Rick Perry has only two children?! As the biographical information flashed by on television during a recent debate of Republican presidential hopefuls, it was strangely incongruous to see that the rising star of the religious right was so woefully behind his competitors. Rick Santorum and Jon Hunstman led the pack with seven kids each, followed by Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachman with five (and the 23 children she had fostered). To be sure, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain also had a paltry two, but they, unlike Perry, were not considered to be the new favorite of the social conservative wing of the Republican. Recent polls show Perry supplanting Bachman in that role, notwithstanding her impressive numbers.
Perry’s late entrance into the race saved him from the awkwardness of having to deal with the “pro-marriage pledge,” put forth by a leading Iowa conservative activist, and signed by some of his fellow candidates who had competed in that state’s straw poll. This pledge, among other things, asked signers to affirm that “robust childrearing and reproduction is beneficial to U.S. demographic, economic, strategic and actuarial health and security.” (Shortly after his official entry into the race, Perry did sign yet another pledge, this one in support of a federal amendment against gay marriage).
The reason that Rick Perry has “only” two children, one can say with confidence about this normally private matter, is because of the widely disseminated fact of his vasectomy. cited in the New York Times among other places. (This procedure, to the delight of late night comedians, was apparently performed by his father-in-law).
Speaking as a reproductive health advocate, I have quite mixed feelings about Perry’s decision (presumably made with his wife) to have a vasectomy. On one hand, I strongly believe that men should share in the task of contraception, and I commend the governor for doing so. Despite tantalizing talk for years of research on a “male birth control pill,” vasectomies and condoms are currently the only contraceptive options for men. Though vasectomies have a proven record of safety, efficacy and satisfaction, only a relatively small number of American men elect this procedure, in part because of a belief that it might affect sexual functioning.
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In theory, Perry, whose persona is that of a swaggering alpha-male, could help popularize this method, making clear that “real men” have vasectomies. Just as the late First Lady Betty Ford’s openness about her breast cancer spurred many women to undergo mammograms, Perry’s public endorsement could increase the popularity of vasectomies.
But that of course won’t happen. Perry’s choice of a vasectomy serves to highlight a mean-spiritedness toward the contraceptive options of his fellow Texans who don’t have family members who are surgeons. As governor, he presides over a state in which 25 percent of adult men have no health insurance, the highest rate in the country (the U.S. average is 16 percent). A vasectomy can cost up to one thousand dollars at some clinics, and doubtless more at others. Uninsured Texans who want a vasectomy would no doubt be unable to pay out of pocket for it given the low wages for which the Texas economy has become infamous.
Moreover, Perry has led an attack on family planning services used by low-income Texas women. He recently signed a budget bill reducing the state’s family planning funding from $111 million to just $37 million. Following the playbook of the religious right in other states, Perry and the Texas state legislature have moved to defund Planned Parenthood clinics, the largest state to do so. To gain a sense of the magnitude of these cuts, in just one Texas affiliate—Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region— some 4,000 patients will lose access to birth control services, as well as breast and cervical screenings, and HIV tests.
It’s too late for Rick Perry to compete with the other Republican presidential candidates in the “robust childbearing” department. Perhaps some of the most fervent Christian conservatives will fault his vasectomy as it violates the biblical junction to “be fruitful and multiply.” But in his relentless attacks on contraception, and of course, abortion and comprehensive sex education, Perry is doing all he can to reassure his base that many of his fellow Texans will not have the same opportunity to control their childbearing as the Perry family had.