Roundup: Abstinence-Only and Abortion Absolutism on the Far Right

Scott Swenson

Abstinence-only-until-marriage is in the news, as is contraception and choice. While some of the news may be intended to seduce moderates into supporting the most extremely conservative GOP platform and ticket in history, the truth of their failures for the past eight years is getting national attention.

Abstinence + Contraception = Comprehensive Sex Ed

The LA Times reports that while Sarah Palin said she supports abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and opposed "explicit sex-ed" on an Eagle Forum questionnaire to win conservative support, she later argued on a radio show it was okay to teach kids about condoms.  The LA Times reports that this equivocation left Focus on the Family’s James Dobson without comment, and Leslee Unruh, champion of abstinence-only programs confused but steadfast in her support of Palin:

Leslee Unruh, president of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse and
campaign manager of the Vote Yes for Life effort, said children must be
given a "clear and concise" message on the benefits of abstinence.

Asked about Palin’s statement, Unruh said, "I don’t think it’s clear. It seems disjointed to me."

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Two days later, Unruh dismissed the comments as "old." 

"I support her in every way," she said. 

Other conservatives who have backed Palin, including James Dobson of Focus on the Family, declined to weigh in.

spokeswoman Maria Comella said the governor stands by her 2006
statement, supporting sex education that covers both abstinence and


This is a classic tactic of social conservatives, confusing the issue to send one signal to the far-right while still seeming reasonable to voters in the middle. Like Unruh, the moderating comments don’t matter to most social conservatives, because in the end they know Palin will support their far-right agenda if elected and simply says these things to confuse moderate voters.  If Sarah Palin agrees that contraception should be taught along side abstinence then she should make a clear statement supporting evidence-based comprehensive sexuality education and indicate that a McCain-Palin Administration will redirect tax dollars from failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.  

Conversely, voters can just look at the Bush Administration to see what is likely to come from four more years of social conservatives running Health and Human Services and other agencies.


Failed Abstinence-Only Policies

An op-ed in the New York Times looks at failed ab-only policies:

In fact, a 2001 Unicef report said that the United States teenage
birthrate was higher than any other member of the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development. The U.S. tied Hungary for the
most abortions. This was in spite of the fact that girls in the U.S.
were not the most sexually active. Denmark held that title. But, its
teenage birthrate was one-sixth of ours, and its teenage abortion rate
was half of ours.  

If there is a shame here, it’s a national shame
— a failure of our puritanical society to accept and deal with the
facts. Teenagers have sex. How often and how safely depends on how much
knowledge and support they have. Crossing our fingers that they won’t
cross the line is not an intelligent strategy.  

To wit, our
ridiculous experiment in abstinence-only education seems to be winding
down with a study finding that it didn’t work. States are opting out of
it. Parents don’t like it either. According to a 2004 survey sponsored
by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard’s Kennedy School of
Government, 65 percent of parents of high school students said that
federal money “should be used to fund more comprehensive sex education
programs that include information on how to obtain and use condoms and
other contraceptives.”  

We need to take some bold steps beyond
the borders of our moralizing and discomfort and create a sex education
infrastructure that actually acknowledges reality and protects our
children from unwanted pregnancies, or worse.


Ab-Only v. Comprehensive Sex-Ed

From Gannett News Service a look at abstinence-only and comprehensive sexuality education, with social conservatives still supporting failed and expensive federal programs for abstinence-only-until-marriage as promoted by the Bush Administration:

Leslee Unruh, president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse in Sioux Falls,
S.D., is convinced telling kids not to have sex makes a difference and
that talking about condoms or birth control confuses them. "It
undermines the message," she said, comparing it to antidrug campaigns
that also dispense clean needles to addicts. "You have to give a clear,
concise message."

While all the evidence suggest a more comprehensive approach:

Kirby said most scientifically valid studies indicate that the best
approach is a comprehensive one — one that shoots for abstinence as a
goal but also teaches teens about contraception and uses role playing
and other engaging techniques.  

"We need to look at the results,"
Kirby said. "A comprehensive message is effective whereas the programs
that don’t do that are not even delaying sex."


GOP/Far-right Anti-Abortion Absolutism

Jacob Weisberg at Slate has a provocative piece about how the GOP can’t quite seem to find its way to the mainstream of American political thought because of its anti-abortion absolutism:

I’ve long expected the Republican Party to resolve this conflict in
its social vision by moderating its stance on abortion. Politically,
pro-life absolutism has never made much sense. A significant element
within the GOP—libertarians, economic conservatives, Barbara
Bush—favors leaving Roe v. Wade alone. A majority of the
country agrees. Meanwhile, the percentage of people on either side of
the debate who say they’ll vote only for a candidate who shares their
views has been steadily shrinking.
Since Lee Atwater’s heyday, pragmatic Republicans have been trying to
figure out how the party can become a "big tent," making room for a
pro-choice as well as a pro-life faction. Until recently, the
modernizers included John McCain himself, who in 1999 said, "Certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade,
which would then force women in America to [undergo] illegal and
dangerous operations." That was only one of several attempts on
McCain’s part to evolve his position. If Roe ever were
repealed, there would follow a fight in every state about whether to
ban abortion by statute. Politically, this could be the best thing to
happen to liberals since the New Deal. We got a taste of this dynamic
after the Supreme Court’s 1989 Webster decision, which allowed states to restrict abortion in certain ways. As my colleague William Saletan has argued, fear of Roe
being overturned contributed to Democratic electoral gains in 1989 and
1990 and to a wave of more conciliatory rhetoric from the GOP.  

renewed evangelical dominance of the GOP in the Bush years has pushed
McCain in the opposite direction—to the point of letting Phyllis
Schlafly revise the abortion plank in the party’s 2008 platform. The new version actually eliminates language from the 2004 edition rejecting "punitive action against women who have an abortion."
This "base" bias explains how McCain ended up with a wildly
underqualified running mate, instead of his preferred pro-choice veep
picks, Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge.


It’s important to note again that the far-right is happy to have this confusion about their social policy agenda during the election, to seduce moderate pro-choice, pro-prevention voters, knowing that the social conservatives currently setting policy in the Bush Administration will still be there if this obfuscation works, and McCain-Palin are elected. 


Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Republicans Can’t Help But Play Politics With the Judiciary

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Republicans have a good grip on the courts and are fighting hard to keep it that way.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Linda Greenhouse has another don’t-miss column in the New York Times on how the GOP outsourced the judicial nomination process to the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick has this smart piece on how we know the U.S. Supreme Court is the biggest election issue this year: The Republicans refuse to talk about it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging doctors to fill in the blanks left by “abstinence-centric” sex education and talk to their young patients about issues including sexual consent and gender identity.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Good news from Alaska, where the state’s supreme court struck down its parental notification law.

Bad news from Virginia, though, where the supreme court struck down Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will leave behind one of the most politicized state supreme courts in modern history.

Turns out all those health gadgets and apps leave their users vulnerable to inadvertently disclosing private health data.

Julie Rovner breaks down the strategies anti-choice advocates are considering after their Supreme Court loss in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.   

Finally, Becca Andrews at Mother Jones writes that Texas intends to keep passing abortion restrictions based on junk science, despite its loss in Whole Woman’s Health.

Analysis Politics

The 2016 Republican Platform Is Riddled With Conservative Abortion Myths

Ally Boguhn

Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the Republican platform, which relies on a series of falsehoods about reproductive health care.

Republicans voted to ratify their 2016 platform this week, codifying what many deem one of the most extreme platforms ever accepted by the party.

“Platforms are traditionally written by and for the party faithful and largely ignored by everyone else,” wrote the New York Times‘ editorial board Monday. “But this year, the Republicans are putting out an agenda that demands notice.”

“It is as though, rather than trying to reconcile Mr. Trump’s heretical views with conservative orthodoxy, the writers of the platform simply opted to go with the most extreme version of every position,” it continued. “Tailored to Mr. Trump’s impulsive bluster, this document lays bare just how much the G.O.P. is driven by a regressive, extremist inner core.”

Tucked away in the 66-page document accepted by Republicans as their official guide to “the Party’s principles and policies” are countless resolutions that seem to back up the Times‘ assertion that the platform is “the most extreme” ever put forth by the party, including: rolling back marriage equalitydeclaring pornography a “public health crisis”; and codifying the Hyde Amendment to permanently block federal funding for abortion.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the platform, which the Susan B. Anthony List deemed the “Most Pro-life Platform Ever” in a press release upon the GOP’s Monday vote at the convention. “The Republican platform has always been strong when it comes to protecting unborn children, their mothers, and the conscience rights of pro-life Americans,” said the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, in a statement. “The platform ratified today takes that stand from good to great.”  

Operation Rescue, an organization known for its radical tactics and links to violence, similarly declared the platform a “victory,” noting its inclusion of so-called personhood language, which could ban abortion and many forms of contraception. “We are celebrating today on the streets of Cleveland. We got everything we have asked for in the party platform,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, in a statement posted to the group’s website.

But what stands out most in the Republicans’ document is the series of falsehoods and myths relied upon to push their conservative agenda. Here are just a few of the most egregious pieces of misinformation about abortion to be found within the pages of the 2016 platform:

Myth #1: Planned Parenthood Profits From Fetal Tissue Donations

Featured in multiple sections of the Republican platform is the tired and repeatedly debunked claim that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue donations. In the subsection on “protecting human life,” the platform says:

We oppose the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion or to fund organizations, like Planned Parenthood, so long as they provide or refer for elective abortions or sell fetal body parts rather than provide healthcare. We urge all states and Congress to make it a crime to acquire, transfer, or sell fetal tissues from elective abortions for research, and we call on Congress to enact a ban on any sale of fetal body parts. In the meantime, we call on Congress to ban the practice of misleading women on so-called fetal harvesting consent forms, a fact revealed by a 2015 investigation. We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage.

Later in the document, under a section titled “Preserving Medicare and Medicaid,” the platform again asserts that abortion providers are selling “the body parts of aborted children”—presumably again referring to the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood:

We respect the states’ authority and flexibility to exclude abortion providers from federal programs such as Medicaid and other healthcare and family planning programs so long as they continue to perform or refer for elective abortions or sell the body parts of aborted children.

The platform appears to reference the widely discredited videos produced by anti-choice organization Center for Medical Progress (CMP) as part of its smear campaign against Planned Parenthood. The videos were deceptively edited, as Rewire has extensively reported. CMP’s leader David Daleiden is currently under federal indictment for tampering with government documents in connection with obtaining the footage. Republicans have nonetheless steadfastly clung to the group’s claims in an effort to block access to reproductive health care.

Since CMP began releasing its videos last year, 13 state and three congressional inquiries into allegations based on the videos have turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of Planned Parenthood.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund—which has endorsed Hillary Clinton—called the Republicans’ inclusion of CMP’s allegation in their platform “despicable” in a statement to the Huffington Post. “This isn’t just an attack on Planned Parenthood health centers,” said Laguens. “It’s an attack on the millions of patients who rely on Planned Parenthood each year for basic health care. It’s an attack on the brave doctors and nurses who have been facing down violent rhetoric and threats just to provide people with cancer screenings, birth control, and well-woman exams.”

Myth #2: The Supreme Court Struck Down “Commonsense” Laws About “Basic Health and Safety” in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

In the section focusing on the party’s opposition to abortion, the GOP’s platform also reaffirms their commitment to targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws. According to the platform:

We salute the many states that now protect women and girls through laws requiring informed consent, parental consent, waiting periods, and clinic regulation. We condemn the Supreme Court’s activist decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics.

The idea that TRAP laws, such as those struck down by the recent Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health, are solely for protecting women and keeping them safe is just as common among conservatives as it is false. However, as Rewire explained when Paul Ryan agreed with a nearly identical claim last week about Texas’ clinic regulations, “the provisions of the law in question were not about keeping anybody safe”:

As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the opinion declaring them unconstitutional, “When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.”

All the provisions actually did, according to Breyer on behalf of the Court majority, was put “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion,” and “constitute an undue burden on abortion access.”

Myth #3: 20-Week Abortion Bans Are Justified By “Current Medical Research” Suggesting That Is When a Fetus Can Feel Pain

The platform went on to point to Republicans’ Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a piece of anti-choice legislation already passed in several states that, if approved in Congress, would create a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks based on junk science claiming fetuses can feel pain at that point in pregnancy:

Over a dozen states have passed Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Acts prohibiting abortion after twenty weeks, the point at which current medical research shows that unborn babies can feel excruciating pain during abortions, and we call on Congress to enact the federal version.

Major medical groups and experts, however, agree that a fetus has not developed to the point where it can feel pain until the third trimester. According to a 2013 letter from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “A rigorous 2005 scientific review of evidence published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. A 2010 review of the scientific evidence on the issue conducted by the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists similarly found “that the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior” to 24 weeks’ gestation.

Doctors who testify otherwise often have a history of anti-choice activism. For example, a letter read aloud during a debate over West Virginia’s ultimately failed 20-week abortion ban was drafted by Dr. Byron Calhoun, who was caught lying about the number of abortion-related complications he saw in Charleston.

Myth #4: Abortion “Endangers the Health and Well-being of Women”

In an apparent effort to criticize the Affordable Care Act for promoting “the notion of abortion as healthcare,” the platform baselessly claimed that abortion “endangers the health and well-being” of those who receive care:

Through Obamacare, the current Administration has promoted the notion of abortion as healthcare. We, however, affirm the dignity of women by protecting the sanctity of human life. Numerous studies have shown that abortion endangers the health and well-being of women, and we stand firmly against it.

Scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that abortion is safe. Research shows that a first-trimester abortion carries less than 0.05 percent risk of major complications, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and “pose[s] virtually no long-term risk of problems such as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or birth defect, and little or no risk of preterm or low-birth-weight deliveries.”

There is similarly no evidence to back up the GOP’s claim that abortion endangers the well-being of women. A 2008 study from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, an expansive analysis on current research regarding the issue, found that while those who have an abortion may experience a variety of feelings, “no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors.”

As is the case for many of the anti-abortion myths perpetuated within the platform, many of the so-called experts who claim there is a link between abortion and mental illness are discredited anti-choice activists.

Myth #5: Mifepristone, a Drug Used for Medical Abortions, Is “Dangerous”

Both anti-choice activists and conservative Republicans have been vocal opponents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) March update to the regulations for mifepristone, a drug also known as Mifeprex and RU-486 that is used in medication abortions. However, in this year’s platform, the GOP goes a step further to claim that both the drug and its general approval by the FDA are “dangerous”:

We believe the FDA’s approval of Mifeprex, a dangerous abortifacient formerly known as RU-486, threatens women’s health, as does the agency’s endorsement of over-the-counter sales of powerful contraceptives without a physician’s recommendation. We support cutting federal and state funding for entities that endanger women’s health by performing abortions in a manner inconsistent with federal or state law.

Studies, however, have overwhelmingly found mifepristone to be safe. In fact, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals says mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra. When the FDA conducted a 2011 post-market study of those who have used the drug since it was approved by the agency, they found that more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. had used it to end a pregnancy, only 2,200 of whom had experienced an “adverse event” after.

The platform also appears to reference the FDA’s approval of making emergency contraception such as Plan B available over the counter, claiming that it too is a threat to women’s health. However, studies show that emergency contraception is safe and effective at preventing pregnancy. According to the World Health Organization, side effects are “uncommon and generally mild.”