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Contraception and the New Crusades

March 29, 2012 ·

Many white Americans fear "population control" lest the world be overrun by madly procreating Muslims.

Of all the overlapping explanations proffered for the recent spate of legislation designed to limit access to contraception and abortion in the United States, few have any kind of international focus. This makes sense, as few of the proponents of such measures refer to global concerns. Yet it seems likely that deep-seated fears of demographic change are lurking somewhere behind such efforts, and, more importantly, help to make compromise so difficult.

The first thing to remember is that, besides the larger debate over abortion, concerns about contraception have been germinating in some quarters for several years. In 2003, on the 30th anniversary of Roe V. Wade, Cristina Page, of the National Abortion Rights Action League, and Amanda Peterman, from Right to Life Michigan, co-wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, titled “The Right to Agree.” In this op-ed, Page and Peterman wrote of finding common ground on such issues as support for single mothers, affordable child care, an end to violent rhetoric and actions, and supporting legislation that would require that health insurance plans cover contraceptives. While there was reportedly little strong response from pro-choice organizations, Peterman found herself ostracized from her fellow activists.  Page has subsequently written about how this chain of events helped her to realize that much of the purported anti-abortion activity actually is not focused on abortion per se, but on larger anxieties about families and sexuality.

So what does this have to do with the world outside? Despite the very low rates of abortion (and sexually-transmitted diseases) in the Netherlands, that country’s policies of sex education, along with subsidizing and promoting contraception, do not endear themselves to American conservatives. The exact opposite is true. While the Times, in a 2006 article titled “Contra-Contraception” highlighted the ethical reasons for such seeming cognitive dissonance, it also seems likely that there is a subconscious (and sometimes very conscious!) strategic explanation. In other words, if the Netherlands, and many other countries in Europe and around the world, manage to prevent abortions by preventing pregnancy, that is not considered an acceptable strategy, partially because the resulting low fertility rates allegedly leave such countries open to conquest by Muslim immigrants.

This hypothesis, sometimes awkwardly referred to as “Eurabia” (most Muslim immigrants, like most Muslims in general, are not Arab), has become a staple of right-wing rhetoric in the past decade. Pat Buchanan has mentioned this trope repeatedly, beginning with his book Death of the West in 2001.  Mark Steyn has largely built a career on this sort of thing; he made a considerable impact with America Alone in 2006, and was continually invoking concerns of low fertility, though without explicitly mentioning an Islamic takeover, in recent months. Numerous other authors have added their voices to this chorus of fear, and opponents of the idea also responded in kind. Indeed, such fears are not only misplaced, they are comprehensively wrong across the board. The numbers regarding fertility and immigration patterns, as well as the social and political beliefs of many Muslims in Europe, do not even remotely support the hypothesis of people like Steyn, and yet their ideas have stuck in the minds of many. Anders Behring Breivik and the English Defence League share these concerns. Perhaps more importantly, so does the American Christian Right, the most bellicose demographic in America, and the same one responsible for the wave of legislation targeting contraception and abortion.

Christopher Hitchens sometimes noted that conservative religious groups have been known to put aside their differences in opposition to secular modernity, but that is not currently on the agenda for American Evangelicals vis-à-vis Islam. The situation is somewhat different in Europe, where secular and/or leftist groups, feminists, gay-rights activists, and others have also sometimes endorsed restrictions on Islamic dress and mosque construction; though they also tend to fiercely oppose groups like the English Defense League. In any event, American conservatives seem to want “more babies” (in the memorable tirade of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse’s Leslee Unruh) more than they want fewer abortions, partially due to fear that the wrong people are reproducing too often. This is one reason, though not the largest, why Cristina Page and Amanda Peterman had such a brief opportunity to agree.        

Scott Charney is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.