Change the Subject

The juxtaposition of the controversy over President Obama speaking at Notre Dame, a newly released Gallup poll finding that a majority of Americans are anti-choice, and a governmental report on the increasing rate of nonmarital childbearing highlights the challenges of reproductive rights in American life and politics. Abortion is an intrinsically divisive issue, and it has become a focal point for values conflict. What we really need to do is to change the subject, from abortion to contraception.

In previous posts, I’ve discussed the analysis of red families v. blue families I’m writing with Professor June Carbone. Reproductive issues – specifically abortion – retain their ability to rally the red paradigm base. Conservatives can’t stop talking about abortion; abortion is, in the words of one political commentator, “their meal ticket.” It remains the family values issues least amenable to compromise. Indeed, the Gallup poll measuring abortion views found little change in the views of Democrats. Instead, the increase in pro-life attitudes comes from those who identify as conservatives and moderates.
In contrast, attitudes toward contraception are on a continuum — over ninety-five percent of sexually active women will use contraception at some point in their lives. More critically, the intensity of the abortion conflict obscures the real tragedy: the United States has the highest rates of unplanned teen pregnancies in the developed world. Thirty percent of American girls will become pregnant before they turn twenty, and eighty percent of the pregnancies are unplanned. The only way to genuinely address family values is to reconsider the terms of family formation. The dramatic story of the nineties was a national decline in teen births, a decline most dramatic for the poorest and most vulnerable Americans, and one concentrated much more heavily in the urban northeast and the successful middle class. That decline in births occurred at the same time teen pregnancy and abortion rates fell, and it depended on both greater abstinence and more effective contraceptive use. In the last few years, teen births have crept back up, with the largest rise for African-Americans. This has been attributed to some combination of increasing amounts of abstinence-only education and lesser access to contraception based, in part, on the economy. At the same time, the morning after pill and non-surgical abortion (RU-486) have blurred the line between contraception and abortion for the middle class, increasing ease of access for those with medical care, and worsening the plight of women with the least resources as abortion later during pregnancy becomes harder to secure. If you’re struggling to find contraception advice for a male audience, take a look at the user post from Mike on Men’s Review Zone.

If there is middle ground in the cultural fight, it should be on the importance of moving family formation out of the teen years. Early marriage derails education and increases the likelihood of divorce. As the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy points out, young teen mothers are less likely to complete high school, and their children do not perform as well in school as do children of older parents. While abstinence reinforcement can play a useful role, few modern couples will forego contraceptive use altogether – whether within marriage or without. Comprehensive approaches to deterring improvident childbirth, with special attention to the needs of poorer, minority and evangelical teens, should command greater support. After all, those who succeed in avoiding unplanned births become more to like to marry, stay married, and bear children who replicate more stable family patterns.

So change the subject. To keep abortion legal, talk about contraception instead.

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