It is becoming difficult to escape the conclusion that conservatives would rather fight about abortion than reduce it.
Candidates in this month’s Republican presidential debate tripped over themselves to display their pro-life extremism, disavowing exceptions that would permit abortion in cases of rape, incest or even to save the life of the mother – non-starters all in American public opinion.
Next month, when Congress returns from recess, some Republicans are threatening to shut down the federal government in order to defund Planned Parenthood’s offering of contraception and other women’s health services – to punish the group for the abortions it provides without federal funds.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago that if Republicans succeed in their effort, and thereby reduce women’s access to birth control, the likely outcome will be more abortions. This expanded on an earlier column noting the hopeful signs that the use of long-acting, reversible contraceptives such as new-generation IUDs can reduce abortions.
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Anti-abortion conservatives reacted with grace and goodwill – by telling me I have blood on my hands.
“Spare me,” wrote Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for The New York Times. “Tell the allegedly ‘pro-life' institution you support to set down the forceps, put away the vacuum, and then we'll talk about what kind of family planning programs deserve funding. But don’t bring your worldview’s bloody hands to me and demand my dollars to pay for soap enough to maybe wash a few flecks off.”
But halfway through his 1,973-word takedown, which included no fewer than three references to crushing fetuses, Douthat acknowledged the truth of the argument that wider use of long-acting, reversible contraception – LARC is the unfortunate acronym – could reduce abortions:
“Does all of the foregoing mean that no contraceptive-oriented public policy can possibly reduce the abortion rate? No, probably some can, and do: You can find evidence, when other variables are screened out, that certain discrete measures – including the oversold but still noteworthy recent Colorado experiment with long-acting contraception, which I promise to give longer treatment at some point – can in some cases have an impact on abortion rates on the margins. The overall evidence here isn’t quite as straightforward as liberals insist, but it’s stronger than some social conservatives want to believe …”
Just on a lark, let’s give “longer treatment” right now to the supposedly marginal Colorado experiment with LARCs.
The state in 2009 launched a privately funded Family Planning Initiative that provided 30,000 IUDs and other implants at zero or little cost to low-income women at 68 family-planning clinics. The teen birth rate fell 40 percent between 2009 and 2013 – and the teen abortion rate fell by 35 percent between 2009 and 2012 in the counties where the program was in place.
Colorado attributed three-quarters of the decline in the teen birth rate to the initiative. The office of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said the state saved $42.5 million in health-care costs associated with teen births – almost double the $23 million anonymous donation that funded the program.
So how did Republicans in the state Legislature respond to this extraordinary success? A Senate committee this year voted along party lines to postpone indefinitely consideration of funding the initiative.
Even anti-abortion forces didn’t dispute the eye-popping statistics – they merely tried to cast doubt on the (obvious) cause. National Review acknowledged that “indicators are improving dramatically in Colorado” but argued that “to say the program directly caused the huge decreases” in teen births and abortions “is a simplification that overstates the complicated relationship between contraception, abortions, and births.”
But even if the huge success is a “simplification,” isn’t the idea at the very least worth further study?
Douthat says he wants to talk about funding family planning programs only after abortion providers cease and desist. But such refusal to compromise only perpetuates the abortion wars. If, alternatively, anti-abortion conservatives were to make a serious step toward reducing abortions with long-acting contraception, they would find less resistance on the left to reasonable abortion restrictions, and abortion overall would be less common.
Douthat says I and others on the center-left would have more “moral logic” if we were to argue that “abortion is morally necessary and praiseworthy” and that “a fetus is just a clump of cells and that pro-lifers are all unhinged zealots.”
Sorry, but I don’t think that way. If I did, I would be just as uncompromising as the anti-abortion right. I’d prefer to find common ground.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. Follow him on Twitter, @Milbank.