The Pro-Life Myth (Part 1)

After relocating to the United States from Finland and living in Florida for a stint, my family settled in Middle Georgia when I was eleven years old. There was an intense initial culture shock, despite the fact that my family had lived in Illinois for long enough for me to learn English when I was younger. I might approximate the feeling of disorientation I felt with discovering that you’re in the wrong classroom on the first day of school, except that the right classroom for me was thousands of miles away, not down the hall.

I learned to accommodate the perpetual embarrassment, the suspicion that I didn’t really get what everyone around me was talking about, the sense that I was not supposed to be where I was. These feelings faded over time, but would wash over me periodically when I would discover concealed differences.

Because, of course, culture doesn’t just determine our material world, it gives us a paradigm for thinking about things like love, relationships, our bodies, and sex. I discovered that it wasn’t just weird that I loved track jackets so much (Finns LOVE track jackets), even though I wasn’t very athletic; it was weird when I did things like ask the rather hapless gym teacher who taught us sex-ed why we weren’t talking about contraception (Georgia public schools are obligated by law to emphasize abstinence-only sex education), something I had been hearing about in my very Nordic home since well before I hit puberty. By then, I had figured out that these events were actually a lot more disconcerting to people around me than the track jackets.

The fact that many of my peers and I had been raised to think differently about sex first occurred to me around the age of thirteen when a friend took me to my first church youth group meeting, where the topic of premarital sex (and how it was bad, bad...really bad!) came up. I had never heard of the notion of waiting until marriage to have sex. My Finnish upbringing had taught me to see sex in a very practical way; something special that grown-up people enjoy doing, but that has to be done responsibly or it can lead to negative consequences.

After that church youth group meeting, my friend’s mom picked us up from the church parking lot and took us to their home for dinner. The three of us discussed the topics that had come up at church around the dinner table. Sensing my confusion, my friend’s mom asked me to explain how teenagers were raised to think about sex where I came from. When I explained to her that sex education in Finland, both in school and at home, generally includes a thorough discussion of STIs and how to prevent them along with unwanted pregnancy, her eyes widened in shock as she half-asked, half-declared,

“So in Finland it’s okay to just have sex with anybody.”

I don’t remember how I responded, but I remember feeling ashamed and even more confused.

At thirteen, most of my peers were already experimenting with sexual behavior. Their older brothers and sisters were all having sex, even while some of them wore ‘purity rings’ to symbolize their commitment to stay chaste until marriage. The most confounding aspect of all of this was the fact that a lot of the parents seemed to be in on it—they just couldn’t say so.

By 16, a number of my female friends were on birth control, usually for the stated purpose of treating acne or irregular periods. To be fair, at least a few of them actually suffered from those conditions, but even for them being on the pill served the purpose of protecting them from pregnancy in a way their parents could feel comfortable with. The stigma around premarital sex was so deeply embedded that these kinds of deceptions were necessary. But if premarital sex was taboo, abortion and pro-choice politics were anathema.

For many people in the community where I spent my adolescence, the issue of abortion is unequivocal. Not political, but moral. For them, people who believe it should be legal are not just wrong, they are morally compromised. This message comes to them straight from the pulpit, early and often.

Throughout my teens and my early twenties, I attended and volunteered at churches. While preachers are prohibited by IRS rules from endorsing or opposing a political candidate in their official clerical capacity, I have heard many of them urge their congregants never to support a political candidate who condones abortion in any way. My faith was important to me, but everything I read about the consequences of legislation informed by conservative Christian values convinced me that they did not automatically lead to good outcomes, especially for women. I grew into a closeted pro-choice advocate.

When I tried to have discussions about the pitfalls of attempting to legislate morality with other church goers, when I shared articles with them about research that showed that teens who get comprehensive sex education are less likely to get pregnant or contract an STI, when I reminded them that Roe v. Wade gave women access to safe and legal abortions rather than inventing them, I was often met with incredulity that I would even seek out information that questioned what many of them saw as the unambiguous righteousness of evangelical politics.

This is perhaps one of the biggest victories of the pro-life movement: it has successfully propagated the myth that being pro-life is inextricable from being a good person and that it is central to being a good Christian.

It begins with abstinence-only education, which has received over $1.5 billion dollars in federal funding in the last 25 years, despite an overwhelming body of evidence that it is ineffectual.

A 2007 federally-funded evaluation of four abstinence-only programs handpicked because they were considered intensive (all offered more than 50 contact hours and lasted one or more school years) found that these programs had no statistically significant impact on the sexual behavior of teens compared to their peers who were not in these programs. Alarmingly, the teens who had participated in these programs were less likely to perceive condoms as an effective method for preventing STIs and HIV.

An earlier study that assessed the long-term impact of these types of programs found that while teens who pledged to remain virgins until marriage had sex for the first time about 18 months later than peers who didn’t pledge, 88% of them went on to break their pledge. The same study found that teens in this group were no less likely to have STIs. In fact, they were more likely to pass that STI to another person and less likely to seek treatment, consequently suffering more serious consequences from these infections.

There is an equally overwhelming body of evidence for the efficacy of comprehensive sex education. In 1975, Sweden dropped abstinence-until-marriage from its school sex-education curriculum in favor of contraceptive education and free access to contraceptive methods to teenagers. Not surprisingly, a UNICEF report found that Sweden has half the teen abortion rate of the United States.

The implementation of comprehensive sex education in post-Soviet Estonian schools in 1996 dramatically improved the lives of Estonian teenagers. According to a UNESCO study of the cost and cost-effectiveness of sex education in six different countries, the abortion rate among Estonian teens aged 15-19 fell by 61% between 1992 and 2009, pregnancies fell by 59%, and the number of new registered HIV cases in this age group plummeted from 560 in 2001 to 25 in 2009.

A 2014 study of teenage pregnancy, birth, and abortion rates by country found that the lowest teenage pregnancy rate in the world was in Switzerland (8 out of every 1,000 15-19 year old females), which the study points out “exists in the context of long-established sex education programs, widespread expectation that sexually active teens will use contraception, free family planning services and low-cost emergency contraception.”

And rather than giving teenagers free license to have sex (a concern often cited by those opposed to comprehensive sex education), evidence suggests that comprehensive sex education can actually cause teens to delay having sex, as in the Netherlands, where teenagers have a higher average age at first intercourse.

Aside from the quantifiable damage done by abstinence-only education, in terms of STIs and teenage pregnancies, there is also the injury done to the psyche of boys and girls who learn to think of sex as something inherently dirty, rather than as a natural expression of intimacy.

A group of friends from high school that all attended the same middle school have often shared the anecdote about a school assembly that initiated their sex education. The presenter was a healthcare worker holding a wrapped gift, which she explained represented their virginity. As she described the dangers of premarital sex, she tore pieces of the wrapping paper. At the end, she showed them a tattered gift and told them that would be all they would have to give their spouses if they didn’t stay ‘pure’.

Kidnapping and abuse survivor Elizabeth Smart, who had a conservative Mormon upbringing, has spoken publicly about how this cultural obsession with purity affected her when her captor raped her and she thought of a teacher who had compared sex to chewing gum:

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easily it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value...Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”

Given experiences like Smart’s and the fact that comprehensive sex education and the availability of contraception have been proven to lower the rate of teenage pregnancy and teenage abortions, you might expect pro-life legislators to clamor to get comprehensive sex-ed into American schools. Particularly since the same 2014 study that found that Switzerland had the lowest rate of teenage pregnancy also found that the teenage pregnancy rate in the United States was one of the highest (57 out of every 1,000 15-19 year old females) out of the countries included in the study.

But pro-life politicians often actively discourage programs that provide comprehensive sex-ed. During the pro-life Bush administration, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was pressured into removing information about comprehensive sex-ed programs from its website, and CDC scientists were regularly told to push the administration’s pro-life agenda. Because the type of pro-life politics that often dominates conservative agendas is not driven by an interest in helping women prevent pregnancy so much as by view of women and sexuality encapsulated in former North Dakota state senator Bill Napoli’s view of the type of teenage girl that deserves access to a safe and legal abortion:

“A real life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.”

Presumably, if this hypothetical rape victim were non-religious, a non-virgin, raped while unconscious, married (and therefore a non-virgin), or wearing a mini-skirt, she would not be deserving of having her physical and psychological health safe-guarded. Because to many religious conservatives, unwanted pregnancy is a consequence that women deserve for having unsanctioned sex, and by Napoli’s logic, the sex that you’re being punished for doesn’t even have to be the sex that impregnates you. To him and those on the extreme end of pro-life politics, if you’re not a virgin and you become the victim of a rape, you should be obligated to carry that pregnancy to term.

Napoli is not alone in his extreme views. In fact, he doesn’t necessarily even represent the extreme. Legislation to make emergency contraception available to rape victims was opposed by state affiliates of the National Right to Life in Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Louisiana, and by pro-life groups in Colorado and Wisconsin in the mid 2000’s.

And those extreme views, which would deny even rape victims access to services that would prevent or end a pregnancy resulting from rape, will soon be in the White House. Former Georgia Representative Tom Price, President Elect Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services, co-sponsored legislation that would have banned abortion in nearly every situation, without exceptions for cases of rape and incest, or to save a woman’s life.

Vice-President Elect Mike Pence co-sponsored similar legislation, which would deny federal funding to rape victims except in cases of “forcible rape”, denying it to victims who were either too afraid or too incapacitated otherwise to fight back. Pence also co-sponsored legislation that would have allowed Catholic hospitals that are morally opposed to abortion to legally deny it to women who needed an emergency abortion to save their lives.

If you’re still doubting the prevalence and influence of this extreme variety of pro-life views, consider the fact that the Population Research Institute (PRI), a pro-life group based in Virginia which opposes all artificial forms of birth control (condoning only the rhythm method and abstinence), managed to convince the Bush administration to freeze over $30 million in funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA: the acronym is based on the former name United Nations Fund for Population Assistance) by fabricating evidence that UNFPA was working with Chinese officials to coerce women to have abortions.

This funding cut made the United States the only country to deny funding to UNFPA for non-budgetary reasons. UNFPA does not provide abortions, but rather works to provide family planning services and to reduce the rate of women dying from complications during pregnancy or childbirth in some of the most economically desperate communities in the world. The funding cuts forced UNFPA to end or cut back programs that ensured safe childbirth in parts of the world with high maternal and child death rates.

The United Nations has estimated that every million-dollar decline in aid to contraceptive assistance throughout the world results in 360,000 additional unintended pregnancies, 150,000 more induced abortions, 800 maternal deaths, and over 20,000 infant or early childhood deaths. The exact amount of funding PRI managed to keep from the most desperate portions of the world was $34 million. You do the math.

With the overwhelming body of evidence that policies motivated by a for-marriage-and-reproduction only perspective of sex are ineffectual at best and harmful at worst, you might be wondering why this perspective is such a powerful force in American politics. This is a question I thought about often in the two decades I spent in a deeply conservative and evangelical part of the south, where no one I know actually lives by the sex-for-marriage-and-procreation-only values that the extremely conservative wing of the pro-life movement espouses. Not because they are bad or weak people; they're not. But because the values themselves are unrealistic.

I can name a dozen girls who pledged to stay virgins until marriage but not a single one who actually did. I’ve heard stories about abortions kept hidden from close family members, infidelity, secret porn addictions, and abuse not even recognized as abuse until later because obfuscation of sex leaves many with the inability to recognize an inappropriate touch, all from or about decent church-going people doing their best to live godly lives.

I have often thought that if it were easy to abstain from sex, stay faithful to romantic partners, and avoid an unwanted pregnancy, there would be no conservative Christian political movement. It may be precisely because Christians themselves—just like all humans—find it difficult to abstain from premarital and extramarital sex and to avoid having to seek abortions (a Guttmacher Institute report of the characteristics of patients seeking abortions in 2014 found that the majority–62%–reported a Christian religious affiliation) that the extreme wing of evangelical voters are animated by such fanaticism. Perhaps they are so uncomfortable with their own humanity that they want to stifle it in all of us.

The average pro-life person is probably unaware of the damage caused by many “pro-life” policies. Perhaps they know someone who has had an abortion and are even sympathetic to that person’s individual circumstances, but because pastors, parents, and politicians have successfully convinced them that a good person is uncompromisingly pro-life, they rarely question their convictions. Perhaps they talk to their kids in vague terms about preventing pregnancy and STIs but would never speak up at a PTA meeting about implementing comprehensive sex-ed in their local schools for fear of what others would think of them. This same fear is what has allowed the extreme wing of the pro-life movement to take center stage in our national politics, shaming anyone with more moderate and practical views of sex and reproduction.

Ignorantia juris non excusat, Latin for “ignorance of the law excuses not”, is a legal principle holding that a person is still liable for breaking a law even if they are ignorant of the content of the law. Just as much, those who identify themselves as pro-life must recognize their culpability for the damage done in their name, even if they have been unaware of it.

More importantly, the pro-choice movement has to stop ceding the moral high ground, and work harder not just to guarantee women the reproductive freedoms they need to thrive and that will be threatened under Trump's administration, but also to dismantle the pro-life myth that a good person can't be pro-choice.

Check back next week for the second part of this series on the moralization of the politics of reproductive rights.

Public Filter

This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at publicfiltermilk@gmail.com.

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