The “Misconceptions” of Contraception: Enough to Make Sun Tzu Cringe


Robin Summers is the Senior Policy Analyst for the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association (NFPRHA).

The famous Chinese general, Sun Tzu, in his infamous military treatise, "The Art of War," wrote: "All warfare is based on deception." Common sense tells us, however, that for a deception to prove effective, the lie must ring true. That is where the enemies of reproductive choice fail in the newest stratagem in their war: the attack on contraception.

[img_assist|nid=598|title=Special Series|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=100|height=67]A couple of weeks ago, anti-choice activists gathered in Chicago for a conference entitled, "Contraception Is Not the Answer." You may have read about it in the Chicago Tribune, or in blogs like this one. The organizer of this attack on contraception was none other than Joe Scheidler and his Pro-Life Action League, the man who vowed to stop abortion "by any means necessary" and the group he called the "pro-life mafia" – the same group that proclaimed a "year of pain and fear" in the 1980s during a rash of violent attacks on abortion providers and clinics. Now it seems that our friend Joe has decided that contraception is the cause of most, if not all, of society's problems.

The purpose of the event was, in the words of its organizers, to "confront the misconceptions about the effects of contraception." Intrigued, we sent one of my NFPRHA colleagues to the event for a bit of information gathering, to find out just what these so-called "misconceptions" were first-hand. Boy, were we in for a surprise. Pretty much anything and everything positive that you've ever heard about, or experienced, using contraception was maligned. Enable a woman to plan and space her births? How dare we! Allow a woman to pursue her educational and professional goals? Oh, the humanity! Reduce the need for abortion? Blasphemy!

That's right, I said reduce the need for abortion. Because that's what contraception does. It enables women (and men, for that matter) to avoid unplanned pregnancies that can result in abortion. Each year, publicly supported contraceptive services help women prevent 1.3 million unplanned pregnancies, which would result in 632,300 abortions, 533,800 unintended births and 165,000 miscarriages. In fact, 52 percent of the unplanned pregnancies each year occur to the 11 percent of women at risk who report not using any method of contraception in the month they became pregnant. Contraception is a common sense, proven approach to reducing the need for abortion in the United States. Unfortunately, our enemies on the other side of the common sense fence have decided that contraception is the "root cause of abortion more than anything else."

I'm sorry. Did you really just tell the Chicago Tribune that contraception causes abortion, Joe?

It is a well-documented fact that a woman who wants two children will spend five years pregnant or trying to get pregnant and roughly 30 years trying to prevent pregnancy. Last year, NFPRHA conducted nationwide polling on the attitudes about and use of contraception. Before conducting the polling, we knew that Americans overwhelmingly use contraception – 98 percent of all women who have had sex have used contraception – but we wanted to know how people feel about access to contraception, including whether there is a serious difference between those who describe themselves as pro-life or pro-choice.

We found out that we're not delusional – people across the political and religious spectrum think contraception is as positive and important as we think it is.

  • 88% of Americans support access to contraception;
  • 80% of individuals who identified themselves as pro-life support access to contraception;
  • 72% of those polled believe access to contraception is very important; and
  • 85% of the public finds using contraception to be morally acceptable, including 8 of 10 Republicans.

Yet despite these numbers, despite the common sense appeal of contraception, despite the health benefits of contraception to women, families, and society, a handful of "activists" have decided that the "contraceptive culture" has warped our feeble minds and left us morally bankrupt. The arguments made in Chicago against contraception? Let's review:

  • Margaret Sanger was a "she-devil;"
  • Birth control paved the way for women to work outside the home, something that is "not natural;"
  • The divorce rate between 1960 and 1970 doubled, the result of contraception;
  • Sex should only exist inside marriage for the intent of procreating, and that contraception allows sex "without consequences;"
  • No comprehensive sex-ed program has ever been found to reduce the rates of STDs or pregnancy in participants; and
  • The loss of children due to contraception and abortion is like having a 9/11 every day for 35 years.

There was also discussion of a study of monkeys having sex on an island that supposedly illustrated why contraception is bad, but that one is just too strange to recount. The point is that after hearing the full report from this conference, I have to say that I was rather perplexed at how anyone thought these ideas, these deceptions, were going to be an effective tactic in the war on choice.

"All warfare is based on deception." Maybe the next line Sun Tzu wrote should have been, "Just make sure your deceptions pass the laugh test."

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  • corysold

    If contraception works so well to stop abortions, why does the abortion rate continue to rise, to over 4 million this year? Seems to me like something might not be working. Let us do some simple math. The typcial method of contraception has around a 92% user rate of failure. This means 8 out of every 100 woman will become pregnant in given year. Now, because we have contraception, more people will feel that they are safe to have sex. Due to the fact that contraception is not 100% effective, it follows that we will have more unwanted pregancies every year. This seems to be why Planned Parenthood pushes for more contraception, knowing more failed contraception equals more abortions and more money. It would seem wise, if you really wanted to stop all of these problems, to promote abstinence outside of marriage. I know, that is impossible. There are simply to many desires to overcome. If that is the case, how did I, and so many other people manage to make it to marriage without having had sex. Are we superheros, do we have magic powers. No, we simply have morals. It is possible to preach abstinence. If our culture didn’t make it such a issue to have sex, we would find it much easier to promote abstinence. The issue isn’t contraception, it is sex in the first place. Again, don’t tell me it can’t be done, I know many people who have done it.

  • mernlar

    Congratulations! You didn’t have sex before you got married because you had a moral paradigm that made you feel it was not appropriate. Well done! You and others who share your views should be proud of your accomplishment.

    Now stop trying to cram it down my throat! Let individual, moral people make individual, moral decisions. It’s not up to you when and whether I have sex. It’s up to me, me, me.

    It’s possible for individuals to abstain from sex prior to marriage. It’s neither possible nor realistic to expect everyone to adhere to the standard. Get off your high horse and pay attention to real life.

  • corysold

    I am not trying to appear to be on a high horse. However, when your choice to have sex, with contraception or not, might lead to an unwanted pregnancy that could end in an abortion, it is my right to protect that unborn child. Too many people put it aside or try to use special language to hide the fact that people are killing babies. There is no way around it. So, when you can find a way to have sex that will never allow for the killing of babies to result, then maybe, just maybe, I will get off my high high horse. However, until that happens, and the result of contraception is today’s downward spiraling society, than you can bet I will be here, sharing my opinion as you do.

  • jreden

    We all have the right in this country to have an opinion, just as we all have the right to a choice in having an abortion or not. I am pro-choice myself, but I do believe it should be a last resort. Many people who advocate the use of contraception do so to reduce the number of abortions. Just because one person is able to not have sex before marriage does not mean another person is bound to that choice or should be judged for it. In the case of rape, victims do not receive that choice. I went to grade school in the 80s and I was in 5th grade when we first got an overview of sex ed. It wasn’t much to go on and, of course, we were taught abstinence. Sure, we can equate the “times” of our culture increasing the awareness of sexual activity. But the truth of the matter is it has been around since humanity has, and I don’t think things are any better now than during the Roman empire or Biblical times. Men were encouraged to have multiple wives. Orgies were commonplace. One thing that has advanced is our medical knowledge, contraception being one of those advances. Perhaps one of the reasons teen pregnancies occur or unwanted pregnancies happen is because of our outdated view of sexuality. We all have it, whether we suppress it, abuse it, or enjoy it safely. Instead of such a stodgy idealism such as abstinence and scaring kids with pictures of grotesque STDs, we should encourage them to develop their sexuality. I’m not saying we should hand out condoms in school. Maybe I am way left of center here, but masturbation is the safest sex and should not be looked at as “dirty.” So many times parents are so afraid to tackle this subject, and kids are left to their own devices. But this kind of ideal cannot be attained unless we live in a society that is comfortable with having females on equal footing with males and people start taking a realistic view on what is happening on the here and now, not what they nostalgically remember as kids or what they wish was happening. In other words, not a country such as the US in its present state.

  • robin-summers

    I think your “simple math” needs to be reclassified as “fuzzy math,” at best.  The most recent CDC abortion surveillance (for 2002; 2003 data should be available in late November) puts the number of legal induced abortions at 854,122, well short of the “over 4 million” that you claim.  This number represents an increase of 0.1% over 2001, a minimal increase that barely makes a dent in the steady decline in the number of abortions since 1990, which is the exact opposite of your claim that “the abortion rate continue[s] to rise.”  In fact, the current abortion rate of 16 per 1,000 women is nearly the same as it was in 1973 (when it was 14 per 1,000 women), and is down significantly from its high in 1980 (when it was 25 per 1,000 women).  

    Apart from your obviously distorted view of Planned Parenthood and its purpose in the world, there are some other serious flaws in your logic.  You say that we can “stop all these problems” by promoting abstinence outside of marriage, and you imply that contraception is an immoral means to a sinful end: sex.  Yet for your argument to even have the possibility of being true – and make no mistake, it fails on a number of levels – it would also have to be true that only unmarried people use contraception, which is simply incorrect.  Many of the women using oral contraceptives today are MARRIED.  According to the United Nations, 62 percent of the more than 1 billion married or in-union women of reproductive age worldwide are using some form of contraception.  Many of these women talk about contraception with their husbands, making a joint decision to use it so that they can plan and prepare for having children.

    No one is saying abstinence isn’t a great method of preventing unplanned pregnancies, but for many women – both married and unmarried – contraception is the most reasonable and reliable method of preventing unplanned pregnancy.

  • dawna-cornelissen

    "The typcial method of contraception has around a 92% user rate of failure."

    But you don't mention the failure rate for "typical" abstinence pledgers.  Maybe you should look at Peter S. Bearman & Hannah Bruckner "Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges as they Affect Transition to First Intercourse" (2000), which found that nearly nine in 10 virginity pledgers have sexual intercourse before getting married.  

  • ebreton

    It always amazes me how a little thing called “morals” allows people to completely ignore scientific research and data. With all the statistics mentioned above about what contraception actually prevents how could someone possibly sit there and tell me that contraception is the root cause of today’s downward spiraling of society? I have been sitting here thinking of the possibilities, faith, parental influence, social and geographical upbringing…no, none of these are acceptable to me. The only thing that is acceptable is ignorance, plain and simple. Ignorance of the current trends and lifestyles of an ever-changing society, ignorance to the fact that you are one person among billions and in the greater scheme insignificant, ignorance that everyone from every single race, religion, gender and background should live their life exactly like you and ignorance that you have ANY right to tell me what I can and cannot or more importantly should or should not do with my body, my bones, my blood, my heart and MY vagina. If you would like to ignore that fact that our society is always evolving and that significant events and trends have taken place since the introduction of contraception that might have influenced your so called “societal downward spiral” (do civil, gender and gay rights movements, advancements in education, science and technology and a more culturally diverse America than ever ring a bell? All of these major societal changing transitions that come with good and bad results) than be my guest, for you clearly ignorance is bliss.

  • corysold

    You are wrong to say that contraception is the most reliable method of preventin unplanned pregnancy. Some forms of Natural Family Planning have success rate exceeding many forms of contraception. One study by the World Health Organization claimed that a form of NFP was 98.6% effective at preventing unwanted pregnancies. That is as, or more effective, than the user rates of condoms, birth controls pills and a number of other forms of contraception. If your cause was truly to help people stop pregnancy, you might consider NFP. It is free, there are no side effects and it is very effective. On the other side, it has also been shown that NFP can be 98% effective in helping people achieve pregnancy within 6 months. Again, helping people to avoid costly and invasive fertility treatments. I appreciate your vigor, but maybe you should look into all of the available options. If contraception was the only way, I might be able to be swayed, but that is simply not the case.

  • corysold

    I wasn’t talking about abstinence, I was talking about methods of Natural Family Planning. Additionally, the 92% user rate you quote is only for the birth control pill. For condoms, spermicides, diaphrams etc. it is much lower, in the 70’s and 80’s. Whether people choose to abstain or not is not the issue. Abstinence is 100% effective. The fact people choose not to follow it is irrelevant. However, this wasn’t the topic of my post.

  • jreden

    “I wasn’t talking about abstinence, I was talking about methods of Natural Family Planning. Additionally, the 92% user rate you quote is only for the birth control pill.”

    “Are we superheros, do we have magic powers. No, we simply have morals. It is possible to preach abstinence. If our culture didn’t make it such a issue to have sex, we would find it much easier to promote abstinence.”

    I am confused as to what you are talking about. From what I have gathered, we should follow your example. Period. No questions. We should not advocate any form of contraception, is that a correct assumption? If we are for contraception, we advocated sexual activity among young people. If we encourage preservation of choice, we kill children. If children are given a broader view of sex education, we in turn demoralize society. I am amazed. How can the left be wrong on any account according to the right, and the right can argue in contradictions?