Righteous abortion: How conservative Christianity promotes what it claims to hate
Bristol Palin, oldest daughter of former Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, at a book signing in Phoenix, Arizona (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

America’s high rate of abortion can be directly attributed to conservative Christianity’s obsession with controlling and suppressing sexuality.

The most effective way to reduce abortion is to de-stigmatize sexuality, improve sexual education, and ensure broad access to excellent contraceptives. In the highly secular Netherlands, this formula has knocked abortion down to 7 per 1000 women annually, one third the U.S. rate.

So why does the anti-abortion movement keep their focus on restrictive laws instead of contraceptive access?  Why do they oppose medically accurate sex ed? Why do they pledge to defund Title X family planning? Why are they having fits about programs that provide top tier contraceptives to pregnant teens in Colorado and Washington (and virtually eliminate abortion among participating teens)? Because abortion isn’t really what interests them. They want purity. They want righteousness. They want traditional gender roles with women as designated breeders who defer to male authority. They want these things so badly that they are willing even to drive up the abortion rate in order to get them.

Four aspects of conservative Christianity promote accidental pregnancy:  pro-natalism, an obsession with sexual sin, an emphasis on righteousness over compassion, and a determination to structure social rules and programs around some fantasy ideal rather than how the real world actually works).  As a consequence they promote abortion.

  1. Pro-natalism. One of Christianity’s competitive strategies is to drive up the birth rate of believers.  The Old Testament describes  an estimated  1.2 million deaths at the hand of Yahweh or his servants, which makes it hard to argue that Christianity is pro-life. It is, however, pro-birth. Be fruitful and multiply, says the writer of Genesis (Genesis 1:28); Women will be saved through childbearing, echoes a New Testament writer centuries later (1 Timothy 2:15). Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, bluntly put it in his own words: “If a woman grows weary and at last dies from childbearing, it matters not.  Let her only die from bearing; she is there to do it.”Treating women as breeders, a strategy for increasing adherents, is at the heart of the Catholic anti-contraceptive stance and the Protestant Quiverfull movement. Historically, these attitudes may have driven up the number of Christians, but thanks to the Religious Right meddling in politics and education, today they drive up accidental pregnancy and abortion for Americans across the religious spectrum.
  2. Obsession with Sexual Sin. “Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe”–we all know what it means. By the Iron Age, when Judaism emerged, the male determination to know which babies were whose had taken the form of men owning womenYou shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:17) Women caught in adultery (or missing their hymens) were killed by the ancient Hebrews, just as they are by conservative Muslims today.Christianity’s obsession with sexual sin or rather with female virginity has produced the American purity myth, which makes candid conversations and education about sexuality a challenge. Ineffective abstinence education denies young people accurate information about their bodies and the means to prevent pregnancy.  In contrast to more secular, open societies like Holland, teens in conservative American communities may be slow to use birth control, because that would make them guilty of the sin of premeditated sex.
  3. Emphasis on Righteousness over Compassion.  Traditional Christianity is about right belief. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved. (Acts 16:31). (Contrast this with the central virtue of Buddhism, ahimsa, or non-harm.)  The focus on being right has caused Christianity to fracture into over 38,000 denominations. But schism is just one of many negative consequences that come from valuing right belief over compassionate living. Many believers would rather be right (and righteous) than loving. They’d rather be right than solve problems.  They would rather condemn abortion from a position of righteous superiority than solve the complicated conditions that cause women to terminate pregnancies. They’d rather judge from the sidelines than get their hands dirty.
  4. Structuring Society for Fantasy Perfect Humans Rather than Real Humans. In  the ideal fantasy world of Evangelical Christianity, teenagers wouldn’t have sex.  In fact nobody would ever have sex unless they were married and ready to have a baby. In this fantasy world all we need to do is teach teens to abstain (and then shame and punish the ones who don’t) and voila, teen pregnancy will go away. This is the worldview that produced the painful story of Bristol Palin, who earned a quarter of a million dollars promoting abstinence only to find herself awkwardly announcing a second pregnancy.In the real world, the most dramatic improvements in teen pregnancy and family flourishing come when young people have excellent information about their own bodies and access to top tier contraceptives. Colorado dramatically dropped their rate of teen pregnancy and related high school drop-outs this way. But conservative Christians killed funding for the program with a toxic mix of bad faith and junk science.

The world is on the cusp of a contraceptive revolution (which actually has bonus health benefits). State of the art long-acting contraceptives are 50 times as effective as the Pill at preventing accidental pregnancy. Each year almost 1 in 10 women on the Pill gets pregnant. Over a lifetime, that’s two or three extra pregnancies per woman – unsought children or abortions. With a hormonal IUD or implant, that drops below 1 in 500! If that wasn’t enough, some top tier contraceptives also reduce that monthly uncleanness and pain (Leviticus 15:19-24) brought on by Eve’s curse.

Someone who really wanted to reduce abortions would showcase better birth control in every teen health class in the country. They would make sure that the most effective contraceptives available were available to all women regardless of age or income, as a program in Washington State does. They would be more focused on promoting wise childbearing than  virginity. Those who claim they want to end abortion don’t succeed because that’s not really what they are after.