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A Question of Values: The Real Abortion Debate

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As part of the Roosevelt Institute's ongoing 'Feminomics' series, running on its New Deal 2.0 blog, we challenge the frame of the "abortion" debate and discuss who pays for politicizing women's bodies.

Politicians do not like to talk about sex (especially when they are caught cheating with their wives). They most emphatically do not like talking about women's reproductive needs. Indeed, they dislike talking about contraception so much that every time the issue arises, a determined group in Congress changes the subject to abortion. Abortion, as we know from the health care debate, is about having the right values. Contraception is about women's real needs. It is time we change the subject back.

Over 90% of sexually active women will use contraception at some point in their lives, even if they have sex only with their husbands. In our book, Red Families v. Blue Families, we wrote that the time has come to refocus attention on the relationship between birth control and family values. Impressive research shows that college educated women remade their lives in the sixties and seventies with the advent of the pill, posting marriage, garnering graduate and professional degrees, and dramatically increasing their family income. Other research demonstrates that the women who embraced the new family ethic today have more stable relationships - they are the only group in society whose marriage rates have increased and whose divorce rates have fallen back to the era before no-fault divorce.

For the rest of the country, the disparities in our reproductive lives have grown, and the politicians who talk most frequently about abortion are a major part of the reason.

In the meantime, we all pay for the consequences. The Medicaid program, which is limited to women at or near the poverty line, pays for 40% of all births in the United States. Think about that - 40% of all births in the United States are to women who will have difficulty finding the resources to care for their children. The U.S. has the highest unintended pregnancy rate in the developed world and the rate for the poorest women is four times that of the middle class.

When President Obama proposed a minor measure to address the issue -- the extension of contraceptive services to women in the hospital giving birth at government expense -- the Republicans objected, and the Administration yanked the proposal from last year's stimulus package without further discussion. Why? The Republicans succeeded in using the term "family planning" to send coded messages to their base. Family planning for them isn't about the needs of 90% of women. No, they want to be seen as opposing anything that might even suggest abortion, or -- for that matter -- approving of the fact that poor women have sex.

It is time to stop the codes. It is time to face the truth. Contraception is not abortion. Supposedly "pro-life" policies that make it harder for women to get effective birth control cause more abortions. Nor is pregnancy an appropriate punishment for sex -- with or without marriage.

We propose a new strategy to make sure women's issues are taken seriously. Every time a member of Congress says the word "abortion," we say, "Where do you stand on preventing unwanted pregnancies?" Every time a politician says he is pro-life, we ask, "Are you for allowing women to exercise responsibility in childbearing?" Every time politicians try to change the subject, we should change it back: we should make members of Congress vote as often on provisions that would help women's lives as they vote on pointless abortion measures that will not the change the outcome of a single pregnancy. Let them either vote for effective birth control or explain, clearly and loudly, that what they really want is pregnancy as the price of intercourse. It is time to talk honestly about sex.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

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