July 12, 2005

Screw Abstinence? An Open Letter

This open letter is in response to NARAL Pro-Choice Washington's scheduled "Screw Abstinence" party this Thursday. It does not necessarily reflect the views held by other contributors to Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.

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Dear Ms. Keenan and Ms. Cooper:

I should preface this letter by telling you a bit about myself. First, I think I should point out that I am pro-choice and that I favor comprehensive sex education. I have also participated in NARAL Pro-Choice America campaigns in the past. This makes me wholly unlike most of your detractors, who look for bad decisions by NARAL in order to pounce upon them with moral outrage. That's not my intention. I should also point out that I am Catholic. As a pro-choice Catholic living in the Midwest, I'm on the front lines of the battle over a woman's right to choose and comprehensive sex education, and I know what helps us in that battle and what doesn't. If I'm being honest with you, I have to say that the recent "Screw Abstinence" party planned by NARAL Pro-Choice Washington is not only counterproductive, but also detrimental, to the fight for comprehensive sex education and a woman's right to choose.

Why is this kind of thing detrimental? As both of you are well aware, there are at least three fronts in the war for reproductive choice: the legal front, the legislative front, and the cultural front. Of the three, it is actually the cultural front that is the most important. The cultural front impacts popular opinion, which in turn impacts legislation and even legal decisions. If the cultural front were to turn strongly in favor of anti-choice activists, popular opinion could even lead to a constitutional amendment banning a woman's right to choose, which would eliminate the legal and legislative fronts altogether. If anti-choice activists win the cultural front, they have won the war; the legal and legislative fronts are entirely subservient to the cultural front. It is there that we must fight our toughest battles, and it is there that planned events like the "Screw Abstinence" party can most impact the nation.

Culturally speaking, "Screw Abstinence" sends the wrong message. Even if what NARAL is really advocating for here is comprehensive sex education, this campaign actually makes it look as if NARAL Pro-Choice America is not only fighting for comprehensive sex education, but also against abstinence education. That simply won't do. Most American parents, regardless of what this or that poll might say, don't want their children having sex before reaching full maturity, and many don't want their children having sex before marriage. Some may favor abstinence-only education, whereas some may favor comprehensive sex education, but even those who favor comprehensive sex education would rather their chidren go with abstinence. Fighting for comprehensive sex education because of the reality in our nation is a good idea; fighting against abstinence education in any form, however, will not fly with most Americans.

The "Screw Abstinence" campaign led by NARAL Pro-Choice Washington strongly implies that we are fighting against any kind of abstinence education. In the end, I fear that this perceived opposition to abstinence education in any form will impact the cultural front in a way that is unfavorable to reproductive choice.

This possible problem could impact the future of reproductive choice in a number of ways. One of the primary ways it could have an impact is in the political sphere of influence. I feel that I must point you to a quote from Catholics in the Public Square, a politically conservative Catholic weblog that enjoys some influence over the political debate within the American Catholic Church:

Will Senators Kerry, Landrieu, Harkin, Cantwell, and Murray denounce this? Will Representatives McCollum, Clay, DeLauro, and Delahunt show some outrage? Each of these legislators received substantial monetary contributions during their campaigns from NARAL. Each of them is Catholic. I suspect all will remain quiet about it. As Catholics I do not know how they can.

Does NARAL Pro-Choice America understand the position it puts its allies in Washington, D.C. and throughout the rest of America's political system in when it makes these ill-advised decisions? Does it care? It should care, because the above-mentioned women and men have been on the front lines opposing senators and representatives who would restrict reproductive choice and ban it outright if they could. By making ill-advised decisions, like the decision to host the "Screw Abstinence" party in Washington state, we put our allies' future political campaigns in jeopardy. We make the alliances they've made with the pro-choice community a liability to them rather than a benefit, which in turn leads them to question whether or not they should continue with these alliances.

These ill-advised decisions also have an impact on grassroots allies. It puts us in the awkward position of having to defend this "Screw Abstinence" party, even if we may not agree with either the activities or the implied views behind the party. It puts allies who would otherwise be spending our time fighting for a woman's right to choose and comprehensive sex education in the position of having to spend time, energy, and money to defend ill-advised decisions made by this organization and other pro-choice organizations.

My recommendation to you, for what it's worth, is to either cancel this event or change the name and the implied meaning behind it. We need to be spending our time working for comprehensive sex education, not against abstinence education. Truly comprehensive sex education should include education about all of the options, including birth control, and including abstinence. We are not going to win this war on the cultural front if we ignore the tide of popular opinion, which is overwhelmingly in favor of abstinence, even if it is not overwhelmingly in favor of abstinence-only education.

I hope you'll give serious consideration to what I've said.

Nathan Nelson
Editor-in-Chief, Joy and Hope
Contributor, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis