Recent events make clear the need for a new language to describe the raging debate about sex and birth. Consider the problematic word that dominates our conversation: pro-life.
Most pro-life organizations more accurately should be labeled pro sperm. For they insist the sperm has the inalienable, indeed the God-given right to pursue the egg without human enabled interference. Joseph M. Scheidler, the National Director of the Pro-Life Action League memorably declared, “I think contraception is disgusting-people using each other for pleasure.” Judith Brown, President of The American Life Lobby asserts its opposition “to all forms of birth control with the exception of natural family planning.”
The Catholic Church is fervently pro-sperm. Decades before the Church mobilized against abortion it mobilized against contraception. As late as 1960, many states outlawed sales of contraceptives. The Catholic Church was the driving force behind these laws. In the 1940s, Connecticut legislators introduced bills allowing physicians to prescribe contraceptives only for married couples if a pregnancy would be life threatening. The Catholic Church swung into action. One historian describes the process; “priests became heavily involved…Their efforts were not confined to anti-birth control sermons on Sundays. They engaged in voter registration drives, they encouraged parishioners to support anti-birth control candidates for the legislature, and they actively campaigned to defeat any changes in the birth control laws”. The bills failed.
Prior to 1930, all Christian denominations held that contraception was contrary to God's will. Then one by one, beginning with the Church of England they began to accept birth control.
Many expected the Catholic Church to follow suit. In the mid 1960’s Pope Paul VI appointed a commission on birth control to advise him on the issue. An overwhelming majority of its members favored lifting the ban. In his 1968 Encyclical, Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) the Pope summarized the argument of the majority.
“world population is going to grow faster than available resources, with the consequences that many families and developing countries would be faced with greater hardships… not only working and housing conditions but the greater demands made both in the economic and educational field pose a living situation in which it is frequently difficult these days to provide properly for a large family…(we need to take into account) a new understanding of the dignity of woman and her place in society, or the value of conjugal love in marriage and the relationship of conjugal acts to this love…
…if one were to apply here the so-called principle of totality, could it not be accepted that the intention to have a less prolific but more rationally planned family might transform an action which renders natural processes infertile into a licit and provident control of birth? Could it not be admitted, in other words, that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act? A further question is whether, because people are more conscious today of their responsibilities, the time has not come when the transmission of life should be regulated by their intelligence and will rather than through the specific rhythms of their bodies…”
Pope Paul VI decided that the rights of the sperm transcended any and all of these arguments. The use of contraception, he concluded results in “an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life.”
But the biological facts make God’s design less than clear. Consider that when artificial birth control or abortion is not used, more often than not God chooses death, not life. A third to a half of fertilized eggs do not implant. Some doctors believe this figure could be as high as 80 percent. A third of those that do implant end up in spontaneous miscarriages. Does the pro-life movement believe this makes God a mass murderer?
In 1965 the Supreme Court overturned state laws that prohibited married couples from buying contraceptives. In 1972 it extended this ruling to cover unmarried individuals. A few months later, in Roe v. Wade, it determined that states could not prohibit women from intervening in the reproductive process after the egg is fertilized.
Every year pro-life organizations gather to condemn Roe v. Wade but it may be instructive to point out that the typology used by the Court was very close to that which guided the Catholic Church and many other major religions for thousands of years.
The early Christians adopted Aristotle's framework that embryos pass through three distinct stages and only become fully human in the last stage. Saint Augustine, one of the most influential Catholic theologians, proposed that abortion in the first trimester should not be regarded "as homicide, for there cannot be a living soul in a body that lacks sensation due to its not yet being formed."
At the beginning of the 13th century Pope Innocent II declared that "quickening" (the time when the woman first feels the fetus move within her) was the moment at which abortion became homicide. In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV proclaimed that quickening occurred after 116 days, that is, into the second trimester. That guidance remained Church policy until 1869 when Pope Pius IX eliminated the distinction between the animated and non-animated fetus and required excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy.
In Roe v. Wade the Supreme Court took a page from Aristotle and permitted increasingly severe restrictions by the state depending on the age of the fetus. In the first 12 weeks, the Court prohibited states from imposing any restrictions on a woman's right to an abortion. In the second trimester, states may regulate abortion procedures to protect the health of the woman. In the third trimester (after 27 weeks), when fetuses may be viable outside of the womb, states may restrict abortions.
Nearly 90 percent of all abortions occur in the first trimester. Six in ten are undertaken in the first 8 weeks of pregnancy. About 9 percent occur in the second trimester, but many of these are a result of a delay caused by a lack of financial resources or state enacted stalling laws. About .01 percent of abortions are performed after the 20th week.
For many Republicans, it is often said, life begins at conception and ends at birth, although I might amend this perspective given the recent evidence that for many life begins before conception. Consider that all but one of 47 Republican Senators voted in favor of a bill allowing any employer to deny coverage of birth control in the company’s insurance policies. In any event, it is clear that pro-life Republicans seem remarkably unconcerned with the health of newborns. A comprehensive review of abortion and child welfare policies in all 50 states found that states with the most restrictive abortion laws spend the least on education, on facilitating adoption and on nurturing poor children. These states also have fewer mandates requiring insurance providers to cover minimum hospital stays after childbirth.
A recent case in point. The Texas legislature has slashed its family planning budget from $111 million to $38 million, cuts that would eliminate services for nearly 284,000 women.
All four current Republican presidential candidates would eliminate Title X created in 1970 with Republican support from President Nixon and the elder George Bush, then a congressman. Title X does not pay for abortions. Only some of it covers birth control.
It appears that today’s Republican Party will pull out all the stops to protect the rights of the sperm but all but turn its back on the rights and needs of babies. This is what the term pro-life has come to mean in 2012, and the reason we need to change the language we use when we talk about the issues surrounding reproduction.