Sunday, February 26, 2012

If Abortion Can't Be Rare, Women Shouldn't Have Contraceptives

That appears to be the subtext of Ross Douthat's recent column in which he imagines that "liberals" don't truly want abortions to be rare. As with many of Douthat's columns, the weak and fallacious reasoning is so overwhelming it's difficult to find a point of focus - to produce an analysis many times as long as Douthat's original, demonstrating how his logic is flawed, his factual assertions are incorrect, or how he substitutes his assumptions and prejudices for facts. I expect that there are countless posts around the blogosphere that take Douthat apart, line by line, so I'll try to focus on aspects of Douthat's analysis that seem to me to be particularly egregious or that I doubt would be the focus of those other posts.

Douthat writes,
Where cultural liberals and social conservatives differ is on the means that will achieve these ends. The liberal vision tends to emphasize access to contraception as the surest path to stable families, wanted children and low abortion rates. The more direct control that women have over when and whether sex makes babies, liberals argue, the less likely they’ll be to get pregnant at the wrong time and with the wrong partner — and the less likely they’ll be to even consider having an abortion. (Slate’s Will Saletan has memorably termed this “the pro-life case for Planned Parenthood.”)
So far, not so bad. Douthat predictably skips over an important element of the liberal view - contraceptive use requires not only access, but education. When and how to use contraception effectively, which contraceptives are most effective, when you should "double up" and incorporate a backup method along with your primary method, what to do in the event of a mistake or failure. Douthat's misleading arguments later in his piece, citing to a Guttmacher Institute study that undermines his claims (e.g., Douthat's argument that "only 12 percent cited problems obtaining birth control as a reason for their pregnancies" when about half of the pregnancies at issue did not involve any contraceptive use, or the impact of the unavailability of contraception to sexually active teens on the abortion rate) - nor the cultural and religious context that people like Douthat help create, that contributes to an atmosphere of ignorance and shame about sexual activity that both contributes to the non-use of contraception and to unwanted pregnancy. But again, I expect his arguments on those fronts have been well-covered by others.

Douthat has basically stated that liberals accept that unmarried people will have sexual relations, and that married couples will at times want to avoid pregnancy, and that the best way for people to avoid unwanted pregnancy is to use contraception. Saletan, who I would not characterize as a liberal, grasps the fundamental truth of that argument. So why is it that Douthat sees the argument as partisan opinion? Why can't he accept the basic truth that people who choose an appropriate form of contraception for their lifestyle, and use that form of contraception properly and consistently, in fact do largely avoid unwanted pregnancy?

Douthat's discomfort with basic facts is further evidenced by his presentation of the "conservative" case - which he later implies through a parenthetical is really a religious case, and even within that context more of a Catholic or possibly Evangelical Christian case than a Protestant position:
The conservative narrative, by contrast, argues that it’s more important to promote chastity, monogamy and fidelity than to worry about whether there’s a prophylactic in every bedroom drawer or bathroom cabinet. To the extent that contraceptive use has a significant role in the conservative vision (and obviously there’s some Catholic-Protestant disagreement), it’s in the context of already stable, already committed relationships. Monogamy, not chemicals or latex, is the main line of defense against unwanted pregnancies.
Douthat then admits that, as a matter of raw, unambiguous fact, the "conservative narrative" is a complete failure - yet he sneers in relation to high rates of unwanted prenancy in "conservative regions" that "Liberals love to cite these numbers as proof that social conservatism is a flop". Well, Ross, let's see... We have had birth control of various sorts for thousands of years. We have had religion of various sorts for thousands of years. We have had abortifacients and abortion techniques for thousands of years. The Catholic Church has been preaching abstinence, the evils of abortion and "sex only for procreation" for almost two thousand years. We have seen essays decrying the moral depravity of youth, unwanted pregnancy, and people defying the teachings of their religions in order to utilize birth control or obtain abortions (sometimes at grave personal risk) for thousands of years.

At what point, Ross, can we look at the facts and admit that pointing our fingers at young people and lecturing, "Shame on you for your dirty thoughts - no sex for you!" isn't going to prevent teen pregnancy? That we're dealing not with a clear and easy moral choice (that it would seem Douthat didn't make for himself but wants to impose on others, particularly women) but are dealing with an incredibly strong biological drive and immutable aspects of human nature? That unwanted pregnancy is something we can influence through education and contraception, but that will never disappear?

The fact that Douthat makes only the slightest reference to his own religion in his essay, without sharing statistics on contraceptive use and abortion rates among Catholic women, betrays both Douthat's fundamental dishonesty and the failure of what he purports to be the "conservative narrative". If the near-absolutist philosophy of the Catholic Church has that little impact on its members, what makes Douthat believe that human nature is suddenly going to change and that preaching abstinence and preventing access to birth control will do anything but increase the number of unwanted pregnancies? Douthat claims that "Mormon Utah... with some of America’s lowest rates of teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births and abortions" is the exception that proves the rule - oops.

He predictably cherry-picks his blue state statistics, arguing that "Liberal California... has a higher teen pregnancy rate than socially conservative Alabama" and that its lower teen birth rate results from a higher rate of abortions. What happens, Ross, if we control for California's high teen pregnancy rate among its immigrant population - most notably socially conservative, Catholic Latino immigrants? His argument kind of... falls apart. And whoah - if you want to reduce unwanted pregnancies within that population and thereby reduce the number of abortions, guess what works? Could it be... education and access to contraception?

And that last line... monogamy prevents unwanted pregnancies? Since when?

Douthat latches onto the politician's line that "abortion should be safe, legal and rare", and pretends that it is a coherent policy statement - politicans can't truly believe that, he seems to believe, because in his opinion abortion is not yet rare enough, except perhaps in states that have next to no abortion clinics and a culture of intimidation of abortion providers - and in his opinion access to safe, legal abortion is irrelevant - neither safety nor legality are important to Douthat, so he completely discounts that those are the foundations of pro-choice policy whereas rarity is an aspirational goal. And his solution to the problem appears to be to suggest that we rely upon moral solutions that have never worked, because even when available contraception is not always used. Like his suggestion that monogamy prevents unwanted pregnancy, his argument is at its core absurd, ignorant, and contrary to indisputable facts.


  1. Presumably, Douthat thinks that monogamy is such a boner-killer that couples will almost never have sex, thus obviating the need for contraception.

    1. If I try to be charitable (e.g., "I think he means that if you're in a monogamous relationship a surprise pregnancy is likely to lead to marriage and become a wanted pregnancy... and a lasting marriage") I still end up with an argument that is both fanciful and based on opinion, not fact.

  2. Douthat refers to an opinion poll about contraception. But more objective data confirms the commonsense perspective that contraception access diminishes abortion:

    [BEGIN QUOTE] “The declining abortion trend we had seen globally has stalled, and we are also seeing a growing proportion of abortions occurring in developing countries, where the procedure is often clandestine and unsafe. This is cause for concern,” says Gilda Sedgh, lead author of the study and a senior researcher at the Guttmacher Institute. “This plateau coincides with a slowdown in contraceptive uptake. Without greater investment in quality family planning services, we can expect this trend to persist.” …
    The findings provide further evidence that restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower rates of abortion. For example, the 2008 abortion rate was 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America, regions where abortion is highly restricted in almost all countries. In contrast, in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds, the rate is 12.
    The Southern Africa subregion, where close to 90% of women live under South Africa’s liberal abortion law, has the lowest abortion rate in Africa, at 15 per 1,000 women. Other very low subregional rates are found in Western Europe (12) and Northern Europe (17), where both abortion and contraception are widely available either for free or at very low cost.
    Eastern Europe presents a very different situation, with an abortion rate that is nearly four times that of Western Europe. This discrepancy corresponds with Eastern Europe’s relatively low levels of modern contraceptive use and low prevalence of highly effective methods such as the pill and the IUD. After a striking decline in the abortion rate between 1995 and 2003, from 90 to 44 per 1,000 women, Eastern Europe experienced virtually no change in the rate between 2003 and 2008. …[END QUOTE]

    Dunno if anyone's done the line-by-line debunking you describe. That's partially because refuting Douthat is like trying to nail a jellyfish to a wall, and partly because no one cares all that much what he has to say about anything. Like most op-ed writers, he's more interesting from a sociological/anthropological perspective than for the substance of his writing.

    1. Douthat conflates access to contraception with usage of contraception, conflates any usage of contraception with proper and effective usage of contraception, and conflates unwed pregancy with unwanted pregnancy.

      That he dismisses the tens of thousands of unwanted pregnancies that might be avoided had the 12-13% of women he mentions had access to contraception, along with his suggestion that monogamy more so than birth control will prevent unwanted pregnancies, suggests that his interest is not on reducing unwanted pregnancies but is instead on how more unwanted pregnancies might be carried to term.


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