Why Extreme Right-Wing Views on Contraception Will Backfire if Progressives Fight

News & Politics

Access to Birth Control Coming Under Fire."

"Rep. Darrell Issa Bars Minority Witness, a Woman, on Contraception."

"States slash birth control subsidies as federal debate rages."

Headlines like these were unimaginable to many people two years ago. Not to us. In our 2010 book, Red Families v. Blue Families, we argued for changing the discussion of family values from an obsessive focus on abortion to one focused more squarely on contraception. When we presented the recommendation, people yawned, explaining that “no one cares about contraception.” No one cares, they emphasized, because politically influential women already have it and conservatives do not oppose it. What was there to worry about?

We insisted they were wrong. We pointed out that the United States has the highest rates of unplanned pregnancy in the industrialized world in large part because conservatives have blocked access to comprehensive sex education and birth control, particularly for poor women. We also predicted that if we did focus on birth control, conservatives would in fact oppose measures to expand contraceptive access and their opposition would serve as a wedge issue dividing the right and finally making visible their long-standing efforts to undermine women’s reproductive autonomy. Now that contraception has erupted as an issue that dominates the airwaves we cannot resist the temptation to say we were right – and to explain why the furor is all too predictable.

In 2010, we wrote that the conservative base opposes contraception because at a symbolic level it represents the social changes they oppose:

"The sexual revolution began with birth control and...the connections among contraception, fertility, and sexual activity are fundamentally important, both symbolically and practically....It is the moral meaning of contraception, rather than its ubiquity, that is contested terrain in today’s polarized discourse on fertility control: is a public embrace of the importance of contraception implied approval for nonmarital sexuality or part of a renewed definition of individual responsibility?"

We realize now that we were simply channeling our inner Rush Limbaughs when we tried to describe the conservative position. Limbaugh recently called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” because she had the effrontery to propose congressional testimony explaining why it was important to her that her university healthcare plan include birth control. He declared that "[I]f we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I'll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch." 

Limbaugh is not, however, an outlier in anything except rhetoric. The equation of contraception with the ability to have sex outside of marriage is central to conservative dogma. The more carefully calculated appeals work like dog whistles; Republican talking points celebrate “religious freedom,” but the coded message to the base is Limbaugh’s – we’re with you in opposing women’s sexual freedom. Last week, the Senate only narrowly defeated a Republican plan to effectively gut insurance coverage for contraception. Retiring Senator Olympia Snowe was the only Republican brave enough to vote against it.

This proposal is the most recent in a long list of conservative proposals to turn back the clock at the expense of women and children. Conservatives have also pushed for ideologically driven abstinence-only programs despite their long history of failure and disproportionately negative impact on poor teens. In 2009, congressional Republicans objected to a stimulus package provision that would have made it easier to provide contraception to women in the hospital giving birth at government expense. More recently, they have called for the repeal of Title X, the primary federal family planning program. Yet, Title X passed Congress in 1970 with a unanimous vote in the Senate, only 32 “no” votes in the House, and was signed into law by Richard Nixon.

Why do today’s conservative Republicans so consistently oppose measures supported by a significant majority of Americans and important to the lives of an overwhelming majority of women? The answer is that the Republican party has become a party of extremists. Recent political analyses show that while Democrats have changed relatively little, congressional Republicans have moved steadily to the right since 1980 and are now the most conservative group to serve since the study started in 1879. We explained in our book that political science research also shows that, in terms of both ideological fervor and rhetorical appeal, conservative Republicans are drawn to absolutes – right or wrong, ingroup loyalty over outgroup tolerance, hierarchy and order v. equality and openness to change. Abortion thus became an ideal political issue to solidify the conservative base because it offers no middle ground -- if life begins at conception, then abortion is necessarily murder and compromise is impossible. Over the last 10 years, Democratic and Independent views on abortion have changed little, but self-identified conservative Republicans have become more and more pro-life, even if they are not religious.

Applying the same absolutist approach to contraception, however, does not work. The vast majority of sexually active women use contraception and believe that it is important to the health and well-being of their families to do so. The Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to artificial means of birth control has been out of step with the views (and actions) of churchgoers for half a century. And relatively few Protestant groups take so extreme an approach. In addition, while Rush Limbaugh and the Christian right may associate contraception with promiscuity, most women have a different view. We may take the pill to control menstrual cramps, to ensure we can take care of the children we already have, or to prevent a pregnancy that may endanger our lives. For most women, contraception is something we have to consider from puberty until menopause, within marriage or without. A major reason for the fall in teen birth rates has been more systematic use of contraception, and birth control is most effective when women begin using it before they become sexually active.

Contraception, therefore, to a much greater degree than abortion, makes visible the extreme views on the right. Yet, Democrats have rarely chosen to make birth control an issue. When Republicans opposed the contraception provision in the stimulus package – a provision that would simply have reduced the paperwork necessary to allow the states the choice of whether to provide it – Obama yanked the provision without a fight. Many commentators speculate that the administration unintentionally sparked the current controversy over the healthcare mandate. Yet, watching Santorum and Romney spar over whether rape victims can be denied emergency contraception in the hospital can only benefit Democrats. Santorum, Romney and what has become the Republican base are too locked into their war against women’s sexual autonomy to take any other position.

When we proposed changing the family values subject from abortion to contraception, we did think it would be politically effective. But that wasn’t the principal reason for our recommendation. We did so because the U.S. record on contraception is inexcusable. Half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned and the incidence of unplanned conceptions correlates inversely with income and education. During a 12-year period starting in the mid-'90s, the rate of unplanned pregnancies fell by 29 percent for higher income women while it increased by 50 percent for women with incomes under the poverty line. Among the reasons are low use of the most effective methods, which require access to a doctor, inconsistent use because of lack of knowledge and support, and growing concerns about the affordability of the most effective methods.

Since the beginning of the Great Recession, the number of women who report that they cannot afford contraception has grown substantially while at the same time a rising number of women report that they cannot afford to have children. The war on contraception is not new. What is new is that the consequences are finally becoming visible to women who vote.

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