Life Without Contraception

Last week, while American anti-contraception activists gathered in Chicago to discuss how contraception (a.k.a. the "taproot" of abortion) is destroying America, a group of African health ministers and other African Union leaders met in Maputo, Mozambique to discuss how ensuring women's access to contraception and related sexual and reproductive health services might help Save Africa. Apparently, the African Union has not gotten the memo about how contraception is NOT the answer. But, in the great tradition of the Pro-Life Action League, it's time to take a closer look…

My colleagues at RH Reality Check have provided ample background on and coverage of Chicago's Contraception is Not the Answer, but here's a quick history lesson, according to the conference website: everything was fine until the mid-twentieth century. Then, the industrialized world "embraced contraception as the way to eradicate poverty, lower the birth rate and guarantee freedom for women." Sadly, contraception didn't do any of those things. Instead, it caused "widespread promiscuity, divorce, sexually transmitted diseases, single parent households and abortion." Now, according to the conference organizers, "It's time to take a closer look." We must face the fact that "Contraception has succeeded in separating marital intimacy from procreation and turning sex into a recreational activity rather than an expression of love and commitment."

I guess it follows, then, that in societies where access to contraception and abortion is scarce, marital intimacy is always linked to procreation and sex is always an expression of love and commitment. And given the conference's emphasis on the supposed health risks associated with contraception and abortion, I think we can also safely assume that a contraception- and abortion-free society would naturally enjoy a high standard of reproductive health.

It's funny, because according to the health ministers who gathered in Maputo last week, despite scarce access to sexual and reproductive health services (including contraception and safe abortion), Africa is NOT in fact the reproductive health capital of the world, and sex is NOT always an expression of love and commitment. Check out these statistics, courtesy of Inter Press Service, the WHO, research compiled by the AMANITARE Initiative, and the African newsletter Pambazuka News:

  • Inadequate access to quality health services, unsafe abortions and lack of reproductive health care cause the deaths of at least 241,000 women each year in Africa, one of the highest rates in the world.
  • A woman living in sub-Saharan Africa has a one in 16 chance of dying during pregnancy or childbirth, compared to a 1 in 2,500 chance in the United States (and a 1 in 5,800 chance in the UK, where contraception and abortion are even MORE accessible).
  • Since abortion is illegal under almost all circumstances in most African countries, unsafe abortions claims the lives of some 34,000 African women annually.
  • A study among high school students in Swaziland found that almost one in five of the sexually active female students' first sexual experience had been coerced.
  • According to the 2003 Kenya Demographic Health Survey, 34 per cent of women of reproductive age who want to use contraception lack access to it.
  • In most Sub-Saharan countries, 60 percent of married teenagers reported that they did not wish to have a child in the near future.

Obviously, increasing access to contraception alone won't make these women's sexual and reproductive rights a reality–but, as the participants at the Maputo conference concluded, it's a start. And before the Contraception Is Not The Answer organizers wax nostalgic about the days when women in industrialized countries lacked access to contraception, maybe they should take a closer look at African women's lives.

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  • vince

    The simple, basic facts about contraception are these: 1) They encourage people to act as though pregnancy were impossible, BUT 2) pregnancies still happen, no matter what contraceptive methods are used. We have, by one report, 3 million unintended pregnancies in the US every year. A huge portion of these are due to contraceptive failure. Numbers from the Alan Guttmacher Institute indicate that roughly half of the women seeking abortion are there because of self-reported contraceptive failure.
    What this means humanly and socially is that we have one to three million women every year facing a very tough situation: they have to either abort the baby (not something anyone does for fun on a Saturday night) or place the child for adoption (almost as painful as abortion) or start living as a single mom (also very tough and it goes on that way for years). In our current culture, marrying the child’s father is hardly ever an option.
    So that’s the problem. What’s the solution? It looks obvious: ditch the stinking contraceptives! Why do I need a chemical or rubber crutch to help me do sex right? I need to handle reality just as reality is, not in some dream world where pregnancy “doesn’t exist”. I as a man need to respect a woman as she really is and not insist that she turn off one of her fundamental body systems so I will interact with her. I think it is really that simple.
    The consequences of saturating our culture with contraception are obvious and horrendous. Stick your head in the sand if you want to, but it will bite you anyway. The consequences of living without contraceptives are also obvious and extremely pleasant. You can still find families and whole splinter cultures in the US who live without contraceptives, and the difference between their quality of life and normal US quality of life is shockingly positive. Reality bites if you try to push it backwards, but if you work with it, the results tend to be very positive.

  • andrea-lynch

    Hi Vince,


    If you’d like to try and establish some sort of direct causal relationship between contraceptive availability and unintended pregnancies, go right ahead, but realize that you’re not making any sense, since unintended pregnancies (and abortion, for that matter) predate modern contraception by thousands of years. Blaming unintended pregnancies on contraception is like blaming car accidents on seatbelts (since they encourage reckless driving, of course). Furthermore, do you honestly think that if we make contraception illegal, unintended pregnancies and abortions will go away? If so, then I’m afraid we may be working from different definitions of reality.


    As for your quality of life argument, speak for yourself. I use contraception and I have a great life. And on the topic of respect, the times I’ve felt most disrespected by men in bed have been when they’ve resisted contraceptive use. In fact, as a woman who’s not ready to be a mother yet, my personal policy has always been that if men refuse to use contraception, I refuse to sleep with them. No problems so far.

    However, if *you* don’t want to use contraception, that’s fine (though I assume you wouldn’t make the decision unilaterally on your partner’s behalf). That’s the beauty of living in a plural democracy where contraception is legal—I can use it, you don’t have to use it, and everyone else can decide for themselves. If contraception were mandatory in the United States, it would be one thing. However, contraception isn't mandatoryin fact, women often have to fight to get it covered under their health insurance plans, and funding for contraception through Title X and Medicaid has been dwindling for years. But I probably don't have to tell you that, since you're already an expert on what women want.


    Andrea Lynch

  • vince

    Thanks, Andrea – good food for thought

    Somehow it has come as a big surprise to us that contraception has changed people’s sexual behavior. The biggest, most striking changes came in the sixties, but it was coming in more slowly for decades before that. Then the sixties hit and US family structure and family life haven’t been the same since. Few would argue that there have been overall improvements. To argue that position, you have to suggest that maybe divorce is an advantage, or that single parent families work better than two parent families. I have seen arguments for both of these, but our lived experience with divorce and single parent families tells us different.
    So, granted that contraception spurs behavioral change, just what would that change be? No problem figuring that out. Just think how someone’s behavior would change if she was told that all her contraceptive pills had been replaced with placebos, and someone had gone to all the drug stores and stuck pins through all the condoms. Things would be very different between her and her male friends until she could get a new and more reliable supply of whatever she uses to avoid conception.
    Now, when I run the logic on this problem, what I come up with is that contraceptives have made all of our sexual relationships less binding, less personally involving than they were a couple of generations ago. In some ways that may be a good thing. For families, however, it seems to have been an unmitigated disaster.
    What do you think?

    BTW and on a tangent. I would strongly prefer not to make contraceptives illegal. If people can’t make an informed decision in a matter like this, legislation (as I see it) would just create another dimension to the black market. Egads! Prohibition all over again.