Commentary Politics

Contraception Extremism and the Right-Wing Bubble

Amanda Marcotte

How did the Republicans get themselves into this shutdown mess? Part of the problem is they are remarkably out of touch, and you can look no further than Republican discourse on contraception to see how bad it's gotten in the right-wing bubble.

Well, looks like the grand scheme of the Republicans to shut down the federal government—a plan that was years in the making—as a chest-thumping show of power did not turn out as planned. Instead of gallantly demonstrating that they will control the government even if the voters keep rejecting them, Republicans ended up caving while facing historically low polling and a general consensus that they are a bunch of babies throwing a tantrum. When you aim for “mighty rulers of America” and instead land on “squalling baby” as your public image, you screwed up, big time. So what went so terribly wrong for Republicans?

If you really want to understand what’s the matter with the modern Republican Party, look no further than the issue of contraception, which played an important role during the shutdown talks. The way that the modern Republican Party approaches what used to be the non-issue of contraception tells you everything you need to know about how the Republicans’ dramatic right-wing shift happened, and why they can’t seem to see that the political moves they think are genius are actually scaring and alienating ordinary voters.

To recap where mainstream America is on the issue of contraception: More than 99 percent of sexually active women have used contraception at some point. Sixty-two percent of reproductive age are currently using some kind of contraception. Only 8 percent of Americans believe that contraception is morally wrong. Unlike abortion, on which conservatives have successfully bullied and guilt-tripped people until many Americans believe the issue is morally complex, doin’ it without conceiving is a popular American past time, more popular than crappy sitcoms, ice cream, and professional sports. Even the people who pull faces and say it’s wrong like to do it.

Despite this, Republicans have been getting increasingly aggressive about attacks on contraception access. While most of them are unwilling as of yet to come right out and say it’s wrong—Rick Santorum delightfully excluded—there’s been a noticeable trend rightward in both anti-contraception policies and an escalation of anti-contraception rhetoric. It started under the Bush administration with an explosion of “abstinence-only education,” or what I like to call anti-contraception propaganda, programs that were justified by the peculiar American tradition of being hypocritical and sanctimonious for no good reason to our youth. Since then, Republicans have put a surprising amount of effort toward trying to find any excuse they can to demonize and restrict contraception.

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The various attempts by Republicans to take the government or the economy hostage by threatening shutdowns or debt default have largely featured this anti-contraception bent. Previous budget fights have involved Planned Parenthood, and while the Republicans often try to claim their various attempts to defund the organization are about abortion, the fact that the money in question does not go to abortion at all, but instead to other reproductive health services, that dog doesn’t hunt. You don’t cut off contraception funding because you hate abortion. You do it because you hate contraception.

This most recent battle was the most serious of all, because House Republicans really did shut down the government and look like they were close to forcing us into a default, but despite the seriousness of the issue, one of the major reasons talks on a budget were stalled was, you got it, contraception. Many Republicans demanded a bill that would allow employers who disapprove of contraception—for you, that is, since their own contraception use is kept out of the discussion—to withhold your earned insurance benefits covering it.

While Republicans might try to write off these attacks on contraception as being about “abortion” or “religious freedom” (“religious freedom” being code for “the right to impose my faith on my employees”), the increasingly ugly rhetoric around contraception itself belies that claim. Look, they’re not even trying to hide it anymore. Ted Cruz was railing on about how the birth control pill, which works by suppressing ovulation, is an “abortifacient.” This attempt to redefine contraception as abortion has been going on for years now and has only picked up since the Affordable Care Act was passed and the possibility of women having more reliable access to contraception started to freak out the Christian right. At that same Values Voter Summit, speaker Gary Bauer characterized Sandra Fluke as “promiscuous,” basically defining the word to encompass any woman who has ever used or even supports the use of contraception, as Fluke breathed not a single word about her own contraception history during her testimony to Congress.

Clearly, no matter how much hand-waving is going on, many Republicans are trying to demonize contraception, a wildly unpopular position that frankly makes them look like lunatics. But they obviously don’t understand that this is what happens when they threaten to run the government into the ground to keep even a handful of women away from contraception or characterize one as “promiscuous” just because you don’t hate contraception.

Clearly, many Republicans live in a bubble world, constructed of right wing media and Bible-thumping bedroom communities where they get almost no exposure to the fact that some of their ideas are just plain weird. These politicians are supposed to be representatives of the people, but many of them clearly haven’t even considered the possibility that they sound like they’ve been transported here in a time machine from 1963. When I hear some Republican trying to imply that birth control pills are some kind of great controversy in America, I often wonder how their staffers hide the existence of color television from them, much less iPhones and electric cars. The modern world is clearly not the one they’re living in.

This out-of-touch mentality goes a long way to explaining how Republicans thought this shutdown showdown was a great idea. If you can work yourself into believing that birth control is controversial, then you clearly live in a chamber made of mirrors and fueled by wishful thinking. Many Republicans clearly haven’t considered the possibility that their far-right views really are out of step with mainstream America, and so they run headlong into doing things like demonizing contraception or trying to shut down the government thinking that the world is going to nod along with them. And then they’re shocked to their cores when they realize that’s not actually how this is going to work.

Sadly, of course, having no idea what the real world looks like clearly isn’t keeping many Christian right Republicans out of office. Hopefully, this recent shutdown humiliation will show many of them the value in looking at the world outside of their heads, and maybe, just maybe, some of them will learn to moderate themselves.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article included a typo that misidentified Sen. Tim Kaine as a Republican. We regret this error.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.