Just as women have finally won a concession from the Bush FDA that makes the emergency contraceptive known as Plan B available without a prescription, new reports abound that fundamentalist Christians are mounting an effort to end the use of all contraceptives.
Meeting in Chicago at the end of September, a group of so-called "pro-life" advocates held a conference titled "Contraception Is Not the Answer" to launch a campaign against all "unnatural contraceptives."
The conference featured speakers like Thomas Euteneuer, a Catholic priest who refuses communion to women who use birth control. Another speaker, Allan Carlson of the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, called for an end to contraception because it interferes with a woman's duty to produce "a full quiver" of children for God.
These fringe Christian activists insist that every sex act must result in pregnancy or it is unholy. Following such a doctrine leads to the inevitable conclusion that an act of rape that results in a pregnancy is less offensive to God than the act of a married couple who block conception by using a condom or the Pill.
Interestingly, this retrograde movement comes at a moment when US population tops 300 million and ecologists warn that we are headed for disaster as Earth's life support systems crack under the weight of our numbers.
Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute puts it quite simply: "Our global economy is outgrowing the capacity of the earth to support it, moving our early twenty-first century civilization ever closer to decline and possible collapse." Brown's book, Plan B 2.0, presents his prescription for a sustainable economy that includes investments in renewable energy, conservation, and most critically, stabilizing the number of people on the planet.
Industrial civilization evolved to meet human needs and desires. It is not inherently evil, but it has produced unforeseen and disastrous consequences like species extinction and global warming. Plan B is an alternative to business as usual that shows us how we can adapt and save ourselves.
Similarly, sex for mutual pleasure and affection is not evil in most religious and philosophical worldviews. Sometimes it results in unwanted pregnancy, and the Plan B emergency contraceptive can be a blessing for a woman who is unprepared for childbirth. But this is not how an increasingly vocal minority of Christian fundamentalists sees reality.
It was the 4th century Saint Augustine of North Africa who said that unruly sexual desire, leading to sex for its own sake and not for procreation, was the result of the "original sin" of Adam and Eve. Theologian Elaine Pagels, in her book Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, says that Augustine's ideas were a radical departure from earlier Christian thought and that they came just at the time when Rome converted Christianity into the official religion of empire. This led to the propagation of Augustine's negative attitude toward sex throughout Christendom.
In the more than 1500 years of Christian theology that have followed Augustine, new attitudes have emerged. Today, most Roman Catholics support the use of contraceptives. Catholic lay theologian Christine Gudorf believes that eventually even the Catholic hierarchy will change its views on contraception and early-term abortion. She says, "This change will occur because as the Catholic Church confronts the reality of a biosphere gasping for survival around its teeming human inhabitants, it will discern the will of God and the presence of the Spirit in the choices of those who choose to share responsibility for the lives and health and prosperity of future generations without reproducing themselves, even if that choice involves artificial contraception and early abortion."
In 2006, as we stand on the brink of disaster, we are inundated with scientific reports telling us what the future will look like if we don't change. Last week climate scientists at Britain's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research reported that in the next century unchecked global warming will transform one third of the planet into extreme desert unable to support life. In the face of such news, it boggles the mind that a group of people claiming to follow the teachings of the compassionate Jesus Christ can insist that our salvation lies in women producing as many children as possible.
The most frightening thing about a movement to take away contraception is not the insanity of the idea – there are lots of nutty ideas out there – but the power that the religious right has to advance ideas like this. RH Reality Check, a reproductive rights group that is monitoring the anti-contraception movement, worries that at a minimum they will be able to chip away at contraceptive access. Indeed, Friar Euteneuer made it clear at the conference that de-funding contraceptives for poor women is one of their first targets.
Ominously, the opponents of contraception are not limited to fringe Christians obsessed with sex but include economists and academics. The "Contraception Is Not the Answer" conference pounded on the "birth dearth" theme, the idea that because countries like Germany, France and Italy have reached replacement level fertility or below, that they are committing "race suicide."
Andrew Pollard, a business consultant from England, was especially bizarre in his analogies - he compared the prevention of births by contraception to the loss of life in the 9/11 attacks, and declared that abortion and contraception are the cause of immigration which in turn causes terrorism:
The problem is a lot of [countries] have seen the solution in getting larger numbers of immigrants in, and up to now for Britain alone they've been taking them from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and the problem is we've been growing our own bombers.
This is rather an amazing accomplishment. In one sentence, this man has conflated the three top hot-button issues of the day: abortion, immigration and terrorism. Unfortunately, this message has lots of potential appeal to Americans who are already worried about economic competition with immigrants. If the Republicans haven't hired him as a campaign consultant yet, they are really off their game.
There are good reasons that immigration and birth control are hot button issues right now. Both nationally and globally, we confront the twin challenges of resource depletion and demographic transition. Demographic transition is the fruit of economic development and it has been underway for decades now as societies move from high birth and death rates, through a period of decreased death rates and rapid population growth, and on to a final stabilization of numbers as birth rates decline to match death rates.
There are only two ways to stabilize population. Either increase the death rate or decrease the birth rate. For most of us it is simple - we choose to decrease the birth rate.
But there are ancient scripts at work here that will never recognize humanity as one united family, scripts that urge the breeding of armies to seize resources for the chosen tribe, nation or religion. And then there is the modern story of endless growth so essential to the fortunes of the money men, the free marketeers and funders of the rightwing revolution.
Big business relies on a labor surplus to keep wages low and profits high. It is the simple law of supply and demand. We can see them at work, utilizing first one of these stories and then the other to drum up support for continued population growth.
A free market think tank called the Manhattan institute (funded by the Earhart and Bradley Foundations which also fund the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society) recently organized Texas business interests to sign on to a pro-immigration editorial. "Baby boomers are retiring. Fertility rates are declining," said the editorial. "Yet every year, the economy creates hundreds of thousands of new jobs that require few if any skills, and in the next decade, we will be millions of workers short."
Journalist Clay Robison, writing in the Houston Chronicle, noted that many of the businesses that signed on to the editorial are also backing Texas Governor Rick Perry and his clamor for a twenty foot high border wall. Robison says, "by giving big bucks to Perry, they, ironically, have helped the governor foster a political climate of xenophobia that is killing their cause."
But the business interests are just hedging their bets. They want a growing work force, and their bottom line is color blind. While their right arm stirs up the xenophobia of the "base," their left arm embraces the liberal values of opportunity and diversity that support immigrants. As a side benefit, they leave people anxious about the future and confused about the issues, which helps them to continue to define the agenda to their benefit.
Concern about the future of an aging population is widespread. All nations everywhere will eventually have to adjust to a scarcity of workers as population growth stops and numbers stabilize. Obviously, we need a Plan B for retirement as well. Anne and Paul Ehrlich write in the 30 September 2006 issue of New Scientist: "There is no doubt that in the coming decades changing age structures and labour pools will present genuine problems of equity ... These are not, however insoluble problems. Given their increasingly international nature, they demand open discourse within and between all nations, followed by sustained ameliorative action."
But open discourse is what we are not getting. Instead we are getting fear mongering - on the one hand about the immigrant who will take your job - and on the other hand about the women who refuse to breed young workers to fund your pension.
Ninety years ago this October 16, Margaret Sanger opened America's first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. She did it as a test case to challenge laws that made it illegal to give women information about birth control. In her autobiography she describes how she ended up choosing Brooklyn to make her stand:
That afternoon five women from the Brownsville Section of Brooklyn crowded into my room seeking the 'secret' of birth control. Each had four children or more, who had been left with neighbors. One had just recovered from an abortion which had nearly killed her. "Another will take me off. Then what will become of my family?"
They rocked back and forth as they related their afflictions ... the high cost of food, her husband's meager income when he worked at all, her helplessness in the struggle to make ends meet, whining sickly children, the constant worry of another baby ... They talked an hour and when they had finished it seemed as though I myself had been through their tragedies ... I decided then and there that the clinic should open at Brownsville ...
That is the world that the anti-contraceptionists want to return us to. Please, let's not go there.