The discussion about abortion should start earlier in the conception process. Unwanted pregnancies are caused by male orgasm, not by a woman’s sexual pleasure. Gabrielle Blair brought this fact into the conversation back in 2018, and then it resurfaced with a megaphone after Dobbs overturned Roe v. Wade. “Women can orgasm without penetrative sex or ejaculation, … the male orgasm is what causes pregnancy: ‘Unwanted pregnancies can only happen when men orgasm irresponsibly.’ For that reason, she says, focusing on men and male behavior — not on female sexuality — could have a massive impact on the rates of unwanted pregnancies and abortions.”
Well, it’s been a few months since Dobbs was issued, and the discussion I’ve seen still focuses on the risks to women’s health, the personhood of the fetus, and the woman’s responsibility to control when men ejaculate inside them. Very few people are talking about who is causing all those unwanted pregnancies. Men don’t want their bodies policed, not even if it means preventing unwanted pregnancies. (Creepy men, anyway, there are many thoughtful and mature men who don’t think a few moments of sexual pleasure is worth changing a woman’s life in such a drastic manner.)
My least favorite pro-life argument is that consent to sex is consent to [possible] pregnancy. It isn’t; it hasn’t been since birth control was invented. For many decades, women who have access to birth control have been able to have sex without getting pregnant. Women consent to sex even if they don’t want a baby. That’s reality, and banning abortion doesn’t mean that women will now obey the Christian purity laws and only consent to a man ejaculating into her vagina when she wants to conceive. And honestly, would pro-lifers really want them to?
I’m actually the sort of woman who would never need an abortion – I dislike sex (I’m asexual). I was a virgin until I got married: tolerated sex long enough to conceive the children I wanted, and then I filed for divorce partly so I would never have to have sex again. Perfect chastity; that’s what I achieved. I think pro-life Christian men gloating that a woman shouldn’t have sex if she doesn’t want to be pregnant is rather like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Okay – I hope you get your wish. No woman ever consents to letting a man ejaculate in her vagina unless she wants a baby, and that includes wives telling husbands no [fn 1].
I would think that men would be delighted that women want to have sex more often than they want to conceive. And here’s where we run into the Christian roadblock: female sexuality and sexual pleasure. There’s something sinful about the entire topic, isn’t there? The idea that women can want sexual pleasure without wanting a baby seems … dirty. In Christianity, women have only three sexual identities: virgin; whore; mother. Women are labeled based on how men are using their bodies.
The more autonomy women have, the more they do things that disappoint male Church leaders. When women are given an education and access to birth control, they choose to have fewer children. Despite Christianity’s insistence that motherhood is a divine blessing, women are content with less of this blessing. That says something important, and it’s short-sighted of Christians to just label this selfishness and tell women to repent for wanting fewer children. Nafis Sadik, a Pakistani gynecologist who became head of the UN Population Fund, said in a 1972 interview, “I say with certainty that regardless of country or culture, no woman in the world wants a baby every year.”
The pro-life movement is not an enthusiastic supporter of birth control. Only eight Republicans in Congress voted in favor of safeguarding a woman’s right to birth control; the other 195 voted against. The Church was against birth control, but eventually stopped preaching against it, though the health insurance provided for Church employees only covers birth control sometimes in certain situations. Catholics are opposed to birth control, but many Catholic people use it anyway. Evangelicals are divided on the question of birth control. Basically, the more conservative your Christian religious beliefs are, the less you approve of birth control. Sex produces babies; that’s what God intended. [fn 2]
The Brethren have renamed sex “the sacred procreative process.” I’m guessing they’re using that euphemism for sex to claim that sex is entirely subject to God’s commandments about the law of chastity and multiplying and replenishing the earth. However, we can also use the euphemism to exclude every type of sex that isn’t procreative. It isn’t a sacred procreative process if there’s no chance a sperm can fertilize an egg.
Masturbation never caused an unplanned pregnancy. The same is true for sex toys, gay sex and oral sex. If the abortion ban isn’t about forcing conservative Christian sexual teachings on society (which it totally is), then we can certainly talk about how often people want to experience sexual pleasure without making a baby, along with how to experience pleasure without risking a pregnancy. Humans, male and female, have sexual feelings and needs that go beyond just conceiving a baby.
The Brethren want women to be happy. The women in the Brethren’s lives are happy to obey the prophet and focus their lives on motherhood. Therefore, the Brethren conclude, every woman will be happy if she obeys the prophet and focuses on motherhood. Some will, certainly, but the rest of us are people too.
This is where my self-worth has to leave behind religious teachings about motherhood. I am more than the role I fill in a man’s life. I am more than motherhood. I am more than a wife, or a sister or a daughter. I am a whole and complete human being, whether or not I have sex, have a husband or have a baby. Relationships make life more full and bring joy, but to be healthy, you have to be a whole and separate person too. It’s a lot of pressure for a wife to expect her husband to validate her existence and provide all her self-esteem. It’s damaging to the parent-child relationship for a mother to expect her children to prove her life was well-spent. It’s a recipe for disaster to live your life in search of the Church’s approval. For our own sake, as well as the well-being of everyone around us, women must find their own worth outside of the roles men assign to us.
A woman’s sexuality and sexual pleasure is part of her personhood and identity; it isn’t something to be used by men solely for their own pleasure and purposes. We must separate recreational sex from procreative sex and talk about how to have one without the other. If Christians want to teach their children that sex is just for making babies with a spouse, they can do that, but the rest of the nation has no obligation to agree with their religious beliefs about sex.
Consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy.
[fn 1] This wouldn’t happen, of course. In a country controlled by conservative Christians, women won’t have the right to say no to their husbands. Part of Christian purity culture is the expectation that, after marriage, a woman will meet all of her husband’s sexual needs. Marital rape laws are fairly recent; it took much work to overcome the idea that marriage is consent to sex. If Christian extremists continue to gain influence, I expect they’ll continue to curtail women’s rights and reduce women’s ability to be independent.
[fn 2] My cynical view about why conservative Christians want lots of babies is because they’ve noticed it’s much easier to raise a conservative Christian (either by birth or adoption) than convert one.
Christianity has one view of sex based on sin or righteousness; social science frames sex in terms of health, consent and bodily autonomy. Which view do you think is more sustainable over the long-term?
Do you want to have a baby every time you want sex?