Pro-choice presidential candidates are missing a huge opportunity to win over an unlikely voting bloc: pro-life voters. The debate over reproductive rights has for decades existed in the abstract, a volley of "values" that's been heavy on emotion and light on fact. But the facts reveal surprising truths and they don't bode well for the right to life movement. The facts show the pro-choice movement is doing a better job at what the American public views as "pro-life" goals i.e. reducing the number of abortions, preventing late term abortion, than the pro-life movement. "Pro-life" presidential candidates may campaign on the "immorality" of abortion but the policies they support seem to lead to more of them. The pro-life establishment is expert at finger wagging, but isn't it time to turn the tables? Shouldn't pro-life groups and leaders be accountable for finding solutions to the high rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion, too? Especially since they're the ones who have a problem with abortion? Instead the pro-choice movement alone takes responsibility for finding effective solutions. And here's an unacknowledged fact that must be inserted into the public discourse this election: it's pro-choice policies that result in dramatic declines in the need for abortion. That's something both pro-choice and pro-life voters would be interested to know.
The pro-choice movement is the only side working on prevention of unintended pregnancy. It, alone, champions wider access to birth control -- fighting for health insurance coverage and even bringing new and more effective contraceptives to market (i.e. emergency contraception, not to mention the birth control pill itself, is available to Americans entirely because of the efforts of the pro-choice movement.) Check out your local NARAL affiliate's agenda and you'll see that most of their work is devoted to increasing access to prevention. Up until Bush took office, the sex education curricula the pro-choice movement promoted was also classified on the Centers for Disease Control's website under the heading "Programs that Work." Their scientists deemed it worthy of that title because of the reams of empirical/quantitative data showing the programs lead to reductions in the teen pregnancy and STD rates.
The right to life movement may have sanctimony on its side but, sadly, sanctimony has proven ineffective at preventing abortion. Study after study suggests the right to life approach is actually the root of the problem: leading to more abortions and later ones too. And here's where pro-choice candidates may discover an attentive pro-life electorate.
Americans, pro-life and pro-choice, support contraception particularly because its the only proven way to reduce unintended pregnancy and abortion. (Only 11 percent of sexually active women don't use contraception and from this 11 percent comes 50 percent of the nation's abortions.) But very few voters are aware that not one pro-life organization in the United States supports contraception. Instead, pro-life groups lead campaigns against contraception. Ninety-one percent of the American public strongly favors contraception. When pro-choice presidential candidates make the discussion about prevention, contraception and results, they'll win. No less than 80 percent of self-described pro-life voters strongly support contraception too.
Not only would it be refreshing to see a pro-choice candidate break from the pack and go on the offensive, it would be wise. Voters want results and we have them. Scanning the globe we discover the countries where abortion is most rare have the strongest pro-choice policies. The countries with the strongest pro-life policies are the ones with the highest abortion rates, often twice our national average. These are the nations that have implemented what our pro-life movement strives to: banning abortion, making contraception hard to come by, and preaching abstinence-only to teens. This high abortion/low abortion trend is true even in our country: we witnessed the most dramatic decline in abortion rates ever recorded during our first pro-choice presidency, that of Bill Clinton's. The right to life establishment would like voters to think all of this is coincidental: it's not.
The pro-life war on contraception is not just wacky, it's well-organized, well-funded, and well-underway. Number for number: Bush has delivered his pro-life base more attacks on contraception (Hager appointment, budget cuts to UNFPA and USAID, choosing contraception opponent Keroack to head Title X, stripping contraceptive coverage for federal employees, Title X funding stagnation, routing funding to sex ed programs that ban discussion of contraception, appointing anti-condom fanatic Coburn to Chair the presidential Council on HIV/AIDS) than he has on abortion (Roberts, Alito, federal abortion ban). As Governor of Texas, Bush committed to the full pro-life agenda and sunk large sums of public money in abstinence-only programs that prohibited discussion of contraceptive use. When he left office, the rest of the country was enjoying dramatic declines in teen pregnancy rates, while Texas ranked dead last in the nation for the decline in teen births. Overall, the teen pregnancy rate in Texas during Bush's term as governor was one of the highest in the nation, exceeded by only four other states, including Florida which his brother governed using the same approach. The dramatic decline in abortion rates that took place under Clinton are, no surprise here, slowing under Bush. The opposite strategies can't lead to the same results.
The pro-life paradox appears everywhere its policies are in place. School districts in the conservative South are almost five times more likely than in the liberal Northeast to teach abstinence-only. Southern states also have the highest rate of new HIV/AIDS infections, the highest rate of STDs, as well as the highest rate of teen births. Whereas new cases of AIDS decreased or remained constant in the Northeast, Midwest, and West, the South alone experienced an increase. Seven of the 10 states with the highest Chlamydia rates, all of the states with the highest rates of gonorrhea, and nine of the top 10 states for syphilis rates are all in the South where the pro-life abstinence-only agenda is the order of the day.
Pro-choice candidates need not shirk from the most difficult issues either. Take late term abortion. We have heard an earful about late term abortion over the last decade or two, but what's been missing from that pro-life soliloquy is the data showing that nearly 50% of women presenting for an abortion late in pregnancy cite pro-life restrictions as the cause. In Mississippi, for example, in just a year after passage of a favorite pro-life restriction, mandating a waiting period before a woman can receive and abortion, researchers discovered the second trimester abortion rate statewide had increased by a whopping 53 percent. The law didn't convince women not to have an abortion, it just prevented them from having one early. If the gestational age at which an abortion happens matters, as efforts to ban late term procedures suggest, then pro-life policies guarantee the worst outcomes. In 2003, after Texas law mandated teens have parental permission, researchers discovered a spike in the number of second trimester procedures obtained by 18-year-olds. It turned out that many opted to wait to have the abortion until they could do it privately. The pro-choice movement has worked to make abortion available as early as possible in a pregnancy -- now as early as two weeks gestation. The legalization of abortion alone, allowing many women for the first time to get care locally, reduced the second trimester abortion rate by half.
Results matter. The electorate, having been bamboozled and misled by this administration on so many issues for so long, is hungry for fact, proof, and truth. A wise pro-choice candidate will not skulk and apologize for agreeing with the majority of the American public on reproductive rights matters. A wise candidate will reveal to the American public that the pro-choice approach is effective, safer and in keeping with our values of personal freedom and protection from government intrusion in our most personal matters.
That's why our framers founded our country pro-choice.
Cristina Page is author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex and spokesperson for birthcontrolwatch.org.
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