The comment earlier this summer by Senate candidate Todd Aiken (R-Mo.) about “legitimate rape” was not just astonishing to pro-life evangelicals like me but quite repugnant. And now Indiana GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock has stated that raped women should not be permitted access to abortion because the pregnancy is “a gift from God, even when life begins in that horrible situation.”
Even though I agree with the belief that “pregnancy is a gift of God,” I respectfully disagree with the idea that a raped woman should not be permitted an abortion. The American public also disagrees. The General Social Survey, conducted in 2011 by the National Opinion Research Center, one of the longest running sources of polling on the topic, reveals the extent of that disagreement. Strong majorities agree that it should possible for a woman to obtain a legal abortion in circumstances when the mother’s physical health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy (86 percent) if she became pregnant as a result of rape (79 percent); if the woman’s mental health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy (74 percent); and if there is strong chance of serious defect in the baby (66 percent).
Not even most evangelicals will agree with candidates Akin and Mourdock. The longstanding pro-life position of the National Association of Evangelicals, dating back to a resolution adopted in 1973, is that “Pregnancies, such as those resulting from rape or incest may require deliberate termination, but the decision should be made only after there has been psychological and religious counseling of the most sensitive kind.” As the vice-president for governmental affairs for 10 years at the association, and a staff member for 28 years, it was my task to both explain and defend the resolution. It wasn’t a hard task, as members of the association were either unaware of the position or agreed with it, and members of the board of directors never entertained the idea of modifying it.
I left the association in 2008, but the organization waded into the waters of reducing abortion in 2010 with a statement that “where couples are not willing to accept the responsibilities of parenting, they should educate themselves about ethical methods of family planning. The church is understandably reluctant to recommend contraception for unmarried sexual partners, given that it cannot condone extramarital sex. However, it is even more tragic when unmarried individuals compound one sin by conceiving and then destroying the precious gift of life. Witness the far reaching consequences to King David’s sins of adultery and murder.” That’s both biblical and persuasive.
When it comes to contraception, evangelicals are pretty much like the rest of the country. According to a poll released by Public Religion Research Institute, 88 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 81 percent of all Catholics, and 78 percent of Hispanic Catholics say it is morally acceptable to use contraception.
Approximately 8 in 10 (82 percent) Americans favor access to birth control for women who cannot afford it, compared to 16 percent who oppose it. Support is strong across all demographic religious and political groups, including the tea party.
How ironic, then, that a presidential candidate and many members of Congress say they want to eliminate funding of Planned Parenthood and family planning programs such as Title X. In other words, the political party most opposed to abortion is seemingly opposed to many practical practices that would avoid unwanted pregnancy. This is not only factually counter-intuitive but questionable politics. No matter which political party wins the presidency, and gains or loses seats in the House or Senate, this is a policy position that they ought for moral reasons to “etch-a-sketch” out of reality. Are they trying to keep a debate going, or do they want to solve a problem by reducing the need?
It is true that Americans are conflicted morally about abortion. Eighty percent of white, evangelical Protestants say the term “pro-life” describes them at least somewhat well, but still nearly half (48 percent) also say the term “pro-choice” describes them at least somewhat well. Neither group says they “like” abortion. Does any person of good will?
The moral ambiguity of abortion, what ethicist evangelical ethicist Edward John Carnell called “a tragic moral choice,” is when there is no right answer, and the available choices are less than ideal, particularly in the case of rape and incest. Two thirds (67 percent) of the religiously unaffiliated and half (50 percent) of white mainline Protestants say abortion should be possible in most or all circumstances. White and black Protestants are more divided, but pluralities in each group say abortion should be possible in most or all circumstances.
Evangelicals and Latino Catholics are the least supportive of abortion in all circumstances. Fewer than 1 in 4 white evangelical Protestants (23 percent) and Latino Catholics (22 percent) say abortion should be possible in most or all circumstances. At the same time, these groups strongly support contraception.
Preventing unwanted pregnancies, in the first place, is the one strategy that not only unites all Americans but attacks the root of the problem. The choice of not having a baby is always best made before pregnancy. About this there is broad common ground. So it makes sense to work on reducing the need.
The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good released last week a landmark document entitled “A Call to Christian Common Ground on Family Planning, Contraception, and Abortion Reduction.” that does just that — it aims to reduce unwanted pregnancy. It says that family planning (1) strengthens families; (2) protects the health of women and children; and (3) reduces abortion.
It seeks support from pastors, lay leaders, relief and development agencies, and humanitarian groups for a campaign that commits “to not allow partisan, political manipulations to deter us from taking determined action — either through our own ministry work or by the actions of our own government — to protect the lives of women and children that are lost to inadequate health care and family planning.”
A global perspective sharpens this concern. Death in childbirth takes one woman’s life per minute per year. Ninety-seven percent of these deaths occur in poor countries. Many more women survive but have their health permanently ruined by repeated childbearing. Women die in childbirth primarily because of the lack of adequate health care services for them, especially in poor rural areas. Maternal mortality and “morbidity” are largely preventable with adequate resources — but in the poorest parts of the world, those resources have simply not been committed by societies and governments.
In the United States, researchers have calculated that contraceptive services provided at Title X-funded clinics in 2008 helped avert some 973,000 unwanted pregnancies. Worldwide, contraception is credited with preventing an estimated 112 million abortions each year. Without these services, unintended pregnancy and abortion would be one-third higher.
The opponents of Planned Parenthood and family planning programs need to understand that in the United States alone, 95 percent of the unintended pregnancies reported yearly occur because of the lack of, or improper use of contraception. And that 40 percent of these preventable, unintended pregnancies end in abortion. And so restricting access to family planning, even when intended to signal opposition to abortion, could actually increase the number of abortions.
The statistics show that evangelical Protestants, like all Americans, are quite supportive of family planning when they understand it correctly. And key to understanding it correctly is to comprehend that family planning does not equal abortion. I repeat, family planning is not the same as abortion.
I know a little about this misconception, having been at the center of the religious right’s advocacy on the topic for almost two decades. I attended the original “Library Court” meetings (named for meeting at a location between the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court) in late 1979, and then changed about a decade later to “Family Forum,” led by the late Paul Weyrich, Connaught Marshner, and then Michael Schwartz. So for over two decades, I was a part of advocacy that aimed to defund Title X family planning and organizations such as Planned Parenthood. We were so successful that family planning became the “third rail” of evangelical politics.
In other words, touch it and you die. If you were a participant in the meetings who dared to disagree, and support family planning, count on being the target of criticism. Don’t misunderstand me. I admired and loved each of these extraordinary leaders, and was not going to cross them or the leaders of my own organization. That threat no longer hangs over my head, but it still does for others. Evangelicals are seriously considering the arguments for family planning, or have already changed their minds and decided it’s the best way to strengthen families, protect women and children, and actually reduce abortions. Some courageous leaders have even begun to speak out.
It is imperative that we seek common ground on family planning. This will not occur without evangelicals who commit to tell the truth about the reality of family planning needs around the world, and here at home. When pro-life evangelicals speak out, politicians will eventually follow. Eight in ten adults (79 percent) agree that policymakers who oppose abortion should be strong supporters of birth control.
In sum, I offer this challenge to pro-life Christians: Please do not block family planning efforts, globally or domestically, because of your opposition to groups that provide both contraception and abortion. Instead, consider how a deeply pro-life moral commitment, focusing on the flourishing of all human beings made in God’s image, actually ought to lead to support for family planning without entangling it in the often partisan, politically motivated abortion controversy. It is time to act.
Richard Cizik is the president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.