How Do You Define “Abortion?”

Speaking of big issues that haven’t gotten sufficient attention, the dirty little secret of contemporary wars over “abortion” policy is that for all the talk of anti-choicers about late-term abortions and sex-selection abortions and so forth, most of them want to ban not only every single clinical abortion, but also devices and medications that most Americans consider contraceptives.

That’s most obvious with intra-uterine devices or “Plan B” pills, which the Catholic Church, among others, have long labeled as “abortifacients” because they operate to prevent implanation of a fertilized ovum in the uterine wall. But for a growing number of anti-choicers, “abortion” includes any oral contraceptive that might affect post-fertilization implantation. And this attitude, unsurprisingly, is breaching the gap that used to separate anti-abortion Protestants who had no particular problem with contraceptives, and traditionalist Catholics who opposed both abortions and contraceptives, but for ostensibly different reasons.

Sarah Posner has a valuable article up at Salon about the mainstreaming of previously “fringe” anti-choice groups like the American Life League, whose members often sport T-shirts proclaiming “The Pill Kills.” This convergence helps explain the ferocious assaults on Planned Parenthood, which was promoting contraception long before it operated abortion clinics. And it also contributes to the willingness of conservative evangelicals to work hand-in-glove with the Catholic bishops,on a “religious liberty” campaign which draws much of its heat from the claim that religiously-affiliated organizations are being forced to subsidize or provide “abortifacients” that most Americans just consider birth control. Beyond their slippery definitions of “abortion,” such allies are also inclined to associate all forms of contraception with a sexually permissive culture that they deplore as corrosive of the proper “biblical” patriarchy, and/or as a “secularist” assault on the very legitimacy of religion. As Posner notes:

There once was a time when one could distinguish between a group like ALL — which unabashedly opposes contraception — and a group like AUL [Americans United for Life], which claims to just oppose federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Under the guise of religious freedom, they’re all in it together now, with the support of Republicans like Reps. Michele Bachmann, Steve King, Trent Franks and Alan Nunnelee, all of whom addressed today’s [Friday’s] rally. “Religious freedom” isn’t just the new rallying cry against the contraception mandate. It’s the mantra of a sprawling coalition of crusaders who believe they are on a mission from God to not just end abortion but to make accessing contraception difficult if not impossible for millions of American women.

So next time you hear an anti-choicer railing against late-term abortion or demanding ultrasounds to prevent abortions based on gender or fetal defects, ask him or her exactly what they want to ban. The stuff they like to talk about is the tiniest tip of an immense iceberg.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.