Contraception is the lynchpin for any American conservative’s proper understanding of sex. Unfortunately, the modern debate over sexual profligacy has tended to focus on abortion, since it is (forgive the pun) a much sexier battle than that over contraception. In the conservative camp abortion has become a dirty word, alongside such traditional punching bags as “welfare.” There are two reasons for this: in the first place, many conservatives despise abortion insofar as they believe it to be an act of premeditated murder, and furthermore committed against those who are unable to defend themselves – although in that word “themselves” comes already the introduction of a very substantial opinion concerning the personhood of the aborted being. In the second place, when one has a choice between a debate over the secret choices of the bedroom and that over the acceptability of cold-blooded infanticide, the latter will always win out – it makes for better press, and it demonizes liberal opponents to a far grander extent, equating them with those exotic witch doctors of the Mayans who threw sacrificial crowds into wells.
The history of Planned Parenthood (I should mention, well chronicled in a piece by Jill Lepore in the NewYorker) bears out that that organization’s initial objective was not the careful culling of the human race based on eugenical fantasies, but helping Depression-era mothers, who were appalled at the thought of bringing more people into their already starving families. Planned Parenthood first demonstrated effective methods for contraception to this demographic, in the express hope of giving a better life to people of worse means. The charge that Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist is entirely accurate. Less well known is the equally accurate fact that Sanger was expelled from Planned Parenthood because of her ideology. Contraception in America had, of course, been known about and utilized before Planned Parenthood, but it tended to be the provenance of the rich or the desperate. I confess that I forget the reference, but in the debates over Planned Parenthood’s legality in its early stages, one supporter glibly remarked that it was a strange thing that people of higher social status tended to have fewer children, while those of lower social status tended to have too many to feed. I keep this in mind any time I discuss this issue, since the trend means only one of three things: richer people are more infertile, richer people are more continent, or richer people use contraception. I hope against the first and I sincerely doubt the second, which means I am inclined to accept the last.
When I look at the public voice of conservatives on the issue of abortion, I see immediately the drawing of the lines – no ambiguity there. Then, turning to listen to the statements about contraception, I notice some suspicious disparities, not just between act and thought but between different tables in the conservative tent. Rick Santorum, recently and famously, has denounced contraception as antithetical to a Christian, conservative worldview, and he must believe that he speaks for all people who value pious conduct over impious, whether Christian or not. However, the facts of the case – and by that I simply mean, my personal experience of talking to and witnessing many conservative (often religious) couples over the last 20 odd years – do not bear out any link between the rhetoric and the social mores. For instance, I have talked to many conservative couples, recently married, who have told me that they are “waiting” to have a baby, given economic conditions. Have they then also pledged to forego sex? Did they embark on their honeymoon throwing care to the wind, assuming that God or nature would honor their financial schedule, or did they take steps to, dare I say it, plan their parenthood?
This is the first disparity – that conservatives, particularly those who don’t want to become, or even be known as, an amorphous twenty-pronged family a la the Duggars, are vehement in their condemnation of sexual education at public schools which includes information about contraception, yet they in their own sexual affairs use it when it suits them. Perhaps one argues that contraception outside of marriage represents sexual intemperance, whereas within marriage it rightly allows a consecrated couple the freedom to enjoy sex without consequence – but “sex without consequence” is precisely where conservatives believe the road to sexual intemperance starts. (The analogy between contraception and recorded music, as these relate to conservatives, is striking: agrarians, for example, champion the primacy of the local over the alienated, the contingent over the independent, and yet when it comes to the arts, I wager a majority of these people own some kind of song or piece on record, which, outside the initial flat fee, is nothing more than “music without consequences.” For more on the connection between sex and music, I suggest Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata.) On this point, conservatives should be less ambivalent about their attitudes toward family planning. If we can permit contraception in the context of economic considerations, we then must admit that the original mission of Planned Parenthood – saving low-income families from untenable domestic situations – is not only “all right,” but part of a conservative culture that has lasted to the present.
Let us assume that financial matters are “in the bag.” A conservative family hosts at least one breadwinner whose occupation affords the family a much higher than average style of life. The addition of another child, or several more children, might pinch at leisure, but in terms only of being in the red or the black, no problems present themselves. Under these conditions, can a conservative couple use contraception? This is the area in which the issue of contraception really needs to be decided. Moreover, the circumstances of living in America, where institutions such as the family and the church take pride in their charitable aspirations, make this area far thornier than many conservatives would find comfortable. Assuming I am an American, recently married, with a mountain of college debt and a new wife to take care of, I certainly can’t be faulted for at least considering contraception as a means of enjoying my marriage without burdening it. But now five years have passed – the college debt is paid off, my wife and I have weathered the hard first years of having a baby, and I have been promoted. Having another child will probably push us very close to debt, but it will not put us over the line – are we justified in using contraception until my paycheck ascends to the next level?
The hypothetical can be pushed even further back, especially within Christian circles: assume, as before, that I am a newlywed struggling with college debt. On my own, I have no chance at supporting a wife and new baby. Should any number of better-situated parishioners give me financial aid, however, I could skimp by – no household of BMWs and widescreens, of course, but with food on the table and something in the bank for emergencies. Am I permitted to use contraception if I don’t ask my Christian neighbors? And if I do ask them – what then?
What many conservatives do not really want to contemplate is the idea that “planned parenthood” as an activity, not an organization, occurs as nearly as prevalently among the well-off among their own as it does among the liberal élite. For proof of this, I need only return to the triad of choices given before – infertility, continence, or contraception. A conservative family that is unwilling to use contraception has difficult practical choices – between an inevitably larger and larger brood, or a strictly enforced cordon against sex. Where they encounter no difficulty is in seeing, and understanding, that choice. The family that, on the other hand, does use contraception, cannot claim to be anything other than a supporter of birth control, of planned parenthood, of sex without consequence. If that sounds harsh, I wager it’s because the plain and simple hardness of the thing has not been adequately trumpeted by the conservative establishment as much as has been the brute fact of death in the matter of abortion.
Based on the preceding observations, conservatives who slap a label of “unbalanced” on Rick Santorum or the Duggars need to seriously re-evaluate their view of a “balanced” sexual philosophy. For at least Mr. Santorum is willing to put his money where his mouth is, putting himself at financial risk in the name of a grounded belief in the immorality of birth control. Conservatives who accept Planned Parenthood Lite – i.e., “not that much birth control” – strike me as more unbalanced. It is this very state of affairs that makes discussions of contraception awkward among conservatives. The embarrassment does not proceed merely from talking about sex; more likely it comes from the tacit belief in and horror to confess that liberal positions on contraception might be accepted in practice while never respected at the podium. I sincerely believe that until conservatives pull the debate back from abortion to contraception, there will be only clamor and grandstanding where there should be rational debate. It is all too easy to talk about the worst deviations from a pious code of sexual conduct; what is more difficult, and so more important, is to identify the point at which deviation occurs, and there to dig trenches.