Commentary Health Systems

Conservatives Suspicious of the Concept of Health, But Anti-Choice Extremists Beat Them to It

Amanda Marcotte

It's not an illusion: Conservatives have started to exhibit hostility toward the concept of health itself, implying that being healthy is scary and somehow anti-freedom. This shouldn't be a surprise, however, as anti-choicers have been saying similar things for decades now.

Looking back, it now seems inevitable that the conservative rhetoric against Obamacare would drift away from attacking the policy and toward casting aspersions on the concept of getting health care itself. It’s a structural issue at its core—without Obamacare, tens of millions of people will remain uninsured. As Slate‘s Matt Yglesias wrote recently, “Conservatives need to persuade people not just that Obamacare plans are inferior to some hypothetical amazing health insurance plan that some other, much more prosperous people have, but actually worse than having no health insurance at all.” It’s actually amazing that the argument hasn’t been trotted out before—probably because even right-wingers know what a hard sell that is.

Now the Koch-linked anti-Obamacare group Generation Opportunity has decided to experiment with trying to convince young people of just that. The group’s recent ad, showing a patient basically being tortured by a creepy Uncle Sam at the doctor’s office, has some surface plausibility that the group is only denouncing medical care if you get it through health insurance purchased on the health-care exchanges. But the obvious emotional pitch of the ad is that going to the doctor itself is bad, so you’re better off never doing it. Like James Poniewozik of TIME said, “[T]he apparent takeaway—besides several nights’ of puppet nightmares—is that you should actually prefer no insurance coverage or doctor visits at all.” The hope is clearly that by exploiting people’s already existing dislike of seeing a doctor, Generation Opportunity can convince them to just skip the health insurance thing altogether—which is doubly disturbing when you remember that those who do are facing fines from the government.

The ugly, hostile attitude toward medical professionals that’s evident in the Generation Opportunity ad is quite reminiscent of the hostility toward the medical profession that has been part of the anti-choice movement since protesters began picketing abortion clinics. Bloody fetus pictures are waved around, with the implication being clear: Since surgery is gross, it’s best avoided, even if you dislike the alternative. One of the absolute most common tactics among anti-choicers is to demonize abortion and contraception care as painful, scary, and gross—as if the alternative of pregnancy and childbirth is a walk in the park.

No surprise, then, that Generation Opportunity hired the former vice president of Americans United for Life. If you want  someone with a lot of experience trying to scare people out of getting the care necessary for them to have full, healthy lives, then of course you call an anti-choice activist. They’ve been leading the way on trying to intimidate Americans from getting health care.

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It’s not just the anti-choicers, of course. For years now, there’s been a streak of conservative rhetoric that is openly suspicious of health itself, especially the idea that everyone—whether rich or poor—deserves good health. There’s always been a tendency to be hostile toward good health on the right, though it only cropped up on those occasions where there was a conflict between big business and people’s health. Conservatives consistently defend corporate profits over people’s health in battles over things like pollution, tobacco, gun safety, and now junk food. But in recent years, this tendency has taken a turn toward the radical side, with the very concept of healthiness increasingly becoming an object of scorn and mockery on the right, with dark intimations that a healthy lifestyle is somehow a threat to their nebulous, ill-defined concept of “freedom.”

Indeed, it’s common for anti-choicers to imply that using contraception is a form of “enslavement.” No wonder the same notion—that voluntarily choosing to take care of your health is somehow a capitulation to fascism—cropped up with the attacks on Michelle Obama’s healthy eating programs.

Michelle Obama decided to make nutrition and exercise, especially for the young, her official priority as First Lady. Obama’s program is focused on education, and also includes some rules requiring schools to offer fruits and vegetables, though there’s no requirement students have to eat them. Being told that eating vegetables is good for you, however, has been received on the right as if Obama was showing up at your house and forcing Brussels sprouts down your throat. As Media Matters reported last week, Fox News has been regularly trying to convince its audience we’re on the verge of facing fines and even jail time for buying french fries or salty foods, and that assigned marriages are next. Rush Limbaugh tried to convince his audience that they would be personally monitored by the food police.

Michelle Obama has also been pushing Americans to drink more water, saying that one more glass a day will make you feel better. The possibility that people might listen to her, drink more water, and feel better was clearly more than conservatives could bear. Conservative media went absolutely nuts, as Roy Edroso at the Village Voice‘s Runnin’ Scared blog documented recently, comparing the suggestion to drink more water to “torture” and implying that voluntarily pouring yourself a glass of water was capitulation to fascism. True patriots are forever dehydrated, I guess.

Still, anti-choicers did it first and do it best. While the phrase “anti-choice” is nice shorthand, part of the anti-choice agenda is a movement against sexual health. While the abortion fight is the most prominent, anti-choice activists also object to contraception, sexually transmitted infection education, and basically anything that makes it easier for sexually active people—a group that nearly all human beings will join at some point in time, including anti-choicers themselves—to maintain good health. This is especially true when it comes to low-income people, whose access to sexual health care is under relentless attack from the right, especially with the war on family planning funding and the fight over contraception coverage in insurance. Young people are also a favorite target, which is why lying to young people about sexual health under the umbrella of “abstinence-only” is such a big deal for anti-choicers. The lies they tell could encourage young people to make unhealthy choices, such as skipping condoms after being told at school they don’t work. This appears to be a feature and not a bug, since conservatives doubled down on the lies after pro-choicers proved they were harmful.

The moral of the story is simple: To know where the mainstream conservative movement is heading in its rightward drift, look to the anti-choice movement. So often the ideas and the rhetoric that crop up among mainstream conservatives started in the fringes of anti-choice extremism.

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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