Abortion and Contraception | Letters | Chicago Reader

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Abortion and Contraception

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To the editors.

The June 1 issue of the Reader contains not just one but two pieces which reiterate cliched and largely unfair stereotypes of prolifers. Rose Pike ["Health: Whatever Happened to Birth Control?"] portrays antiabortion sentiment as the purview of a "religious right" fringe element which cannot abide the thought of any nonprocreative sexual activity. She gives the impression that prolifers monolithically and absurdly disapprove of reducing the abortion rate through improved contraception. Karen Hoffman Nolan ["Gauntlet"] accuses us of a magnificently hypocritical disinterest in "child-welfare issues, increased federal funding for day-care centers, adoption of handicapped and minority children, or increased access to birth-control information and distribution of birth control." The public is all too familiar with these charges. If only people were equally familiar with the fact that not all prolifers deserve them.

It is not well known that the men and women who first fought for social and legal acceptance of contraception in this country were unwilling to do the same for abortion. Indeed they firmly opposed it. In the 1880s, feminist physician Edward Bond Foote argued that contraception was necessary not only to promote the well-being of women, but to reduce the destruction of fetuses, which he deemed an unjust taking of human life. Margaret Sanger did the same in the early 20th century. As recounted in My Fight or Birth Control, she advertised the services of her first clinic with handbills imploring, "MOTHERS! DO NOT KILL, DO NOT TAKE LIFE, BUT PREVENT." She lamented not only the lives of women lost to unscrupulous practitioners but "the killing of babies." Her advocacy of contraception was largely motivated by her negative feelings about abortion.

Many of us contemporary prolifers not only use contraception ourselves, but endorse it as a necessary alternative to abortion. A couple of examples: at the request of a local prolife crisis pregnancy agency I spoke to clients about safe, effective methods of birth control. Americans United for Life attorney Clarke Forsythe recently praised the use of Title X funds for family planning but not abortion, stating that "it makes sense to assist a woman in avoiding a pregnancy or to refer her for prenatal care, rather than to reinforce the pressure she may already feel to have an abortion that she may later regret."

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of the prolife movement's resources go not into clinic protests but into direct provision of services to pregnant women and new mothers. The dedicated, largely volunteer efforts of crisis pregnancy centers never make the headlines, but they do make a real difference every day in the lives of women and children. A significant number of prolifers not only give generously of their time and money to such groups but take pregnant women into their own homes and adopt special-needs children.

A significant number also advocate public as well as private sector solutions. For example, Feminists for Life and Just Life work for parental leave, adoption subsidies, better prenatal care, and the inclusion of unborn children as dependents under AFDC and Medicaid. Their proposals for post-Roe legislation have captured the approving attention of the whole movement. Even a conservative stalwart like Henry Hyde, who is not known for having prolife views on military and environmental issues, supports parental leave because he recognizes that it will alleviate the problems of women forced to choose between continuing their pregnancies and holding on to their jobs.

In short, a good many of us realize that legal restrictions on abortion are only a small part of making it obsolete. Ours is not a narrow, negative agenda. It is high time that we be given credit for this.

Mary Krane Derr

Coordinator Feminists for Life of America

Karen Hoffman Nolan replies:

I commend Feminists for Life and any other group advocating use of "contraceptives . . . services to pregnant women . . . parental leave, adoption subsidies, better prenatal care," etc (though I couldn't help wishing Mary Krane Derr had specified in more detail just how much and what kind of advocacy work her group is doing). But Feminists for Life and various antichoice individuals do not represent the major and typical antichoice groups crusading against abortion rights in the U.S. The Pro-Life Action League, National Right to Life Committee, American Life League, and Operation Rescue do not support use of contraception, nor are they active as a group in child-welfare issues. Theirs is a "narrow, negative agenda." Planned Parenthood and the National Organization of Women spend far more time, money, and energy providing access to contraceptives or political advocacy for child and maternal welfare than any antichoice group in the country.

The majority of the antichoice movement's resources categorically do not go into "direct provision of services to pregnant women and new mothers." They go into legislative lobbying, legal fees, and political-action work--all designed to restrict or eliminate abortion rights.

Most important, even if foolproof, low-cost contraception were available to every woman who wanted it, even if adoption were available for every baby who needed it, even if a cure were found for every birth defect, even if day-care centers were cheap and plentiful, abortion on demand must be available as a viable option to women with unwanted pregnancies. If women do not have control over their reproductive lives, they do not have control over their personal lives. The essence of feminism is this control. Surely Feminists for Life must appreciate the desperation and lack of control experienced by a woman who has to insert a wire coat hanger into her uterus to abort an unwanted pregnancy.

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