Putting resources towards family planning prevents unplanned pregnancies, many of which would have ended in abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Many of us suspected as much, but this report is terribly important in an age in which anti-contraception and anti-education voices are stronger than ever.
We saw what happened when the Democrats tried to put family planning at the center of our economic discourse – to make it a quality of life issue, like education or general health care. Republicans used the words, “population control.”
Last weekend, William Saletan gave us his ideas for ending the culture wars. I have this to offer: it’s a question of love. Not love between a man and a woman, or love between a woman and a woman, or a man and a man, but love for the people we don’t know.
For conservatives, it may be hard to imagine how people who have sex – and who don’t want to be parents – feel. While I suspect that many of these abstinence advocates do, indeed, know how this feels, let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that they don’t. Similarly, I can’t fully understand the struggles of a middle-aged man. But our country was founded on the principle that we can’t see into each other’s heads and hearts, and that the government would only do its best to allow us to live our lives as we choose to live them.
Saletan argued that access is not the issue when it comes to contraception. While I take issue with this, I agree that sexual health is a complex issue, and that we need to look at behavior while we’re funding it. According to Saletan’s data, of the people who sought abortions and did not use contraception:
28 percent said they had thought they wouldn’t get pregnant, 26 percent said they hadn’t expected to have sex and 23 percent said they had never thought about using birth control, had never gotten around to it or had stopped using it.
Is it such a surprise that a good number of sexually active people “had never thought about using birth control” when there are powerful elements of our society trying to silence the contraception discussion? Margaret Talbot’s New Yorker story, “Red Sex, Blue Sex,” from last November, points out that white evangelical Protestants first have sex, on average, just after turning sixteen – earlier than almost every other religious demographic. And when they do, they’re less likely to use contraception. This is no surprise: if you were doing something that you were taught was wrong, wrong, wrong, would you stop and think, How can I make this safer for myself? What could be the outcome of this act? No – it makes sense that the wrongness of the act eclipses other considerations for such young people. And taking the time to decide to use contraception is an admission of “guilt,” in a way: I must be really doing this, and meaning it, if I’m thinking about using contraception.
This isn’t a shortage of pills or condoms. It’s a shortage of cultural and personal responsibility.
I agree that we need to teach responsibility. And there are times when even the best-educated, best-resourced person who, say, didn’t expect to have sex that night, makes an irresponsible decision about sex. But we will never be able to get into the bedroom. And this is something the conservatives have failed to realize. The government can educate and provide for people in the streets, in classrooms, in health clinics, even in bars where condoms are offered. After that, it’s out of our hands. But we need to do the best we can in the forums available to us, and that’s not just putting condoms in a bowl, as Saletan points out. It’s investing money in education, culturally-specific outreach, and more research so that we can figure out how to best spend family planning money.
At the end of the day, I’m a little depressed that the Guttmacher report is such a big deal. I feel sad that defenders of the benefits of contraception need to be so…defensive. But perhaps non-partisan research like this can help our country approach contraception as a health issue like any other health issue. Because insisting on teaching abstinence-only, even when it’s failing its own, core demographic, is culturally irresponsible. And when a legislator works to withhold money from family planning services because of his or her own beliefs, thus depriving people from all backgrounds, people whose lives and beliefs he or she will never know and could never imagine, that’s cruel, small-hearted, and un-American.