Voices from the Sidelines

Anna Clark

While not one national anti-choice organization supports contraception or science-based sexuality education, some individuals who oppose legal abortion are making the connections on their own: birth control and education reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy and abortions.

To begin with, both those of us who oppose and those who support legal abortion agree that there's unbearably little nuance in the public conversation on reproductive rights. But that's only the beginning of our common ground. While not one national anti-choice organization supports contraception or science-based sexuality education, many individuals who oppose legal abortion are making the connections on their own: birth control and education reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy and abortions.


It's funny how the numbers align. Among the 42 million sexually active American women of reproductive age who don't want to become pregnant, 89% use contraception. It's intuitive, then, that plenty of people who oppose legal abortion aren't appalled by birth control.

Laura, a 25-year-old Catholic campus minister in West Virginia, opposes abortion, but her feelings about global warming lead her to part ways with the Church on birth control (while Laura asked that her real name not be used, names used in this article are real unless noted otherwise). The Church's catechism calls contraception "intrinsically evil." But "we, as a country, use so much of the world's resources," Laura says. "We've got to be responsible about how we bring people into this world and especially into this opulent culture." She supports reproductive health access as part of a full-scale reorientation of national priorities toward sustainability. Laura's lived in Jamaica, where she said radio ads promote condom use and musicians talk of HIV/AIDS in their songs. She's also lived in Maine, where emergency contraception is available without parental consent, her public high school offered off-site day care to young parents, and her college gave free condoms to anyone who wanted them. She applauds these efforts as responsible and realistic.

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Laura's in good spiritual company: Seventy-eight percent of U.S. Catholics believe the pope should permit contraception. The majority may not be a new development. Catherine (not her real name), a 50-year-old Philadelphia woman who opposes legal abortion, remembers sex education in an all-girls Catholic school in the 1970s as fairly progressive. "To the credit of the teacher, she did explain the basics of sex and pregnancy prevention," Catherine says. "We thought it was rather amazing to be taught about birth control when we weren't supposed to be having sex." These days, Laura, as a modern-day Catholic, says, "the Church has made itself irrelevant on this issue. Its rigid position is not for the good of its people. And it makes it too easy to trivialize the Church on other matters."

Brittany Galisdorfer is a 24-year-old from Detroit who reconciles her support of contraception with her opposition to abortion by taking a scientific perspective. "A lot of people don't support contraception because they believe life starts at conception, which requires egg and sperm to meet," she says. "But you can put egg and sperm together all day without a baby coming together. It needs to attach itself to the uterus to make a baby. That's why contraception is okay. It simply denies the third element required for pregnancy."

The life-begins-at-conception belief fuels the mischaracterization of some methods of hormonal birth control as abortifacients. Anti-choicers often go after emergency contraception — simply two regular birth control pills taken within 72 hours of intercourse — in particular, but some organizations would like to ban all hormonal birth controls and IUDs, claiming they cause abortions.

Beth Bovair, a Catholic 24-year-old from Arlington who believes life begins at conception, sees no validity in the birth control platform of organizations that oppose abortion. While she opposes abortion, Beth says we need to build a supportive society before it is no longer an option.

"We have to provide for children and women, and create a society where there's no stigma of pregnancy for women and men," Beth said. And that society, according to Beth, includes access and use of contraception to support family planning.

It's a sentiment that Claire Keyes, co-founder of the Abortion Conversation Project, echoes. "What happens after the child is born?" Claire said. "All our energy and dollars seem to go for having more babies, not caring for them."


Iowa just became the seventeenth state to decline federal funds for abstinence-only education in public schools.

Why the trend?

"Research continues to show that abstinence-only education fails to delay sexual initiation, reduce numbers of sexual partners or prevent pregnancy in adolescents," said Iowa Gov. Chet Culver in Medical News Today.

It's hardly theoretical: While over a billion federal dollars fund abstinence-only education (and zero support comprehensive sex ed), people under 25 have become the fastest-growing category of new HIV infections. A CDC study recently announced that one in four teen girls has a sexually transmitted infection. Eight hundred thousand teens aged 15-19 become pregnant each year. A number of those pregnancies end in abortions.

Given these statistics, Beth Bovair would like to see nuance, not just abstinence, in the classroom. Plenty of students aren't sexually active, so they don't connect to the material, she noted. Brittany echoed the sentiment: "I wasn't planning on having sex until I was married, and most of my friends weren't having sex, so [sex education] didn't feel relevant," Brittany observed. So it's important, Beth said, to provide facts while acknowledging that any given classroom includes people who are sexually active and people who feel far from that experience.

Catherine, the Philadelphia woman struck by her Catholic school sex education, and her husband found their children's sex education in both public and private schools to be "totally inadequate." They became the primary teachers for their children's sexuality education.

These four women are hardly alone in their desire for better classroom experiences. A 2004 Kaiser Foundation nationwide poll found that 85% of parents would like teenagers to receive comprehensive age-appropriate sex education, in lieu of abstinence-only.

Who Represents Them?

Laura, Catherine, Brittany and Beth aren't members of any national anti-abortion organization. Those that are Catholics distinguish their perspectives from Church catechism. Beth is church-hopping in Washington, D.C., looking for a parish where her spiritual and political views have a home. While Laura attended the March for Life in January, she spent much of it with a local friend, indicating that she doesn't feel comfortable among "hardcore" anti-choicers.

Brittany, too, is distanced from the traditionally-portrayed anti-abortion community. "The people who I share (my opposition to abortion) with, I don't share much else," she said.

But the numbers reveal that the conclusions of these women aren't uncommon. Who, then, represents their voices in the public conversation? It's not the groups that challenge reproductive rights at every level. These women — representing many in their movement — are left to speak for themselves within a context that begs misunderstandings and mischaracterizations.

"I've never heard anyone say these things, period," Brittany said. "I'm disappointed in the media in particular. There's nothing to do but live my life the way I choose to and speak up when I feel it'll be productive."

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