With detractors like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rick Santorum, Tom Delay and James Dobson, most thinking people might conclude that John McCain comes highly recommended. But just because John McCain is an enemy of some of our most cartoonish villains does not make him a friend. This is most true on reproductive health issues.
Pro-choice Americans haven't yet pegged McCain as the extreme anti-choice copy of George W. Bush he is. But for close watchers of pro-choice politics, he's John McSame.
In fact, the Straight Talk Express has skidded off the road that most Americans drive. He is more extreme than even some who consider themselves "pro-life." For example, most Americans would be stunned to learn McCain won't – or can't – say whether he even supports the right to use contraception. Last March, McCain fumbled through this exchange about contraception with a reporter aboard his campaign bus;
"Reporter: "Should U.S. taxpayer money go to places like Africa to fund contraception to prevent AIDS?"
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Mr. McCain: "Well I think it's a combination. The guy I really respect on this is Dr. Coburn. He believes – and I was just reading the thing he wrote- that you should do what you can to encourage abstinence where there is going to be sexual activity. Where that doesn't succeed, then he thinks that we should employ contraceptives as well. But I agree with him that the first priority is on abstinence. I look to people like Dr. Coburn. I'm not very wise on it." (Mr. McCain turns to take a question on Iraq, but a moment later looks back to the reporter who asked him about AIDS.)
Mr. McCain: "I haven't thought about it. Before I give you an answer, let me think about. Let me think about it a little bit because I never got a question about it before. I don't know if I would use taxpayers' money for it [contraception]."
Q: "What about grants for sex education in the United States? Should they include instructions about using contraceptives? Or should it be Bush's policy, which is just abstinence?"
Mr. McCain: (Long pause) "Ahhh. I think I support the president's policy."
Q: "So no contraception, no counseling on contraception. Just abstinence. Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?"
Mr. McCain: (Long pause) "You've stumped me."
Q: "I mean, I think you'd probably agree it probably does help stop it?"
Mr. McCain: (Laughs) "Are we on the Straight Talk express? I'm not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I'm sure I've taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception – I'm sure I'm opposed to government spending on it, I'm sure I support the president's policies on it."
Q: "But you would agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Would you say: 'No, we're not going to distribute them,' knowing that?"
Mr. McCain: (Twelve-second pause) "Get me Coburn's thing, ask Weaver to get me Coburn's paper that he just gave me in the last couple of days. I've never gotten into these issues before."
The Coburn that McCain has chosen as his mentor on all things reproductive is Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, which is like having the Taliban head up the Office for Women's Initiatives. (Think that's an extreme comparison? Keep in mind Coburn supports the death penalty for abortion providers.)
One story about McCain mentor Coburn is particularly telling. Coburn, in recent years, led a sneaky offensive against the condom. In 1999, Coburn drafted legislation mandating that condom labels state that they cannot prevent the transmission of HPV. In 2000, at Coburn's request, the National Institutes of Health, the FDA, USAID and the CDC (the agencies responsible for condom research, condom regulation, condom-use recommendations, and HIV/AIDS and STD prevention) hosted a meeting of experts to compile and examine 138 peer-reviewed papers on the effectiveness of condoms in preventing transmission of STDs. In its report, the panel explained the difficulty in making definitive conclusions based on available studies. For one, thing, there exist ethical boundaries that prevent ideal studies from being conducted. Researchers cannot ask study subjects to go have sex without a condom and come back and see what they caught. They also cannot ask those with treatable diseases, like HPV, to remain untreated, have sex with others using a condom, and see how likely transmission was.
Thus NIH took the cautious route. It pointed out that given the studies out there, it was not always possible to say with certainty that the condom stopped everything, like, for example, HPV or chlamydia. With regard to HPV, it stated, "The panel stressed that the absence of definitive conclusions reflected inadequacies of the evidence available and should not be interpreted as proof of adequacy or inadequacy of the condom to reduce the risk of STDs." In other words, a definitive answer was not possible either way. Still the panel was able to conclude, " Study results did suggest that condom use might afford some reduction in risk of HPV associated diseases, including genital warts in men and cervical neoplasia [or cancer] in women." With HPV, the diseases are what you care about.
The panelists knew how their careful words might be construed by those with a political agenda and explicitly cautioned anyone against using the report to discourage condom use. On cue, Coburn reacted as if the CDC's careful wording proved his case. Somehow he managed to conclude that the government was covering up for "condom pushers." Coburn issued a press release entitled "Condoms Do Not Prevent Most STDs" and joined anti-condom groups the Physician's Consortium and the Catholic Medical Association to call for the resignation of the director of the CDC.
President Bush rewarded Coburn for his good work by appointing him to co-chair, of all things, the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. When it comes to the preventing the spread of AIDS, Bush clearly prefers Right-thinking anti-condom crusaders to scientists. It would appear McCain does too. And might similarly reward Coburn – to oversee HHS, perhaps.
Sadly, though McCain often appears to be the palatable Sunday talk show conservative, the good-humored, apparently moderate Republican, on reproductive rights he's a lot like Coburn. Down the line, positions will leave even the middle-of-the-road reader wondering if we can really afford more of the same.
When asked about his position on reproductive rights, McCain talking with the National Review advised, "I think the important thing is you look at people's voting record because sometimes rhetoric can be a little… misleading." And there's no truer statement. McCain's voting record, which NARAL Pro-Choice America scrupulously tracks, is telling. He has consistently voted against the right to a legal abortion and he has also consistently voted against contraception. McCain voted to end the Title X family planning program which is the only way millions of Americans have been able to plan their family. Title X has also been heralded as having prevented more than nine million unwanted pregnancies in the last two decades. Without Title X, the number of teenage pregnancies would have been 20% higher too.
McCain voted against legislation that would have required insurance coverage of prescription birth control and would also have provided more women with prenatal health care. (So, throw in anti-baby too. It's also worth noting that in 2004, McCain ranked among the 25 worst Senators for children, scoring 38%, according to the Children's Defense Fund Congressional Score Card.)
He's an unapologetic proponent of the failed abstinence-only approach as well. He voted against making "abstinence-only" programs medically accurate (the most authoritative study found that more than 80% of abstinence-only curricula, used by more than 2/3 of federal recipients, contains false, misleading, or distorted information.) He also wanted to take $75 million from the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant to launch an abstinence‐until-marriage program that prohibits sexually active teens from learning about birth control. Yet another time he tried to route one‐third of all HIV/AIDS prevention funds to the completely ineffective "just say no to sex" programs.
It's clear; Iraq is not the only unpopular war Bush started that McCain hopes to continue. The war on Americans' sex lives is another and McCain has already proven himself a good, loyal general.