a longtime pro contraception prolifer, I cannot stay quiet about Rep.
Tim Ryan’s expulsion as a Democrats for Life of America advisory board
member. This brouhaha shows up some rather severe but instructive
barriers to common ground.
version of events: Although he is strongly prolife, DFLA dismissed him
for insisting that contraception is essential to reducing abortion,
and especially for cosponsoring the "Preventing Unintended Pregnancies,
Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act. This
bill, which is being introduced into the House today, includes provisions
for greater access to contraception and comprehensive sex education,
among other positive measures.
DFLA head Kristen Day tells a different story. She claims that
Democrats for Life is neutral on contraception. So what is the
problem with Tim Ryan? His voting record has abruptly shifted
from prolife to prochoice, so much so that he has been lost to the prochoice
movement. And he speaks ill of other prolifers. (For more
on the story, read this.)
number of prolifers and prochoicers take Ryan’s expulsion as QED proof
for their monolithically dim views of the “enemy.” Either
it confirms that abortion opponents are invariably motivated by hatred
of sex and crazy, absurd, inalterable hostility to every possible single
measure that would help reduce abortion. Or it confirms that contraception
supporters are lethally dangerous to the unborn and too morally corrupt
and traitorous to be allowed in the prolife movement.
of these views frequently accompany an utter cynicism towards common
ground. After all, if one is oh-so-completely “right,” then
there is no need to bother with anyone who is oh-so-completely “wrong.”
But whether from prolifers or prochoicers, such views represent a poverty
of moral and political imagination and engagement.
Tim Ryan incident illuminates some longstanding structural problems
with the US abortion debate that arise directly from this poverty of
vision and action. One is the stereotype–curiously shared by
many prolifers and prochoicers–that opposition to abortion necessarily
equates opposition to contraception. Yet, as mentioned in my previous
column, eight in ten Americans who identify as prolife advocate contraception.
prolife movement as such, unfortunately, does not properly represent
its pro contraception supporters, or even those who have religious objections
to contraception but do not necessarily want to illegalize it.
Some antiabortion organizations are actively hostile to contraception.
Others, like DFLA, profess to be neutral on pregnancy prevention.
that professed neutrality is all too often suspect. I myself ended
up leaving a group that claimed neutrality on pregnancy prevention.
It bent over backwards not to offend contraception opponents.
Yet it stubbornly discouraged and stifled anyone who sought to be vocally
pro contraception within the parameters of the group. And anyway,
how is neutrality possible on voluntary pregnancy prevention, something
so vital and indispensible to reducing abortion?
don’t these avowedly neutral organizations instead develop pregnancy
prevention strategies that truly represent the full range of
prolife views on prevention, including those of the pro-birth control
majority? Why don’t such groups at the very least strongly assert
women’s human right to freedom of conscience in pregnancy prevention?
is a great need for groups in which pro contraception prolifers can
openly and actively be ourselves alongside, equal to prolifers
with other views. There is an even greater need for pro contraception
prolifers to form our own groups and projects. This is
one big reason I help with the Nonviolent Choice Directory, a global directory of abortion-reducing
resources, including resources on all forms of pregnancy prevention.
This is also why my friend Jen Roth is starting All Our Lives, which combines the insights of the
reproductive justice and consistent life ethic movements.
pro contraception prolifers can take our rightful place in abortion
discourse, dialogue and cooperative action with prochoicers will become
all the more possible. We already agree with prochoicers about
almost every way they propose to alleviate the root causes of abortion.
We also have a unique ability to help prochoicers understand that, yes,
really, for real, a prolife stance can be, and often is, motivated by
concern for fetal and even female life, rather than animosity towards
women and nonprocreative sex.
Tim Ryan really expelled from DFLA because of his outspokenness in favor
of contraception? It’s plausible. Was he really expelled
because he changed his position on abortion? Unlike many prolife
commentators, Jen Roth actually examined his recent voting record instead
of making vague but virulent condemnations of it. She concludes that the denunciation
of Ryan as “no longer prolife” is based mostly on his support for
contraception, not for legalized abortion.
what if Ryan did change his approach to the legal status of abortion?
Would he then be a liar to he say he remains strongly prolife?
Not necessarily–and this brings me to another large structural problem
with the abortion debate.
too often, prolife and prochoice are rigidly and exclusively defined
in terms of whether abortion should be legal/illegal. This framing
of the issue makes it quite clear the traitors and enemies of each cause
are. Yet, as many on both “sides” do recognize, this framing
of abortion does not touch some of the deepest, most decisive questions
connected with it.
is not to say the matter of the law is unimportant. But whether
and to what extent abortion is legal/illegal, women will continue to
experience unintended pregnancies and abortions on a massive scale if
they still face a dearth of other alternatives. So people with
a large spectrum of views on abortion’s legal status dedicate themselves
to creating other alternatives. Work in this area is essential
to the most profound, and most shared, goals of both prolife and prochoice.
why is such work so often considered secondary, extraneous, or marginal
to each movement’s self-definition? For example, some prolifers
who focus on providing abortion alternatives take an approach quite
parallel to the harm reduction philosophy on substance abuse.
But because they do not call for legal bans on abortion, or because
they put their energies elsewhere than the matter of the law, other
prolifers dismiss and berate them as “not really prolife.”
In a quite parallel manner, some prochoicers who focus on matters like
adoption, are told they are going off on tangents to the real
purpose of the prochoice movement.
of the most disturbing things about Ryan’s expulsion is that he was
faulted for criticizing the prolife movement, as if he could not find
fault with it and yet remain a part of it. Isn’t a movement’s
ability to reflect upon and criticize itself essential to its progress?
I think that to progress, both the prolife and prochoice movements need
to confront and move beyond their own roles in these structural problems
of the abortion debate.
problems may be difficult to surmount. But they came into being
through human agency. So human agency can dismantle them–and
seek for more constructive ways to deal with disagreement–and agreement–between
prochoice and prolife. The future of both movements lies in the
direction of common ground.