If you dropped in to America from another planet and were told there was a group of people dedicated to reducing the number of abortions, and then were asked, "would that group be for or against family planning and contraception?" you might reasonably assume these anti-abortion folks would be ferocious advocates for such efforts. After all, a surefire way to have no abortions would be to have no unintended pregnancies.
Instead, anti-abortion groups are generally the biggest opponents of government-financed family planning, the most recent example being their vocal, and effective, attack on family planning funds in the economic recovery bill. There are a few reasons for this, and each comes with its own moral dilemma.
Reason #1 - The anti-abortion movement was initially driven by the Catholic Church, which also opposes contraception as a sin. To oversimplify, the Church believes sex not aimed at procreation is immoral. (More nuanced version, Humanae Vitae, here)
The moral problem: there's evidence that birth control reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Out of adherence to an abstract theological principle, the church condones a policy that probably leads to more abortion.
Reason #2 - In more recent years, the anti-abortion movement has been fueled by evangelical Christians who oppose birth control and sex education largely for different reasons. They believe it encourages earlier and more premarital sex. They prefer family planning efforts that emphasize abstinence instead.
The moral problem: even if one accepts the idea that prevalence of contraception leads to more premarital sex -- and I do -- one is faced with the question: what if contraception leads to more sex but fewer abortions? Evangelicals have avoided confronting this tradeoff by rejecting the premise but there is evidence that government financed family planning does reduce abortions.
Reason #3 - Promoting government-financed family planning helps the organizations that perform abortions. Specifically, the largest recipient of family planning money is Planned Parenthood which also performs hundreds of thousands of abortions. Hence, even though federal family planning money doesn't directly fund abortions -- that's already illegal -- it does help "the abortion industry." Tom McLusky of Family Research Council estimates that Planned Parenthood did 180 abortions for each adoption referral.
The moral problem: Planned Parenthood also provides prenatal care that prevents infant death and birth control that stops unintended pregnancies. Pro-lifers have declared that one cannot aid evil, even if it doing so has positive byproducts. Yet most evangelicals advocate such moral cost-benefit analysis in other contexts -- arguing, for instance, that the evil of torture was counterbalanced by the benefit of stopping mass murder.
They do promote family planning efforts around abstinence and "natural" method but invariably leave contraception out of the mix. I can't help but wonder...if conservatives didn't oppose government-funded sex education and contraception, would they be able to create a large parallel-universe family planning industry that promotes the full range of family planning services, other than abortion?
Instead, they find themselves in a difficult and paradoxical position: in order to stop abortions, they block policies that could reduce the number of abortions.
More from Steven Waldman at Beliefnet.com