Commentary Sexual Health

Pat Robertson Supports Birth Control! But Bill O’Reilly Wants Jay Z to Preach Abstinence

Martha Kempner

Conservative talking heads Pat Robertson and Bill O'Reilly each took on the complicated subject of birth control and poverty last week.

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.

Commentary Race

Learning Intersectionality: A Process

Erin McKelle

Although the reproductive rights movement and the broader feminist movement have become increasingly intersectional, there is still much work to be done in centering the issues faced by women who are not white, economically advantaged, heterosexual, and cisgender.

Erin McKelle is a student studying at Ohio University and one of Rewire‘s youth voices.

I started blogging about reproductive rights issues during high school, and a lot of the feedback I received from editors and feminist peers was based around a lack of inclusivity. At first, I felt defensive, as most people do when they get called out. But as I thought more critically about my writing, I realized that the knowledge and sources I was pulling from weren’t intersectional.

The books I was reading, the research I was doing, and the people I was quoting on reproductive rights relied on assumptions that reproductive health-care issues affected women in more or less similar ways. There weren’t nearly enough distinctions made between women with privilege on the basis of race, class, and ability, among other things, and women without some or all of those privileges.

Intersectionality is a term used to signify the acknowledgement and critical analysis of the multiple systems of oppression and privilege involved in identity. So, for instance, a woman of color’s experiences of oppression differ markedly from that of white women, as they deal with both racism and sexism; and it must be further acknowledged that each of those women face other interlocking systems of oppression and privilege, including but not limited to sexuality and gender identity.

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Although the reproductive rights movement and the broader feminist movement have become increasingly intersectional since the late ’80s, when the term was introduced into the public discourse with help from Kimberlé Crenshaw, there is still much work to be done in centering the issues faced by women who are not white, economically advantaged, heterosexual, and cisgender (which means that you identify with the sex you were assigned at birth).

The trans* community (those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) especially needs more inclusion in these conversations. Likewise, including more intersectional analysis for women with disabilities, LGB women, and the intersex community is equally important.

When people are omitted from conversations about reproductive rights and justice, there’s not a picture of the full extent of oppression in our society. These omissions are often supported by a strategic history of disinclusion. For example, prominent second-wave feminists displayed open antipathy toward transgender individuals. Gloria Steinem famously pointed to Renee Richards, a transgender woman athlete, as “a frightening instance of what feminism could lead to” in 1977 (although in more recent times, she’s apologized for comments like this). Another example would be Annalee Newitz’s “Gender Slumming,” a popular essay that seeks to invalidate transgender identities by questioning their status as a minority. This was all on the heels of TERFS (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), or feminists who do not support the inclusion of trans identities into feminism or society. TERFS have been active in promoting transphobia, one example being how they worked to curb health-care access for transgender folks in the 1980s.

Old habits can die hard.

In terms of the health care aspect of reproductive rights, it’s important that providers not base their practice in assumptions about gender and sexuality. Too much of our language around sex, biology, and reproduction relies on an assumption of cisgender and heterosexual identity. Every time I go to my general practitioner (or even to a clinic to get some medicine for a pesky sinus infection) I’m asked if I use contraception and/or condoms when I have sex. What if I’m having sex with another woman, or what if I’m intersex or a trans woman? How does that fit into the tiny box of “normalcy” that’s been created by our society? Because I have cis and heterosexual privilege (not so much because I identify as heterosexual, but more because my sexual behaviors are generally heterosexual), these questions are easy for me to answer and don’t cause me to have to out myself or risk not being treated because of my identity. If I didn’t have this privilege, I know I wouldn’t feel like I was in control of my reproductive health care.

Another important intersection that needs to be pioneered is physical access to facilities. Poor women, who are  disproportionately women of color, face some of the biggest obstacles in practicing their right to choose, since choice in this country comes with a big price tag. Ninety-five percent of counties in the United States that have shown patterns of persistent poverty exist in rural areas. This includes Athens County, Ohio, where I attend college—it is one of the poorest counties in Ohio. This, combined with the fact that living in rural areas means you are probably further away from an abortion provider, puts rural dwellers seeking pregnancy termination services in a double bind. Eighty-two percent of counties in the United States don’t have abortion services, and a study from the Guttmacher Institute found that 74 percent of the women in rural areas who had abortions had to travel more than 50 miles to get to their nearest clinic. Clearly, more work needs to be done in terms of access.

Living in a rural college town has taught me that the act of choosing is often only really an option for the privileged; your right to choose often comes down to how many dollars are in your bank account. As a result, those who have low incomes are often the ones who shoulder the burden of restrictive, anti-choice policies.

The high costs that come with pregnancy termination services in this country, for example, don’t allow everyone to have the same opportunity to choose. The average first-trimester abortion costs $470 (which doesn’t account for traveling fees associated with mandatory waiting periods or other unnecessary abortion restrictions that make it exorbitantly more expensive for women to get an abortion), which if you are living in poverty or have a low income can be a price you cannot afford to pay. I know many women living in Athens wouldn’t be able to afford an abortion on their own, considering not just the direct costs, but also the indirect ones.

If you receive Medicaid benefits, you often cannot get any coverage for an abortion, as it is illegal for federal funds to be used for this purpose under the Hyde Amendment. The only way to receive funding as a Medicaid recipient is through your state—each state has different laws about how their state Medicaid dollars can be used. One in four women who qualifies for Medicaid, however, cannot afford to pay for an abortion and must carry her pregnancy to term.

What all this means is that we need to think bigger, and insist others do the same.

When conversations around reproductive health care have an assumed audience (white women with class privilege), many voices get left out. Feminists with privilege have to collaborate with those of marginalized identities in their various communities to create a more intersectional movement. It’s not about creating a token seat at the table for marginalized women—that is, women with other marginalized identities—but rather about having those seats be open for them to sit on.

Beyond just a seat at the table, though, bringing in intersectionality means that all of our perspectives will be broadened, no matter our identity, since there will not be one assumed point of view that speaks for all. When we break down the ways in which hierarchies of privilege recreate themselves, even in feminist spaces, we can stop reinforcing the hierarchy altogether. We can push beyond needing inclusion or representation, because our movement will be filled with it. We won’t need to work with models that are based in patriarchal constructs, because we will be smashing the patriarchy by letting those whose voices are most silenced be heard.

Just as I am learning to be more intersectional—it’s a process, not an overnight transition—others probably are too. I invite you to follow me in challenging your thinking about identity and privilege and learn how you can become an ally to marginalized voices.

News Contraception

Shutdown and Default Considered Small Price to Pay for Banning Birth Control, Say Catholic Bishops and Paul Ryan

Adele M. Stan

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan dances to the bishops’ tune in shutdown and debt limit fights, refusing to compromise because he wants "leverage" to curtail Obamacare contraceptive benefit.

Click here for all our coverage of the 2013 Values Voter Summit.

Perched on a dais with two other panelists in a windowless meeting room in a Washington, D.C. hotel, the top lobbyist for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) conceded that the prelates just couldn’t muster the number of votes in the U.S. Senate to pass a law that would allow employers to ban birth-control coverage in the insurance plans they offer their employees.

“That’s why, over the last year and a half, the efforts of the Bishops’ Conference have been trying to say that this kind of protection needs to be attached to must-pass legislation,” said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities in a panel discussion at a the religious-right gathering known as the Values Voter Summit. “That’s the only way to get the Senate to deal with it,” he said.

In their September 26 letter to members of Congress, Rewire reported, Cardinal Séan O’Malley and Archbishop William Lori asked that the language of the proposed Health Care Conscience Rights Act (H.R. 940, S. 1204) be added to either the continuing resolution (CR) legislation needed to fund the operation of the federal government, or to the legislation needed to prevent the United States from defaulting on its debt.

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Opposition to the birth control benefit has been framed by the bishops and their allies as an infringement of their religious liberty, turning the definition of the term on its head by claiming a right to impose their theological views on those who believe differently. The religious liberty theme—and the claim that President Barack Obama aims to revoke it—is one that pervaded the annual conference, which took place at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, a sprawling Washington landmark.

Making the Most of the Moment

Absent from the podium this year at the right-wing confab was Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), who delivered a message by video, including an apology for not having made it to the gathering, which has become a regular, annual appearance for him.

“I’m sorry I can’t join you in person,” Ryan said in the video. “Things are a little busy up here on Capitol Hill these days. My colleagues and I, well, we’re working to get a budget agreement. It’s been slow going, but I want to make the most of this moment.”

Across town, at the U.S. Capitol, Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee, was making the most of the moment by rallying his troops in the House to do the bishops’ bidding.

Earlier in the day, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), presented a plan for a compromise deal (later rejected by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) that would have funded the government through March, ending the current partial government shutdown, and delayed until January the showdown on the debt ceiling—which needs to be raised by October 17, according to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, in order to avert a financial crisis. Ryan, the Washington Post reported, was having none of it. One big reason: birth control. Specifically, the contraception benefit in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), to which the bishops object.

In a closed-door meeting with his fellow House Republicans, Ryan reportedly “riled” up his colleagues with a speech opposing the Collins compromise, finding no benefit in the extension of deadlines to alleviate the current crisis. As the Post’s Paul Kane and Lori Montgomery wrote:

According to two Republicans familiar with the exchange, Ryan argued that the House would need those deadlines as “leverage” for delaying the health-care law’s individual mandate and adding a “conscience clause”—allowing employers and insurers to opt out of birth-control coverage if they find it objectionable on moral or religious grounds—and mentioned tax and entitlement goals Ryan had focused on in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

(Ryan’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, which also proposes means-testing for Medicare, among other things, is here.)

Since late September, the Republican-controlled House has passed a number of versions of the CR (H.J. 59), all with some measure attached designed to be unpalatable to lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The first one, passed by the House on September 20, included a measure to strip funding for implementation of the ACA, which is also known as Obamacare. Predictably, the Senate stripped the anti-Obamacare language and sent the CR back to the House, which passed it again, this time with the defunding provision removed, and, in its place, measures that would have delayed the opening of the ACA’s insurance exchanges for a year, as well as the implementation of the contraception benefit, which requires nearly all insurance plans to cover prescription contraception without a deductible or co-pay.

Again, the Senate stripped out the language on the health-care law, and sent the bill back to the House for reconsideration. By then, Congress was up against the deadline for passing the CR needed to fund the government, forcing the partial shutdown. Absent from subsequent CRs passed by the House and rejected by the Senate, which included measures to reopen popular aspects of the government (such as parks, or nutritional assistance programs), was any further attempt to force the Senate to exempt employers from the requirement for contraception coverage.

But it appears that Ryan is gearing up to ride to the bishops’ rescue in their quest to keep women from having sex void of life-changing consequences.

Bishops Join With Obama-Haters and Gay-Bashers

The Values Voter Summit is sponsored by FRC Action, the political arm of the Family Research Council, which has been classified as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its vitriol against LGBTQ people. That the bishops would send their man to such a virulently right-wing gathering—in which Obamacare was denounced as “the worst thing in this nation since slavery,” where state of America today was equated with that of Nazi Germany, where the president was denounced as a tyrant—speaks to their desperation to find allies for their cause. Catholic women, for example, use birth control at the same rates as those of other denominations, and 82 percent of all Catholics say that the use of contraception is morally acceptable, according to Gallup.

That’s likely why the bishops insist on falsely describing some of the prescription contraception methods covered by the preventive care regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services under the ACA as “abortifacients.” Public opinion is far more divided on abortion than on birth control.

The panel on which Doerflinger appeared—a breakout session titled “Values and Obamacare: The Threat to Religious Freedom, Life & the Family”—also featured Anna Franzonello of Americans United for Life and Casey Mattox of the Alliance Defending Freedom, both of whom are attorneys working on cases challenging the birth control provision, often referred to as the HHS contraception mandate. Doerflinger’s purpose appeared to be to urge the largely evangelical Protestant audience to lobby their senators and congressional representatives to support a right for employers to deny contraceptive coverage to their workers.

When an audience member, during the question-and-answer period, suggested that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, take a greater public role in opposing the birth control provision, Doerflinger replied that there’s nothing the media, which he said sided with the president, liked better than seeing a bishop in a mitre trying to make the case against the birth control benefit, when the other side is represented by “an articulate woman” such as Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary.

The spokespeople really needed by those standing in opposition to the HHS mandate, Doerflinger said, were women. He made note of a group called Women Speak for Themselves, which took up the bishops’ provision, and gave a shout-out to Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) for her sponsorship of the Health Care Conscience Rights Act in the House.

Obama “the Enemy of Our Freedom”

At a later breakout session, “Where Do We Go From Here? A Challenge to Tyranny,” Terry Jeffrey, editor in chief of CNS News, an arm of the right-wing Media Research Center, suggested that stronger medicine was needed than that which Doerflinger called for.

“It’s a pretty powerful word, tyranny—but I think it’s an accurate one,” Jeffrey said as he opened his remarks. After establishing his Catholic bona fides by citing his Jesuit education, Jeffrey said his expectations were low for the outcome of the court cases filed by private employers such as Hobby Lobby, a crafts store chain, and church-affiliated institutions such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, because he expected even rulings favorable to the plaintiffs to be narrow. He had even less hope for a congressional remedy, he said, despite the fact that House Speaker John Boehner is Catholic, and noting how quickly the House Republicans had abandoned the conscience measure they attached to the second version of the CR. “They held on to that position for, like, I don’t know, 30 hours,” he said, ruefully.

No, Jeffrey said, the only way to win against what he called “this unjust law” was to take a page out of Martin Luther King Jr.’s book and embark on a campaign of massive civil disobedience. He noted that King’s famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail framed the justification for his outlawed courthouse protest in the teachings of two Catholic saints: Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

“Because our legislatures won’t protect us, because our courts won’t protect us, and because we have a president who is the enemy of our freedom … we are going to have to stand and resist the way people did in the ‘50s and ‘60s against immoral segregation laws,” Jeffrey said. “We are going to have to engage in organized … and peaceful disobedience because of an unjust law that is a huge step towards tyranny in the United States of America.”