Commentary Contraception

2011: The War on Contraception

Amanda Marcotte

The year was a frantic one in the fight over reproductive rights, but what was really remarkable was how anti-choicers quit pretending to simply love fetuses, and wage all-out war on women's non-abortion reproductive rights. 

The year 2011 will be remembered by reproductive rights supporters as the year that the anti-choice movement really turned up the aggression, destroying the objections of moderate liberals who thought that pro-choice activists were being hysterical little ladies with our constant warnings about anti-choicers.

Up until late 2010, you could still find many a liberal who would argue that conservatives “don’t really” want to ban abortion, but instead dangle the promise of doing so in front of a bunch of religious zealots to get their votes. Now those liberals realize the religious zealots actually exert quite a bit of control, in both their direct control over the Republicans and their ability to make the Democrats jump around nervously.

Up through 2010, you could find many liberals who would laugh condescendingly when you would point out that the anti-choice movement not only wants to ban abortion, but has an eye out for destroying access to contraception, as well. No one is laughing at the supposedly hysterical ladies anymore. Turns out, we were right all along, and everyone knows it, including the White House.

There’s much that can be said about the escalating attacks on abortion access, which seemed especially over-the-top in a nation gripped by economic crisis that needs to be dealt with immediately. Irin Carmon did an excellent round-up of that story at Salon, and is on this week’s podcast talking about the same.  As she explains, many anti-choice efforts in that direction were surprisingly useless at the end of the day, since they’ve been tied up in court or, as in the case of the personhood amendment in Mississippi, simply voted down completely.

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What I want to comment on for my last column of the year is the war on contraception, since 2011 was the year where it went from a series of skirmishes over contraception access to all-out war. Let’s be clear; anti-choice activists have always opposed contraception. But they were always wary of being outed to the public at large as anti-contraception, which meant that their attempts to discourage the use of it were somewhat stymied.

Under the Bush administration, they scored some victories by mandating anti-contraception propaganda (misleadingly called “abstinence-only education”) in schools, preventing emergency contraception from being sold over-the-counter without age restrictions, and defunding international spending on family planning that had nothing to do with abortion. Two of those victories have turned to losses. Abstinence-only especially turned out to be a joke; while anti-choicers were able to secure an apparently much-desired uptick in the teen pregnancy rate, it seems like it was mostly a blip in what is a longer trend of teenagers being more responsible about contraceptive use. It also seemed, until very recently, that anti-choicers would also lose on emergency contraception.

The election of Obama and the rollback of anti-contraception propaganda, however, seems to have set the anti-choice movement off. Even though most of them will still deflect if asked directly in mainstream media if they oppose contraception, they basically stopped trying so hard to manage mainstream perceptions of themselves as somehow just great lovers of fetal life, and are coming out with their anti-sex, misogynist agenda. The word “abortion” gets thrown around a lot, but the actions of the anti-choice movement this year made it crystal clear that it’s not about abortion, but about punishing women who have sex, full stop. Here’s a list of examples of how:

1) The Planned Parenthood federal budget stand-off. When House Republicans threatened a government shutdown if Title X funding for contraception and reproductive health services wasn’t stripped from the budget, the word “abortion” was tossed around a lot. Maybe some fools bought that story, but for most of us it was obvious that it couldn’t be about abortion. After all, no Title X funds can go to abortion services. It was clearly an attack on contraception access for those who couldn’t pay out of pocket, fitting with previous anti-choice hostility towards contraception.

2) The defunding of family planning clinics on a state level. House Republicans may have lost the funding battle on a federal level, but there’s been much more success depriving women of access to contraceptives and related services on a state level. For instance, under Rick Perry’s leadership, Texas has been so successful in stripping funding from family planning clinics that the state can expect to see a 22 percent increase in its abortion rate. Other anti-choice-controlled states are making the move to dramatically increase the unintended pregnancy rate, with Wisconsin adding cancer screenings to the list of subsidized services they are stripping from women of the state.  Sure, all these moves will dramatically increase the amount of money the states have to dish out for Medicaid, but women are punished for having sex with unintended pregnancies and cancer, which is all that matters to the anti-choice movement.

3) Personhood amendments. Mississippi very nearly passed an amendment that would define fertilized eggs as persons in their state, which would be an effective ban on abortion, IVF, stem cell research, and providing many forms of emergency medical assistance to pregnant women. Anti-choicers also clearly hoped it could be used to ban the pill, even though the only demonstrable mechanism that the pill uses to prevent pregnancy is to suppress ovulation. The amendment didn’t pass, but anti-choicers managed to get many news anchors, pundits, and even feminists to erroneously claim that the pill works by killing fertilized eggs. (All available evidence shows that it works by suppressing ovulation, and the possibility that it may make it slightly more likely for an egg not to implant than usual is speculation.) Getting that misinformation into the public was a huge rhetorical victory for those who have an eye out for banning female-controlled contraception, and returning control over women’s bodies to men.

4) The open fight over the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine couldn’t have less to do with fetal life, embryonic life, or even the life of fertilized eggs. But since those things don’t really matter to the anti-choice movement–which is primarily motivated by the desire to punish women who have sex–the HPV vaccine was resisted by anti-choice activists from the get-go. This war has been going on mainly out of the  view of the mainstream media, until 2011, when Rick Perry’s competition for the Republican nomination decided to make an issue out of his previous support for the vaccine. Michele Bachmann particularly made a giant fuss over the supposed evils of letting the sexually- active avoid death from cervical cancer. While the vaccine isn’t contraception, the controversy was yet another example of how anti-choicers are dispensing with the bad faith arguments about “life,” and openly fighting any tool women can use to be safe while being sexually active.

5) The fight over insurance coverage of contraception. In 2011, the Obama administration decided to add contraception to the list of preventive services that will eventually be covered fully without a co-pay by insurance companies. Naturally, this caused a fight with anti-choice activists, who are now looking for ways to chip away at the decision by carving out exemptions for Catholic-run universities and hospitals. (Who are required to cover contraception by the federal government anyway.) This fight couldn’t have less to do with “abortion”, but is just about maximizing the number of women who get pregnant against their will by making contraception needlessly expensive.

6) The Plan B debacle. Anti-choice activists lost most of their battles, except for the state-level destruction of access to contraception. However, they learned as the year wound down that persistence pays off: The Obama administration handed them an enormous victory when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA’s decision to allow Plan B to be sold over-the-counter without age restrictions. By keeping Plan B out of the hands of minors, especially those in consensual and age-appropriate relationships, and by making it much harder for women of all ages to get it, the administration helped the anti-choice movement in its goal of keeping this country’s unintended pregnancy rate sky high. Sure, that also means our abortion rate continues to be sky-high, but as this year has definitively shown, the anti-choice movement doesn’t care about preventing a single abortion, if doing so would get in the way of punishing women for having sex.

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