In my previous posts (1) I have discussed the biblical, biological and ethical dimensions of the "pro-life" (i.e., anti-choice, forced-birth) debate. Now I will address the more practical sociological concerns that affect nearly everyone on a personal level.
In the ongoing public debate around this issue there has been a recurring theme raised by the "pro-life" faction:
"If you don't want a baby, then don't spread your legs!" The purpose of sex, they say, is reproduction, and if women don't want to be pregnant, then we shouldn't have sex. It is that simple.
But, is it? Let us consider the implications of this.
Obviously, one could argue that a better or more workable plan would be universal access to reliable birth control.
There are a few problems with this plan:
1. Not everyone, in fact, has access to birth control, and most conservatives are opposed to birth control being provided as part of "Obamacare" because it supposedly violates their religious liberty as well as their wallet. While it is true that generic birth control pills are available for $10 a month or less, the real expense is in the doctor visits and lab work that are required to obtain a prescription, which many women cannot afford. Moreover, doctors will not prescribe The Pill or other hormonal methods to women with various underlying health issues, even though pregnancy and childbirth would be even more strongly contraindicated for these women.
2. Many people who are opposed to abortion also argue against some of the most effective forms of birth control such as the Pill, the Patch and the IUD on the basis of their mistaken belief that these methods can cause abortion by preventing implantation of a fertilized ovum. Others oppose any artificial birth control in principle, because it implies that pregnancy is undesirable and that babies could ever be anything but a blessing.
3. The more readily available and affordable birth control, condoms, are typically only about 89% effective. Even the best birth control is not 100% effective and pregnancy can result despite the most careful precautions.
So, this brings us back to the assertion that abstinence is the only valid approach for any woman who is not ready and willing to bear a child at any given time.
Perhaps this is not particularly bad advice for, say, young teenagers who are still in school, assuming that they can manage to control themselves despite their raging hormones, which unfortunately history and statistics suggest they can't. I don't think that girls under 18 necessarily ought to be having sex; even though most of us did and they probably will, I would prefer that they pay attention to their textbooks and ignore the boys for a few years. But, in a society where many people postpone marriage and childbearing until they are finished with college and established in their careers (which, IMO, is a good idea), typically around 28 years old, is it really reasonable to expect that they will remain celibate until that time?
Ah, celibacy. This is something that I know quite a bit about, having been celibate myself for 14 years, from the time I became a [third-order] Sister until I got together with my husband 9 years ago.(2) Interestingly, I received fierce criticism from all sides regarding my lifestyle choice. Friends, family members, coworkers and complete strangers, liberal, conservative and otherwise, told me that my lifestyle was abnormal and wrong! Society is, after all, oriented around couples and family life, and sex is the glue that holds romantic relationships together. So while the conservatives say they support celibacy in theory, it's quite another matter when you actually practice it, then suddenly you are going against God and Nature. Basically, in my experience you are damned if you do and damned if you don't.
I had fully intended to remain happily celibate until I died, but as we know, life often turns out differently than we had imagined. I say "happily" because yes, if you have the "gift" - the rare vocation - it can be a very happy life indeed, especially if you know advanced yoga practices. In fact, there are places you can go in meditation that involve ecstasy as far beyond ordinary sex as mushrooms are beyond beer. And, being a yoga teacher, I can show you how to get there! But, it requires years of discipline and undistracted practice, so if you are going to learn, I strongly recommend that you do it before having kids, because once you are busy raising a family, it is highly unlikely that you will have the time and energy to do so.
And this brings us to the next problem with the "keep your legs closed" plan: It's not just irresponsible young teenagers and wild 20-something singles who are having sex. Contrary to popular belief, married people also have sex! At least, many of them do. So, if we are to take the plan seriously - that a woman should ONLY have sex if and when she is prepared to have a baby - this means that married couples must stop having sex once they have had all the children that they can manage to support. While the Vatican encourages couples to remain "open to life" because "God will provide," realistically I think experience demonstrates that He won't. In today's economy, most people can probably afford no more than one or two kids, which will likely be born within the first few years of the marriage, after which there will be no more sex according to this plan.
Now, I'm sure many wives won't have a problem with this, because they are exhausted from working [since nowadays both spouses need to work in order to support a family] and taking care of the kids; their husbands aren't that great in bed anyway, it's hardly worth the trouble, and if a woman really feels the need, a vibrator can do the trick. Being "pro-life" and sincerely concerned about a potential baby that you cannot afford to give birth to, never mind raise, is a convenient excuse to ward off your husband's unwanted advances.
But, the "don't spread your legs, you slut!" program neglects the other half of the equation. After all, women don't become pregnant all by themselves. What about the men? While I have found that many "pro-life" men endorse this slogan with great passion in online discussions, I wonder how they feel about it in real life. Men, are you serious that you really, truly, don't want your wife, girlfriend or mistress to have sex with you unless she is ready and willing to have a baby, and that you are willing to stop having sex after the number of babies you can afford to support, have been born? REALLY?
For some reason I don't believe this. And if you're honest, neither do you, unless you are in fact gay or closet gay, in which case good for you! You'll never have to worry about unwanted pregnancy again, since men cannot get pregnant. But for the rest of you [straight] husbands, no, I'm not buying it. I don't believe that you are really willing to be celibate the rest of your life. As I said above, celibacy is a rare gift and more than likely, not one that you would prefer to receive.
So if the women are supposed to keep our legs closed, then with whom are all you [straight] men planning to have sex??
I think we can all agree that this "don't spread your legs!" idea, while it sounds all morally righteous in theory, is not a practical solution. People are going to have sex and unwanted pregnancies are going to result. So, what is left?
Adoption, of course! Adoption is the "pro-life" solution to everything. Never mind that orphanages and foster homes are already overflowing with unwanted children who desperately need homes. It's bad enough for the children. But what about the women? If the men keep having sex with their wives/ girlfriends/ mistresses which will inevitably result in pregnancies which if carried to term they won't be able to afford, what is going to happen?
Simple: Poor women will have to give up their babies for adoption by rich women who either cannot conceive, or would rather not be bothered by the messy and uncomfortable [to say the least!] process of pregnancy and childbirth which would interfere with their high-paying careers. So assuming that in fact there are enough such wealthy families to adopt the babies (which the "pro-life" people assure me there are, despite statistics to the contrary), then we have "The Handmaid's Tale." And apparently everybody is ok with that.
You know, on second thought, maybe it's not a bad idea after all. Maybe women in states where laws are being passed to infringe on their reproductive rights, ought to keep their legs closed. Don't give the men sex until the laws are repealed, especially if your spouse is a politician or lobbyist. Help your men to understand the real-world implications of these policies.
(2) Third order religious, who live outside of the convent, are permitted to marry. See my account of celibacy and relationships here.