Boehner and McCotter Pledge a “Culture of Life”

Jodi Jacobson

In a letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Republican leaders pledge to promote a concept the definition of which includes opposition to all forms of birth control.

During the stimulus debate, House Minority Leader John Boehner criticized the Medicaid expansion of contraceptive services–now included in the President’s 2010 budget–as "wasteful spending."

But he may have had other reasons for opposing the provision: opposition to birth control on ideological grounds. 

In a letter sent on February 17, 2009, by Boehner and his colleague Thaddeus McCotter, Chair of the House Republican Policy Committee, to His Eminence Justin Frances Rigali, Chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the two leaders pledge:

"We will, as Pope Benedict XVI exhorted during his apostolic visit to the United States last year, "proclaim the gift of life, to serve life, and promote a culture of life."

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The letter largely focuses on the commitment of the Republican leadership to opposing the Freedom of Choice Act (which has not been introduced and is not likely to be introduced any time soon), and to fight any efforts to "weaken" the:

"Hyde Amendment, the Dickey/Wicker Amendment, the Hyde/Weldon Conscience Protection Amendment, and the Kemp-Kasten Amendment."

On the face of it, the letter echoes the Republican party’s long-standing opposition to a woman’s right to choose abortion, the party’s support for expanded "conscience clauses," and limits on federal research involving human embryos. 

The Hyde Amendment, for example, excludes abortion from the comprehensive health care services provided to low-income people by the federal government through Medicaid (though exceptions are allowed for victims of rape or incest, and for life endangerment).  Kemp-Kasten "prohibits foreign aid funding for any organization that, as determined
by the President, supports or participates in the management of a
program of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization," a law that was used fallaciously by the Bush Administration to withhold funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). 

The Hyde/Weldon Amendment prevents federal, state and local governments
from requiring health care entities to provide or pay for certain abortion-related
services, allowing health insurance companies and HMOs to refuse to provide coverage
or pay for abortions without reprisals.  And
the Dickey/Wicker Amendment restricts the use of federal funds for embryonic research.

But by invoking a "culture of life," this letter goes further in raising questions about whether two principal leaders of the party actually are signaling their opposition to any form of contraception that falls outside the definition of the teachings of the Catholic Church.

The concept of a "culture of life" as defined by the Catholic Church leaves
little room for debate on women’s access to contraception.  "Culture of life" is a term used in moral theology as shorthand for the concept that human life, at all stages from conception through to natural death, is sacred.

The Church therefore not only rejects the internationally accepted medical definition of pregnancy as beginning after a fertilized egg successfully implants in the uterine lining, but greatly expands the definition of abortion to include any action interfering with a fertilized egg.  Because of this, supporting a "culture of life" as defined by the Church implies opposition to all forms of contraception including birth control pills, intra-uterine devices, injections, and emergency contraception because these may prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.  By contrast, medical bodies such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the World Health Organization define abortion as a means of ending pregnancy after implantation.

The Republican party has never officially declared opposition to birth control per se, at least to my knowledge, though there is no question that many within the party have done their utmost over the years to limit access to contraception here and abroad.  Certainly, one could infer such a position from their manipulation of data during the Bush Administration under the Centers for Disease Control; their placement during the Bush era of ideological opponents in key positions throughout Health and Human Services, at the Food and Drug Administration, at USAID, and in the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator; their vociferous support for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs so deeply discredited by the evidence; and their opposition to expanding provisions that would allow women easier access to contraception, among many other actions.

Still, even despite all this, the sweeping nature of the promise made to "promote a culture of life" made by Boehner and McCotter caught me off guard.  So I called the Minority Leader’s office to ask: "Is John Boehner signalling opposition to basic forms of contraception and to the concept of family planning?"  His press secretary said he "could not speak to Boehner’s personal position," to which I responded that the letter was not about personal but about policy positions.  The press secretary promised to get back to me but never did.

So the question remains: Does the leadership of the House Republican Party oppose access to basic contraceptives?  I would still like to know the clear answer. 

I think this letter provides further evidence that the real issue is not, and
never has been "abortion," because contraceptives are the very means
through which women and men throughout the world can freely and
responsibly plan their families, and the means through which women
everywhere are able to avoid the unintended pregnancies that can lead
to an abortion in the first place. 

And in some ways, it would be a relief to find out the answer was "yes."  We could then all stop the charade that these guys really are concerned about "reducing abortion," and focus on more clearly on their real position: the control of women. 

We therefore need to be highly vigilant any time the term "abortion" is invoked.  The constant re-definition of "pregnancy and abortion" by the religious right is just one more
in the legion of efforts to erode reproductive rights and the right of women to
choose whether and when to become pregnant and whether to bring a pregnancy to term. 

It’s about ideology.  One set of ideologies.  And in a pluralistic society the government has no role in promoting one set of religious beliefs over all others.


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