Sunday, January 27, 2013

The squickiness of contraception

Ross Douthat, I'm confused. Sure, a belief that a fetus is a baby is not necessarily inconsistent with the belief that a woman should be able to have a job (such as, for example, Anti-Abortion Activist). But isn't there an elephant in the room, namely the relationship between women's ability to control their fertility (thus "Planned Parenthood") and their ability to succeed professionally? And if you're going to say that abortion can't be a part of said planning, because abortion is murder (and while I don't believe abortion is murder, I believe in taking those who say they do at their word, i.e. respecting that they - unless they give some indication otherwise - believe this), don't you need to be somewhat vehemently in favor of contraception? Like, pill-plus-condom-every-time contraception for all women not prepared to bear (and likely raise) a child? 

Douthat (dropping the second-person pretense) doesn't mention contraception. If women are going to be equal to men in the workforce and not have abortions, maybe we want to name the brilliant set of devices that can make this possible. Is the ideal, then, that women will nobly pursue professional goals and never ever ever have sex with men, including the men they may well be married to? Which, while it no doubt describes some individual women's trajectories (there are women who can take or leave - or absolutely don't want - sex with men), sure isn't going to work for most. Nor, given the existence of effective contraception, is there any reason that those who don't follow a value system that demands near-total celibacy should be encouraged to do so. 

Because this is why you get liberals claiming that "pro-life" is about controlling female sexuality (and, inferring from that, about keeping women in the kitchen).* If the anti-abortion movement really just opposed abortion, and favored a whatever-it-takes approach (i.e. if you're going to have heterosexual intercourse, which you almost certainly are, and don't want as many children as this could produce in your lifetime, which you almost certainly don't, you must use contraception when not looking to have a kid, or bear the consequences), then Douthat might have a case. Instead, the "pro-life" side is upset that sex has been separated from reproduction, which cuts against a culture-of-life or some such. It's not that everyone who opposes abortion also opposes contraception. It's that there's still a sense from those who are most vocally worked-up about abortion that contraception is suspect, squicky, something the other side supports, and at any rate not something to promote. Their shaming focuses not on irresponsible use of contraception (not that shaming would be the best approach, but anyway), but on the seeking out of contraception in the first place, the lurid announcement to everyone else at the Walgreens that you intend to have non-procreative sex.

*This isn't all of it. There's also the question of abortion in cases of rape, and of fetuses with severe abnormalities. And of what a woman should do who has taken every precaution and still gotten pregnant. But this is still an awful lot of it.


caryatis said...

I wonder if you have any data supporting your bolded sentence? It's possible in theory to be against abortion but not contraception, but I can think of very few examples. And the right of late has been (deliberately?) blurring the line between the two, claiming that IUDs are abortifacient and confusing people about the difference between the morning-after and abortion pills. That's why I've come to be skeptical of those who claim to care about fetuses.

William Saletan in Slate makes the case that women who don't currently want to get pregnant have a duty to use effective contraception (i.e. not just condoms, can we stop pretending condoms are contraception?). I find this pretty convincing, even if you don't think abortion is murder but just, you know, rather unfortunate and inconvenient. But my feminist friends on Facebook think it's appalling that Saletan presumes to tell women what to do with their bodies.

Phoebe said...

What I was thinking of was simply the overall national rates of approving of abortion vs. approving of contraception. Among ordinary Americans (i.e. not activists), there's nothing terribly unusual about thinking contraception is fine, but not abortion. It gets blurrier with activists/politicians, who seem more interested in a broader campaign to make sure women who have sex experience the consequences (see also: opposition to the HPV vaccine) than in whether fetuses are or are not people.

Douthat himself is representative in this regard - he's very much against abortion, thinks contraception is squicky, but accepts that it's part of how even good Christians live their lives.

And, I'd need to read this Saletan piece to see what I think of it. But from what you say, I certainly agree that abortion is something women should (and generally do!) want to avoid, even women who don't consider it murder. Given that women and not men get pregnant, it seems fair and not mansplaining-ish to suggest that women be extra attentive to contraception. It's not like saying a miniskirt is 'asking for it' - either you have the parts that can bear a child or you don't.

caryatis said...

Here's one of the Saletan articles I was thinking of. It relates to our earlier discussion about the possibility of women not being quite sure whether they want to get pregnant, which I think is one of the reasons unwanted pregnancies and abortions happen.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis: I am opposed to abortion, but in favor of contraception. My view on abortion, though, rests on Don Marquis's "Futures Like Ours" argument which is both A) unusual in opponents of abortion, B) a completely secular argument, and C) not a sanctity of life argument. In fact, I am, as Phoebe says, [i]vehemently[/i] in favor of contraception for people who might otherwise obtain an abortion.

For people who hold the religious argument against abortion, contraception is problematic, as Phoebe says here, in a way it is not for my own view. Similarly, true pro-choicers have to struggle with the problem of infanticide. Michael Tooley's argument for abortion is, I believe, the only one which resolves all the dividing line problems of the pro-choice argument and it accepts infanticide. Infanticide isn't a deal-breaker for me. I can imagine accepting Tooley's argument and I have a sneaking admiration for anybody who is willing to forthrightly state it. I do believe a view which prohibits infanticide is superior to a view which does not, simply because my intuition against infanticide is much stronger than my intuition in favor of abortion, but I acknowledge that Mr. Tooley, for example, seems to have a different weighting of his intuitions and I'm not sure I'm right and he's wrong.

What is nearly impossible to justify is the majority argument that A) there's nothing wrong with abortion and B) infanticide is still wrong. The only way I know of to justify that is Peter Singer's argument, who takes the ability to suffer to be primary in conferring rights, but then consistently one must accept animal rights as Singer does, but the majority does not.

For anybody interested in the issue, there's a terrific discussion between Tooley and Marquis about their respective views here.

caryatis said...

Thanks, Andrew, I'll have to read that. But on first thought, I'd say the crucial difference between abortion and infanticide is that in the latter case, the infant is no longer inside the woman's body, so the woman does not have the right to do whatever she wants with it, as she could with a fetus. She has the right to relinquish custody, but as long as someone else (or the state) is willing to take custody, she shouldn't have the right to kill the infant. This argument works I think without bringing in any consideration of the infant's IQ or ability to suffer.

Phoebe said...


I'm with Caryatis on not seeing the abortion-infanticide (direct) connection. The issue with abortion isn't so much about whether a woman wants to raise a child as about the fact that as long as this "child" is in her body, the fetus needs to be regarded as part of her body, and her life/choices need to take precedence. Once this becomes about whether an already-born baby is well enough to live, one could just as easily have the same discussion about a ten-year-old, 30-year-old, etc. But it's a different discussion, one about euthanasia, not a woman's right to make choices about her own body.

Petey said...

This is all far too mild and caveated, IMHO, with far too much generosity to those you seek to engage.

Sure there are folks who are deficit-hawks in a time of high unemployment who aren't actually using that as a cover for a reason to cut social welfare programs. They just happen to be few and far between on the ground.

Similarly, there are folks who are anti-abortion and pro-concraception. But, again, they just happen to be few and far between on the ground.

IMHO, the actual title for this post should be: The squickiness of sex separated from reproductive functions inside marriage.

The correlation between anti-abortion folks and folks who object to same-gender sex, contraception, sex education, sexually explicit fiction, female sexual pleasure, and the whole schmear is astounding high.

Sex is deeply icky, in these folks estimation, and should only be done in the dark in an un-premeditated fashion to make babies.

Andrew Stevens said...

We don't actually believe that it's all right to kill people in order to enhance our own freedoms. And, if we did, the same argument would apply to a two month old. Caryatis, however, might be getting what I'm saying, because she seems to be implying that, if nobody exists (such as the state) who is willing to take over custody, then a mother would have the right to kill the infant, which would be Michael Tooley's position.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the by, what I linked to isn't an article, but a video. And, having just watched some of it again, I should say that Michael Tooley at the beginning gets too dry and technical in explicating his own position for most non-philosophers, but it's worth plowing through that bit to get to the meat of both arguments.

Petey said...

"What I was thinking of was simply the overall national rates of approving of abortion vs. approving of contraception."

FWIW, if you get into the weeds on the poll numbers, a lot of Americans tend to find specifically abortion squicky, but yet aren't in favor of banning all abortions.

So depending on how the pollster breaks down the question into a binary choice, those folks may end up labelled "pro-life" despite not wanting to see the US ban abortions.

The squickiness of abortion perception creates a lot of folks in the middle who aren't really "Abortion is Murder" folks, but yet don't really like the idea of abortions. These folks in the middle are most definitely not the third of the country who really are opposed to same-gender sex, contraception, sex education, sexually explicit fiction, and female sexual pleasure.

But the third of the country who really do want all abortions outlawed truly do highly correlate who those above attitudes...

Phoebe said...


I'm still confused. Why couldn't/wouldn't the divide just be, entity-in-woman's-body/person outside woman's body? Why would it be inconsistent to say that a woman can do as she pleases with her own body, but that if in some theoretical, imagined-up situation without alternatives, she'd kind of have to care for her own child herself?


It seems likely that those who favor serious use (and knowledge) of contraception as the way of avoiding abortion tend to be in favor of allowing some abortions (contraception not addressing rape, incest, fetal abnormalities, life-of-the-mother, or, for that matter, failures in contraception, which could be reduced to near-zero but not zero). It's not logically inconsistent to think every measure should be taken to prevent unwanted pregnancy, but that once conception occurs, there's no turning back. But as you say, in the real world, a belief that a fetus is a baby sure does seem to correlate with a broader worldview that effectively rules out contraception.

If I came across as generous, this was because I was addressing a specific claim of Douthat's: that feminism and an anti-choice position are compatible. To explain why they effectively are not, in such a way as to potentially convince the unconvinced, it's necessary to spell this out. Otherwise, you get those on the other side saying that anyone who thinks "pro-life" means anti-contraception is some paranoid lefty - kind of a reverse 'they're going to take away our guns'. And although there's a case to be made that contraception is under attack, the Pill is not on the verge of being banned. The stronger case here is that the anti-abortion side is ambivalent towards contraception, and that this - given the necessity of contraception to women's current presence in the workforce - largely explains the pro-choice side's skepticism about the compatibility of anti-abortion and feminist positions.

Miss Self-Important said...

1) Since when is a condom not contraception?

2) What's the status of natural family planning in this argument? Douthat is a Catholic, after all.

Andrew Stevens said...

A fetus is not part of the mother. It is, for a time, living inside the mother. The right to personal autonomy is not strong enough to permit the execution of another person. (A mother's right to her own life could allow for the execution of another person, of course. This rarely comes up since most conditions which threaten the mother are also threatening the fetus and so it's really a case of killing the fetus or allowing both to die, which has an obvious moral solution.)

So you have to argue that the fetus is not a person. In almost any successful such argument, you will (I believe) inevitably conclude that an infant is not a person either. (Since birth is simply a change of address.)

Phoebe said...


1) Condoms are contraception, but not all that effective in real-world use. They can break even if used properly. If you're really, really set on not getting pregnant, you need to use them in conjunction with another method.

2) What's the status of it in what sense? Douthat didn't mention any family planning, "natural" (why one way is "natural" being a religious construct) latex, or hormonal, in his op-ed in which he was addressing the compatibility of women-in-the-workforce and the anti-abortion stance, which I continue to find baffling, alarming, at any rate noteworthy.

Douthat does mention natural family planning in the Slate piece I linked to above, and seems at least sympathetic to the ideas that 1) it might not be the world's most effective form of birth control, and 2) a couple with what he, Douthat, views as an acceptable reason for not wanting a child (i.e. already having three of them) might avail themselves of something else.

But in any case, why should this concept of which family planning is "natural," one that comes from Catholicism and has no particular relevance to non-Catholics (or, for that matter, to many/most Catholics), hold interest in a broader discussion of what, if not abortion, will prevent the birth of unwanted children? The ideal, if the goal is avoiding abortion, should be contraception that brings about a near-zero chance of conception. And if "natural" family planning turns out to be as effective as "artificial" (which, I have no idea, it sounds like a pain in the neck not worth bothering with if your religion doesn't demand it, and doesn't protect against STDs) why isn't Douthat shouting that from the rooftops?

It's not enough to say that abortion is wrong, yet women should stay in the workforce. There needs to be some accounting for the fact that women's place in the workforce depends on their ability to control their fertility, and some acknowledgement that this will not, for the vast majority of women, mean refraining from having sex with men, including the men they're married to. There also, ideally, should be some accounting for the fact that the one type of family planning Douthat's religion happens to find acceptable isn't necessarily what anyone else is interested in using, but at the very least, he might have affirmed that women's current presence in the workforce relates to widespread use of contraception, used, as I understand it, even by women who've had what would look to outsiders to be a whole lot of kids.

Miss Self-Important said...

Condoms are pretty effective in real life. Do you find it at all ironic that there would be people so terrified of pregnancy that they would arm themselves with several concurrent forms of contraceptive defense at each go, each of which has something like a 98 percent effectiveness rate on its own, in order to feel secure against this terrible threat, but would never consider simply not having sex?

The status of NFP in the sense that you seem puzzled by how someone can claim that women should be in the workplace without concurrently believing that this requires them to wield complete and unerring control over their fertility. But what if Douthat doesn't think that such extremes of rational control (eg, there has to be something available that's 100% effective all the time or we are not really free) are necessary for women to have careers? Pregnancy isn't a permanent condition, for one thing. No one will fire you for an unplanned one, for another. And even women wrapped in layers of contraception in order to obtain total control over their fertility may eventually wish to get pregnant, which will presumably have exactly the same effect on their careers as if they'd unintentionally gotten pregnant just then. So if getting pregnant sometimes is ok and not in principle incompatible with women working, then why is it necessary that each of those times be wholly intended and controlled?

It seems quite reasonable that Douthat's anti-abortion, pro-work attitude need not come coupled with either zeal for or wholesale condemnation of contraception. It's just not focused on the rational control of sex and fertility. NFP is not as effective even as condoms at preventing pregnancy, but I think the idea is based on a different mindset than that of the person who wants to avoid pregnancy at all costs (except, again, the cost of foregoing sex). The point of marriage is eventually to raise children. You may be able to put off pregnancy by refraining from sex at certain times, but not always and probably not forever. This is obviously not compatible with never wanting to have children, but beyond that, I'm not sure why it needs to be something exclusively Catholic. It's not as if the Pope needs to bless your uterus for it to work. It addresses the tension between working and frequent pregnancy without asking couples to believe that childbearing is at odds with their individual professional desires, or that children and family life are something that can be advance-programmed and controlled in every way with technological assistance.

On this view, contraception is not particularly evil, especially for women who are extremely fertile or families that are extremely poor. There may be good reasons for using it, but not good reasons for making a public health crusade out of promoting it. The possibility of a pregnancy should not be a source of terror and anxiety for most married people precisely because they are married, and neither should timing things just right in accordance with some imagined schedule of correct living. A belief in divine providence helps to make the latter view plausible, but I don't think it's strictly necessary.

caryatis said...

MSI, condoms are better than nothing but much, much worse at preventing pregnancy than hormonal contraception or the IUD. Plus a woman has to rely on a man's willingness to use a condom and can't conceal the condom use from him. I have at times used condoms plus something effective, and it's really not that hard. A lot easier than abstaining from sex for decades. The minuscule risk of pregnancy that remains is, well, why we need legal abortion, even for responsible adults.

Andrew, these arguments about the nature of "personhood" are too abstract for me. As long as the fetus needs its mother to survive, it is a part of her and cannot, practically, be given the same rights a person has. There is no meaningful way of relating the fetus to the persons we know, precisely because the fetus is a special case.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis: But the fetus is vitally like people we know. It has a Future Like Ours. And, when it is killed, it is deprived of that future.

Your argument perhaps could work as a practical reason not to illegalize abortion, but it doesn't change whether or not it is prima facie seriously wrong to kill a fetus.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, if you watch the video, you'll see that it is Tooley's argument which relies on abstract arguments about "personhood." Marquis just assumes we are biological organisms.

Phoebe said...


Caryatis mostly beat me to this, but from the stats you yourself link to, with "typical use," condoms are 85% effective at preventing pregnancy. "Perfect use" is not the real-life situation.

"Do you find it at all ironic that there would be people so terrified of pregnancy that they would arm themselves with several concurrent forms of contraceptive defense at each go, each of which has something like a 98 percent effectiveness rate on its own, in order to feel secure against this terrible threat, but would never consider simply not having sex?"

I'm not sure I understand what's "ironic" about this. It's not remotely difficult to take a pill every day and use a condom every time you have sex. But it is - not for everyone, but I venture for most - incredibly difficult to refrain from having the kind of sex that will lead to pregnancy, to do so from the age at which the urge first strikes until the point in time at which one is married and give or take OK with (or enthusiastically in favor of) having a kid. Furthermore, unless you are a strict Catholic or otherwise pious, why, given the effectiveness of two (not "several") concurrent forms of contraception, are you supposed to remain celibate not only from 15 to 17-20, say, when you may not be mature enough to make these decisions, but also from 20 to 25-40, the age at which you have your spouse and are ready-ish at least for a kid? That it *can* be done isn't to say it should, or that the state should assume it's happening/encourage it to happen.

And addressing your comment more broadly, being hyper-attentive to contraception in one stage of your life isn't incompatible with being more live-and-let-live when you are married. I'm not seeing how unintended pregnancy would have the same effect on a career as intended, giving whichever timing issues, but I do agree with you that barring the minority who absolutely never want kids, there's a life stage at which if it happens, it's at the very least not the end of the world. While I wouldn't make this illegal, and while variants of this situation do make sense, I'll admit to finding it strange when married/partnered women who do want a kid, and with that man, but a year or so down the line, have an abortion just to time everything right. (Pro-choice doesn't mean enthusiasm for all choices.)

But your comment assumes that the only adult women having sex are married. Unintended pregnancy, as in it happens within marriage at 28 rather than 32, is quite different from unintended pregnancy with a boyfriend of a month at age 20. And, the threat of STDs would seem reason enough not to encourage NFP among those not in a position to start a family. Again, if the goal is keeping women in the workforce but stopping/greatly reducing abortion, this needs to address more than just married women. And if the anti-abortion side remains preoccupied with its broader ideals (that pregnancy isn't a disease, that women should be happy to be pregnant, that "life" is to be celebrated, that sex outside marriage/procreative goals is wrong), then it's not doing all it can to prevent abortion, let alone doing all it can to prevent abortion and keep women in the workforce.

Miss Self-Important said...

Caryatis: I don't think that being merely 85-98% effective disqualifies them from being contraception. The only 100% effective contraception is, as you likely know, abstinence. But I doubt you'd want to publicize abstinence as the only effective contraception, so we must settle for our imperfect percentiles, condoms being not much more imperfect than the others. Whether women must be in control of the contraception doesn't really determine the definition.

Miss Self-Important said...

Phoebe: "Typical use" means things like putting on a condom in the middle of sex, or taking it off before ejaculation. This, like forgetting to take your pills (typical use, so apparently "the real life situation"), which reduces the effectiveness of oral contraception to 90%, is obviously a thing you can do, but is not the behavior of people really determined to avoid pregnancy. Although the term "perfect use" makes it sound like rocket science, it just means correct use (taking the pill regularly, keeping the condom on the whole time), and that people are "typically" incapable of that may be a problem for the contraception crusade.

I suspect the animus against condoms, which are statistically hardly less effective than oral contraception, is that they don't put women in charge, as Caryatis says. Rather than believing that women can make smart choices about which partner to sleep with and when, we choose to believe that they can make smart decisions about the use of devices to prevent pregnancy so long as they're in control of those devices. Id' say the latter is as misplaced a faith as the former, given the apparent need for all the state compensatory services available to those whose reason fails them in the use of contraception at least as often as it fails in the selection of partner.

The irony is that sex is sought for the sake of pleasure, and all these contraceptive options are supposed to enhance your pleasure by permitting you to have more sex with more people, and yet you are all are so exercised about the grave dangers of insufficient and incorrectly used contraception (a MERE 85% chance of not getting pregnant; that's basically "nothing"!) that the whole supposedly pleasure-driven enterprise becomes laborious and anxiety-driven. But refraining from the thing which creates all this anxiety and labor is simply not a "realistic" option.

Miss Self-Important said...

Again, if the goal is keeping women in the workforce but stopping/greatly reducing abortion, this needs to address more than just married women.
What is the standard you're thinking of for keeping women in the workforce? Even intentional pregnancies take women out of the workforce for a while, and I very much Douthat is against women staying at home long-term to raise kids if they want to. Every woman need not be in the workforce all the time in order for women to be in the workforce. Every pregnancy need not be preventable for women to be in the workforce. I'm not sure that the trade-off for most women seeking abortions is that they either get the abortion or lose their job. Is there evidence of that? Unless there is, it seems fairly reasonable to me that the anti-abortion side would emphasize the goodness of marriage, family formation, and pregnancy to even unmarried women without sacrificing the possibility of women in the workforce or driving them to abortion as the only means by which to stay in it.

NFP is not intended for the unmarried at all. I raise it not as a clinical alternative to contraception but because it embodies an answer to your question about how Douthat could think that abortion is wrong and women should work without becoming a crusader for contraception. Contraception, as evidenced by this conversation, brings relief from actual pregnancy without relief from the fear of pregnancy (except probably to the people who use it "typically" and never have such fears), but rather an intense anxiety about the threat of pregnancy and whether one is doing enough to abate that threat. Is this condom enough? Maybe I need to add an IUD? Did I remember to take my pills this week? Wait, maybe not! Oh no! Stop! Stop! We have to wait until tomorrow, or Thursday, just to be sure. Super sexy stuff.

Miss Self-Important said...

But the point is that you should not be living in fear of pregnancy because you should think that pregnancy is something that ruins your life unless precisely scheduled in advance. Moreover, the idea that you can really "plan" your parenthood is an illusion that will only create unnecessary disappointment when your "plans" fail, as they inevitably will. Even if you manage to time your childbearing to correspond perfectly with your imagined schedule of life events, you must then control the child itself to ensure that it turns out as you planned, and your husband too to make sure he doesn't age in a way you wouldn't prefer, and your health (no cancer before schedule!), etc. Obviously, some degree of direction in these realms is possible, but it has a failure rate even higher than that of condoms, and the expectation of success will deform your actual life.

So, if you want to have sex young, you should be encouraged to marry early and prepare for the eventual issue of sex. Early marriage doesn't get in the way of having a job. If you're pursuing a time-intensive career that delays family formation, you're probably exactly the type of gratification-delayer and impulse-controller who can keep sex to a minimum, w/ or w/o contraception. (Again, the point is not to outlaw contraception, but to emphasize a different approach to it.) This doesn't require too much piety - for the super-ambitious, expectations are contraceptive, since you only believe you have a lot to lose by a pregnancy if you think you have a lot to gain by avoiding one. For the rest of us, pregnancy should be an eventuality we're open to by virtue of getting married, and while a measure of responsibility is obviously necessary for family life, there is no greater virtue to being a pregnancy prevention zealot than to being OCD about the cleanliness of your home. Both are unnecessary anxieties. And for women who have no professional expectations or desires at all, I don't see the problem with very early marriage, early motherhood, and non-employment. I suspect there are already many women doing pretty much that, minus the marriage. And in many cases, the marriage part would be some help to them.

Phew, now done. Tried to repeat one point three times, very wordy.

caryatis said...

Andrew, I don’t see how you can separate practical considerations from moral philosophy. A fetus has potential, but by definition, potential doesn’t actually exist.

MSI, you may find the thought of using birth control burdensome and anxiety-provoking, but that is hardly universal. I have encountered people who were neurotic about pregnancy and STD prevention, but largely that anxiety was a result of their inexperience. Once you know what you’re doing and have effective birth control, you can put fears of unwanted pregnancy out of your mind almost completely. That’s the great thing about the IUD, for instance--get it once, and you get to basically forget about it for ten years. In a larger sense, I don’t think the fact that we don’t have perfect control over life should stop us from exerting the control we do have. Sounds like a slippery slope argument. The vast majority of us who have non-procreative sex are not necessarily going to turn out control freaks.

Planned Parenthood estimates that 15 to 24 per 100 women who rely on condoms alone will get pregnant per year, compared to less than 1 out of 100 women with IUDs. Even with perfect use, condoms sometimes break.

Miss Self-Important said...

Caryatis: I have few personal anxieties about sex, w/ or w/o birth control. I've found that being married provides its own security, such that even an unintended pregnancy is not a fearful prospect.

But there is a disjuncture b/w what you're instructing me to do - just learn to use the IUD correctly and I'll be ready for constant, anxiety-free sex, vs. your disproportionate concern about a 1-2% different in the failure rate of other devices. Using most contraception correctly (which you seem to think yourself capable of) is 98-99% effective, and should produce as strong a feeling of security as your IUD plus oral contraception plus condom or whatever combination. Why then are you so anxious on behalf of other women's capacities to use them correctly like you? Statistically, of course, we learn from this chart that women are morons who can't do anything properly and pretty much need surgical intervention to get the right result. On one hand, you're very confident about the prospect of all women of attaining complete control over pregnancy and emancipation from fear, but on the other, you admit that this prospect is actually pretty grim without a no-fail intervention controlled by a medical professional.

"I don’t think the fact that we don’t have perfect control over life should stop us from exerting the control we do have."
Sure, but how much control do we have? Is it enough? Right now, your preferred method of birth control costs a good bit of money; shouldn't it be free and actively offered to all women? Should we call it a day in the quest for even more effective contraception and abortion methods? Right now, we can't get pregnant any time we want, and sometimes couples have to try for a long time, or get medical intervention that only sometimes works. Should we leave things at that level of control? Or we should we exert the control we do have by encouraging more efforts to bring us more control?

Also, about the inside vs. outside of the mother status of the fetus, a fetus has a chance of surviving outside the womb (w/ medical intervention) after about six months of gestation. Is a delivered premature infant a person, but an undelivered one of the same age not? Should we close all the NICUs?

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis, Don Marquis's argument (which I agree with) is focused around the question of why it is wrong to kill Caryatis or Andrew Stevens and then proceeds from there.

Ask a person who has been diagnosed with a terminal disease why it is that he is sad that he is going to die. Chances are he will tell you because he was hoping to do things (like see his children grown) or accomplish things (like write that book) or simply have future interactions with his family or friends. Dying early deprives him of all these things. This is why it is wrong to kill Caryatis or Andrew Stevens. We possess futures of value. In those cases where we don't possess futures of value (we are comatose and will never awake or we face a future of constant agony), then it is no longer clearly the case that it is wrong to kill us. Now, note that this reason for not killing us consists of potentiality. My actuality is already here and, if you kill me, I don't have any actuality any more, so where's the wrongness? Once I'm dead, there's nothing actual left. The wrongness is because you have robbed me of my potentiality, my future of value.

Since this is the reason it is wrong to kill Caryatis or Andrew Stevens (and I believe it is), then the question of whether it is wrong to kill something other than an adult human focuses on whether it too has a future of value. Infants do, fetuses do, animals might. (I.e. if you already believe the animal rights arguments, this account for the wrongness of killing probably won't disturb your judgment. If you don't so believe, then it probably won't disturb that judgement either.)

But Don Marquis says this all much better and more completely than I do. See his 1989 paper "Why Abortion is Immoral," the argument that convinced me, against my desires, that most abortions are seriously wrong.

caryatis said...

MSI, no, I do not find sex with birth control grim. I am quite happy with it. As I think most people are. I do think that many women, including myself, are prone to forgetting pills once in a while, and men are prone to using condoms poorly. But that’s not an argument against birth control so much as an argument against choosing a form of birth control that demands too much mental energy.

I agree that ideally all women would have access to IUDs, and research should be conducted to find better methods. The exact level of control a person wants over life is a matter of personal preference. I want as much control over my fertility as I can get, but other women, as you suggest, might be okay with higher failure rates. Very, very few women are okay with no control. My objection to condoms is not that they are completely useless, but that I don’t think most people are aware of precisely how often they fail. (And I don’t think your assertion that there is only a 1-2 percent difference between condoms and other methods is borne out by the evidence.)

Yes, a delivered premature infant has more rights than a fetus, because of the basic fact that a fetus’s rights cannot be enforced without infringing on its mother’s rights.

caryatis said...

Andrew, I probably have a completely different approach to morality. The idea that taking away someone's potential is wrong doesn't convince me. It seems to me that inflicting torture (i.e. actual pain) is much worse than painless killing.

It’s wrong to kill an adult because 1) it increases the risk someone will kill me and 2) that person has demonstrated value. That’s why capital punishment is okay with me, because those killed have demonstrated they have negative value. But neither reason applies to fetuses or infants.

I don’t really feel strongly about infanticide. It just seems pointless. Why kill when you can give up custody? If someone else wants my baby, then it makes more sense to give them it rather than to kill it.

Phoebe said...


I too want to respond in multiple comments, but am tired (not concise, just tired) and so will try in one:

I have nothing against individuals, if it works for them, refraining from premarital sex, marrying young (assuming young =/= 15), and never using "artificial" contraception. Nor do I think it's a problem if those who believe this way is best have their say and try to persuade others to do the same. My problem is with governmental policy that assumes people generally do this, or ought to do it. There *is* effective contraception, such that you very nearly don't risk pregnancy, but it does tend to involve using two methods at a time, which I believe a great many people would affirm does not somehow cancel out the advantages to having sex. (And abstinence isn't 100%, either, what with the possibility of rape, not to mention the possibility of using abstinence as your method of birth control but slipping up this one time - a hysterectomy and that alone is 100%.)

In the world as it exists, not everyone is going to meet a viable spouse at 20 or even 30, and not everyone is going to want to refrain from having sex between the age of consent and whenever a spouse enters the picture. And having great professional ambition does not, in the vast majority of cases I can think of, correlate with being able to remain celibate, or indeed in thinking it would be ideal to do so. It's this - "If you're pursuing a time-intensive career that delays family formation, you're probably exactly the type of gratification-delayer and impulse-controller who can keep sex to a minimum, w/ or w/o contraception." - that just does not remotely ring true to my experience of the milieu in question. I mean, the question shouldn't even be whether such a woman *could* restrain herself so severely, but why she would, if her religion/quasi-religious moral position didn't demand it. There's no generally-agreed-upon virtue of not having premarital sex, of not having sex except in life situations in which you'd be OK with having a child. This is something some believe, and some subset of that group live up to that ideal, but it's sure not everyone's ideal.

But all of this is engaging you in a debate about the relationship between sex and reproduction. My point was, is, that this very conversation explains why the pro-choice side is skeptical of the anti-abortion side's stance wrt women in the workforce. Meaning: if the anti-abortion side has this interest idea that pregnancy shouldn't be viewed as controllable/disastrous, and that women should only be having sex within marriage, regardless of the merits of that view, this is quite simply a departure from how most people actually live or want to live, and therefore serves as evidence that "pro-life" isn't simply about whether a fetus, or a fetus past X weeks/months, is a person, but about women's sexuality.

I *also* don't think I've wrapped my head around the idea that because pregnancy isn't entirely controllable, one must throw one's hands up and refuse from using the most effective varieties of contraception, in the name of I'm not sure I understand what, but that's getting us off-track, I suppose.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis: Yes, I think it's fair to say that we have very different approaches to morality. Yours is a very convenient morality to adopt. After all, the fewer people there are in the world whose right to life I need to respect, the better, from a purely personal viewpoint. And yours allows you to pick and choose at will. I am reasonably sure it's false, however.

Phoebe said...

Caryatis, Andrew,

Interesting debate (which I have skimmed), but let's keep this to the questions of a) whether "pro-life" is really just/mostly about being against abortion, and b) whether its actual broader aims ("culture of life," i.e. anti-non-procreative sex) are consistent with Douthat's claim that "pro-life" can be feminist/pro-women-in-workforce.

Britta said...

Very late to the party. With abortion/infanticide, the argument is always made about an 8.5 month fetus vs. a newborn. This is a complete strawman, as no one is aborting a healthy 3rd trimester fetus. A vast majority of abortions occur within the first 7-9 weeks, when the blastocyst/embryo is a clump of cells. 80% of pregnancies spontaneously abort at that stage. Should we be mourning all of these? They're technically also persons, with the same potential of any other person. Every time a woman's period is maybe little late and a little heavier, it's likely it was an early miscarriage/chemical pregnancy, totally undiagnosable unless you took an early pregnancy test, which most women don't do unless their period more than a few days late. Pro-choice advocates in the US are reluctant to cede ground on trimesters because it's seen (probably rightly) as a slippery slope type thing. In countries where abortion isn't stigmatized, it's illegal after the first trimester except for health of the mother/fetus. No one has a problem with that, because women who don't want to be pregnant want to not be pregnant asap, and women who carry a baby for 6+ months usually want the baby, or want it enough not to abort it.

Anyways, abortions after 20 weeks are almost entirely due to health of the mother or the fetus. Since we allow people to refuse medical treatment for their really deformed, unviable baby, thus causing their death, is abortion of a deformed, unviable fetus all that different? Should a woman have to carry a "baby" with no brain full term? These are the real questions to be asked about 3rd trimester abortions, not "what if a woman* suddenly decides on a whim not to have a baby after carrying it for 8 months?"

*implied that she is too brainless to understand she has a BABY inside her

Britta said...

Backdoor religious imposition of lifestyle choices is a big problem with abstinence only education. It's framed as not wanting teens to have sex and to wait for marriage, but that only makes sense if marriage happens around 20. Most people aren't super into teens having sex, so it seems palatable, but the real implications are kind of odious. As an issue of religious freedom, I find it really irritating, because 1) we live in a secular, multicultural nation where there is no official religion, and I'm not sure why other people should be allowed to impose their religious beliefs on people, and 2) *my* religion has no problem with sex before marriage, contraception, abortion, etc, and it feels a bit like an affront to my religious freedom to argue for religious reasons against it. Somehow the only religions that matter when we're talking about respecting religion are the crazies, but mainline Protestantism or, say, reform Judaism aren't "less" valid as religions, or "less" moral because their moral codes focus on different things besides oppressing women.

Andrew Stevens said...

Britta, the reason why infanticide arises is because if you investigate a theory which says it is not wrong to kill unborn children, the theory always turns out to be such that it is not wrong to kill children at all. (All "personhood" arguments that I am familiar with, for example.) This doesn't mean the people who hold the theory are for the slaughter of children or anything, just that their theory does not hold that it's wrong to kill them. (There are other cases where a theory holds that it is not wrong to kill fetuses, but is wrong to kill infants, but such theories always turn out to forbid the killing of most animals as well.)

As for natural miscarriages, that there are no mourners is logical - nobody ever got a chance to know the fetus. We cannot conclude that because there are no mourners that therefore nothing tragic has happened. Is it all right to kill a hermit whom no one will mourn? Or a person with no close friends? People die in accidents all the time - happens every day. Does this somehow make it not wrong to kill them?

Anyway, Phoebe has asked that this thread not turn into a philosophical discussion about abortion, so those are the last points I will make.

Phoebe said...


Good point re: "religion" not necessarily opposing the same choices that social conservatism does.

Which gets us back to the root of the problem here. Either "pro-life" is about reducing the rate of abortion (a goal most would agree to, with differences over whether abortion is bad because it's murder or because it's no one's ideal outcome), or it's about a broader worldview which is either near-impossible to implement, or simply, as you say, wrong to implement, given that right-thinking people disagree on what's ideal in sexual behavior. There are some who think it's soul-destroying to have non-procreative sex, and to them I say, by all means, refrain from having non-procreative sex. There are others who think it's dangerous to marry someone you haven't slept with, or dangerous to marry at all before having slept with others - the first of these to avoid sexual incompatibility, the second to avoid Madame Bovary-esque what-ifs. There are still others who believe in being "sex-positive" and define that as no-judgments re: polyamory, relationships in which one partner is a "slave," etc., leading yet others to ask how there are possibly that many hours in the week, but to each his/her/your-preferred-pronoun's own.

My own stance is that people should do what they're comfortable with (and, I should add, I'm very pleased that this - mostly - has not turned into a conversation about what any of us an individual does or has done, because that's really not relevant - maybe everyone lives up to their principles, maybe not, maybe principles change, but until someone's running for office on the family-values ticket, I'm not the hypocrisy police, not asking for accounts of successful chastity, etc.). Sex drives differ tremendously, such that the "sacrifice" of chastity from puberty till marriage would be immense for some, and no big deal for others.

Things get complicated, though, when the state weighs in on what is and isn't OK. A line obviously *will* be drawn (with polyamorous marriage not something one can get at City Hall, and with it being generally acceptable to advise 14-year-olds to at least consider waiting a few years before having sex), but it needs to be drawn somewhere plausible. It's just not plausible that single 25-year-olds in a society with effective contraception will, as a general rule, be virgins. Whereas it *is* plausible that we as a society could rethink what sexual responsibility means, could destigmatize contraception (which remains vaguely scandalous to talk about), could put it out in the open just how all these women with nice jobs came to not have as many children as their years of sexual activity would have produced without contraception... if all of this could happen, then maybe abortion rates would go down. What's not plausible is that 25-year-old single women will decide en masse that sex is actually awful, that contraception, because it's not 100%, is not worth the bother, and that to have a career, pre-marital celibacy is needed.

caryatis said...

"It's just not plausible that single 25-year-olds in a society with effective contraception will, as a general rule, be virgins. Whereas it *is* plausible that we as a society could rethink what sexual responsibility means, could destigmatize contraception (which remains vaguely scandalous to talk about), could put it out in the open just how all these women with nice jobs came to not have as many children as their years of sexual activity would have produced without contraception... if all of this could happen, then maybe abortion rates would go down. What's not plausible is that 25-year-old single women will decide en masse that sex is actually awful, that contraception, because it's not 100%, is not worth the bother, and that to have a career, pre-marital celibacy is needed."

Agreed, although I would go beyond destigmatizing contraception to actually stigmatizing sexual activity without contraception (except for those few who are okay with the possibility of pregnancy.)

Phoebe said...


That was kind of what I was getting at re: "sexual responsibility," but I wouldn't be too quick to stigmatize, until knowledge is widespread. I grew up in bluest, fakest America, and it was not generally known that condoms weren't all one needed to prevent pregnancy. In certain European countries (the Netherlands?) it's just known that two methods are needed, one to protect against pregnancy, and condoms to extra-protect against pregnancy and also against disease. Until there's widespread awareness among all at the very least late-teenagers-and-adults of how pregnancy is effectively prevented, it seems wrong to stigmatize at least certain forms of irresponsibility.

Britta said...


I'm familiar with the infanticide/abortion argument. The whole point, though, is when does personhood begin? You totally gloss over that, as though it's taken for granted personhood begins at conception. That's a minority position, even for many people who believe personhood begins before birth.

Andrew Stevens said...

Britta, I believe we're biological organisms and have no need of the "personhood" concept. (This is one of the great advantages of the view, frankly. As Caryatis said earlier, the whole "personhood" thing is too abstract to be believable.) The reason why it is prima facie seriously wrong to kill a fetus or an infant is for the exact same reason it is wrong to kill an adult human - because it deprives them of a future of value. Personhood never comes into it.

The biological organism who has a future of value comes into existence at (or near) conception. When exactly that happens is simply a fact of biology. Current science tells us it certainly happens at most a few days after conception. Before conception, there just isn't a biological organism there. A few days after conception, there certainly is. Those few days are currently a grey area.

Note, by the way, that I have made no comment on whether abortion should be illegal or not. There are arguments still on the other side of that, even if you accept my view. All I am arguing is that most abortions are seriously wrong because they deprive a biological organism of a future of value.

Phoebe said...

Britta, Andrew,

This is indeed interesting, but straying awfully far from the original argument. Part of me wants to ask, again, why the obvious dividing line can't be whether the entity-whatever-we're-calling-it-or-him/her is or is not inside of a definitely-a-person woman. (Also taking into account what Britta notes, re: the likeliness that a woman who didn't want to be pregnant in the first place would be waiting till she was 8 months pregnant to do something about it.) We may one day reach a point where technology allows whichever post-conception clump of cells to turn into a baby in a laboratory, so the question of viability seems like one that's likely to be problematic down the line.

But another part of me is much more curious what you both, all, think about whether anti-abortion feminism is possible.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe, I am not at present arguing that abortion should be illegal, merely arguing that abortion is prima facie seriously wrong and most abortions as they are actually performed are seriously wrong. Your argument might be an argument for why abortion should be legal and why women perhaps should be legally allowed to execute a biological organism with a valuable future, but I don't see how to make it into an argument that doing so isn't seriously wrong.

I suppose it is possible to argue that a woman's right to personal autonomy outweighs a fetus's right not to be killed. It seems a strange and unnatural moral calculus though. We don't even think a woman's right to personal autonomy is sufficient to allow her to buy a 64-oz. soda in New York City, never mind great enough to allow her to execute other people. I think the argument that the right to autonomy does outweigh the fetus's right not to be killed is really based on a smuggled in assumption that the fetus doesn't really have any such right at all.

If you equate feminism with pro-choice, as a very large number of feminists do, obviously it isn't possible to be an anti-abortion feminist. If you don't, then I think it's equally obvious that it is.

The irony is that the invention of birth control probably spells doom for its most fervent partisans. It seems inevitable that effective birth control is going to cause the human species to evolve into a more pro-life direction, as those people who are instinctively pro-life will outbreed those of us (like you and me) who are instinctively pro-choice. I don't, however, believe this will inevitably mean the death of feminism.

caryatis said...

Phoebe, to answer your question about whether there can be an anti-abortion feminism, what if one were to say that, in this day and age, in a rich country, with readily available contraception, there is no reason a responsible woman should ever need an abortion? (With limited exceptions for unavoidable but rare events like rape, birth defects, and risk to the mother's health.) It is a woman's responsibility to abstain from sex _until_ she educates herself about contraception and gets effective contraception (with "effective" defined as something you know you can trust yourself to use, i.e., if you're not the sort of person who can remember to take a pill every day, don't rely on the pill.) This is not asking women for decades of abstinence, just for abstinence until they are protected.

After all, most teenagers go through a period of years when, even though they are interested in sex, they aren't having it because they are not on birth control or not in sufficiently committed relationships. The average age of first sexual encounter, as I read somewhere, is 16, which is significantly later than the age at which one starts thinking about sex (11? 13?). This sort of cautiousness probably preempts a lot of abortions, completely aside from religious motivations for abstinence.

Would you consider that point of view, which is a rather more extreme version of what I actually think, too judgmental to be feminist?

Phoebe said...


Re: personal autonomy, giant sodas, illegal drugs, for that matter, I think the issue is, the choice of whether or not to bring a child into the world is kind of unique. Not wanting to do so is quite different from wanting to drink a giant soda (and it's not as if one cannot order multiple smaller sodas, or just get a huge bottle from the supermarket). But I'm no philosopher-of-abortion. I think it should be legal, agree with Britta that the "partial-birth" conversation is misleading, and can think of many, many reasons other than 'it's murder' (which I don't believe) why a woman might want to do everything in her power to avoid getting one.


Not necessarily anti-feminist, but I'd have a couple qualms. The first is that in our society, contraception continues to be stigmatized (you're writing freely about your own experiences, but under a pseudonym), and to be seen as a topic akin to sex acts or number of partners (witness the confusion over whether the Pill is something a woman takes each time she has sex!) Reluctance to come out, as it were, as a sexually-active woman probably does impact contraceptive use. (I could go on re: what this would look like on the ground - everything from not seeing a doctor to not bringing the Pill on a weekend away with a guy who might see the packet and make assumptions.)

The second qualm, then, is that even if current silliness re: contraception disappeared, life is messy. The mostly-responsible might miss a pill, or might go off the pill in a prolonged period of celibacy, only to have sex using just a condom. Women might be intentionally "natural" (to return to MSI's terminology) in their approach to contraception, with the half-desire for a kid, only for some event (a partner's unexpectedly negative response, for example) to sway things in the direction of abortion. (Either the notorious 'trickery' example, or the guy gave no indication either way of what he'd do should pregnancy result.) All of this is not to say that abortion-for-reason-of 'life-is-messy' shouldn't be judged. Rather, it's to say it shouldn't be *outlawed.* A woman who got pregnant on account of irresponsibility should not be 'punished' with a child.

caryatis said...

I agree. It's hard to talk about personal responsibility without sounding self-righteous, but I actually do understand that people make mistakes. For that reason, I couldn't justify making abortion illegal, even with exceptions. I guess my version of "anti-abortion feminism" would be, educate yourself, really try to use contraception and stick up for yourself with men, even if it means you have to have an awkward conversation with that guy or that doctor, and as a last ditch, legal and rare abortion.

I think you would be surprised how open I am in real life about my support for contraception. Any excuse to talk about myself.

Phoebe said...


Then we're in agreement.

Re: how to be open about contraceptive use... This is actually an area where I think we could use more sharing - where it wouldn't be overshare, but just... useful information. How it came to pass that all the adult women one knows don't have twenty children remains very hush-hush. While no individual woman is obligated to explain, that this is kept quiet (closer/share-ier female friends may bring it up) is not good.

The problem, though, is that describing one's own contraceptive use always risks crossing the line into describing (or seeming to describe) the details of one's sexual activity, which generally *is* overshare. There ought to be a way to discuss contraception more openly, without needing to specify anything other than the vaguest information (i.e. heterosexual or bisexual woman, no vow of chastity).

Petey said...

Back on the polling aspect of the column's arguments:

Choire Sicha does a quite competent takedown of Douthat's column based on the squickiness of his use of numbers...

Britta said...


I think your position sounds about right. People should use birth control as responsibly as possible, but we have to recognize that mistakes (human and non-human caused) happen, and even smart, cautious, prudent people do things in situations that they might not normally do or think is a bad idea. (If you ask me if I would ride in a car with a drunk driver without a seatbelt, I would say absolutely never, but I have done so in China.*) One place I kind of differ with Phoebe and maybe you is I think that 'every precaution necessary' varies by person, and not just in their willingness to have kids. I don't think all women should have to triple up on highly reliable forms of BC in order to be considered responsible or their non kid desires taken seriously. (Like, I agree with MSI that if you're careful with condoms, they're almost as good as pills or IUDs, and they're much better than other methods we might take more 'seriously,' like diaphragms or sponges. Also, FWIW, withdrawal is 96% effective with perfect use, also better than sponges or diaphragms.)

I also think we should talk more about BC in public. I do so with my female friends, but we're probably unusual in that respect. I was lucky I had very comprehensive sex ed in middle school, so I knew my options, the pros and cons, and the % failure rate from remembering the chart we had to make and the really frank discussions of our teacher.

*Don't tell my mother

Britta said...

oh, but I was going to add, as an adult I think it would be hard to get that info. I suppose you could talk to a gynecologist, and Planned Parenthood has good info on their website, but this is one of my issues with abstinence only education. After HS there's no great way to get people to learn about BC, and maybe you want 14 YOs ignorant about sex, but I don't think we want ignorant 25 or 30 YOs. We teach kids lots of stuff designed for future use, and I think BC knowledge should be seen as similar.