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The Root of the Conservative War on Contraception Comes From a Deep-seated Anxiety

The new GOP code word this year is "dependency," and they're afraid of it for a few different reasons.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/imahe


Liberals have documented the existence of a bitter Republican campaign against women’s health and freedom, but I don’t think we’ve identified its cause or its full intent. It may be hurting Republicans almost as much as it’s hurting women:  New Gallup poll data released Monday found that Obama leads Romney 51 percent to 42 percent among registered voters in 12 swing states. Last month he trailed the Republican by 2 points. The change is due to a sharp shift among women: Obama now leads Romney among women under the age of 50 by 30 points; that lead was 5 points in February.

Some panicked Republicans insist crafty Democrats are the ones playing the culture wars, but we’ve debunked that: Democrats didn’t make the GOP presidential field back “personhood” laws that would criminalize some forms of birth control. They didn’t force the newly elected House GOP to make defunding Planned Parenthood their first legislative goal. And they didn’t propose the Blunt Amendment that would have allowed employers to withhold health insurance coverage not only for contraception, but for any treatment they disapproved of — or make every Republican senator vote for it, except the outgoing Olympia Snowe.

But why is this happening now, and not in, say, 2000 or 2008? I got my first hint of what conservatives are up to listening to  Rick Santorum early in the presidential campaign. “When the family breaks down, the economy breaks down,” he says over and over, and he insists growing “dependency” on government plays a key role in the family’s decline.  Mitt Romney goes a little lighter on the culture-war stuff, but Saturday in Wisconsin he too sounded the anti-government-dependency theme. “President Obama believes in a government-centered society,” Romney said. Not coincidentally, he also railed against Planned Parenthood, and once again promised to defund it.

Paul Ryan likewise attacks “dependency,” telling the American Enterprise Institute last week that America is at an “insidious moral tipping point, and I think the president is accelerating this.” Government support, Ryan insists, “lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It’s demeaning.”

We’re having this debate over issues once considered settled because the right is trying to blame virtually all of the nation’s economic and social problems on one cause: the supposedly broken American family. It’s their only solution. It’s also increasingly clear that shoring up the family, in their view, involves restoring a traditional vision of the family, in which the man is head of the household, and women accept their civilizing role.

The contraception “controversy” jumped out of the 1960s and became a major issue in the 2012 presidential campaign shortly after Charles Murray published his new bestseller, “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010.” Murray didn’t put contraception on the agenda, at all, but his book reflected and illuminated the social forces and anxieties behind the new crusade against it. Murray pretends to accept and even applaud the progress we’ve made toward equality for women. But it’s clear that he blames the changes wrought by feminism for some of the problems he identifies in the growing “white lower class.” Murray believes science will soon find:

There are genetic reasons, rooted in the mechanisms of human evolution, why little boys who grow up in neighborhoods without married fathers tend to reach adolescence not socialized to the norms of behavior that they will need to stay out of prison and hold jobs … [Liberals] will have to acknowledge that the traditional family plays a special, indispensable role in human flourishing and that social policy must be based on that truth.

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