The Wrong Recipe for Ending The Culture Wars? A Response to Saletan

Jodi Jacobson

In today's New York Times, William Saletan offers a misguided prescription for ending the "culture" wars and perpetuates the myths of "moral" versus "practical."

In his op-ed in today’s New York Times, William Saletan offers what appears to be a simple prescription for "ending the culture wars," by offering proposals for birth control, abortion, and gay marriage.

His basic premise:

"Our moral debates have become stale and fruitless.  The reason is that we’ve pitted morality against practicality.  These two principles need each other.  Let’s marry them"

I will leave aside the issue of gay marriage, about which I agree with Saletan’s conclusion.  Extend to all who want to marry the right to marry. 

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But I disagree with the basic premises underlying the rest of Saletan’s piece and found much of it deeply troubling. 

In suggesting President Obama take on the issue of abortion in his address to Congress, Saletan says that to change the debate on contraception and abortion, President Obama will have to:

"tell two truths that the left and the right don’t want to hear: that morality has to be practical and that practicality requires morals."

He later states:

"Our challenge is to put these two issues [abortions and birth control] together. For
liberals, that means taking abortion seriously as an argument for
contraception. … Reproductive-health counselors must speak bluntly to women who are
having unprotected sex. And as Mr. Obama observed last year, men must
learn that ‘responsibility does not end at conception.’"

To be honest, I found this insulting, for several reasons.  First, women’s rights advocates and reproductive health providers have always put these two issues together.  It’s called "prevention" and it is the core of reproductive health services that include efforts to prevent unintended pregnancies, prevent infections, assist people who wish to get pregnant, offer pre-natal and maternal care, and much more.

What exactly does Mr. Saletan think reproductive health counselors do, but guide people toward protected sex, help them find the methods they need and which will work best for them, and counsel them on correct and consistent use?  Has he ever been in a clinic and availed himself of the services?  I have.  Many times.  It might be time for him to take a trip to one. 

Yet Mr. Saletan wraps up his argument in a neat little set of statistics meant to show that access to birth control is not the problem, but rather the cavalier attitudes of women having sex. 

I beg to differ.

Real access to birth control and to accurate information is a huge problem in this country.  Given the current climate, everything from condoms to emergency contraception is contested by the Catholic Church and various entities on a daily basis.  Hormonal methods and IUDs are labeled as abortifacients, and many anti-choice organizations don’t recognize the medical definition of pregnancy as defined by professional medical societies in the US and internationally.  We have come out of 8 years of efforts to deny women access to primary health services, and out from under an Administration that tried everything it could to hamstring service delivery and to misinform the public, including having the Centers for Disease Control put out inaccurate information on condoms and on abortion and breast cancer; giving a pass to Senator Frist–a medical doctor–when he claimed on a news program that HIV could be transmitted through saliva; delays in approval of emergency contraception; delays in approval of waivers for Medicare coverage of family planning; and now regulations that allow any provider to deny people access to legal services for any reason.  These are but a few examples.

It gets a little harder each day to deliver services to prevent unintended pregnancy
and perform your duties when you might at any moment have your clinic
bombed, have false clients with hidden video cameras telling lurid stories to try to entrap you, or when, as will begin this Wednesday, February 25th, the
anti-choice movement begins a "40-days-for-Life" series of Lenten
protests outside of clinics, many of which don’t even provide abortions,
but do provide birth control.  When discussing this with the head of a
clinic in the midwest today, I asked (knowing the answer but I had to
ask), "if you are not providing abortions, why are they protesting

Answer: "They object to birth control."

How many people do you think will end up with unintended pregnancies
in the next 40 days who otherwise might not have gotten pregnant if
they did not need riot gear to enter a clinic?

Is this moral?

And let’s at least mention a much-discussed issue on Rewire: we’ve spent $1.5 billion the past 10 years on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that have been completely discredited, tell girls it is their fault if they are raped and ensure that girls who are "prepared for sex" (e.g. birth control) are made out to be dirty, slutty, and immoral.

Think they are going to raise the issue of birth control when the time comes?

Saletan does not address or critique these policies in depth, he simply glides over them as "a second front in the culture wars" on the way to blaming women, providers, and liberals for, again, being too cavalier about and not recognizing the moral dimensions of abortion.

Abortion, he says, isn’t about:

"a shortage of pills or condoms. It’s a shortage of cultural
and personal responsibility. It’s a failure to teach, understand, admit
or care that unprotected sex can lead to the creation — and the
subsequent killing, through abortion — of a developing human being."

This is the piece I find most insulting. And if Saletan wanted to bridge some sort of divide, he lost me right there.

Why?  Because this is not about pitting "morals" against

It is about fundamental moral differences. 

The real issue is that when we talk about "morals," we only ever posit one set of morals in all of this,
the "morals" of the ultra-right, of fundamentalist Christian
evangelicals and of the Catholic Church (as opposed to the Catholic
laity who use contraception and turn to abortion at the same rates as
anyone else in the population).  

In fact, contrary to what Saletan says, part of the problem is that the issues of
sex, birth control, reproduction, sexuality, and abortion are always
portrayed as "moral" versus "practical" or as "lifestyle" issues.  Put it this way and it is a quick slide down the slippery slope to "you have no morals if
you are only thinking of your own practicality."  You can substitute the words convenience, needs,
career, lifestyle….you get the picture.  This is the argument of the far right. They are moral, we are hedonistic and "practical" about the consequences.

However, there are those of us who believe that abortion is a moral choice. That it is not
"killing another human being" to have an abortion before a fetus is viable.  That there are moral reasons for late-term abortions if a woman’s life or health is in danger or for other reasons about which the decision should be made between the woman, her doctor, and her God, if she has any. 

There are those of us—women, men, people of faith—who believe women
are indeed moral actors in deciding to have an abortion, and who have moral
positions on positive approaches to sex, sexuality, and contraception.  These moral
positions just don’t comport with the
"other" moral positions and they were not the moral positions of the powerful over the past 8 years. 

But the premise of a pluralistic society is that we have the right to make moral decisions based on our personal beliefs in contested
areas such as sex and reproduction in which we don’t want to follow
someone else’s God or party line. 

The real problem, I would argue, contrary to Saletan, is the immorality of a set
of actors who have used these issues as a way to increase their power
and their own flocks, and on the way, enrich themselves. 

I am not claiming that good people in good faith do not have difficulty with the issue of abortion.  I do claim that they have no right to decide such a personal issue for someone else, and especially not in a climate in which the very preventive tools and services necessary to reduce unintended pregnancies have become so contested.  And I do dismiss those who I see as being there more for political gain than anything else.

Saletan either does not understand this or wishes not to address it.

The real problem here is that we are simply unable as a nation to have a conversation about what
it would mean to have healthy, safe, consensual sexual lives as a normal aspect of human development. We deny
people basic services.  We mislead adolescents and young adults.  We let women suffer health consequences of lack
of care without admitting any social responsibility.  And then we blame
the women.  I call that immoral and unethical.

So let’s be practical and moral.  Let’s zero out the abstinence-only-until-marriage funding that has fed the coffers of groups who undermine effective prevention and responsible decision-making by perpetuating misinformation and using fear, shame, and ideology to mislead adolescents.  The President needs to do this in his budget this week.  Let’s work to pass–this spring–the Prevention First Act, the Responsible Education About Life (REAL Act), the Affordable Birth Control Act, the Medicaid waiver about which the Republicans so bombastically grand-standed during the stimulus debate.  Let’s ensure that all government funded reproductive health services get full funding without delay, in this next appropriations bill.  Let’s get rid of the ridiculous regulations put in place by HHS before Bush left office. Let’s condemn the misinformation campaign that as dominated the debate for too long and which is enabled by silence of those who talk morality about abortion but never call out the actors who misrepresent the issues.  Address gender-based violence, stigma, and discrimination against women, and against gay, lesbian, and transgender persons.  This strategy is moral because it fulfills the real needs of individuals and groups who need access to health care and services, improves health and saves lives, and practical because it enables people to make responsible decisions in their own contexts, and also because it saves us all money in health care and social costs down the line.  Prioritize these and other efforts, and engage a healthy national conversation about sex as part of life, and I assure you unintended pregnancies and infections will decline.

So I think what President Obama most needs to say is what he should have said during the stimulus debate: 

Reproductive health care is basic health care.  It is a personal issue, an economic and family issue, and a social issue.  We need to focus on prevention based on evidence of what works, and honor the diverse views of a pluralistic society.  Therefore, I will no longer allow this issue to become politicized, nor allow policy to be based on misinformation spread about birth control, reproductive health services or sexual health education.  We all want to reduce unintended pregnancies.  By doing so, we can reduce the number of abortions.  But understand that women will still need access to safe abortion services and must be respected as the moral agents in choosing what is best for them.  We must respect each other as moral actors.  We must understand that our strength lies in the plurality of views in this country and the fundamental right to freedom of religion.  We can not allow these principles to be further eroded.  Therefore, I pledge as a first step to lay the basic foundation for "common ground" by creating the policies and the funding needed to expand access to the services and information needed by all people to make responsible choices about sex and reproduction.  

Recognizing diversity of moral choices and positions, and putting prevention first despite the outcry of the powerful minority, is the only way to move beyond the "tired debates" of the past.

[This post was updated at 7:18 am February 23rd.]


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