A Modest Proposal for Ending the Culture Wars on Abortion

Free, universal, government-provided contraception and family planning

Part of the mission of The Liberal Patriot is to get beyond America’s culture wars to focus public attention on national economic development and new forms of international cooperation. Our basic approach is to ask liberals to stop engaging in culture wars. Don’t do it—keep your own values but focus on anything other than deep differences with others over morals, religion, and politics. 

Culture wars are always a trap, and they block coalitions from developing around economic policies with greater agreement. We’re sticking with this formulation for now. Liberals need to control what they can and deal with the rest. For the good of the country, they should just agree to disagree on unresolvable cultural issues; treat people fairly and in good faith; and choose not to engage on things that divide people rather than bring them together in constructive dialogue about more pressing national problems. 

At the same time, it is worth considering if there are tangible ways to actually resolve intractable social and cultural divisions, or at least reach some consensus to help lower the temperature on these issues in a manner that a broad majority of people might support, even if the ideological extremes on left and right might not. And since there’s no bigger culture war battle than the one over abortion, here’s a shot at trying to broker a temporary peace.

Let’s start with some context. Pro-choice and pro-life factions are never going to agree on the legal or moral basis for abortion rights in America. That’s okay. There’s no way to resolve these fundamental differences in a pluralistic democratic system except through elections, laws, and court rulings which have now been in place for more than 40 years. Despite the hyperbole on all sides over the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation, it seems unlikely that abortion is going to be made illegal anytime soon—even with a staunch conservative majority on the Supreme Court—given long-standing judicial precedents established after multiple legal challenges by opponents. Whatever qualms or concerns people may have about abortion, Americans do not want to criminalize abortion or charge women and doctors with murder for terminating an unplanned pregnancy. 

Yet since most people tend to view abortion as a last step in a harrowing and difficult deliberative process over pregnancy and family planning, it seems possible that liberals and conservatives might agree on a simple goal of trying to make abortions exceedingly rare and reserved primarily for the most problematic pregnancies or personal situations that might arise. 

The easiest and most effective way to reduce abortion to near zero is to make sure unwanted and unplanned pregnancies never happen in the first place. And widely available and widely used contraception is the most obvious way to achieve this outcome, with smart family planning also being helpful for young people in particular as they make decisions about their families, educations, and jobs including whether or when to have children.

Pro-choice liberals tend to worry about the impact of unwanted pregnancies on the economic and educational situation of young women, while conservatives worry more about the marriage and family sequencing issues that come with unplanned pregnancies. So why not agree to the one thing that would reduce these unexpected or undesired pregnancies in the first place—safe, effective, easy-to-use, short- and long-term contraception options widely available to all women and men?

Another divisive aspect of this debate centers on issues of religious liberty, particularly for Catholics or others with strongly held beliefs about marriage, birth control, and parenting that are not consistent with secular laws today. As a committed liberal and a pro-choice Catholic, there’s no reason whatsoever in my mind for public bodies to force nuns who run Catholic hospitals or other institutions to violate their own religious tenets by making them provide birth control to their employees—especially when the federal government could easily make contraception available for all women directly for free.

By changing federal laws and regulations to make the provision of contraception a guaranteed right for all people—delivered or provided by the government itself and not through intermediaries—we could easily promote women’s health and protect religious liberty. 

A contraception-first model, funded and distributed by the federal government, could help to drive down abortion rates by reducing unplanned pregnancies; ensure women’s rights and control over their bodies; help lower-income women get better access to reproductive health services; and protect the religious beliefs of those who oppose contraception. A win-win as they say. Culture war avoided!

Obviously, the real world is not so simple. But maybe this modest proposal for reducing the heat on the hottest of all culture war battles could help to create a different model of politics that doesn’t turn all divisions into apocalyptic battles over competing values and actually produces outcomes that benefit large numbers of people.