As Cries of “Religious Freedom” Grow Louder, It Is Clear Anti-Choicers Are Targeting Contraception

The always-excellent Sarah Posner responded to this past weekend’s anti-contraception rallies (disguised as “religious freedom” rallies, but timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Supreme Court legalizing contraception) by writing articles profiling some of the anti-choice activists who have really been gaining in prominence because of their unadorned hatred of birth control. The unmistakable conclusion to which all of this points is that the anti-choice movement is feeling way more comfortable by the hour admitting what they’ve previously tried to keep from being understood by people outside of their movement, which is that they oppose contraception just as they do abortion. Which, of course, makes it clear that their concern isn’t “life,” but that “life” is just a code word for making sure that the amount of sex that occurs in this country is minimal both in frequency and pleasure, and geared strictly towards procreation.

On one hand, this new openness with the public about the anti-contraception views anti-choicers have previously shared mostly with each other could be a scary thing. It could mean they feel emboldened by victories that have made abortion more inaccessible even as it remains legal, and now think the public is ready to hear more obviously anti-sex messages that aren’t covered in crocodile tears shed for fertilized eggs. On the other hand, this might be the behavior of desperate people trying a new tactic because they realize that the sexual revolution is four generations in and quite likely to become permanent if drastic measures aren’t taken.  The faux concern about fetuses has not, as they hoped, resulted in a return to 19th century sexual mores, and so maybe they hope a more direct attack on contraception will do the trick.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the anti-choice movement is being honest yet. At this point, it’s easy to imagine that they don’t know how to make a straightforward argument expressing their actual values to the public at large. They don’t have any practice, after all. Instead, the strategy is to fling the phrase “religious freedom” around a lot, and use it as a pretense to get their anti-contraception messages into the conservative mainstream. No doubt the hope is they can get people more used to these ideas and eventually they’ll be taken seriously in the larger mainstream. After all, this strategy worked well with “free market” libertarian ideology, which used to rightly be seen as the rantings of cranks, but now is the governing philosophy of an entire political party.

Either way, it’s good for feminists and our non-misogynist allies to familiarize ourselves with the anti-sex (for women) arguments we’re dealing with here, because we’re going to be seeing a lot more of them, if the past two years have been any indication. The argument, to summarize, is that contraception has been bad for society and especially for women, because it takes women away from our “natural” and “God-given” duty to stay virgins until marriage, begrudgingly let our husbands relieve their blue balls into us once or twice a year until the flame finally flickers out, have as many children as this ends up creating, and then dying with the knowledge that while this life was relatively colorless and sad, the next one will be pretty good. (And absent all that dirty sex stuff, since there is no “horny” in heaven.) In the meantime, your own unmentionable sexual tension that finds no other outlet can be turned into bitter hatred for other women, which can then be useful to the church and the anti-choice movement because it gives you a reason to push for more anti-choice laws and rhetoric.

Lest that sound overly harsh, let’s look at the actual arguments made by these emerging anti-choice leaders profiled by Posner. In her profile of David Beiret, the found of 40 Days for Life, Posner quotes Beiret calling Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court decision that legalized contraception, a “tragedy.” Indeed, makes it clear that anti-choice animosity towards Planned Parenthood has as much to do with its contraception services as its abortion services. Probably more, in fact, because while only some Planned Parenthood outlets offer abortion, all offer contraception services. It’s contraception that Beiret claims is the cause of “a tragic moral breakdown in our culture,” i.e. women having sex on their own terms and not usually for procreation.

Posner also profiles Helen Alvaré, who works the inevitable role of the weird church lady whose life goal is bringing an end of women having sex for pleasure. Alvaré aggressively argues that the only way to have sex is within marriage, rarely even then, and with an eye towards abstaining completely if you’re not trying to get pregnant. Her strategy is to make it all about women, starting with the assumption that women are somehow materially and spiritually damaged every time they touch a penis, and therefore should restrict themselves to only doing so to continue the human race. She claims legal contraception led to “more non-marital sex, the objectification of women, and the likely exercise of a frightening degree of power in the hands of government in its attempt to impose their [sic] will on the population to solve social problems.”

Of course, the problem with that is that the first one isn’t actually a problem and the latter two are actually much more of a problem under the patriarchal society that Alvaré longs for. Only someone who misunderstands the word “objectification” can believe that women are more objectified in a pro-contraception culture. (The word means “reducing a person to an object,” even though it’s sadly often used incorrectly to mean “is sexually alluring.”) The proliferation of contraception has significantly increased women’s right to an autonomous life, and therefore significantly decreased how much they are reduced to objects whose worth is measured strictly in how much value they provide to men as baby machines, sex objects, and free service labor. Objectification is about erasing someone’s humanity, especially their autonomy, and using them for their own ends. By demanding that women give up the basic right to self-determination and instead have their lives be run by the whims of Alvaré and the church she serves, it is Alvaré who is reducing women to objects.

Reading these profiles is above all a reminder of just this historical illiteracy that drives anti-choice activists. They are always talking about a time before, when they imagine that sexual repression worked to turn people into largely asexual beings who only had sex on very rare occasions, and otherwise didn’t particularly miss it. This time never actually existed. In the Victorian era they idealize, adultery, abortion, prostitution, pornography and even masturbatory aids for women were incredibly common. In the fifties era they imagine as chaste, the teen birthrate was more than twice what it is now, resulting in an avalanche of overly young marriages that created the divorce boom a couple decades later. A real examination of history shows that there never was a pre-sexual era that was then turned sexual by contraception or abortion. All it actually shows is there’s no way to turn sexual people non-sexual (and why you would want to will always be a mystery to me), but that you can accept the reality of sex, and work to make it safer and more enjoyable for ordinary people to do what they’re going to do whether you like it or not.

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  • coralsea

    It is difficult for me to understand how anyone who isn’t stupid, ignorant, or mentally ill could possibly view the availability of contraception as an attack on religious freedom.  Religious freedom means that you are allowed to practice YOUR religion without undue interference.  How on earth do rational people get from freedom to worship as they please to freedom to impose their own twisted views on everyone else?    The answer is that they WANT to impose their views and pathology on others–no matter what the emotional and physical cost.


    This is the problem I have with many evangelical Christians and other zealous fundamentalists (e.g., the Taliban).  Many of them really do believe that it is up to them to either convert everyone or, frankly, to destroy them.  (Please note: I do not wish to paint all religious folk with the same brush–but in my opinion, I think some evangelical Christians would be every bit as ruthless, or possibly more ruthless, than the Taliban.)


    I’m glad that these anti-choice/anti-contraception/anti-sex people are being profiled in the media because there is some real pathology here.  It needs to be exposed.  These people are not about life or love, marriage or children — they are about control, repression, punishment, and an astonishing hatred and fear of women and the divine feminine (and they obviously don’t care for regular guys much, either). 

  • jimthompsonmensrightsvideos

    I’d like to speak on behalf of the millions of people who have qualms about and opposition to abortion for secular reasons. I’m not religious nor am I some “secular crusader”, but I still oppose abortion. It isn’t intellectually honest to try to brand everyone as “Christian Fundamentalists” when that is such a small group (even within Christians themselves).

    Textbook biological science shows that a human fetus is alive, and every biologist would agree to classify it as Life. This scientific fact is taught in every single university and high school. So, who is the one promoting “doctrine” when you oppose such a basic biological fact?

    I resent you promoting the notion that someone is a religious fanatic for simply promoting textbook biology regarding the human fetus. If it isn’t Life, then why do you need to “terminate” it?


  • coralsea

    Dear Jim —


    I am aware that there are many non-religious and non-Christian people who oppose abortion, however, my comment, and the article about which I commented, was specifically about the tactic of saying that the availability of contraception violated other people’s religious rights.  I would never presume to automatically categorize anyone as Christian, since I know many, many people whose religious and/or spiritual beliefs are very wide-ranging, including: Wiccan, Native American Shamanistic practices, Buddist, Daoist, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Sufi, Jewish, Christian, Agnostic, and Atheist (I know — Atheism isn’t a religion).  


    You don’t believe in abortion — great!  Then don’t have one.  I trust you will also keep your fly zipped unless you are using good contraception consistently so you won’t put your wife or girlfriend in the position of having to cope with an unwanted pregnance.   And yes — we know that a fetus has the potential, if it is healthy and the woman is healthy, to grow into a baby.  Do you honestly think that most women don’t know this or take this choice seriously?  Really?  Really?  Nobody WANTS an abortion simply for the sake of having one.  But women (and men) have to make a lot of very tough choices they would rather not make just about every day in order to survive and attempt to steer themselves and the others who depend on them through life.


    What many of us who champion reproductive health and reproductive rights find ironic regarding the current efforts to curtail contraception is that such an action will invariably lead to MORE abortions.  That is the utterly ridiculous subtext under this whole, crazy debate — the effort to control contraception is an effort to control sexuality and “morality” in such a way that it comports to some extreme and negative religious views.   If you think that people weren’t sexually active before the availability of (effective) contraception, I invite you to conduct some geneological research — it will definitely open your eyes to how many children were born before marriage or out of wedlock. 


    You can also do some far darker research, as well.  Some years ago, the Chicago Tribune ran an article on an archivist who was working with old, turn of the (last) century police records.  One of this person’s more alarming findings: the overwhelming (as in every freaking day) occurrence for police of finding dead, discarded newborns.  Abortion is regrettable, but killing a baby because you have no way to keep it is beyond tragedy.


    It isn’t up to you or to anyone else to tell a woman what she can do with her body.  To put it bluntly, plenty of non-religious people have banned abortion out of a desire to force women to have babies — whether they wanted to have them or not.  Prominent among these non-religious control freaks are Adolph Hitler and Romania’s Ceaucsecu (spelling is wrong, but he was the last Communist ruler).  Frankly, your post suggests to me that you are probably more interested in controlling women because it bugs you that we have rights than that you care all that much about unwanted babies.  If I am wrong about this, then I apologize profusely on this particular point.


    Grow up, sir, learn to read articles and comments well enough to catch their gist, and see to your own affairs.   While I support your right to say anything you want and to believe as you wish, your rights stop at my nose (and the rest of my body). 

  • ack

    I’ll never say that the fetus isn’t alive, or that it isn’t human. The question becomes whether a human has the right to use another human’s body against his or her will. When you look at laws regarding bodily autonomy, they’re pretty clear. If I hit someone with my car and ze needs a blood transfusion, the government can’t compel me to give it. Even if I caused the accident. Even if I’m the only person who could save them.


    I can understand thinking that we need to lower the abortion rate, but the ONLY way to do that is to make sex ed more accessible and contraception more affordable and available to everyone, including men.


    But the article was about Christian fundamentalists, not the anti-abortion rights movement as a whole.

  • 7moonlight

    I believe this book really exposes the agenda that we see as the War on Women.

    The book is title, Religious Right: The Greatest Threat to Democracy.

    I found the website for the book, so I am sharing it with you:


    Here is a video about it as well.  I really can’t stress how I think every feminist needs to read this book to have any true understanding of the war on women.