As a longtime pro contraception prolifer, I cannot stay quiet about Rep. Tim Ryan’s expulsion as a Democrats for Life of America advisory board member. This brouhaha shows up some rather severe but instructive barriers to common ground.
Ryan’s version of events: Although he is strongly prolife, DFLA dismissed him for insisting that contraception is essential to reducing abortion, and especially for cosponsoring the “Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act. This bill, which is being introduced into the House today, includes provisions for greater access to contraception and comprehensive sex education, among other positive measures.
But DFLA head Kristen Day tells a different story. She claims that Democrats for Life is neutral on contraception. So what is the problem with Tim Ryan? His voting record has abruptly shifted from prolife to prochoice, so much so that he has been lost to the prochoice movement. And he speaks ill of other prolifers. (For more on the story, read this.)
A number of prolifers and prochoicers take Ryan’s expulsion as QED proof for their monolithically dim views of the “enemy.” Either it confirms that abortion opponents are invariably motivated by hatred of sex and crazy, absurd, inalterable hostility to every possible single measure that would help reduce abortion. Or it confirms that contraception supporters are lethally dangerous to the unborn and too morally corrupt and traitorous to be allowed in the prolife movement.
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Both of these views frequently accompany an utter cynicism towards common ground. After all, if one is oh-so-completely “right,” then there is no need to bother with anyone who is oh-so-completely “wrong.” But whether from prolifers or prochoicers, such views represent a poverty of moral and political imagination and engagement.
The Tim Ryan incident illuminates some longstanding structural problems with the US abortion debate that arise directly from this poverty of vision and action. One is the stereotype–curiously shared by many prolifers and prochoicers–that opposition to abortion necessarily equates opposition to contraception. Yet, as mentioned in my previous column, eight in ten Americans who identify as prolife advocate contraception.
The prolife movement as such, unfortunately, does not properly represent its pro contraception supporters, or even those who have religious objections to contraception but do not necessarily want to illegalize it. Some antiabortion organizations are actively hostile to contraception. Others, like DFLA, profess to be neutral on pregnancy prevention.
But that professed neutrality is all too often suspect. I myself ended up leaving a group that claimed neutrality on pregnancy prevention. It bent over backwards not to offend contraception opponents. Yet it stubbornly discouraged and stifled anyone who sought to be vocally pro contraception within the parameters of the group. And anyway, how is neutrality possible on voluntary pregnancy prevention, something so vital and indispensible to reducing abortion?
Why don’t these avowedly neutral organizations instead develop pregnancy prevention strategies that truly represent the full range of prolife views on prevention, including those of the pro-birth control majority? Why don’t such groups at the very least strongly assert women’s human right to freedom of conscience in pregnancy prevention?
There is a great need for groups in which pro contraception prolifers can openly and actively be ourselves alongside, equal to prolifers with other views. There is an even greater need for pro contraception prolifers to form our own groups and projects. This is one big reason I help with the Nonviolent Choice Directory, a global directory of abortion-reducing resources, including resources on all forms of pregnancy prevention. This is also why my friend Jen Roth is starting All Our Lives, which combines the insights of the reproductive justice and consistent life ethic movements.
If pro contraception prolifers can take our rightful place in abortion discourse, dialogue and cooperative action with prochoicers will become all the more possible. We already agree with prochoicers about almost every way they propose to alleviate the root causes of abortion. We also have a unique ability to help prochoicers understand that, yes, really, for real, a prolife stance can be, and often is, motivated by concern for fetal and even female life, rather than animosity towards women and nonprocreative sex.
Was Tim Ryan really expelled from DFLA because of his outspokenness in favor of contraception? It’s plausible. Was he really expelled because he changed his position on abortion? Unlike many prolife commentators, Jen Roth actually examined his recent voting record instead of making vague but virulent condemnations of it. She concludes that the denunciation of Ryan as “no longer prolife” is based mostly on his support for contraception, not for legalized abortion.
But what if Ryan did change his approach to the legal status of abortion? Would he then be a liar to he say he remains strongly prolife? Not necessarily–and this brings me to another large structural problem with the abortion debate.
All too often, prolife and prochoice are rigidly and exclusively defined in terms of whether abortion should be legal/illegal. This framing of the issue makes it quite clear the traitors and enemies of each cause are. Yet, as many on both “sides” do recognize, this framing of abortion does not touch some of the deepest, most decisive questions connected with it.
This is not to say the matter of the law is unimportant. But whether and to what extent abortion is legal/illegal, women will continue to experience unintended pregnancies and abortions on a massive scale if they still face a dearth of other alternatives. So people with a large spectrum of views on abortion’s legal status dedicate themselves to creating other alternatives. Work in this area is essential to the most profound, and most shared, goals of both prolife and prochoice.
So why is such work so often considered secondary, extraneous, or marginal to each movement’s self-definition? For example, some prolifers who focus on providing abortion alternatives take an approach quite parallel to the harm reduction philosophy on substance abuse. But because they do not call for legal bans on abortion, or because they put their energies elsewhere than the matter of the law, other prolifers dismiss and berate them as “not really prolife.” In a quite parallel manner, some prochoicers who focus on matters like adoption, are told they are going off on tangents to the real purpose of the prochoice movement.
One of the most disturbing things about Ryan’s expulsion is that he was faulted for criticizing the prolife movement, as if he could not find fault with it and yet remain a part of it. Isn’t a movement’s ability to reflect upon and criticize itself essential to its progress? I think that to progress, both the prolife and prochoice movements need to confront and move beyond their own roles in these structural problems of the abortion debate.
These problems may be difficult to surmount. But they came into being through human agency. So human agency can dismantle them–and seek for more constructive ways to deal with disagreement–and agreement–between prochoice and prolife. The future of both movements lies in the direction of common ground.