An Analysis of Eric C. Miller’s Essay: “Barack Obama, Pro-Life Hero”

Published on October 22, 2012 at http://www.religiondispatches.org.  My comments are by no means exhaustive, but what I could accomplish in the time I had to devote to the task.

Eric C. Miller is a lecturer in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at the Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on the rhetoric of the religious right.

The word choices of that last sentence tells me that he will be approaching this article from a point of view that that presupposes that the so-called “religious right” is in the wrong, as the only people who use the phrase “religious right” are those in opposition to them.  Without reading further, I can surmise that he will be unlikely to represent the viewpoint of those who are against abortion fairly, as that would weaken his own arguments.  In the interest of fairness, though, I will analyze this essay completely.

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter in early August, Nicholas Cafardi made the provocative assertion that between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, the president is the more pro-life candidate. A significant part of the Duquesne law professor’s argument is that Obama favors “support for vulnerable pregnant women and alternatives to abortion [which] will make abortions much less likely, since most abortions are economic.” A few weeks later, just thirty-four days before the election, that argument became even stronger.

This analysis by Dr. William Robert Johnston, a physicist, concludes that while economic reasons for abortion are significant, they do not constitute “most.”  From the limited data available, an average of 98% of abortions are elective, meaning they are not meant to terminate a pregnancy for health or criminal (i.e. rape/incest) reasons.  Of the 98%, only 25-30% (averaged) of that is for solely economic reasons, meaning that 68% of abortions occur for reasons that are not solely economic.  Among the other reasons given, the one cited as being the most important is that mother felt that she was not ready for a baby.

This is not to say that economics does not play a significant role—in the 2004 AGI survey cited by Dr. Johnston, for example, 73% gave economics as ONE of the reasons that an abortion was chosen—it says that there are other reasons to consider, reasons that having free contraception would not address.  For example, the most common reason for choosing abortion according to that same survey, given by 74% of responders, that they were  “concerned about how having baby would change her life,” a reason that has nothing to do with contraception.  Furthermore, according to the same data compiled by Dr. Johnston, 53% of women who became pregnant and subsequently had an abortion were using contraception at the time.  Considering that the entire premise of this essay is that Obama is the more pro-life President based on the fact that he mandates contraception be paid for by the woman’s employer, these facts cast the veracity of the entire essay into serious doubt.

On October 3, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine published a study with profound implications for policy making in the United States. According to Dr. Jeffery Peipert, the study’s lead author, abortion rates can be expected to decline significantly—perhaps up to 75 percent—when contraceptives are made available to women free of charge. Declaring himself “very surprised” at the results, Peipert requested expedient publication of the study, noting its relevance to the upcoming election.

As most observers surely know, the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”) requires insurance coverage for birth control, a provision staunchly opposed by most of the same religious conservatives who oppose legalized abortion. If Peipert is correct, however, the ACA may prove the single most effective piece of “pro-life” legislation in the past forty years.

Before teasing out the implications of this claim, it’s important to understand the conditions that make such a claim possible. Drawing on a sample of 9,000 St. Louis women—many of whom were uninsured—Peipert and his colleagues covered the costs of birth control, making a variety of options available free of charge. Once price was no longer a concern, many of the women opted for relatively expensive intrauterine devices (IUDs) which are among the most effective forms available:

The effect on teen pregnancy was striking: There were 6.3 births per 1,000 teenagers in the study. Compare that to a national rate of 34 births per 1,000 teens in 2010.

There also were substantially lower rates of abortion, when compared with women in the metro area and nationally: 4.4 to 7.5 abortions per 1,000 women in the study, compared with 13.4 to 17 abortions per 1,000 women overall in the St. Louis region, Peipert calculated. That’s lower than the national rate, too, which is almost 20 abortions per 1,000 women.

I read Peipert’s study, available in PDF form at the first link given.  Here’s the problem I had with it:

  1. The study was funded by an organization whose goal was to promote the decrease in pregnancy rate in particular sections of the population while also promoting socialistic healthcare policies.  They chose for their study individuals that were more likely to be irresponsible (harsh perhaps, but true—the majority reported a history of promiscuity, STD infection, and/or previous abortions).  Among such individuals, contraception that requires a certain degree of vigilance is more likely to fail (e.g. taking the pill at the right time, having a condom available in “the heat of the moment,” etc.).  They provided an expensive, permanent form of contraception among other more traditional options to these people and encouraged them to choose it, which, logically, they did—after all, they did not have to pay for it.  The IUD that was favored did, in fact, reduce the pregnancy rate, which, logically, resulted in fewer abortions among that particular group.    In other words, the study was set up in such a way as to come to the very conclusion that this organization wanted to get, and then Miller decided to extrapolate that because the study had that effect on one, very specific population, it would therefore have the same effect on the entire population.
  2. The study was only concerned with the immediate effect of lowering the pregnancy rate and ended up disregarding the bigger picture of sexual health, which is bad science and ethically irresponsible, to say the least.  For example, the study completely ignores the long-term effects of IUDs, copper or hormonal.  It also ignores other factors related to women’s health—the prevalence of STDs, for example, which can also cause infertility, even death.  It ignores the behavior that can lead to these diseases or unintended pregnancy, which is like putting a band-aid on an infected cut without treating the infection itself.  After all, responsible behavior—waiting until marriage for a sexual relationship, eschewing the hook-up culture, completing one’s education—can all reduce the pregnancy rate in any population, but is not considered a politically-correct approach by groups like the CHOICE Foundation (because it concerns treating the morality/ethics of the individual, and that’s, like, so uncool and judgmental, man).  For more, read this article that discusses the ethics behind Peipert’s study.>

Encouraging as these results are from both a women’s health and, ostensibly, pro-life perspective, they become even more so in light of their economic benefits. Author Brian Alexander notes that, according to a 2011 study from the Guttmacher Institute, “unplanned pregnancies cost the United States a conservatively estimated $11 billion per year,” money that may be saved simply by covering the cost of birth control.

Peipert himself touted this benefit. “The way I look at it as a gynecologist with an interest in women’s health and public health and family planning, is that this saves money,” he said. “When you provide no-cost contraception, and you remove that barrier, you finally reduce unintended pregnancy rates. It doesn’t matter what side one is on politically, that’s a good thing.” Dr. James T. Breeden, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, called the data “an amazing improvement,” adding, “I would think if you were against abortions, you would be 100 percent for contraception access.”

There are three fallacies at work here:

1. They conflate the concept of “affordablility” vs “access.”  In Peipert’s study, more than half of the enrollees in the study had some form of insurance.  Most insurance companies cover IUD’s, though a copay is often necessary.  I can’t say this for certain without more information, but I would venture a guess that a lot of the people in this study could very well have afforded the copay, but instead chose to spend their money elsewhere.  Even if they lacked insurance, most doctors allow monthly payment plans, but again, making such payments requires planning and forethought—responsible thinking, in other words.

2. The assumption that lowering the pregnancy rate in the poor by forcing other people to pay for their contraception will save the amount of money associated with pre-natal and post-natal care of unintended pregnancies in the long run (the $11 billion, in other words)—it won’t.  Contraception, like every other product, costs money, and that money has to come from somewhere—namely, taxpayers.  Furthermore, I pointed out earlier that more than half of abortions occurred in women who were already using contraception, which means even if contraception was free, it doesn’t always work, and the subsequent costs are still covered by the taxpayers.

3. Perhaps the biggest fallacy of all: the conflation of “unintended pregnancy” with “unwanted pregnancy.”  Miller, Peipert, et.al. make the argument that an unintended pregnancy is an unwanted one—I beg to differ, though it’s difficult to argue why in a purely logical, non-emotional manner.  Suffice to say that all of my children fit the technical definition of “unintended:” we were weren’t trying to get pregnant with any of them; we just let nature take its course, so to speak.  The pregnancies that resulted were not always convenient, and were often very difficult for a myriad of reasons, but to say that, in the long term, that these pregnancies were “unwanted” is grossly inaccurate.  The authors of this CDC report, from which the $11 billion number comes, made that distinction, but those that used this report to support their own agendas glaringly did not.  I know it’s not politically-correct to say, but it’s true: Having children will force an adult to grow up and become more than what he/she could be otherwise, provided that that adult is not prevented from taking responsibility for his/her children, no matter how well-meaning such prevention may be.  Even if a pregnancy is unwanted at first, that doesn’t mean that the child himself/herself will end up being unwanted, as anecdotal evidence, at least will attest.

But it remains the case that, by and large, those most opposed to abortion are not “100 percent for” contraception access. In fact, Peipert’s study comes at a time when more than thirty federal lawsuits have been filed by social conservatives bent on overturning the ACA’s contraception mandate. In many cases, these suits are “religious freedom” complaints, arguing that requiring religiously-affiliated organizations to include contraception in their health care plans violates their rights of conscience. These claims are, in most cases, dubious given that the ACA offers a religious “accommodation” whereby the onus of contraceptive coverage is placed on insurance companies rather than organizations.

Miller completely ignores the fact that it is the employer who pays for the insurance to begin with, not the employee (though the cost is passed down to the employee, it is the employer who decides which insurance company gets his/her business).  The so-called accommodation is nothing more than a bait-and-switch, a weaselly way of absolving the employer of responsibility of conscience in the legal sense while doing nothing of the sort in reality.  For some, that may be enough, but for those who take their religious beliefs seriously, to be forced to contravene those beliefs because their employee doesn’t want to pay out of their own pocket is unconscionable.  Considering the common practice of businesses is to pass their expenses down to the consumer,  the cost of the additional coverage will be paid for by the employer anyway in the form of higher rates, which is like pouring salt on the proverbial wound.

Such efforts by social conservatives to oppose the ACA betray both an unseemly partisanship and a nervous insecurity. It seems entirely plausible that, in the contraception mandate, leaders of these groups see not a violation of their own freedom so much as a weakening of their ability to dictate the terms by which their members live.

It’s also worth noting that, as a premise for political arguments, religious freedom has become strikingly promiscuous in recent years. Now cited as a justification for opposition to same-sex marriage, anti-discrimination laws, and—stunningly—anti-bullying initiatives, conservative activists are finding they may apply religious freedom to any number of disparate issues. Apart from trivializing what ought to be a sacred liberal right, the widespread deployment of religious freedom arguments indicates a weak rhetorical posture. In each of the cases mentioned above, opponents of a particular piece of legislation embraced religious freedom only after other strategies failed to persuade. Such arguments thus served as a sort of fallback position, allowing their advocates to re-frame the debate on terms entirely separate from the practical merits of the policy at issue.

Miller is using the same strawman argument that so-called progressives love to employ: namely, if you disagree with our specific method of solving a particular problem, then you must be in favor of the problem.  It is well-documented that even voicing one’s opinion against a particular group, for example, is tantamount to hate-speech by those who champion these particular anti-discrimination laws.  It is well-documented that homosexual activists have tried to force their inclusion by legal fiat into religious groups who teach that homosexuality is wrong.  It is well-documented just how selective some of the anti-bullying initiatives are—bullying of the “right” groups is horrific, while bullying the “wrong” groups is fine and dandy.

Most people know as well as I do that there are no mainstream conservative groups or religious groups that advocate bullying or discrimination, at least as the terms have been traditionally defined.  The above sentence regarding the “ability to dictate the terms by which their members live?”  That is pure, 100% projection, considering that the initiatives that Miller supports act to curtail the First Amendment rights of the individual while exerting control over the definitions of terms like “discrimination” and “bullying,” replacing traditional meanings with their broader, self-serving versions.

The rest of the article is a rehash of the same points raised in the beginning, so I won’t waste time with them, as I’ve spent enough time on this already.  To summarize: Miller went into this essay with his narrative predetermined, based on a fundamentally faulty premise, and used a combination of verbal slight-of-hands and outright falsehoods to support his case and to give himself the veneer of reasonability and impartiality.  He’s lying, pure and simple, in an attempt to bolster Obama’s image among pro-life voters.  Unsurprisingly, Miller ignores Obama’s actual record in the attempt.

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About phxkate

Mother of four, wife of one, chronicler of the Fellowship of the Perpetually Aggrieved, of which I am pleased to say, I am not a member.
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