A Critique of the Movement to Ban Contraception


I couldn’t let this excellent article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine pass without comment.

I find these folks so maddening because they have a point about one thing: given all of the moral, spiritual, ethical, social and psychological consequences that it carries with it (both positive and negative), our culture indeed takes sexuality too lightly. In a number of cases, we dehumanize each other in the process of pursuing it, watching it, wearing it, singing it, evaluating it, and, yes, doing it.

Comma, however: these people have just got it all wrong when they propose their solutions. Fascism is not persuasion. We need to change hearts and minds on this, folks — starting with our own actions and the example we set in the world as individuals, then raising our children to have a healthy respect for sexuality and, for Pete’s sake, for themselves. (I had to throw that in there because I find the poor regard with which many young men and women out there treat themselves in this vein to be disheartening). Education should play a part; and definitely popular culture needs to be reined in. The part law and government would ideally play in this transformation, I’m not entirely sure. I just know that banning contraception is not gonna get it. It is just so not about that.

Consider this quote from the American Life League: “The mind-set that invites a couple to use contraception is an antichild mind-set. So when a baby is conceived accidentally, the couple already have this negative attitude toward the child. Therefore seeking an abortion is a natural outcome. We oppose all forms of contraception.”

That one got the ten-second eye roll. First of all, because the vast majority of people who use birth control want to be parents someday, but not until they are ready emotionally and financially. Or, they know they are not parent material and thus are reasonably acting to prevent becoming a parent. I think that could most accurately be characterized as “pro-child.” Second, this quote was misguided because banning contraception will not work to remove the so-called “antichild mindset” of the couple if it indeed exists. Rather, it will only make abortion more likely by making unintended pregnancy more likely. If a couple doesn’t want to have children at a particular time or at all, then they don’t want to. Removing access to contraception will not make people who otherwise don’t want to have children, want them. Duh.

Consider next this quote from Dr. Joseph Stanford, a Bush appointee to the F.D.A.’s Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee: “Sexual union in marriage ought to be a complete giving of each spouse to the other, and when fertility (or potential fertility) is deliberately excluded from that giving I am convinced that something valuable is lost. A husband will sometimes begin to see his wife as an object of sexual pleasure who should always be available for gratification.”

Oh, I see. So basically, the threat of having to support another child is the necessary constraint men need to prevent them from seeing their wives as pieces of ass and nothing else. Nice. Talk about the tyranny of low expectations and an anti-child mindset, and by the way, where is the woman’s sex drive in this picture?

The logic is that contraception is the thing that opened the floodgates to sexual experimentation and (in the view of these radicals) sexual deviance. But to the extent they are talking about gay sex or basically anything other than penile-vaginal intercourse, this makes no sense whatsoever, since none of these practices cause pregnancy and thus do not require the use of contraception.

The President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary had this to say: “I cannot imagine any development in human history, after the Fall, that has had a greater impact on human beings than the pill,” Mohler continued. “It became almost an assured form of contraception, something humans had never encountered before in history. Prior to it, every time a couple had sex, there was a good chance of pregnancy. Once that is removed, the entire horizon of the sexual act changes. I think there could be no question that the pill gave incredible license to everything from adultery and affairs to premarital sex and within marriage to a separation of the sex act and procreation.”

After the Fall? Is that not a little hysterical? Moreover, the Pill came on the scene long after several other forms of birth control, and I’m pretty sure adultery has always been around.

Contraception was advocated in this country in the early 20th century by Margaret Sanger and others not primarily because it would allow people to have more sex, but because of the incredible damage that is done to women’s bodies by having too many children. According to my boy Jared Diamond, the switch from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural society led to shorter birth spacing, which a recent study shows has highly detrimental effects on the too-soon-conceived fetus. (Sources for that are JD’s The Third Chimpanzee and a New York Times article that’s in the archives now so I can’t post it). Granted, there is a much lower chance of dying in childbirth than there used to be (although it still happens), and grotesque complications such as fistulas are unknown in the developed world. But there is a reason that birthrates have been declining in first world countries –almost all children now survive infancy, and our economy simply doesn’t permit supporting numerous children. The whole structure of our society assumes small to medium-size families. And the quality of life is generally better for children in smaller families – more resources go to each child, not only in terms of food and material goods but also more crucially in the form of parental attention.

I assume the anti-contraception folks would preach “natural family planning.” As I mentioned in a previous post, I preach it too for different reasons (plus condoms, which are not sanctioned by NFP). But you have to be really diligent and have a really stable life in order to practice it well, and I’m not idealistic enough about people to assume that everyone is capable of it. Moreover, I’m not sure why, given their perspectives on separating sex from procreation, that natural family planning is any different. You’re still altering your behavior to prevent pregnancy. Whatever distinction they draw is lost on me.

And here’s the quote that really gets me: “There are two philosophies of sexuality,” Rector told me. “One regards it as primarily physical and all about physical pleasure. Therefore, the idea is to have lots of physical pleasure without acquiring disease or getting pregnant. The other is primarily moral and psychological in nature, and stresses that this is the part of sex that’s rewarding and important.”

I have never seen a clearer example of a false dichotomy in my life. Sex is manifestly about physical pleasure (hello, McFly!), and also is moral and psychological. I don’t understand why these crusaders can’t see that. I also don’t get why separating sex from procreation is necessarily “anti-humanistic.” It seems more humanistic to me to only bring life into the world when you are prepared to care for it properly and give it the love and attention it deserves. I know, natural family planning again. And abstinence, that favorite concept of the Religious Right. Don’t even get me started on abstinence-only sex education.

I guess it comes down to “you can’t close the barn door after the horse is already out.” We can teach people to treat sex with more seriousness and care than some have been, but we can’t strong-arm them into not having sex at all. And I’m not convinced that sex is in all places and at all times as harmful as they think it is. The moral element needs to be there, undoubtedly. Sexuality is a powerful force that should be utilized wisely. And it seems clear that not everyone is on that page. But birth control did not cause that, and getting rid of birth control won’t end it.


12 Responses to “A Critique of the Movement to Ban Contraception”

  1. Whitney Says:

    I haven’t read all, but shared your 10-second eye-roll.

    (Can anyone tell me why there is a handicap sign next to the word verification?)

  2. juvenal_urbino Says:

    (It gives the visually impaired a chance to hear the code letters.)

  3. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I also don’t get why separating sex from procreation is necessarily “anti-humanistic.”

    I thought humanism was the enemy, anyway. Therefore, since the enemy of my enemy is my friend, wouldn’t birth control be fundamentalism’s ally? Ethics is so darn confusing.

  4. Whitney Says:

    Sorry for the hijack–for the record, I think the idea of outlawing all contraception is ridiculous.

    JU, you said: (It gives the visually impaired a chance to hear the code letters.)

    But how do they see the symbol to click on it? Can they tab through the site w/ verbal help? Sorry to be obtuse. But if they’re supposed to see the wheelchair to click on it to hear the letters, that doesn’t make sense. (I just clicked on it, and it said, “listen and type in the letters you hear.” But I had to see it to click on it.)

  5. Terry Austin Says:

    (It gives the visually impaired a chance to hear the code letters.)

    Thank heavens.

    I thought it was a threat to those who can’t decipher the word verification.

    But how do they see the symbol to click on it? Can they tab through the site w/ verbal help?

    Whitney, I know very little about web design, but I do know that there are web browsers out there that essentially “read” each page aloud for the visually impaired. That’s one reason why web designers are encouraged to use text (instead of images) whenever possible; these browsers can’t do much with images, obviously. Exactly how it works, I have no idea.

  6. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Whitney — I guess the theory is that the wheelchair icon is easier to see than the squiggly letters (technically known as “steganography”) are to read. I know even I have trouble reading the squiggly letters sometimes, and my vision is better than 20/20 with my glasses on. (Obviously, if one is completely blind, rather than just impaired, the wheelchair icon isn’t helpful.)

    And, yes, what Terry said. In this case, even though the wheelchair is an image and therefore can’t be read by those special browsers, you’ll notice that if you hover over it, you get the little popup description of what it does; that text is what the browsers read aloud for images (which is why web designers are also encouraged to always provide descriptive text for every image, especially if the image is functional). Beyond that, I’m not sure of the details — e.g., how a blind person finds the links and buttons on a page once they know they are there.

    Which is why we should all use contraception.

  7. Joe Longhorn Says:

    I have nothing to add to the discussion of the posted article, but to carry on the hijack a little longer…

    This discussion of Braille and accessibility for the disabled reminds me of the FDR Memorial faux pas:


    speech of


    of michigan

    in the house of representatives

    Tuesday, July 8, 1997

    Mr. BONIOR: Mr. Speaker, I rise today in full support of Senate Joint Resolution 29, the resolution directing the Department of the Interior to design and construct a statue depicting Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his wheelchair. I believe this inclusion in the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial Statue will further illustrate to the American public that a person with a disability is not limited in his or her ability to reach historic heights.

    In addition to the Secretary working with the commission to incorporate a sculpture displaying President Roosevelt in a wheelchair, as instructed by the Senate Joint Resolution 29, I would also encourage the Secretary to look into a serious matter brought to my attention by the National Organization on Disability and the American Council of the Blind and as described in a May 20 article in the Washington Post. It appears that the Braille lettering on the monument is not readable by most blind or visually impaired visitors. In fact, on some areas of the monument the Braille dots are not accessible or not present at all. This is ironic in light of the fact that the description on the wall of President Roosevelt’s programs to aid the blind, cannot be read by the blind. However unintentional, this makes a mockery of President Roosevelt’s work and is frustrating to visually impaired visitors.

    The main problem with the Braille is the size of the dots. The cells are too big to fit under a fingertip. Because of the enlargement, the spacing of the dots within a cell and between cells is incorrect. The sculptor admits that he took liberty by exaggerating the size of the Braille to achieve a certain concept. Unfortunately, his artistic interpretation has come at the expense of those who have low vision or who are blind. In essence, the majesty he sought to create for those who cannot see has proven to be a disheartening misadventure.

    I would recommend that this artistic but unreadable Braille displayed on the memorial’s Wall of Programs be supplemented by Braille which is readable. This Braille should conform to the specifications for raised character and Braille signage contained in recognized access codes such as the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines [ADAAG] and the American National Standards Institute’s [ANSI’s] A117-1 standard for accessible design for the disabled. The reproduced Braille should be placed on a metal plaque or plaques which are affixed at a reasonable and readable height and location on the Wall of Programs. Or, the plaques could be mounted near the Wall of Programs on stands located at a reasonable height and location immediately adjacent to the artistic, but unreadable Braille. I would also encourage the Secretary to replicate in Braille the inspirational excerpts from President Roosevelt’s speeches, which are displayed in print throughout the memorial, so they may be enjoyed by blind or visually impaired visitors.

    I believe these additions to the monument honoring our 32d President would be a fitting tribute to a great man who tirelessly served this country, and I would encourage full consideration of this important request.

  8. Terry Austin Says:

    In this case, even though the wheelchair is an image and therefore can’t be read by those special browsers, you’ll notice that if you hover over it, you get the little popup description of what it does; that text is what the browsers read aloud for images (which is why web designers are also encouraged to always provide descriptive text for every image, especially if the image is functional).

    On all the pages I design, I make the descriptive text read, “Ha ha! You’re blind!”

    (Not really.)

  9. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Is it possible Davy Concepcion has been prevented from entering the MLB Hall of Fame by his evil twin, Davy Contracepcion?

  10. Al Sturgeon Says:

    No, I think it was because Davey always had trouble hitting the pill.

  11. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Now that we’ve had our fun at the expense of foreigners and the disabled, Sandi, we’ll be serious. Probably.

    It seems no one here finds the position you’re arguing against defensible. I guess that’s why it hasn’t provoked a lot of discussion.

  12. Capt MidKnight Says:

    Even though I share some of the anti-contraception group’s concern that the widespread availability of contraceptives has removed much of the fear of consequences and lead to more “immoral”activity, it’s certainly not the only reason. Even when the consequences were more certain, hormones won out over fear more often than not. In fact, we may just be aware of more of it than before. Who knows? In any case, suggesting that we legislate against contraception as a remedy, is not only unfair, probably unconstitutional, but just plain dumb.

    When medical science has made it possible for a woman to make an informed choice in this important matter, it would be almost criminal for any group to try and take that choice away. In my opinion, contraception before the fact should be an individual decesion. We’d all be better off if more women and men took it more seriously. After the fact (abortion) is a far more complex issue.

    Also, from a feminist point of view, do you think that maybe some of the groups against contraception are afraid of seeing the power to control whether to conceive a child or not pass from the male (as in Onan) to the female? To me, the feminist argument for giving women control over their bodies is much stronger for contraception than for abortion, but I’m just an old recovering Male Chauvinist Pig.

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