Abortion at Saddleback Forum: If Life Begins at Conception, What About Contraception?

Scott Swenson

The choice at the Saddleback Forum was between a clearly pro-life and a clearly pro-choice candidate for President. At the heart of the discussion was a question of life starting at conception. What does that tell us about how the candidates view contraception?

At the opening and closing of last night’s Saddleback Forum with Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, Pastor Rick Warren talked about the need for Americans to be able to "disagree without demonizing one another." It is a sentiment I hope those who comment on this site can take to heart, myself included.

Abortion has been an extremely divisive issue for an entire generation, and in this election, it is increasingly clear that the debate cannot be only about abortion, but must also include a discussion of contraception, and all of the issues that comprise sexual and reproductive health. Pastor Warren did not ask about contraception, focusing only on abortion, and asking each of the candidates, "at what point does a new baby obtain human rights?"

It is a fair question, and in America, at least for the time being, individuals are entitled to answer that question for themselves, according to their personal and private beliefs and the best available medical science. Hopefully without being demonized, stigmatized, or judged.

Is it government’s responsibility to define when life begins in America with our incredible diversity of faith, belief, and culture?

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The mainstream media and debate or forum moderators always focus on the hot-button issue of abortion, as if it is the only aspect of human sexual and reproductive health that is important.

But, if "life begins at the moment of conception" as Sen. McCain stated, what does he believe about contraception? The Bush Administration is now on record planning to equate contraception with abortion, for the purpose of allowing health care workers to deny patients access to contraception. It is clear the Bush Administration believes that contraception is abortion.

Senator McCain’s belief that life begins at Conception may also tie his fate to a ballot initiative in the all important swing state of Colorado, that would confer the rights of a person on a fertilized human egg. That measure is so extremely controversial even social conservatives are divided on it.

Senator John McCain said unequivocally, if elected, he would be a "pro-life President and have pro-life policies" and talked about appointing two, perhaps three Supreme Court Justices with the clear indication he would do so with an eye toward overturing Roe v Wade.

It seems logical then, that since Sen. McCain believes life begins at conception, and is opposed to safe and legal abortion rights, that he also supports the Bush Administration efforts to define contraception as abortion. If McCain does support access to contraception, under what conditions is contraception to be made available, and how does that square with his personal beliefs about conception? When he was asked about contraception insurance coverage by an LA Times reporter, his squirming silent discomfort seemed to acknowledge the rock and hard place he is stuck between regarding his views on conception and the reality of the need for insurance to cover birth control.

McCain may be getting credit for being clear and concise in his responses at Saddleback, but by focusing exclusively on conception and abortion, the key issues for social conservatives, McCain did not acknowledge the complexity of sexual and reproductive health. Nor did he acknowledge the rights of people of differing beliefs to make their own private medical decisions about using contraception to plan a family.

Senator Obama was unequivocally pro-choice in his response, saying that women who choose abortion do not do so casually. He pointed out that abortions have not decreased in the past eight years, during arguably the most aggressively anti-abortion Presidency, Federal Court system — and until 2006 — Congress, in history.

The demonizing that Pastor Warren cautioned against has escalated over the issue of abortion during the Bush years, but all it has achieved is political stalemate, divisiveness, and distraction. That is what the polarization has brought about, not the end of abortion, or even a decrease. All the stigmatizing, all the shame, all the protests have done nothing but drive us further apart as Americans. Overturning one Supreme Court decision will not end abortion either, only make it unsafe and illegal, turning the forty percent of American women with unintended pregnancies who chose abortion into criminals.

Senator Obama spoke of respecting one another’s views. In saying that he favors limitations on late-term abortions with exceptions for the health of the mother, Obama acknowledged that people who are pro-life would consider his views inadequate. Obama said;

"… if you believe that life begins at conception, and you are consistent in that belief, then I can’t argue with you on that, because that is a core issue of faith for you. What I can do is say, are there ways we can work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies so that we are actually reducing the sense that women are seeking out abortions? How do we provide the resources that allow women to make the choice to keep a child? Have we given them health care they need, the support services they need, the options of adoption that are necessary. That I believe can make a genuine difference."

Implicit in Obama’s answer is support for contraception as a means to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. He also demonstrates a fundamental understanding of the many decisions couples must consider when planning a family, or when an unexpected pregnancy occurs. From economics to health care, and the emotional wrestling he alluded to; the choice to have children, the choice to have a child and put it up for adoption, or the choice not to have a child — none of them should be casual choices.

We should all work for an America where people are putting that much thought and planning into the decision about whether and when to bring a child into the world.

Pastor Warren understood the differences the two candidates have on these issues, acknowledging that he does not agree with everything either of them believe on a full range of issues.

Inherent in the McCain position is a traditional view that will reassure anxious hard-line social conservatives who believe the government should define when life begins and dictate the private medical decisions of women, and practices of physicians. There was no acknowledgment of the woman involved by McCain, or any of the factors that go into making a decision to have a child. In that way, McCain has a strong appeal to a conservative base that hasn’t always trusted him, but does nothing to acknowledge the views of other Americans or how he would factor those views into his beliefs on this issue.

Inherent in the Obama position was respect for the diversity of core beliefs, acknowledgment that we don’t all agree because of differing faiths and beliefs, and an effort to find common ground to work together on an issue that has divided the nation for the past generation.

Obama’s success in bringing diverse ideas to the Democratic Party Platform on these issues produced a document that is being touted by both Pro-Choice and Pro-Life Democrats as progress, even if there are minor quibbles about the politics of who gets credit for what.

The choice in this election then seems to shape up around how Americans view issues of reproductive health more generally, inclusive of contraception and what role it has in preventing unwanted pregnancies, thus abortions. A secondary question in this election is whether or not voters want to continue the debate as it has played out for the past eight years and before, with no real progress, or try something different, grounded in respect for all beliefs and perspectives on this most challenging issue.

The questions are clear and voters will decide which path to choose. At least in this election there is hope voters will consider more than just one medical procedure, and start looking at the broad spectrum of sexual and reproductive health, perhaps with more respect for differing beliefs, than we have in the past.




Analysis Abortion

Legislators Have Introduced 445 Provisions to Restrict Abortion So Far This Year

Elizabeth Nash & Rachel Benson Gold

So far this year, legislators have introduced 1,256 provisions relating to sexual and reproductive health and rights. However, states have also enacted 22 measures this year designed to expand access to reproductive health services or protect reproductive rights.

So far this year, legislators have introduced 1,256 provisions relating to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Of these, 35 percent (445 provisions) sought to restrict access to abortion services. By midyear, 17 states had passed 46 new abortion restrictions.

Including these new restrictions, states have adopted 334 abortion restrictions since 2010, constituting 30 percent of all abortion restrictions enacted by states since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973. However, states have also enacted 22 measures this year designed to expand access to reproductive health services or protect reproductive rights.

Mid year state restrictions


Signs of Progress

The first half of the year ended on a high note, with the U.S. Supreme Court handing down the most significant abortion decision in a generation. The Court’s ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt struck down abortion restrictions in Texas requiring abortion facilities in the state to convert to the equivalent of ambulatory surgical centers and mandating that abortion providers have admitting privileges at a local hospital; these two restrictions had greatly diminished access to services throughout the state (see Lessons from Texas: Widespread Consequences of Assaults on Abortion Access). Five other states (Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia) have similar facility requirements, and the Texas decision makes it less likely that these laws would be able to withstand judicial scrutiny (see Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers). Nineteen other states have abortion facility requirements that are less onerous than the ones in Texas; the fate of these laws in the wake of the Court’s decision remains unclear. 

Ten states in addition to Texas had adopted hospital admitting privileges requirements. The day after handing down the Texas decision, the Court declined to review lower court decisions that have kept such requirements in Mississippi and Wisconsin from going into effect, and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) announced that he would not enforce the state’s law. As a result of separate litigation, enforcement of admitting privileges requirements in Kansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma is currently blocked. That leaves admitting privileges in effect in Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee and Utah; as with facility requirements, the Texas decision will clearly make it harder for these laws to survive if challenged.

More broadly, the Court’s decision clarified the legal standard for evaluating abortion restrictions. In its 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the Court had said that abortion restrictions could not impose an undue burden on a woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy. In Whole Woman’s Health, the Court stressed the importance of using evidence to evaluate the extent to which an abortion restriction imposes a burden on women, and made clear that a restriction’s burdens cannot outweigh its benefits, an analysis that will give the Texas decision a reach well beyond the specific restrictions at issue in the case.

As important as the Whole Woman’s Health decision is and will be going forward, it is far from the only good news so far this year. Legislators in 19 states introduced a bevy of measures aimed at expanding insurance coverage for contraceptive services. In 13 of these states, the proposed measures seek to bolster the existing federal contraceptive coverage requirement by, for example, requiring coverage of all U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved methods and banning the use of techniques such as medical management and prior authorization, through which insurers may limit coverage. But some proposals go further and plow new ground by mandating coverage of sterilization (generally for both men and women), allowing a woman to obtain an extended supply of her contraceptive method (generally up to 12 months), and/or requiring that insurance cover over-the-counter contraceptive methods. By July 1, both Maryland and Vermont had enacted comprehensive measures, and similar legislation was pending before Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R). And, in early July, Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) signed a measure into law allowing women to obtain a year’s supply of their contraceptive method.


But the Assault Continues

Even as these positive developments unfolded, the long-standing assault on sexual and reproductive health and rights continued apace. Much of this attention focused on the release a year ago of a string of deceptively edited videos designed to discredit Planned Parenthood. The campaign these videos spawned initially focused on defunding Planned Parenthood and has grown into an effort to defund family planning providers more broadly, especially those who have any connection to abortion services. Since last July, 24 states have moved to restrict eligibility for funding in several ways:

  • Seventeen states have moved to limit family planning providers’ eligibility for reimbursement under Medicaid, the program that accounts for about three-fourths of all public dollars spent on family planning. In some cases, states have tried to exclude Planned Parenthood entirely from such funding. These attacks have come via both administrative and legislative means. For instance, the Florida legislature included a defunding provision in an omnibus abortion bill passed in March. As the controversy grew, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that administers Medicaid, sent a letter to state officials reiterating that federal law prohibits them from discriminating against family planning providers because they either offer abortion services or are affiliated with an abortion provider (see CMS Provides New Clarity For Family Planning Under Medicaid). Most of these state attempts have been blocked through legal challenges. However, a funding ban went into effect in Mississippi on July 1, and similar measures are awaiting implementation in three other states.
  • Fourteen states have moved to restrict family planning funds controlled by the state, with laws enacted in four states. The law in Kansas limits funding to publicly run programs, while the law in Louisiana bars funding to providers who are associated with abortion services. A law enacted in Wisconsin directs the state to apply for federal Title X funding and specifies that if this funding is obtained, it may not be distributed to family planning providers affiliated with abortion services. (In 2015, New Hampshire moved to deny Title X funds to Planned Parenthood affiliates; the state reversed the decision in 2016.) Finally, the budget adopted in Michigan reenacts a provision that bars the allocation of family planning funds to organizations associated with abortion. Notably, however, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed a similar measure.
  • Ten states have attempted to bar family planning providers’ eligibility for related funding, including monies for sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment, prevention of interpersonal violence, and prevention of breast and cervical cancer. In three of these states, the bans are the result of legislative action; in Utah, the ban resulted from action by the governor. Such a ban is in effect in North Carolina; the Louisiana measure is set to go into effect in August. Implementation of bans in Ohio and Utah has been blocked as a result of legal action.


The first half of 2016 was also noteworthy for a raft of attempts to ban some or all abortions. These measures fell into four distinct categories:

  • By the end of June, four states enacted legislation to ban the most common method used to perform abortions during the second trimester. The Mississippi and West Virginia laws are in effect; the other two have been challenged in court. (Similar provisions enacted last year in Kansas and Oklahoma are also blocked pending legal action.)
  • South Carolina and North Dakota both enacted measures banning abortion at or beyond 20 weeks post-fertilization, which is equivalent to 22 weeks after the woman’s last menstrual period. This brings to 16 the number of states with these laws in effect (see State Policies on Later Abortions).
  • Indiana and Louisiana adopted provisions banning abortions under specific circumstances. The Louisiana law banned abortions at or after 20 weeks post-fertilization in cases of diagnosed genetic anomaly; the law is slated to go into effect on August 1. Indiana adopted a groundbreaking measure to ban abortion for purposes of race or sex selection, in cases of a genetic anomaly, or because of the fetus’ “color, national origin, or ancestry”; enforcement of the measure is blocked pending the outcome of a legal challenge.
  • Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) vetoed a sweeping measure that would have banned all abortions except those necessary to protect the woman’s life.


In addition, 14 states (Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah) enacted other types of abortion restrictions during the first half of the year, including measures to impose or extend waiting periods, restrict access to medication abortion, and establish regulations on abortion clinics.

Zohra Ansari-Thomas, Olivia Cappello, and Lizamarie Mohammed all contributed to this analysis.

Commentary Contraception

For Students at Religious Universities, Contraception Coverage Isn’t an Academic Debate

Alison Tanner

When the U.S. Supreme Court sent a case about faith-based objections to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate back to lower courts, it left students at religious colleges and universities with continuing uncertainty about getting essential health care. And that's not what religious freedom is about.

Read more of our articles on challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit here.

Students choose which university to attend for a variety of reasons: the programs offered, the proximity of campus to home, the institution’s reputation, the financial assistance available, and so on. But young people may need to ask whether their school is likely to discriminate in the provision of health insurance, including contraceptive coverage.

In Zubik v. Burwell, a group of cases sent back to the lower courts by the U.S. Supreme Court in May, a handful of religiously affiliated universities sought the right to deny their students, faculty, and staff access to health insurance coverage for contraception.

This isn’t just a legal debate for me. It’s personal. The private university where I attend law school, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., currently complies with provisions in the Affordable Care Act that make it possible for a third-party insurer to provide contraceptive access to those who want it. But some hope that these legal challenges to the ACA’s birth control rule will reverse that.

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Georgetown University Law Center refused to provide insurance coverage for contraception before the accommodation was created in 2012. Without a real decision by the Supreme Court, my access to contraception insurance will continue to be at risk while I’m in school.

I’m not alone. Approximately 1.9 million students attend religiously affiliated universities in the United States, according to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. We students chose to attend these institutions for lots of reasons, many of which having nothing to do with religion. I decided to attend Georgetown University Law Center because I felt it was the right school for me to pursue my academic and professional goals, it’s in a great city, it has an excellent faculty, and it has a vibrant public-interest law community.

Like many of my fellow students, I am not Catholic and do not share my university’s views on contraception and abortion. Although I was aware of Georgetown’s history of denying students’ essential health-care benefits, I did not think I should have to sacrifice the opportunity to attend an elite law school because I am a woman of reproductive age.

That’s why, as a former law clerk for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I helped to organize a brief before the high court on behalf of 240 students, faculty, and staff at religiously affiliated universities including Fordham, Georgetown, Loyola Marymount, and the University of Notre Dame.

Our brief defended the sensible accommodation crafted by the Obama administration. That compromise relieves religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations of any obligation to pay for or otherwise provide contraception coverage; in fact, they don’t have to pay a dime for it. Once the university informs the government that it does not want to pay for birth control, a third-party insurer steps in and provides coverage to the students, faculty, and staff who want it.

Remarkably, officials at the religious colleges still challenging the Affordable Care Act say this deal is not good enough. They’re arguing that the mere act of informing the government that they do not want to do something makes them “complicit” in the private decisions of others.

Such an argument stands religious freedom on its head in an attempt to impose one group’s theological beliefs on others by vetoing the third-party insurance providers’ distribution of essential health coverage to students, faculty, and staff.

This should not be viewed as some academic debate confined to legal textbooks and court chambers. It affects real people—most of them women. Studies by the Guttmacher Institute and other groups that study human sexuality have shown that use of artificial forms of birth control is nearly universal among sexually active women of childbearing years. That includes Catholic women, who use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholics.

Indeed, contraception is essential health care, especially for students. An overwhelming number of young people’s pregnancies are unplanned, and having children while in college or a graduate program typically delays graduation, increases the likelihood that the parent will drop out, and may affect their future professional paths.

Additionally, many menstrual disorders make it difficult to focus in class; contraception alleviates the symptoms of a variety of illnesses, and it can help women actually preserve their long-term fertility. For example, one of the students who signed our brief told the Court that, “Without birth control, I experience menstrual cycles that make it hard to function in everyday life and do things like attend class.” Another woman who signed the brief told the Court, “I have a history of ovarian cysts and twice have required surgery, at ages 8 and 14. After my second surgery, the doctor informed me that I should take contraceptives, because if it happened again, I might be infertile.”

For these and many other reasons, women want and need convenient access to safe, affordable contraceptives. It is time for religiously affiliated institutions—and the Supreme Court—to acknowledge this reality.

Because we still don’t have an ultimate decision from the Supreme Court, incoming students cannot consider ease of access to contraception in deciding where to attend college, and they may risk committing to attend an university that will be legally allowed to discriminate against them. A religiously affiliated university may be in all other regards a perfect fit for a young woman. It’s unfair that she should face have to risk access to essential health care to pursue academic opportunity.

Religious liberty is an important right—and that’s why it should not be misinterpreted. Historically, religious freedom has been defined as the right to make decisions for yourself, not others. Religious freedom gives you have the right to determine where, how, and if you will engage in religious activities.

It does not, nor should it ever, give one person or institution the power to meddle in the personal medical decisions of others.