WASHINGTON, D.C. - President Obama wants to end the culture wars. He recently called for “common ground” on abortion reduction and an end to the “stale and fruitless debate” over family planning. His joint address to Congress this week could be an opportunity to change that debate. But to make a real difference, he’ll have to tell two truths that the left and the right don’t want to hear: that morality has to be practical, and that practicality requires morals.
Start with abortion. Pro-lifers tend to show up after a woman is pregnant, imagining that laws and preaching will make her bear a child she doesn’t want. They’re mistaken. Worse, they’re too late. To prevent abortions, we have to prevent unintended pregnancies. How? The conservative answer is abstinence. That’s a worthy aspiration. But as a stand-alone national policy for avoiding pregnancies, it’s foolish. Mating is the engine of history. It has overpowered every stricture put in its way.
The liberal answer is birth-control availability. In recent years, this has become a second front in the culture wars. Many pharmacists have refused to sell oral contraceptives. In December, President George W. Bush extended that right of refusal to cover other medical professionals unwilling to participate in birth control. Mr. Bush also halted American aid to international family-planning organizations that provide abortion services; Mr. Obama recently restored it.
Mr. Obama, like many other pro-choicers, doesn’t like to preach on these issues. He talks about family planning purely in terms of access and affordability. Overseas, that’s a huge challenge. But in this country, the principal cause of abortions isn’t that we can’t get birth control. It’s that we don’t use it. Eight years ago, the Alan Guttmacher Institute surveyed over 10,000 American women who had abortions. Nearly half said they hadn’t used birth control in the month they conceived. When asked why not, 8 percent cited financial problems, and 2 percent said they didn’t know where to get it. By comparison, 28 percent said they had thought they wouldn’t get pregnant, 26 percent said they hadn’t expected to have sex and 23 percent said they had never thought about using birth control, had never gotten around to it or had stopped using it. Ten percent said their partners had objected to it. Three percent said they had thought it would make sex less fun.
This isn’t a shortage of pills or condoms. It’s a shortage of cultural and personal responsibility. It’s a failure to teach, understand, admit or care that unprotected sex can lead to the creation — and the subsequent killing, through abortion — of a developing human being. Our challenge is to put these two issues together. For liberals, that means taking abortion seriously as an argument for contraception. We should make the abortion rate an index of national health, like poverty or infant mortality. The president should report progress, or lack thereof, in the State of the Union. Reproductive-health counselors must speak bluntly to women who are having unprotected sex. And as Mr. Obama observed last year, men must learn that “responsibility does not end at conception.”
Conservatives, in turn, need to face the corollary truth: A culture of life requires an ethic of contraception. Birth control isn’t a sin or an offense against life, as so many girls and Catholic couples have been taught. It’s a loving, conscientious way to prevent the conception of a child you can’t bear to raise and don’t want to abort. It’s an act of responsibility and respect for life.
That brings us to the third front in the culture wars: couples who don’t have to worry about abortion or contraception because they can’t make babies with their partners. They’re Gay, and they want to marry.
To liberals, same-sex marriage is a matter of equal rights. To conservatives, however, marriage isn’t just another right or benefit. It’s a moral anchor, a lifelong commitment, a foundation for raising children. Mr. Obama agrees. In “The Audacity of Hope,” he argued that while Gay couples deserve the same rights to hospital visitation and joint health insurance, “society can choose to carve out a special place” for traditional marriage. This issue, like birth control, requires both sides to accept the practical and moral importance of responsible choices. Commitment, unlike sexual orientation, is a choice and a virtue. Same-sex marriage binds Gay couples to the same ethic of mutual support and sacrifice that Mr. Obama has praised in straight marriages. The cultural imprimatur of marriage makes the gravity of the bond stronger than a civil union or domestic partnership.
The choice to commit will also be good for the hundreds of thousands of children being raised by same-sex parents. Let those partners marry. In fact, let’s encourage them to. We shouldn’t just tolerate same-sex marriage. We should promote and favor marriage, regardless of orientation. The president is right: Our moral debates have become stale and fruitless. The reason is that we’ve pitted morality against practicality. These two principles need each other. Let’s marry them.
(William Saletan, Slate’s national correspondent, is the author of “Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War,” and this article is reprinted from the Feb. 21 edition of the New York Times.)
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