Somewhere between the time I snuck into a seat at the San Jose Center for Performing Arts last Thursday and the end of comedian Bill Maher’s set, when he announced a personal $1 million contribution to President Obama’s Super PAC, the topic of contraception came into his cross hairs.
After a year of conservative-coordinated assaults on Planned Parenthood and other attacks on oral contraceptives and protected sex, we as a country have entered a bizarre moment. Not getting pregnant is the new abortion.
The Catholic Church’s fight to forbid insurance-provided birth control to employees of religious organizations—and the all-male panel on a House Oversight Committee hearing on contraception—officially codified the latest culture war.
“You would have thought from the right-wing reaction that Obama had ordered the Navy Seals to force nuns to put the rubber on your dick,” Maher quipped to wild applause. He stopped. “Don’t applaud for that!”
In the midst of all this, a few questions stand out; namely, how is it in a country where 99 percent of women have used birth control that we are fighting over whether people should have access to birth control? How did a position this freakishly extreme enter the mainstream political conversation?
“If you look at this argument with respect to the Catholic Church, they’re basically saying Obama is violating in his health plan the separation between church and state,” says Mary Jacobsen, a board-certified ob-gyn who teaches a course at Stanford University called Current Topics and Controversies in Women’s Health. “Well, what about the right of the women? Why does the institution take preference over her? And if we’re saying that the institution is right, what other kinds of healthcare could they end up limiting?”
Jacobson says she and other Stanford faculty recently fought and won their own birth-control battle this year when the university’s health insurance provider sought to omit Intrauterine Devices (IUDs), which prevent pregnancy at a better rate than The Pill, from coverage.
“That kind of raised a lot of eyebrows at Stanford,” Jacobson says. “Our family-planning division and ob-gyn department mobilized and contacted the Stanford rep responsible for that and overturned it.”
In her book How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, author Christina Page argues that right-wing attacks on abortion are merely cover for a far more radical social agenda.
The real target of organized anti-choicers, she says, is not abortion. Abortion is simply the divisive, emotional topic used to mobilize grassroots support. The real target of the organized anti-choice movement, she says, has always been birth control.
Page says she’s been recommending since 2008 that reporters ask all GOP candidates their position on contraception. “The media wasn’t willing,” she says, “because they thought asking made them look foolish.”
Fast-forward to the current day, and all current Republican presidential candidates—Romney, Santorum, Paul and Gingrich—have publicly opposed access to contraceptives.
It’s worth noting how very far from the mainstream the roots of the anti-contraception movement are. According to polling published in February by the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority—55 percent—of Americans agree that “employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost.”
An even higher ratio of Catholics, 58 percent, believe that employers should be required to provide their employees with health-care plans that cover contraception, the poll found.
“I think it’s quite scandalous as to how candidates are playing political games with people’s lives,” says Paul Blumenthal, a colleague of Jacobson’s and the director of Family Planning Services and Research at Stanford. “Contraception is acknowledged and a very well studied health intervention, that actually improves people’s health and improves the life of women and their families. Even from an employer’s standpoint, the ability to access contraception easily and inexpensively actually produces a healthier and more productive employee. From that standpoint, it’s incomprehensible to me.”
A long silent pause and heavy breath comes across the line as Monique Kane, the executive director of the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC), weighs whether or not to answer the question.
“We don’t usually get involved in political stuff because we’re a nonprofit,” she says.
This would make sense, but the question wasn’t leading or loaded. It was a general query about what services CHAC provides.
“What we do is work to help teens so they make good choices and lead healthy, successful lives,” Kane says. “We do some work in the schools on pregnancy prevention, in order to prevent kids from having children when they’re not ready. It shouldn’t be political, the health of our youth.”
But somehow the rhetoric against contraception and organizations like CHAC or Planned Parenthood has made it political, equating awareness to anathema. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation succumbed to the pressure earlier this year, announcing it was cutting $600,000 in annual financial support of Planned Parenthood—despite the fact that 97 percent of the clinics’ services have nothing to do with abortion, and the foundation’s money was put toward breast cancer screenings for poor people. The outcry was swift, and the foundation reversed its decision.
“I think that enlightened people know that we do a lot of breast screens of women and lot of preventative care,” says Lupe Rodriguez, Planned Parenthood’s director of public affairs for Silicon Valley.
But the rhetoric on health-care plans mandated to provide contraception continues. Adding a layer of hypocrisy to the debate, “these are the same health plans that pay for men to use Viagra,” says Jacobson. “For them not to provide contraception for women seems counterintuitive to me. The fact of the matter is, there’s a 50 percent unplanned pregnancy rate in this country, and these kinds of attitudes against prevention support that.”
“We’d be putting our heads in the sand if we didn’t acknowledge many teenage girls are getting pregnant and do not want to be pregnant,” says Liz Kniss, who sits on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and previously worked as a nurse. “It’s a war on women, it really is. And once again it’s an attempt to remove the right from women to make choices of any kind. That’s what I find is stunning.”
Ann Neumann, editor of The Revealer, a website dedicated to covering the relationship between religion and the media, says fiscal conservatives are systematically leveraging religion to carry out their objectives on eliminating what they see as entitlements.
“If you push a free-enterprise Republican on the cost savings of free contraception, their second line of defense will be the moral one,” Neumann says. “In other words, free-enterprise folks are necessary to this mix in that they cover for the social conservatives.”
This approach works for attacks on reproductive health care, Neumann notes, in a way that wouldn’t work for other medical issues, simply because of whom it affects.
“Contraception and any other reproductive care,” she says, “has been ghettoized as women’s.”
Sady Doyle contributed to this report.