Why Right-Wingers' Hatred of Modern Women Is Going to Cost Them the Birth Control Battle (and a Whole Lot of Votes)

Conservatives are going wildly off-message when it comes to the fight over contraception.

For many pundits and politicians on the Right, the visceral impulse to shame women for being in control of their own sexuality is so overwhelming that they appear to be totally incapable of maintaining their usual message discipline. That's going to cost them the fight over contraception.

The polling on the Obama administration's recent “accommodation” with the Catholic bishops reveals an important trend. When the issue is framed as a battle over “religious liberty” for institutions associated with the church, Americans are deeply divided. When it's about access to contraception, they're not – overwhelming majorities are in favor of mandating that religiously affiliated employers provide their workers with insurance that covers birth control.

The numbers don't lie. A Pew poll that offered little in the way of explanation of the new rule asked those who had heard about it (62 percent of respondents) whether “religiously affiliated institutions that object to the use of contraceptives should be given an exemption from the rule,” and found that a plurality sided with the bishops (by a margin of 48-44).

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But a CBS/ New York Times Poll found that when some background was offered, and the question was worded a bit differently so that the emphasis was on contraception (“Should religious employers be required to cover contraception?”), the results were very different. Both self-identified Catholics and the larger public favored the rule by a healthy 2-1 margin.

Surveying this landscape, some of the more strategically minded voices on the Right insist that this fight has nothing to do with contraception. On NBC's Meet the Press this week, Rep Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said this is "not an issue about contraception," but rather, Obama treating “our constitutional rights as if they’re revocable,” being “paternalistic, arrogant” and "violating our First Amendment rights … [to] freedom of religion.” Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to Newt Gingrich, told Politico that Republican efforts to beat back the provision “won't inhibit any woman’s ability to access contraception.” She added: “the question is should we pay for it, and should conscientious objectors be forced to compromise their beliefs.” And Reason magazine chipped in with an impenetrable column titled, “It’s Not About Contraception,” which references Frederic Bastiat's The Law (as libertarians are wont to do) and argues that the battle at hand is one pitting “negative versus positive 'rights.'”

Most progressives have come to hold a grudging admiration for the conservative movement's message discipline. We're often impressed by the way the entire movement repeats and reinforces its preferred narrative on most issues – from the most obscure bloggers in the fever swamps of wingnuttia to the Republican caucus in the senate. There's real power in that discipline. Gradually, the constant repetition of preferred frames seeps into mainstream reporters' coverage and ultimately influences the views of the majority of Americans who don't follow the issues terribly closely.

This is the way we're used to seeing this work, but it isn't happening this time around. Rick Santorum, a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, said, “One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about before is... the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea.” He added: “Many in the Christian faith have said, ‘Well, that’s okay. Contraception’s okay.’ It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

Last week, Santorum's fat-cat backer, Foster Fliess, made waves with his comment about how back in his day, “they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn't that costly.”

If those women would just keep their legs closed, we wouldn't be having this discussion!

New Hampshire state rep Jeanine Notter, a Tea-Party legislator, claimed that birth control causes prostate cancer, and in Utah, Republican rep Bill Wright sponsored legislation “that would prohibit schools from teaching teens about contraception.” The conservative pseudo-intellectual James Poulos wrote a confusing column for the Daily Caller posing the question, “What Are Women For?” He didn't quite have the nerve to actually answer it, but his implied argument wasn't hard to discern: breeding.

Making the task of insisting that this is a fight over “religious liberty” even harder is the Blunt amendment, which, for reasons known only to Senator Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, does not provide an exemption limited to religious institutions, but rather extends to any employer or insurer the right not to offer coverage that conflicts with their “moral convictions." (Blunt and his supporters claim that critics are wrong about this, but as Adam Serwer notes, “that's exactly what the bill says it would do. It states that 'a health plan shall not be considered to have failed to provide [Essential Health Benefits or Preventive Services]' if it fails to cover the service or benefit because 'providing coverage...of such specific items or services is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan.'" In any case, there wouldn't be room for debate if his bill had been written more narrowly.)

Our impressions are also shaped by the larger political context of the moment. The claim that this battle has nothing to do with shaming emancipated women simply holds no water at a time when Virginia is poised to become the third state to mandate that women seeking an abortion undergo a painful and invasive procedure compelling them to “see” the fetus they have already chosen to abort. Slate's Dahlia Lithwick noted that “under any other set of facts, that would constitute rape under state law,” but wingnuts like Dana Loesch responded that these women "had no problem having similar to a trans-vaginal procedure when they engaged in the act that resulted in their pregnancy."

What is it we are supposed to be talking about? Right, religious liberty!

But what explains this unusual lack of message discipline within the conservative movement? It is, ultimately, the authoritarian personality type's innate, deeply rooted fear of social change. As Sara Robinson wrote last week, “mass-produced, affordable, reliable contraception has shredded the ages-old social contract between men and women, and is forcing us all (willing or not) into wholesale renegotiations on a raft of new ones.” Robinson continued:

And, frankly, while some men have embraced this new order— perhaps seeing in it the potential to open up some interesting new choices for them, too — [many are increasingly confused, enraged, and terrified by it.] They never wanted to be at this table in the first place, and they’re furious to even find themselves being forced to have this conversation at all.

It is this intense fury that is causing many on the Right to engage in a compulsive round of "slut-shaming" -- it's throwing them off message and making it clear to the public at large that this fight is first and foremost about women's role in society, and not “conscience” or “liberty” or any of the other talking points that might have won the American people over to their side in the debate.

And that clarity will play out in this election cycle. As Greg Sargent notes, over the past three months pollsters have seen a dramatic, 18-point swing from Romney to Obama among unmarried women, and the president now leads the supposedly “moderate” contender by a stunning 65-30 margin among that group. When it comes to this bizarre fight over contraception, social conservatives are proving to be their party's own worst enemies.  

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.