Conservative talking heads were at it again last week discussing birth control, abstinence, and plans for sex education. Former Southern Baptist minister turned media mogul Pat Robertson surprised many people when he said that birth control was important. In contrast, Bill O’Reilly stuck to his right-wing guns, eschewing access to birth control for a Jay Z-led, federally funded abstinence campaign. While there were kernels of truth in what these two zealots said, their diatribes nonetheless remain problematic.
Oh, Those Ragamuffins
Pat Robertson has said some pretty bizarre things over the years. He’s blamed hurricanes on gay people, suggested the 2010 Haiti earthquake may have been caused by a pact Napoleon made with the devil, and called feminism “a political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” Still, what he said last week might be even more surprising: Robertson expressed strong support for contraception.
Yep, the same man who once told a woman whose husband was cheating on her that it was her responsibility to set up a home from which her man did not want to stray, said when asked if birth control is a sin, “Birth control is absolutely an important thing for people to use because you want to be able to look after children. I think the idea of being able to determine when and how is a very important part of humanity.”
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Has he suddenly become a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood? After all, this sounds eerily similar to the organization’s mantra of “every child a wanted child.”
If only he had stopped there, the reproductive rights community might finally have been able to say it has a few things in common with the 83-year-old television personality: a belief that women should be in control over whether and when they have children, and an understanding that contraception is the most effective way to make sure women have that power.
Unfortunately, Robertson kept going; he said, “That’s the big problem, especially in Appalachia. They don’t know about birth control. They just keep having babies, and you see a string of all these little ragamuffins and not enough food to eat and so forth. It’s desperate poverty.”
Robertson is right that there is a connection between poverty and birth control. A lack of education about contraception as well as lack of health-care access can certainly lead to unintended pregnancies and a loss of control over family size. Moreover, as Rewire has discussed at length in other articles, early child bearing can be the result of a cycle of poverty and limited educational and career opportunities.
Appalachia—a region of the country that includes a part of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia—has some of the most pervasive poverty in the country. Central Appalachia has up to three times the national poverty rate, the shortest lifespan in the country, and higher rates of cancer and chronic depression. Women in this part of the country—especially those who live in rural areas—also have very little access to birth control or abortion services.
So Robertson is not wrong in suggesting that there is a connection between lack of birth control and the poverty faced by this region in particular. His phrasing, however—especially the use of the word “ragamuffin”—suggests his goals are more about controlling poor women’s fertility (making sure they don’t have too many children) than protecting the right of all women to control their own reproduction.
Sex Ed With Bill O’Reilly (and Jay Z?)
Conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly also took on poverty and birth control last week, in an interview with Democratic strategist James Carville—which managed to be both sexist and racist in a less than two-and-a-half-minute segment. O’Reilly started the interview with stats about single parenting in the United States. According to the Fox News star, 73 percent of African-American households are headed by “unwed mothers,” as are 52 percent of Latina households and 26 percent of white households. “It’s a catastrophe at 73 percent,” he says. “I want a big public campaign funded by the federal government to go in and tell the girls and the young ladies, ‘Don’t do this, this condemns you to poverty, it is destructive to your child. Wait until you have a stable situation to become pregnant.'”
Given that O’Reilly used the term “stable situation,” as opposed to marriage, the advice is not all that dissimilar to what a comprehensive sexuality education program would teach—though such a program would skip the fear and condemnation, and direct its advice to both young women and young men.
Carville responds by saying he would get behind the campaign if it included comprehensive sex education and easy access to birth control. In the back-and-forth that follows, O’Reilly says these issues are peripheral to the need for an attitude shift. He argues that this isn’t about not having sex, it’s about not becoming pregnant. Of course, the only way not to become pregnant while having sex is to use birth control, but O’Reilly shrugs that off, saying contraception is already easily available at Planned Parenthood and accusing Carville of wanting to “fund, fund, fund” and hand out birth control on ice cream trucks.
O’Reilly thinks the way to go is peer pressure to discourage young women from getting pregnant, and his big idea is to use Jay Z, whom he describes as the “100 million dollar man,” to exert this pressure.
O’Reilly does have a point buried in his rant. Peer pressure and perception of what peers are doing sexually does, in fact, influence behavior. For example, studies have shown that young people who believe their peers are using condoms are more likely to do so themselves. Research has also found that peer education is often more effective than programs delivered by adults. One such study compared HIV programs led by peers to those led by adults and found that “peer counselors produced greater attitude changes in teens’ perception of personal risk of HIV infection.”
But a message of “don’t have sex” that seems to be directed almost exclusively at African-American young women is offensive, and, as Carville points out, unlikely to be effective. The federal government already tried promoting abstinence-only-until-marriage to the tune of $176 million per year at its peak, and there is no evidence that it was even remotely effective. In fact, the federal government’s own review of some of the “best” abstinence-only-until-marriage programs concluded:
Findings indicate that youth in the program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age.
Of course, to O’Reilly’s credit, none of these programs involved Jay Z.