Sex & Relationships

Now the GOP Is Going After Sexual Health and the Pill -- And the Battle Is Just Beginning

The war on contraception and general sexual health care is just heating up, and liberals best be prepared for more battles over contraception access and funding in the future.

If it hadn’t actually happened, it would have been too strange to believe: the federal government of the most powerful nation on the earth almost shut down over birth control pills and HIV tests. In fact, even though it did happen, the implausibility of it caused many major news organizations to slip into denial. The New York Times, for instance, inaccurately characterized the fight as being over “abortion funding,” even though the funds in dispute could not be used for abortion, which is a lot like calling your rent check your “drinking money."

But many in the pro-choice community were not surprised that denying men and women access to STD testing, birth control and cancer screenings would be the thing the Republican party took a stand on during budget negotiations. (I predicted the budget shutdown would come over this specific issue back in February.) Frankly, the Republican war on contraception and general sexual health care is just heating up, and liberals best be prepared for more battles over contraception access and funding in the future. This is because anti-contraception sentiment has become mainstream in the Republican party, despite the fact that Republicans such as Richard Nixon and George Bush played a major role in supporting early initiatives to expand contraception access (although they did so for population control reasons, not for pro-feminist reasons).  

How did it come to pass that fighting contraception access has become such a major issue for Republicans? Republicans have generally been vociferous on the issue of abortion, but mostly silent on the topic of contraception, a politically savvy move in a country where more than 99 percent of sexually active women have used contraception. Getting Republicans to move to the right on sexual health care besides abortion has been an uphill battle for the hardcore anti-choice movement, but despite efforts such as holding annual rallies to protest legal contraception and screaming their heads off at Republican politicians who support vaccinating young women against HPV, they haven’t really gotten much in return. They got abstinence-only education and a few pharmacists denying women their birth control prescriptions, but mostly, Republicans weren’t doing much to keep women from getting contraception.   

But within the space of a year, Republicans went from passively ignoring the anti-contraception demands of the far right to making the issue a number one priority.  Suddenly you have Rush Limbaugh, lover of Viagra and serial marriage, agreeing that the only form of birth control he finds acceptable is closing your legs. The conservative blogosphere came out with full-throated support for the argument that healthy sex should only be a luxury for those who can pay for it. And of course, you had the entire Republican party moving on this newfound hatred of contraception, and using it to nearly shut down the federal government. True, the word “abortion” was frequently invoked in justifying these attacks, but the actual funds in question were only for non-abortion care, and at least one organization under attack, the UNFPA, doesn’t provide abortion at all.  

Dropping the word “abortion” was mainly about pandering to the non-partisan press, however. On the right, key to making these anti-contraception sentiments mainstream in the Republican party was to argue that contraception subsidies are a form of sexual welfare, allowing poor women to screw on the government dime. Associating Planned Parenthood with already-marginalized people strengthened the narrative.

While Lila Rose utterly failed with her mendacious attempts to claim Planned Parenthood broke the law, she did manage to associate sex workers with Planned Parenthood in the right-wing media. Glenn Beck drove the point home by claiming the only people who depend on Planned Parenthood are “hookers.” (As Jodi Jacobson noted, Planned Parenthood does serve sex workers, of course, but the majority of their patients are not sex workers.) 

In addition, a nationwide billboard campaign that uses racist stereotypes of black women has helped link the image of a Planned Parenthood patient to old racist imagery in conservative mythology, such as the "welfare queen."  

Even though depriving only low-income women of contraception falls short of the complete anti-choice agenda, the appallingly misnamed Susan B. Anthony List as well as other anti-choice groups are happy to work with this newfound Republican contraception-for-me-but-not-thee attitude. Sexual health-care has become the new symbol of government spending on the supposedly undeserving, and Republicans need to tap that resentment for future battles. Even though the budget fight is over, right-wing pundits continue to rail on about Planned Parenthood on Fox and talk radio. Contraception is already becoming an issue with the upcoming fight over the debt ceiling, with Eric Cantor promising to use the debate to fight once again to destroy affordable sexual health-care for millions of Americans.  

Contraception will likely come up as an issue again this summer. Health and Human Services will be releasing new guidelines on women’s health care in August, which means there will be a formal list of preventive health-care services that must be covered in full by insurers. Even though common sense would dictate that preventing unintended pregnancy is the very definition of preventive care, anti-choice groups are gearing up to fight the possibility that contraception makes the list of covered services.

For the larger Republican party, this fight will present an opportunity to grandstand on health-care reform using the specter of your dollars going to someone else’s erotic, “immoral” lifestyle. As insurance companies stand to lose a lot of money covering the copay currently covered by customers on millions of pill prescriptions, expect lobbyist dollars nudging Republicans to shake their sabers over the “hookers” who expect someone else to pay for their birth control pills.  

And, of course, once the budget negotiations start up again in the fall, Republicans will probably return to the image of the greedy slut using taxpayer money for fornication to gain leverage in the debate once again.   

That’s all between now and Christmas. For pro-choicers, the concern is that every time this battle rears its head, the argument that sexual health care isn’t “real” health care gets reinforced in the discourse. Currently, Republicans still drop the word “abortion” frequently when attacking funding for sexual health services that aren’t abortion, and often the mainstream media uncritically promotes that lie. But already many conservative pundits are laying off the word abortion and directly attacking the idea of contraception for lower-income women. The politicians and the mainstream media may soon follow.