Does Brett Kavanaugh really think that contraception is abortion?
Now, Republicans rarely impress me with their knowledge of sex (See: “legitimate rape.” See also: ” “There is no substantive-due-process right to stimulate one’s genitals for non-medical purposes unrelated to procreation or outside of an interpersonal relationship.”) Still, it’s hard to make sense of Brett Kavanaugh’s claim that birth control is equivalent to abortion. Most Catholics–whose faith officially bans the use of artificial birth control–don’t believe it: most of them, including those who attend mass weekly, don’t think birth control is wrong. About half of Catholics support abortion rights. If Catholics thought that birth control and abortion were the same, we’d expect to see similar rates of approval of them, but we don’t. This seems to make sense: most of us understand that ending a pregnancy is different from never beginning one. If abortion has a victim, it’s the fetus; if birth control has a victim, it’s a single sperm cell. Big difference.
But Kavanaugh isn’t really talking about biology, I don’t think. He’s talking about Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court case in which a privately-held company opposed the ACA requirement that it provided insurance that covered IUDs and the morning-after pill for employees. Hobby Lobby argued that such forms of contraception were, in fact, abortion. As I’ve argued before at Sixoh6, the courts should never had heard that argument, because it’s measurably not true: IUDs and emergency contraception are contraceptives–that is, they prevent conception. But even if you think that life begins at fertilization, not conception, you’d still be fine using them, because they also don’t prevent a fertilized egg from implanting. They work by not allowing a sperm to fertilize an egg. That’s it. Any description of them as ending a pregnancy is inaccurate.
Now, it is possible that Kavanaugh does not know this. While we might hope he’d look up how the Mirena or Plan B works before he spoke, he didn’t because the facts don’t really matter to him. That is enough to disqualify him from a seat at the Supreme Court, I think, but his supporters will not be bothered by it, accustomed as they are to mendacity.
I believe that many of them, though, do know that abortion and birth control are not equivalent. This data from Pew’s research on fertility among different religious groups is a helpful piece of evidence:
Yes, evangelical Protestants and Catholics are averaging 2.3 babies compared to overall Christianity’s 2.2. But 2.3 babies still looks to me like folks are using birth control. In countries where birth control is not widely available, rates of 6 births per person are common. In contrast, abortion rates among Catholic women are on par with the larger population, but evangelical Protestants report lower rates. While the Pew research doesn’t make this case, it’s likely that evangelical and Catholic women together are using birth control about as much as other women and abortion not quite as much. Again, that’s because they understand that birth control isn’t equivalent to abortion.
None of this matters to Kavanaugh, because he’s not really trying to persuade women to give up their birth control because of their objections to abortion. Instead, he’s giving voice to a broader claim: people who have sex must face at least the risk of having children.
This thinking is expressed in two arguments:
First, that as people gain access to birth control, they are more likely to have sex. Birth control gives them a false sense of security. And it’s true–birth control fails sometimes. In this view, Kavanaugh doesn’t have to mean that your personal use of birth control makes abortions happen. Instead, listeners could hear his words to mean that use of birth control in a society increases the risk of unplanned pregnancy and thus abortion because women rely on birth control, which will always let some of them down.
(Is this true? Do places with higher rates of contraceptive use also have higher rates of abortion? In some cases yes, and in some cases no, but even in nations where contraception use and abortion rates rise together, the general trend is that once birth control is widely available and the fertility rate is stable, abortions drop off.)
Second, a culture that disconnects sex from pregnancy, via contraception, will also disconnect pregnancy from having babies. Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood nurse who started a nonprofit to guide clinic workers into other jobs, argues:
How is it that abortion supporters understand that birth control does not reduce abortion, yet pro-lifers don’t? Birth control was created so that we could separate sex from procreation. How do we not get that, pro-lifers? When you separate the act of sex from babies, of course abortions occur.
Johnson says “of course,” but it’s the data doesn’t support her claim. Lots of us use birth control but wouldn’t get an abortion ourselves. If birth control failures contribute to abortions and Christian women use birth control at about the same rate as non-Christian ones, we’d expect to see Christian women getting abortions at about the same rate as non-Christian ones, which isn’t happening (at least among evangelicals, who comprise about 13% of the population getting an abortion).
In hemming and hawing his way through Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s questions about an email in which he indicated that maybe Roe v. Wade could be undermined because unidentified “legal scholars” thought maybe it wasn’t precedent, Kavanaugh told a real whopper: “I’m always concerned with accuracy,” he told her, which is why he objected to the idea that there was consensus about Roe as “settled law.” After all, you can always rustle up someone (Jay Sekulow, probably) who disagrees with whether Roe should stay.
Above, Brett Kavanaugh with his wife and two children.
But Kavanaugh isn’t concerned with accuracy. Not when it comes to how human bodies work. Not when it comes to the relationship between contraceptive rates and abortion rates in a nation. Not when it comes to the real choices that women, including Christian ones, make in their real lives–which is, generally, to use birth control but not get abortions.
He’s concerned with finding a way to make sure that the wrong people–people who won’t have the network or money to get contraception if it’s not guaranteed as part of our healthcare–are always weighing the pleasures of sex against the costs of increasing our family size. It’s another part of the GOP war on the poor and vulnerable. The poor don’t get the same options as the rich, because rich people deserve more opportunities and poor people deserve fewer. That is what he meant to say.