For the Record

Bills Aimed at Reducing Abortion Filed as New Front Opens to Marginalize the Role of Contraception

Susan A. Cohen
The time is now. Will you stand up for reproductive health and rights?

First published online:

The overwhelming majority of Americans—89% according to a June 2006 Wall Street Journal poll—believes that providing people with access to birth control is a good way to reduce abortion. But in the political domain, where efforts to reduce abortion are concerned, contraception has become as much a battleground as common ground. In September, the radical antiabortion Pro-Life Action League, for example, held a conference "dedicated to exposing the myth that artificial birth control is good for society and reduces abortion." According to a promotional letter for "Contraception Is Not the Answer," contraceptive use leads not only to more abortions but also to "skyrocketing divorce, epidemic illegitimacy, widespread cohabitation, and even social acceptance of homosexuality."

More mainstream antiabortion groups may be more subtle, but they also take pains to distance themselves from acknowledging the need and demand for contraception and its essential role in preventing unintended pregnancy, which is the proximate cause of virtually all abortions. For example, Democrats for Life—an organization whose advisory board includes several members of Congress—has a plan to reduce the number of U.S. abortions by 95% over 10 years; this ambitious goal would be accomplished through the imposition of some new restrictions on abortion access (short of making the procedure illegal) as well as the institution of additional medical and social support services aimed at helping already-pregnant women decide to continue their pregnancies and have a(nother) child. Last year, the group approached antiabortion Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) to fashion and spearhead a legislative effort along these lines in the House, but in the end, Ryan was not able to oblige. In September, he introduced the Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, which Democrats for Life has declined to support. Significantly, Ryan concluded that efforts to reduce the number of U.S. abortions cannot be taken seriously without putting due emphasis on reducing the incidence of unintended pregnancy, which necessarily requires promoting greater access to contraceptive services.

So, Democrats for Life turned to Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-TN) who, just a week later, introduced the Pregnant Women Support Act. Apparently in the interest of appealing to prochoice as well as antiabortion members, Davis' bill, like Ryan's, is devoid of any provisions that would restrict abortion. Significantly, however, it is also devoid of any provisions relating to contraception. Rather, it focuses exclusively on such initiatives as removing pregnancy as a preexisting condition in all health insurance plans and increasing resources directed at low-income parenting college students, domestic violence programs and the women, infants and children (WIC) nutrition program. (Ryan's bill and Davis' are essentially identical as far as supports to pregnant women are concerned.)

Meanwhile, the Prevention First Act, introduced by Sens. Harry Reid (D-NV) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY), has been pending for the last two years. Prevention First consists of a series of federal policy and programmatic provisions aimed at augmenting U.S. efforts to help women prevent unintended pregnancy in the first place as the most effective and most broadly acceptable way to reduce the number of U.S. abortions. Reid, who is opposed to abortion rights, as well as Ryan and a handful of other antiabortion lawmakers have joined with prochoice forces to cosponsor and promote this legislation. A far greater number of prochoice House members have joined with Ryan on his bill, since they also support programs for parents and pregnant women. (Some prochoice members have cosponsored the Davis bill, for similar reasons.) But that is where the reciprocity stops, since Davis and his chief cosponsor (and leading family planning antagonist) Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ)—backed by Democrats for Life and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops— remain adamant in drawing the line at supporting contraception.—Susan A. Cohen