How Birth Control Became Part of the Abortion Debate Print
News/Features - Health
Tuesday, 31 May 2005 18:00
Judith DeSarno does not want to be part of the never-ending abortion debate. “I’m the birth-control gal,” said DeSarno, president of the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association in Washington, D. C.

Yet she’s being drawn into the battle.

DeSarno spoke in the Quad Cities on May 19, and in an interview with the Reader prior to her appearance, DeSarno said she and other family-planning advocates are concerned that the line between contraception and abortion is being made more blurry by activists on the far Right. Specifically, some elements of the pro-life movement argue that common forms of oral contraceptives, by preventing zygotes from implanting in the uterus, result in abortions.

And because of conservative efforts to restrict access to abortion, family-planning advocates worry that access to contraceptives might also be eroded – even though effective birth control reduces unplanned pregnancies and, as a result, abortions.

June 7 marks the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Griswold v. Connecticut decision, in which the court invalidated a state law that made it illegal to prescribe or use contraceptive drugs or devices.

“The present case ... concerns a relationship lying within the zone of privacy created by several fundamental constitutional guarantees,” the court wrote. “And it concerns a law which, in forbidding the use of contraceptives rather than regulating their manufacture or sale, seeks to achieve its goals by means having a maximum destructive impact upon that relationship.”

In finding a constitutional privacy right for married couples, Griswold v. Connecticut laid the groundwork for a much more famous decision, the one that used a privacy right to make abortion legal. “This is a much more important decision than Roe v. Wade,” DeSarno argued. “It is the decision Roe v. Wade ... was based on. It affects many more people’s lives.” Griswold, she said, for the first time gave women the ability to effectively plan their careers and families.

Yet that reproductive freedom is under attack, DeSarno said, facing four threats – two immediate (budgetary and administrative rule-making) and two long-term (judicial and legislative).

“We’re kind of coming full circle,” DeSarno said. “People are asleep at the switch on this one.”

• On the budgetary front, DeSarno cited the Title X program, which was created in 1970 and provides family-planning services to low-income women. DeSarno noted that Title X was cut significantly in the Reagan administration and has never fully recovered. The program was funded at roughly $180 million in 1981, but was cut by a third the next year. Funding has gradually risen – to its current level of approximately $286 million – but the $180-million budget in 1981 is the equivalent of $500 million in today’s economy.

• In terms of administrative rule-making, the Bush administration could institute a rule forbidding clinics that receive Title X funding from even mentioning abortion during family-planning counseling. Such a “gag rule” was instituted in the Reagan administration in 1988, upheld by the Supreme Court in 1991, suspended by the Clinton administration in 1993, and formally repealed in 2000. The Bush administration did implement a similar rule for international family-planning funds in 2001. DeSarno said that such rule-making would target Planned Parenthood, which gets one-third of Title X funding.

• On the judicial front, pro-choice proponents have long been worried about Bush’s judicial nominees, particularly if a Supreme Court seat becomes vacant during his second term. A conservative climate on the courts could result in decisions to undermine landmark cases such as Griswold and Roe.

• Furthermore, DeSarno said, there are efforts to equate methods of contraception with abortion. At issue here is the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, passed last year. The law is meant to attach stiffer penalties to crimes in which a pregnant woman is injured, but it also defines a fetus – a life “at any stage of development” – in a way that could be read to apply to a fertilized egg that is not yet attached to the wall of the uterus.

This is important not in the context of the law – which specifically exempts abortion – but because of the debate about when “life” begins. If “life” and “pregnancy” are defined as fertilization rather than implantation, then some methods of birth control – such as “the pill” and the “morning-after pill” – could be considered abortive agents, because they can prevent implantation of a zygote.

That question is at the heart about recent debates stemming from anecdotes of pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for emergency contraceptives on moral grounds.

And that’s exactly the debate that DeSarno wants to avoid. Even though abortion continues to be a hot-button issue, DeSarno believes that support for family planning is widespread. And she wants to prove it.

The National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association has hired American Viewpoint, a conservative polling firm. The company will conduct a national poll and an in-depth opinion study of three to five states on the issue of contraception. The goal of the poll is to show that support for easy access to contraception is high, even though the public is divided on the issue of abortion.

DeSarno said she has no interest in loading the questions in her favor; she’s trying to ensure that politicians and the public get a sense of where people actually stand. “It’s not useful for me to ask questions in a way that I get the answer I want,” she said.

What she hopes is that the poll results indicate that the public views birth control and abortion as very different but related, in that effective birth control makes abortion rarer.

“If you’re opposed to abortion,” DeSarno said, “you’ve got to be for family planning.”
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