Abortion at Saddleback Forum: If Life Begins at Conception, What About Contraception?

The choice at the Saddleback Forum was between a clearly pro-life and a clearly pro-choice candidate for President. At the heart of the discussion was a question of life starting at conception. What does that tell us about how the candidates view contraception?

At the opening and closing of last night’s Saddleback Forum with Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, Pastor Rick Warren talked about the need for Americans to be able to "disagree without demonizing one another." It is a sentiment I hope those who comment on this site can take to heart, myself included.

Abortion has been an extremely divisive issue for an entire generation, and in this election, it is increasingly clear that the debate cannot be only about abortion, but must also include a discussion of contraception, and all of the issues that comprise sexual and reproductive health. Pastor Warren did not ask about contraception, focusing only on abortion, and asking each of the candidates, "at what point does a new baby obtain human rights?"

It is a fair question, and in America, at least for the time being, individuals are entitled to answer that question for themselves, according to their personal and private beliefs and the best available medical science. Hopefully without being demonized, stigmatized, or judged.

Is it government’s responsibility to define when life begins in America with our incredible diversity of faith, belief, and culture?

The mainstream media and debate or forum moderators always focus on the hot-button issue of abortion, as if it is the only aspect of human sexual and reproductive health that is important.

But, if "life begins at the moment of conception" as Sen. McCain stated, what does he believe about contraception? The Bush Administration is now on record planning to equate contraception with abortion, for the purpose of allowing health care workers to deny patients access to contraception. It is clear the Bush Administration believes that contraception is abortion.

Senator McCain’s belief that life begins at Conception may also tie his fate to a ballot initiative in the all important swing state of Colorado, that would confer the rights of a person on a fertilized human egg. That measure is so extremely controversial even social conservatives are divided on it.

Senator John McCain said unequivocally, if elected, he would be a "pro-life President and have pro-life policies" and talked about appointing two, perhaps three Supreme Court Justices with the clear indication he would do so with an eye toward overturing Roe v Wade.

It seems logical then, that since Sen. McCain believes life begins at conception, and is opposed to safe and legal abortion rights, that he also supports the Bush Administration efforts to define contraception as abortion. If McCain does support access to contraception, under what conditions is contraception to be made available, and how does that square with his personal beliefs about conception? When he was asked about contraception insurance coverage by an LA Times reporter, his squirming silent discomfort seemed to acknowledge the rock and hard place he is stuck between regarding his views on conception and the reality of the need for insurance to cover birth control.

McCain may be getting credit for being clear and concise in his responses at Saddleback, but by focusing exclusively on conception and abortion, the key issues for social conservatives, McCain did not acknowledge the complexity of sexual and reproductive health. Nor did he acknowledge the rights of people of differing beliefs to make their own private medical decisions about using contraception to plan a family.

Senator Obama was unequivocally pro-choice in his response, saying that women who choose abortion do not do so casually. He pointed out that abortions have not decreased in the past eight years, during arguably the most aggressively anti-abortion Presidency, Federal Court system — and until 2006 — Congress, in history.

The demonizing that Pastor Warren cautioned against has escalated over the issue of abortion during the Bush years, but all it has achieved is political stalemate, divisiveness, and distraction. That is what the polarization has brought about, not the end of abortion, or even a decrease. All the stigmatizing, all the shame, all the protests have done nothing but drive us further apart as Americans. Overturning one Supreme Court decision will not end abortion either, only make it unsafe and illegal, turning the forty percent of American women with unintended pregnancies who chose abortion into criminals.

Senator Obama spoke of respecting one another’s views. In saying that he favors limitations on late-term abortions with exceptions for the health of the mother, Obama acknowledged that people who are pro-life would consider his views inadequate. Obama said;

"… if you believe that life begins at conception, and you are consistent in that belief, then I can’t argue with you on that, because that is a core issue of faith for you. What I can do is say, are there ways we can work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies so that we are actually reducing the sense that women are seeking out abortions? How do we provide the resources that allow women to make the choice to keep a child? Have we given them health care they need, the support services they need, the options of adoption that are necessary. That I believe can make a genuine difference."

Implicit in Obama’s answer is support for contraception as a means to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. He also demonstrates a fundamental understanding of the many decisions couples must consider when planning a family, or when an unexpected pregnancy occurs. From economics to health care, and the emotional wrestling he alluded to; the choice to have children, the choice to have a child and put it up for adoption, or the choice not to have a child — none of them should be casual choices.

We should all work for an America where people are putting that much thought and planning into the decision about whether and when to bring a child into the world.

Pastor Warren understood the differences the two candidates have on these issues, acknowledging that he does not agree with everything either of them believe on a full range of issues.

Inherent in the McCain position is a traditional view that will reassure anxious hard-line social conservatives who believe the government should define when life begins and dictate the private medical decisions of women, and practices of physicians. There was no acknowledgment of the woman involved by McCain, or any of the factors that go into making a decision to have a child. In that way, McCain has a strong appeal to a conservative base that hasn’t always trusted him, but does nothing to acknowledge the views of other Americans or how he would factor those views into his beliefs on this issue.

Inherent in the Obama position was respect for the diversity of core beliefs, acknowledgment that we don’t all agree because of differing faiths and beliefs, and an effort to find common ground to work together on an issue that has divided the nation for the past generation.

Obama’s success in bringing diverse ideas to the Democratic Party Platform on these issues produced a document that is being touted by both Pro-Choice and Pro-Life Democrats as progress, even if there are minor quibbles about the politics of who gets credit for what.

The choice in this election then seems to shape up around how Americans view issues of reproductive health more generally, inclusive of contraception and what role it has in preventing unwanted pregnancies, thus abortions. A secondary question in this election is whether or not voters want to continue the debate as it has played out for the past eight years and before, with no real progress, or try something different, grounded in respect for all beliefs and perspectives on this most challenging issue.

The questions are clear and voters will decide which path to choose. At least in this election there is hope voters will consider more than just one medical procedure, and start looking at the broad spectrum of sexual and reproductive health, perhaps with more respect for differing beliefs, than we have in the past.