What We Need in Order to Have a Culture of Life

Lauren asks her readers, many of whom are feminists and Democrats, to define three terms from their perspective: morals, culture of life, and values. I've been thinking about these, and I'm reading George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant, so Lauren's prompt dovetails nicely with what I've been thinking about lately. However, the thoughts that have been buzzing around in my mind aren't of defining "culture of life" exactly. Instead, I've been thinking about what we need in order to have such a culture. I'll start by stating what should be obvious if you know me: I'm pro-choice, and I think abortion should always be an option for women, especially in cases of rape and incest. That being said, though, I would much prefer it if women were spared altogether the helpless, anguish-filled, alienated-from-the-body experience of unwanted pregnancy (when they probably tried to prevent it). For women's sake, it should be prevented. So here's my seven-point (so far) plan, in no particular order. These ideas are nothing new; I just wanted to get them all out there so I can see them. I want to stress that these ideas don't only apply to teenagers, but to every man and woman of procreating age:

  1. We must balance out birth control responsibility equally between men and women. As it is now, the burden is on women to both procure birth control and be the gatekeepers of chastity.
  2. Young, fertile people who are having vaginal-penetration sex need to use at least three methods of birth control simultaneously (e.g. condom, spermicide, and fertility awareness. Or diaphragm, spermicide, and fertility awareness. And so on.). These birth control materials must be accessible.
  3. The morning-after pill should be more accessible on weekends, when it's needed most.
  4. We must have a birth control pill for men, available at all county health departments for all men for whom it is not contraindicated. Men who are on the pill must be responsible and take the pill every day, and if they are not on the pill, they must disclose this to the woman. The same, of course, goes for women who are on the pill, but I'm pointing out things that need to change, not the way things already are.
  5. Women must monitor their fertility in addition to using consistently their chosen methods of birth control. They must check their temperature and cervical fluid daily, and they must keep track of their periods on a calendar and know their cycles. Also, we all have to get over our foolish fears of talking about this stuff, which means we have to have open conversations that include the words "cervical fluid."
  6. We must get rid of this "sex=vaginal penetration" association. Once women are aware of their fertility and able to identify the fertile days of their cycle, they need to feel free to insist on only outercourse on those days (or all days!) if that's what they want. Men and women need much more education about outercourse as a viable, legitimate, shame-free method of birth control. [Edited to add: That is to say, outercourse must count as sex, not as a prelude to sex. We should rid ourselves of the idea of some kind of "sex proper."]
  7. We need abstinence education too, very much, but not the utterly unrealistic lollipop analogy kind. Rather, we need the kind that interrogates the motives behind why we have sex, especially casual sex. Sure, sometimes it's for pure-and-simple physical pleasure, but perhaps for many people, at times there are other underlying reasons. Is it to feel desirable and beautiful? To feel close to someone? To take our minds off problems in our lives that might be better addressed in other ways? Are there ways to meet these emotional needs without having sex?

As always, feedback is appreciated. My intentions in composing this list are to devise a plan rooted in real-world sexual practices, feminist principles, and free will. I know that in our current political climate, this plan would never fly, but maybe we can spread it samizdat-style.


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I think the way to go about t

I think the way to go about this is to create a culture where it is taken for granted that a father takes responsibility for his child. A friend

And look, teen abortions in the US dropped by 39% from 1990 to 1999. In total there was a drop from 27.4 to 21.4 abortions per 1000 women, this being women of all ages. There has also been a slightly smaller drop in births (from 70.9-64.1 per 1000 women) - people get pregnant less.

Norway, where I live and where no one would dream of suggesting abortion should be outlawed or teenagers taught abstinence and not provided with contraceptives, has also had a decrease in teen and other abortions. In 2004 12.9 women out of a thousand had an abortion. 16.4 of a 1000 in the 15-19 age range had abortions.

Unfortunately I can't find the report online, but a friend of mine was involved in an EU report on teen pregnancy. Britain has the highest rates in Europe, as I remember, and Norway is among the lowest. Also, teen mothers - and their babies - have a far worse time (poverty, problems with the law, unemployment, the full gammit) in Britain than in Norway. My friend told me that the main difference was that in Norway people didn't fuss about teen pregnancy. The fathers pitched in. The mothers finished high school, the babies were brought to class, or the parents took turns, and often the baby's grandparents were heavily involved too. Teen pregnancy doesn't mean you're ostracised. And just as importantly, not making people ashamed of having babies early *hasn't* led to us having high rates of teen pregnancy - quite the opposite.

I think getting dads involved is really important too. Not just by making them share responsibility for conctraceptives, though that's important - the thing is, to GET there, you need it to be culturally unacceptable for men not to take an equal or at least large burden of childcare for children they helped conceive. I am so utterly happy with the Norwegian parental leave system, where fathers have to take at least a month off work to care for their babies, and it has to be a month when the mother is *not* off work - they have to take chief responsibility for a month. Many men take more, in academia (where admittedly we're more up for change than many others) six months is common among men. Few would dare not to take the month at all. Anyway, I'm convinced that this is helping to change a whole culture of who takes care of babies - even who *is able* to take good care of babies, and I'm sure that trickles down to teenaged boys as well. More and more single-parent families are headed by men, or that's got to make a difference to how boys and girls think about pregnancy and contraception. If you know it'll be you staying up nights with that baby, you're more likely to remember to take that pill or use that condom.

I know these are huge cultural shifts. It's much easier to keep one's arguments to contraceptives and sex instead of broader issues of morality (don't make people ashamed of their babies!) and financial support (provide adequate support for teen parents so they don't end up in trouble) and equal rights (encourage men to parent far more actively). And all this is much easier to do in a small country like Norway, and a country where we have many, many flaws, I mean, we even have a state church (!) but some things work pretty well.

Sorry, I bet that sounded really self-righteous. These are big questions.


Here's a report by Unicef on teen pregnancy and abortion

I found a Unicef report on Teenaged Births in Rich Nations, with lots of statistics. The USA has twice as many teenageed births AND abortions as any other developed country. Norway's not bad, but not best, either.

The Netherlands is actually the most impressive example. Go look at the report - it's a 36 page PDF - so go to page 23 to see birth and abortion numbers by country. From pages 23-24:

Opponents of the Dutch and Nordic approaches,operating from a different moral premise,argue that such policies send the wrong message to the young, pay no regard to moral welfare, encourage sexual activity at too early an age and of too casual a nature,and threaten to undermine the basic family values on which society ultimately depends.They may also argue that abortion represents the deliberate taking of a human life and is a moral wrong that cannot be justified on pragmatic grounds;that abstinence is the appropriate recommendation for adult society to make to the young;and that recent abstinence education campaigns are achieving some success (Box 6).They might also add that welfare provision for unmarried teenage mothers is an encouragement to irresponsible childbearing.

To this,the advocates of the Dutch or Nordic approaches might reply that their countries have the lowest teenage birth rates in the world,that there has been no further fall in the average age at first sex for the last two decades, that they have low and still declining abortion rates,and that the prevalence of AIDS and sexually transmitted infections has fallen sharply (as opposed to the rising levels of infection in other countries (Box 2)). They might also add that concerns over sending the wrong messages to young people about sex would be better directed towards the media and the advertising industry rather than towards parents,school and clinics attempting responsible sex education.

Page 26 discusses the results of the abstinence campaigns in the US.

The National Survey of Family Growth finds that the proportion of all teenage girls who report having had sex has declined from 52.6 to 51.5 per cent between 1988 and 1995.

And of course abortions are about more than teen pregnancy. I'm convinced that this is an important part of having "a culture of life", though. Women should definitely have the right to choose an abortion, but just as important are the knowledge and skills to not need an abortion.

I guess it's going to be hard convincing the rightwing Christians about this though, isn't it?



Fascinating posts, Clancy and Jill. I will have to agree with both of you, esp. in what concerns sharing the responsibility between man and woman (It's utterly ridiculous to put the burden of contraception only on one partner, and then accuse her of immorality in case she needs to have an abortion).

In pre-1989 Romania, Ceausescu, the communist dictator, made abortions illegal. The reasons were not religious (incompatible with communism!) or moral, but rather pragmatic: he wanted a larger population of Romanians, and actually lavished with gifts the mother of child no. 23 million (happened right in 1989). In other words, women were just machines churning out good little communists. [In case you wonder: For all intents and purposes, there were no birth control pills available, just poor quality condoms.] That doesn't mean abortions didn't happen: they were about as illegal as drugs here--punishable by law when discovered, but performed nevertheless if you knew to pay favors to certain doctors. I was once in the hospital sharing a ward with a 50-ish woman who had had no less than 19 abortions (a number I still can't get my head around). At any rate, the abortion ban was felt to be another nasty, totalitarian way to control the population.

It's funny how Christian fundamentalists want to ban abortions for different reasons, but predictably similar results. When I came to America, it actually took me a while to understand the abortion issue, since abortion is NOT a moral but rather a health issue in Europe.

On the downside: as soon as Ceausescu fell, and with him all the restrictions of the communist regime, there was a surge of abortions in Romania. 1 million abortions are said to have occurred in 1990 alone (the number has decreased drastically, but still...), and sadly, women and men, still uneducated after all the years of communist ignorance, chose abortions as a way of birth control. This should obviously not be the case. There is a negative growth rate of population in Romania (currently around 22 million), but there's been a lot of education in contraceptive methods. However, all of the points outlined by Clancy for a culture of life would be more than welcome there (including much needed sex education modeled after The Netherlands).


Sorry, that anonymous comment was me. :)


this is something that's occu

this is something that's occurred to me before, but reading your list it's emphatically clear that all of my female, feminist friends view abortion as a moral issue not just regarding the propriety of terminating a fetus but with regard to the gender inequality involved across the board in sex and reproduction. this possible difference in perspective comes out somewhat in some of the technical arguments for or against abortion, but by the time the potential mother's rights enter the discussion, they do so in a way thought to be comparable to the potential baby's rights, i.e., the basic right to live or not. and so then only a very basic kind of right that people begin to worry about when it's endangered by the pregnancy, and when the danger is incurred against the woman's will.

all of which is to say, there's sort of a liberterian pro-choice stance that pairs up with a sort of technical pro-life one that just holds that the potential for life is such that even nominally developed fetuses can't be rightly aborted. the positions where all the action really is are in the feminist position on abortion, and the religiously inflected position. i think a bigger problem, than that ideas like the ones you list above haven't adequately taken hold, is that the opposing side (or much of our side!) does not see this as a feminist issue and would not want to if invited to. which is because the problem is much deeper: they don't see feminist issues like this as legitimate issues at all.

(i'm reminded of the way that scores of my female students write, at some point, regarding a feminist author we've read, that they don't really ever face oppression or inequality due to their gender.)

Love these ideas!!

I wanted to let you know that I think these are excellent points! I think it's crucial for men to put as much effort into birth control responsibility as women. Also, I am so excited that you mentioned fertility awareness, because often women only learn about their fertility signs, such as cervical mucus and waking temperature, when they're trying to get pregnant, but these signs can also be aids in avoiding pregnancy. Additionally, in heterosexual committed / live-in relationships, the men can be responsible for setting the alarm for the morning, given their women the thermometer in the morning, and tracking the temperature in a chart over time. This is another way to get men involved -- helping them be aware of their woman's fertility signs and assisting in keeping track.

I also agree that "outercourse" counts as sex -- can lead to orgasm, can be a part of an intimate connection, etc.

I like the idea of talking openly with young people about motives for getting involved with sexual activity. I was a junior high teacher for three years, and young women would talk with me privately about trying to decide whether or not they should have sex with their older boyfriends, what birth control they should use, etc. I focused more on asking them how they knew this was the right choice for them... and I focused on letting them be aware that they would always remember the first person they had sex with, and maybe they wouldn't want to have that connection with this person... but I lacked the tools to talk with them about these issues, and I ultimately encouraged them to go to their parents.

Anyhow, great ideas here.

- Dr. H

let's not invent new things to feel guilty about

Mm, yes the fertility awareness. I learned about that after my first miscarriage, when trying to get pregnant again, and I agree that it's really good information to have - I loved understanding my body that well. Using this I was aware enough that I could recognise the feelings of ovulation - not just the mucus, but there was a kind of cramp thing, too.

Thermometers get old pretty fast, though.

What I did use for a couple of years (after having a baby, at a point when it wouldn't have been a catastrophe to get pregnant again) was Persona, where you pee on specially prepared sticks eight times a month and this little device analyses that and gives you a green light when you're infertile and a red light when you're in a fertile patch. Or maybe it was vice versa. It worked great until something went wrong, and it told me I was infertile though I was sure myself that it was wrong, and predictably I got pregnant, though I miscarried soon after, which in retrospect was really good.

Anyway. (And perhaps this post should be anonymous ;)

Now I've got a hormone IUD, and I haven't had a period or been remotely fertile for four years and I totally LOVE it. I don't miss periods or thermometers or anything the slightest bit.

I actually felt a kind of guilt getting the IUD with its hormones. As though a woman SHOULD have periods, you know? My gynocologist completely reframed that for me. "What's NATURAL is to be pregnant or breastfeeding from the age of 15 to 45. It's not natural to have periods every month as modern women do." And she's right, you know. Why worry about natural when we're already damned unnatural. So my IUD emits hormones that make my body think it's just a little bit pregnant already. That's no more unnatural than not spending one's life pregnant.

What my point is? Women want different things at different times of their lives. Learning your own fertility signals is great, but let's not make it a moral issue that we SHOULD always be aware of mucus levels and ovulations. Making men share responsibility is great, but I really don't care that my man doesn't have to do a thing in terms of not getting me pregnant. After all, neither do I. I love that.

Personally I wouldn't enjoy a man doing the classical male scientist analysing the woman's body by taking over the chart and setting the alarm in the mornings. But some women probably would.

As for first sex - well, yes, of course I remember who it was, and no, we weren't in love, and you know what, I've never regrettted it or felt the slightest desire to see him again.

Yeah. That's all my issues out in the open :)

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