Christianity and contraception have had an interesting relationship with each other over the centuries. Prior to the 20th Century, most Christians would have condemned contraception outright. At the dawning of the 21st, Catholicism is still holding out on condoning birth control and even non-Catholic Christians ascribe high value to childbirth. Add to this the Christian prohibition of sexual promiscuity and it is easy to understand why many pro-life Christians oppose increased access to contraception.
Perhaps that is about to change.
A new study by the Guttmacher Institute reports that as global access to contraception has improved, the international abortion rate has significantly declined. From 1995 to 2003, estimated global abortion rates dropped from 45.5 million to 41.6 million. Why? According to the report, it's because the number of women using contraception worldwide increased during the same period. The Alan Guttmacher Institute is a non-profit research center that holds a pro-choice position but is widely quoted both by conservatives and progressives.
Not everyone is convinced. Steven W. Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, has called the Guttmacher global estimates "simply bogus." He claims that no one -- including Guttmacher -- knows how many abortions are performed worldwide since abortion statistics are reliable in only a few developed countries.
Yet, the underlying claim of the report deserves attention. After all, Guttmacher is not the only research organization to make such claims. The report argues that increasing access to contraception will lower the number of unintended pregnancies, and ipso facto, the number of abortions. If this claim is correct, access to contraception arguably becomes a pro-life issue and a place of common ground for both sides of the debate.
Even in the face of such research, many pro-life Christians would still likely oppose distribution of contraception claiming that it will promote sexual promiscuity. There are at least two problems with this. First, there is no guarantee that decreasing access to contraception will restrain individuals from sexual activity. Second, Christians should not expect non-Christians to adhere to Christian principles for healthy living. While one might wish that our culture would accept the proven wisdom in remaining abstinent before and monogamous after marriage, we also realize that most will not. Therefore, we provide access to contraception for those who cannot afford it. (I wish everyone on the road would drive safely, but I know that many will not, so I support seat belts.)
Even George W. Bush -- hardly a compromiser by any reckoning -- understood that access to contraception played a role in reducing abortions and promoting a stable society. During his Presidency, he consistently proposed funding for Title X of the Public Health Service Act, the only federal program that provides contraception to low-income women. Today, the Obama Administration has promised to do the same through an "abortion reduction" platform, which couples increased access to contraception with sexual education with an abstinence emphasis.
One does not have to compromise his or her beliefs in order to support increased access to contraception. Pro-choicers can still support a woman's "right to choose" and pro-lifers can still support an "unborn child's right to life." If the Guttmacher numbers stick and a direct relationship between access to contraception and declining abortions is established, the two sides of this debate may finally have found some common ground. In the midst of highly-polarized debate, contraception may be one of the few things people can agree on.
Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer and author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet. He blogs regularly at http://www.jonathanmerritt.com.