Why Anti-Abortion Activists Leave Birth Control Out of the Debate

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In case you missed Senator Jon Kyl’s recent, nonsensical argument for defunding Planned Parenthood, the New York Times’ Gail Collins had an incisive take on it last week. Much of the debate over the value of Planned Parenthood — a proxy for abortion in many opponents’ minds — veered away from, the realm of the factual long ago, Collins argues, and there may be a strategic reason for that.

On April 8, Kyl (R-Ariz) gave a speech opposing federal funding of Planned Parenthood, because the family-planning organization doesn’t provide essential care to patients. He said, in part:

Everybody goes to clinics, to hospitals, to doctors and so on. Some people go to Planned Parenthood. But you don’t have to go to Planned Parenthood to get your cholesterol or your blood pressure checked. If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that’s well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does.

Whoops, problem is, that 90% figure is patently false. Abortion accounts for only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services — and is not paid for with federal money — while preventive services (like contraception, testing for sexually transmitted infection, cancer screening and prenatal care) make up 90% of the organization’s provided services.

But as Collins points out, Kyl’s exaggeration (which the Senator’s staff later explained was “not intended to be a factual statement”) was not as notable for its lie as it was for its omission:

Take a look at the “good” nonabortion services he does mention. They don’t include contraception, which seems strange since Planned Parenthood has definitely gone public with its association with family planning. …

This is important because it speaks to a disconnect in the entire debate we’ve been having about women and reproduction. For eons now, people have been wondering why the two sides can’t just join hands and agree to work together to reduce the number of abortions by expanding the availability of family-planning services and contraception.

That’s because, Collins notes, many anti-abortion activists are also anti-contraception. They argue that contraceptives kill babies in the womb: if pregnancy begins when sperm fertilizes egg, then birth control pills are tantamount to abortion because they keep the fertilized egg from implanting in the womb.

Whoops, wrong again — at least according to science. For one thing, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists defines pregnancy as beginning with implantation. Moreover, Collins reports, birth control pills (and other barrier methods of contraception like diaphragms or condoms) either inhibit the production of eggs or stop sperm from reaching them; there’s no interference after implantation.

But the reason contraception never enters the debate about women’s reproductive rights in Washington, Collins says, is because nobody cares:

Abortion is controversial. Contraception isn’t. A new report by the Guttmacher Institute found that even women who are faithful Catholics or evangelicals are likely to rely on the pill, I.U.D.’s or sterilization to avoid pregnancy. … So the attempt to end federal financing for Planned Parenthood, which uses the money for contraceptive services but not abortion, is portrayed as an anti-abortion crusade. It makes sense, as long as you lay off the factual statements.

To read Collins’ full op-ed, see here.