceived or born? What kind of human being are you?”
Cloaked in the heated rhetoric of the abortion debate, an entirely new pro-life agenda is taking shape. Most Americans don’t know about this yet. But the Right to Life movement, which is now rewriting the country’s laws on abortion—of which South Dakota is clearly just a first target—has a broader and, for most of us, a disturbing plan. If this powerful movement succeeds, Americans will require safe abortion services more than ever.