American Life League’s Pill Kills Day Links Birth Control and Abortion

About Eleanor J. Bader

(Photo: Katherine Garrenson/iStock)

Thirty-seven-year-old Erik Martin says he got involved in the American Life League shortly after his eight and 10-year-old children came home from their Blacksburg, Virginia, public school several years ago with an illustrated comic book entitled, It’s Perfectly Normal.

Martin, a big, affable guy with a big smile, blasts the book—on The American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged books—as “Planned Parenthood pornography” and gets increasingly agitated as he talks. “The comic had cartoons of people masturbating,” he says, “and others saying that it’s perfectly normal to have sex as a minor. This angered me because I wanted to be the one to teach my kids about sex and reproduction and they handed this out without my permission. You send your kids to school to learn reading, writing and arithmetic, not masturbation.”

While a quick check with the school health coordinator and local papers shows no sign that Blacksburg actually distributed the controversial book to elementary school students, this fact may be less important than the very existence of the publication in the Commonwealth. Incensed, Martin says, “When I found out what Planned Parenthood really is, a group that poisons the minds of the young, I got involved in the prolife movement.”

That involvement brought Martin to a Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D. C. on June 7th, the 43rd anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut. The 1965 case involved Estelle Griswold, head of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and Dr. Lee Buxton, a professor of medicine at Yale, who were arrested in 1961 for dispensing contraceptives. Their conviction was upheld by several Connecticut courts and eventually wound up before the Supreme Court of the United States; four years later, the Court found that Connecticut’s law violated the right to privacy. In short order, state laws that prohibited the distribution of birth control to married couples were overturned. This right to privacy was extended to single adults in 1972 and to those seeking abortions in 1973.

Since its founding by Roman Catholic activists in 1979, the American Life League has sought to link opposition to birth control—including condoms, barrier methods, the Pill, and Emergency Contraception (EC), the so-called Morning After Pill— to opposition to abortion. Judie Brown, a disgruntled former staffer of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), created the group with her husband, Paul Brown, because she felt that organizations like NRLC were insufficiently hard-line on family planning.

An extremely conservative Roman Catholic, Judie Brown told the New York Times in May 2006 that “we see a direct connection between the practice of contraception and the practice of abortion. The mindset that invites a couple to use contraception is an anti-child mindset.”

At the heart of Brown’s claim—and at the heart of League doctrine—is the belief that life begins at fertilization, not implantation. For League activists, this means that the fertilized egg is a person—they describe it as already having eye color, hair color, and a personality. If the egg fails to implant, they argue, a life has been terminated.

They promote a faulty understanding of the science of the pill that suggests it works in part by transforming the lining of the uterus to prevent the egg from implanting after it is fertilized. Even pro- life ob/gyns have said this claim has no scientific basis.1 Synthetic hormones in birth control pills are so effective because they prevent ovulation and thicken cervical mucus creating a barrier for sperm. “With no egg there can be no pregnancy,” says Sex Etc., a reputable sexuality information website directed at youth.

Life League activists target emergency contraception, which can disrupt the egg dropping, sperm movement, fertilization, or implantation, for similar reasons.

But in their wholehearted embrace of conservative Roman Catholic doctrine that links sex to procreation, not pleasure, Life League members reject interventions that prevent fertilization not just implantation.

What’s more, the Browns say this is exactly what God wants for heterosexual couples. According to their website, “Married couples should be open to God’s amazing gift of life. By contracepting you are saying ‘No’ to God’s plan and selfishly taking part in sexual relations without fulfilling the entire act or purpose of the act. The reason God designed sex was for a married man and woman to become one and procreate.”

Equally disturbing, the website claims that contraception makes infidelity easier. As for abortion, well, you get the picture.

Despite the Life League’s wholly God- focused webpage, there was no mention of God or God’s plan in the group’s publicity for the June 7th protests against the court case that legalized access to contraception for married couples. Perhaps its leaders were trying to reach beyond the most doctrinaire strands of the anti-choice community. In fact, the Life League simply announced that protests in eight states and District of Columbia would coincide with the Griswold anniversary. Along with Pro-Life Wisconsin and Pharmacists for Life International, they dubbed June 7th “The Pill Kills Day”—no doubt because it rhymed—but were upfront about their opposition to all birth control and abortion methods.

The American Life League links opposition to birth control—including condoms— to opposition to abortion.

Peggy Hamill of Pro-Life Wisconsin, a group whose website includes such titles as Abortaholic Barrie Hussein, Osama Obama, and Klanned Parenthood, spoke at a sparsely attended press conference on June 6th. According to Hamill, “The right to privacy is a court-ordered right. It is a pure invention and has less to do with protecting privacy than it has to do with setting a political agenda.” She labels that agenda as an attack on the family.

Jodi Wagner, a speaker from Pharmacists for Life International, is a Life League heroine because she has refused to fill prescriptions for contraceptives in her home state of Washington. In addition to labeling the Pill as abortion-inducing, she told the press that she is furious at the profit margin on oral contraceptives.

Other speakers at the press conference included Jim Sedlak, an American Life League Vice President and longtime staffer at Stop Planned Parenthood, the League- sponsored group that initially drew Erik Martin into activism, and Dr. Marie Anderson, an ob-gyn at the nonprofit, Christian, Tepeyac Family Center in Fairfax, Virginia. Together, they laid out an anticontraceptive agenda that zeroed in on the Pill as the most menacing birth control product.

“Planned Parenthood tells women that they won’t get pregnant if they take the Pill,” Sedlak began. “They don’t tell them that a human being is being created that will die five to seven days later when it can’t implant. They don’t tell them that the Pill is a deadly poison.” Sedlak calls what happens a “chemical abortion.”

“The pill thins the uterine lining and depletes it of essential nutrients so that it cannot nourish a new baby,” Anderson adds. “This hurts mothers and babies alike. It breaks hearts.” The only fertility control that Anderson endorses, she said, is the type supported by the Roman Catholic Church: natural family planning. This requires the continuous monitoring of cervical mucus and body temperature and charting other cyclical physical changes to predict ovulation; it is a notoriously unreliable as a means of preventing unplanned pregnancies.

Neither Anderson nor Sedlak mind that this position puts them up against such foes as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, The American Medical Association, and the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, (NFPRHA), all of which support the notion that pregnancy begins when the egg implants, not when it is fertilized. Nor are they bothered about being marginal within the larger pro-life movement: a 2005 NFPRHA report found that 80 percent of those who consider themselves “prolife” want to control their fertility. “Almost all of the 11 million women who use the Pill in the U.S. are unaware of its mechanism of action,” Anderson says. “If they knew what it did and how it worked they would stop using it. We have to educate them.”

Jon O’Brien, President of Catholics for Choice, couldn’t disagree more. O’Brien sees the Life League as out of touch and believes that it will never win the hearts and minds of Americans. “Catholics, whether they be in Poland or Portland, use contraceptives, even if they have a problem with abortion” he says. “Furthermore, League members are extremists. They are so far out that even mainstream prolifers stay away from them.”

The numbers bear him out. The League’s June 7th protest in D.C. drew about 15 anti-choicers and a dozen pro-choice counter demonstrators. It might have been the weather—it was 97 degrees with a heat index of 110. Or it might have been the slim support for the League’s cause. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 98 percent of heterosexually active women between the ages of 15 and 44 rely on birth control to avoid unwanted pregnancies. What’s more, Catholics for Choice estimates that 96 percent of Roman Catholic women use contraception at some point in their lives. This, despite constant Papal and priestly denunciations of the practice.

Still by promoting such wildly unpopular positions, the activists pull the broader prolife movement to the right, and make contraception-friendly parts of the movement seem downright moderate. By repeating over and over the fake science about the Pill inducing abortions, they also win converts within the larger movement against the most popular birth control method in the country.

And they win victories in an administration eager to show easy bona fides to its Religious Right supporters. In the dead heat of July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proprosed allowing health clinics to refuse dispensing the pill and emergency contraception to women on moral grounds by redefining these methods as possibly abortion inducing.2 Since the 1970s, Congress has allowed staff in clinics receiving federal grants to refuse to offer abortions or refer women to abortion services.

The junk science woven around the methods is also woven in the HHS statement, as Cristina Page of RH Reality Check showed. It quotes a diversity of medical authorities about when a pregnancy begins to highlight the need to allow conscience-plagued medical personnel to refuse to prescribe hormone-based birth control.3

American Life League activists pull the broader prolife movement to the right, and make contraception-friendly parts of the movement seem downright moderate.

For Erik Martin and his American Life League colleagues, Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest purveyor of birth control, is public enemy number one. While Martin, who says he is not religious, stood in front of the clinic with a Pill Kills sign, many of his comrades were on their knees, with eyes closed, praying the rosary. For them, the truth is that contraception undermines God’s plan for our lives. An oft- repeated Psalm underscores their position: “Lo, children are a heritage of the Lord and the fruit of the womb is His reward. Happy is the man [sic] that hath his quiver full of them.”

Given the virtual universality of their birth control use, it seems women’s happiness rests in a more mindful procreation.


End Notes

1 Cristina Page, “HHSMoves to Define Contraception as Abortion,” RH Reality Check, July 15, 2008 http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2008/07/15/hhs-moves-define-contraception-abortion; “Prolife Ob/gyn statement,” January, 1998, accessed at http://web.archive.org/web/20070814095925/ and http://www.epm.org/articles/doctors.html.

2 RH Reality Check posted the leaked document: http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/emailphotos/pdf/HHS-45-CFR.pdf

3 See http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2008/07/15/hhsmoves-define-contraception-abortion

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher and writer whose reporting frequently appears in The Brooklyn Rail, Library Journal and The New York Law Journal.