This Week’s New York Times Sunday Sex Sermon

February 20, 2012   ·   1 Comments

Source: NYTX

Sunday Sermon

By Marie Burns:

This week, New York Times columnist, resident theologian and sex-scold Ross Douthat devoted his Sunday Sermon to “sex, pregnancy, marriage and abortion.” Oh, and how liberals get all that wrong.

Douthat accurately lays out the general pro-choice position without resorting to snark or deception. For that he deserves credit. He writes,

… pro-choice politicians … usually emphasize that they want to reduce the need for abortion, and make the practice rare as well as safe and legal…. The liberal vision tends to emphasize access to contraception as the surest path to stable families, wanted children and low abortion rates. The more direct control that women have over when and whether sex makes babies, liberals argue, the less likely they’ll be to get pregnant at the wrong time and with the wrong partner – and the less likely they’ll be to even consider having an abortion.

Then he writes, “Even the fiercest conservative critics of the White House’s contraception mandate – yes, Rick Santorum included – agree that artificial birth control should be legal and available. Douthat bases his assertion about Santorum’s position on this: “’The bottom line is my position is very clear,’ Santorum told Fox News host Greta van Susteren. ‘I’ve had a consistent record on this of supporting women’s right to have contraception. I’ve supported funding for it.’” But Santorum’s position is not “very clear” or “consistent”:

Santorum recently reaffirmed his opposition to Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 Supreme Court decision that struck down a ban on discussing or providing contraception to married couples, and established a right to privacy that would later be integral to Roe v. Wade [...]

[Rick Santorum] thinks, using the currently popular states’ rights parlance, that “the state has a right to do that, I have never questioned that the state has a right to do that. It is not a constitutional right, the state has the right to pass whatever statues they have.” This is a view Santorum has held at least since 2003.

That is, Santorum believes the states should have the right to restrict even married women’s access to contraception. Since President Santorum would be likely to have the opportunity to nominate at least one Supreme Court justice, it certainly seems possible he would look for nominees who were amenable to overturning not just Roe but also Griswold. States would be free to pass laws banning abortion, contraception, even doctor-patient discussion of contraception. When Douthat writes that Santorum “agree[s] that artificial birth control should be legal and available,” he is not telling the truth. Both he and Santorum are attempting to hide Santorum’s well-established opposition to contraception. Politicians do that. Journalists are supposed to expose politicians’ inconsistent statements, not hide them as Douthat does.

Douthat writes,

The conservative narrative … argues that it’s more important to promote chastity, monogamy and fidelity than to worry about whether there’s a prophylactic in every bedroom drawer or bathroom cabinet…. To the extent that contraceptive use has a significant role in the conservative vision (and obviously there’s some Catholic-Protestant disagreement), it’s in the context of already stable, already committed relationships. Monogamy, not chemicals or latex, is the main line of defense against unwanted pregnancies.

I guess that’s the case for Virtues v. Contraptions. Conservatives have virtues. Liberals have condoms in every cabinet. Aside from Douthat’s snide mischaracterization of liberals’ sexual practices and the false dichotomy he tries to establish, there is a real philosophical and practical imbalance between anti-choice and pro-choice advocates which Douthat does not acknowledge. For decades now, anti-choice forces have attacked women’s reproductive rights. They have fought with every weapon in their arsenal (sometimes with actual weapons) against women who exercise their legal rights to abortions and, in some cases, against women who simply want easy access to contraceptive aids. They have intimidated, ostracized and maligned women and health providers, made access more and more inconvenient and expensive, and have initiated laws and used the courts to further their anti-choice agenda. There is no analogous effort on the left – none at all – to discourage “chastity, monogamy, fidelity or matrimony.” There is no anti-abstinence lobby, no pro-promiscuity movement, there are no protesters at the church door screeching obscenities and epithets at newlyweds, no Offensive Marriage Act. Quite the opposite. Liberals have generally sought to expand privacy and marriage rights, not constrict them as many conservatives still wish to do.

Douthat does acknowledge that “the conservative story is that it doesn’t map particularly well onto contemporary mores and life patterns.” That is, conservatives are out of touch with reality. “But,” Douthat writes, “the liberal narrative has glaring problems as well.” Here Douthat launches a statistical slice-and-dice. You will seldom see a better example of “Lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Douthat’s first claim is that “a lack of contraceptive access simply doesn’t seem to be a significant factor in unplanned pregnancy in the United States.” To prove his point that liberals are unnecessarily promoting easy access to contraception, Douthat cites two studies that he says found that only a small percentage of women who had unintended pregnancies got pregnant because they “had trouble getting contraception.” Douthat writes,

When the Alan Guttmacher Institute surveyed more than 10,000 women who had procured abortions in 2000 and 2001, it found that only 12 percent cited problems obtaining birth control as a reason for their pregnancies. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of teenage mothers found similar results: Only 13 percent of the teens reported having had trouble getting contraception.

When you look at the questions asked in the Guttmacher study, you find that Douthat’s claim is not exactly true. A majority of the women polled said that they or their partners had had previous problems with contraceptive methods they had used, were afraid of side effects or had difficulty obtaining contraceptives. That is, a majority of women who had abortions did not have access to contraceptive methods that worked for them. Another 14 percent said they “never got around to getting contraception.” I expect some women who “never got around to” it, didn’t get around to it because they were embarrassed to purchase contraceptives, didn’t know whom to ask, heard they were too expensive, etc. Since more than half of women who have abortions do not or cannot get contraceptive methods that meet their needs, the study indicates that lack of contraception is the major cause of abortions. That is the liberal case.

In the more recent study in which the CDC polled teenaged women who gave birth, more than four times as many (22.1 percent) as in the Guttmacher study (4.7 percent) of women who had abortions, said they didn’t mind if they got pregnant. That’s not surprising. But Douthat’s overall point is that “pro-choice … politicians want to reduce the need for abortion, and make the practice rare….” So the women in the CDC study, who did not have abortions, were “successes,” and the reasons for their “accidental pregnancies” are less relevant. They do not contribute to Douthat’s claim that “’Safe, legal and rare’ is [nothing more than] a nice slogan.” Still, if 13 percent of teenaged women are giving birth because they didn’t have, or thought they didn’t have, access to contraception, that means tens of thousands of unwanted births a year could have been avoided if the women had access to contraception. Neither of the studies, by the way, gave the women a choice of answering this question: “contraception is against my religion.” While the results have been mixed, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy reported that “studies have noted that sexually experienced teens with higher levels of religiosity or more conservative religious affiliations are less likely to use contraception.”

Here’s the major complaint Douthat has against “liberal social policies”: they do not discourage teenagers from having safe sex.

… abortion rates are frequently higher in more liberal states, where access is often largely unrestricted, than in more conservative states, which are more likely to have parental consent laws, waiting periods, and so on. ‘Safe, legal and rare’ is a nice slogan, but liberal policies don’t always seem to deliver the ‘rare’ part.

What’s more, another Guttmacher Institute study suggests that liberal states don’t necessarily do better than conservative ones at preventing teenagers from getting pregnant in the first place. Instead, the lower teenage birth rates in many blue states are mostly just a consequence of (again) their higher abortion rates.

Here again, Douthat is being conveniently deceptive by picking and choosing his data. It is true that New York and California are among the states where unintended pregnancy rates are highest. But Guttmacher still found that “rates of unintended pregnancy are generally highest in the South and Southwest.” Douthat does not tell you that inconvenient fact because it contradicts his thesis.

What’s more, Guttmacher’s research clearly shows that access to contraception is crucial to avoiding unwanted pregnancy: “The two-thirds of U.S. women at risk of unintended pregnancy who practice contraception consistently and correctly account for only 5 percent of unintended pregnancies.” That is, most women avoid pregnancy by using contraceptive methods. In addition,

Publicly funded family planning services help women avoid pregnancies they do not want and plan pregnancies they do want. In 2006, these services helped women avoid 1.94 million unintended pregnancies, which would likely have resulted in about 860,000 unintended births and 810,000 abortions.

Douthat also doesn’t want you to know that the high rates of unintended pregnancies in “liberal” states like New York and California are largely factors of demographics: poverty, education and race. Guttmacher found that

Unintended pregnancy rates are highest among poor and low-income women, women aged 18–24, cohabiting women and minority women.

The rate of unintended pregnancy among poor women (those with incomes at or below the federal poverty level) in 2006 was 132 per 1,000 women aged 15–44, more than five times the rate among women at the highest income level (24 per 1,000).

Poor women’s high rate of unintended pregnancy results in their also having high rates of both abortions (52 per 1,000) and unplanned births (66 per 1,000). In 2006, poor women had an unintended birth rate six times as high as that of higher-income women.

In 2006, women without a high school degree had the highest unintended pregnancy rate among all educational levels (80 per 1,000 women aged 15–44), and rates decreased as years of education attained increased.

In 2006, black women had the highest unintended pregnancy rate of any racial or ethnic groups. At 91 per 1,000 women aged 15–44, it was more than double that of non-Hispanic white women (36 per 1,000).

Some groups—including higher-income women, white women, college graduates and married women—are comparatively successful at timing and spacing their pregnancies. For example, higher-income white women experience unintended pregnancy at one-third the national rate (17 vs. 52 per 1,000).

Douthat saves the most startling statistic for last and cites it as an example of “failed liberal policies”: “… in places like liberal, cosmopolitan New York…, two in five pregnancies end in abortion.” That is a shocking percentage. But, you know, “liberal, cosmopolitan” New York women are among the vast majority of women who did not get pregnant in the first place because they use contraceptives properly. The high rate of abortion is New York City is partly the result of poverty, race and educational demographics in the city, but it ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of New York women do not have abortions because they do not get pregnant when they don’t want to. They use contraceptives. In addition, Douthat fails to tell you that from 1996 to 2010, the rate of unintended pregnancy in New York City dropped “by 39 percent. The number of abortions has fallen by more than 16 percent, even though the population of teenagers has risen modestly.” The staggering reduction in the number of unintended pregnancies, even in poverty-plagued New York City, is proof positive of the effectiveness of liberal reproductive policies; it is not at all an argument against them. The small percentage of New York women who get pregnant accidentally really do not want to give birth. Either contraception failed them or they failed to use contraception or use it properly.

Here is a staggering statistic you can count on: 90 percent of what Ross Douthat writes in his Sunday Sex Sermons is untrue or misleading.

Marie Burns blogs at



Readers Comments (1)

  1. PD Pepe says:

    It’s difficult to express my anger after reading Douthat’s column yesterday–––you could not hear my scream. So it’s with a sigh of relief to read this article that affirms my suspicion that Ross is WRONG.

    After three pregnancies I was told I needed to prevent another for a period of five or six years. At the time I had moved to Michigan and had access to birth control. Later after moving to CT., a year before Griswold, I had to obtain a new diaphragm but was unable to get one after trying at two pharmacies. Finally my doctor steered me to one that did fill my prescription. I remember how I felt then––furious that I was made to feel like a criminal for wanting something that was essential to my well being and health. To think that we are hashing all this out in this day and age makes me want to spit nails!



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