May 07, 2006

A War on Contraception

Well, it is America. Therefore, everything is a war. Hence the title. Perhaps the relentless attachment of the descriptor 'war' to every political and social tussle to come down the pike is what's responsible for grinding down the meaning and impact of a word that stands for death and destruction on a truly massive scale until the prospect of actual wars no longer troubles our body politic. But I digress. And before I've even gotten to the main post, no less. Reckon I should get on with it ...

Little voices from the edge of the progressive movement have been whispering for a while that given the ideological proclivities of the hardcore right in ascendency in our government, and given the push to allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense contraceptives, that the fight against abortion isn't the goalpost. The fringe opposed to contraception has been going mainstream in policy circles, if not in public opinion.

Today, the New York Times writes about the Contra-Contraception forces at work in America today in a long and well-done piece by Russel Shorto:

... "We see a direct connection between the practice of contraception and the practice of abortion," says Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, an organization that has battled abortion for 27 years but that, like others, now has a larger mission. "The mind-set that invites a couple to use contraception is an antichild mind-set," she told me. "So when a baby is conceived accidentally, the couple already have this negative attitude toward the child. Therefore seeking an abortion is a natural outcome. We oppose all forms of contraception."

... "The linking of abortion and contraception is indicative of a larger agenda, which is putting sex back into the box, as something that happens only within marriage," says William Smith, vice president for public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. Siecus has been around since 1964, and as a group that supports abortion rights, it is natural enemies with many organizations on the right, but its mission has changed in recent years, from doing things like promoting condoms as a way to combat AIDS to, now, fighting to maintain the very idea of birth control as a social good. "Whether it's emergency contraception, sex education or abortion, anything that might be seen as facilitating sex outside a marital context is what they'd like to see obliterated," Smith says.

... In the current, evolving movement against contraception, therefore, some groups soft-pedal their position. "Concerned Women for America does not take a position regarding birth control," Wendy Wright, president of that influential, 500,000-member, biblically-based organization, told me. She went on to say, however, that C.W.A. does "educate regarding how certain birth control methods operate." Specifically, the group offers a brochure titled "High-Tech Birth Control: Health Care or Health Risk?" to those who call seeking guidance. Most methods of birth control can pose health risks. A 2005 World Health Organization study, for instance, found a connection between some forms of the pill and cancer. But the C.W.A. brochure goes well beyond this. Its section on emergency contraception advises that "its main function is to abort a living human embryo." One function of the birth control pill, it states, is to induce "a chemical abortion." The section on the IUD indicates none of its practical benefits (its 99 percent effectiveness in preventing pregnancy, its reversibility) and consists mostly of a litany of health complications, many of which health experts refute.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 98 percent of all women who have ever had intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method. Worldwide, about 76 million women currently use the birth control pill. It would be suicide for an organization that hopes to influence public policy to assert outright opposition to contraception. Instead, attacks are mostly around the periphery of the issue: on the health aspects of various forms of contraception, on the mechanism by which they work, on the efficacy of certain methods.

... A poll released in 2004 by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government found, for example, that 95 percent of parents think that schools should encourage teenagers to wait until they are older to have sex, and also that 94 percent think that kids should learn about birth control in school. ...

The article details the fight over approval of Plan B emergency contraception as an over the counter medication, an ongoing dust up wherein Washington's own Patty Murray has joined Sen. Clinton in holding up the nomination of a proposed F.D.A. commissioner until it's resolved. Other topics include the technical workings of birth control pills, Leslee Unruh's creepy "Purity Balls" and the abstinence-only movement, as well as recounting the negative correlation between the availability of contraception and the incidence of abortion in a society.

Another point covered in the article is the sense among Americans that cultural messages are a little too x-rated for young people, as indicated by the high percentage of parents who want their children to hold off on sex until they're older. But about the same amount also want contraception explained in school. Just in case. This seems like a pretty reasonable position to me. It's also a mainstream position, doesn't get more mainstream than over 90% approval. So don't you forget it.

The argument that young people shouldn't be taught about contraception and methods to avoid disease is a lunatic fringe view. It's significantly less popular than Dick Cheney. I have a sense that the public gets guilted and wheedled into it both by the social desire to appear moral and the sense of concern that a good deal of sex education already seems to be happening on MTV. Perhaps they're influenced by the strawmen of the abstinence-only fringe, who suggest that really, sex education is just the endorsement to get wild that parents fear. But just for a lark, I went over to Planned Parenthood's Teenwire site, and found a link to a teen sexuality quiz whose first question encourages teens not to be embarassed about being virgins and whose continual message is to wait. That's the message from Planned Parenthood, the big boogeyman of the right, just below an article about how hard it is to be a teen parent. Based on the poll results quoted in the article above, it looks like Planned Parenthood is already telling young people to wait and be aware of consequences. They aren't just discussing body parts void of any larger consideration as the NYT article, in a weak point, suggested that proponents of birth control have been doing.

Yet this tails into highlighting once again the fundamental reason for the dishonesty of the right: Their message is unpopular and out of touch.

They lie about the effects of contraception. They lie about the effectiveness of abstinence-only education. They lie about sex education and the people who provide it. They do all this because because the Planned Parenthood message of wait until you're older/ready, but if you don't then be prepared, is overwhelmingly popular with parents. They lie because contraception is considered a normal and reasonable part of life used at one point or another by virtually all women.

Never hesitate, when confronted by one of these fringe arguments, to point out that they don't speak for the American public on this matter. Not even close. This is the height of loony right hubris, which few dare say represents a mass case of imperial nudity among the Republican party. While other items on the progressive slate might represent a steeper learning curve, everybody has to learn about sex sometime.

This isn't explaining the civil liberties issues surrounding wiretapping, Florida in 2000, the Geneva Conventions, universal healthcare or institutional racism, all concepts and issues that a great many Americans can easily get around ever having to find out much about. So argue the point proudly. With relish, even.

Contraception and accurate information about sexuality is a perfectly reasonable thing for Americans to want and have access to. End of story.

Posted by natasha at May 7, 2006 06:43 AM | Health/Medicine/Health Care | Technorati links |

This was one of the most amazing articles I've ever seen. As a Catholic, (but one of 2 kids 8 years apart, and with one protestant parent) I'd been exposed to some of this. But the fact that it's gaining any ground is very interesting. And more than a bit scary. The Republicans really are opposed to any sex unless they get to dictate the terms.

Posted by: Carl Ballard at May 7, 2006 11:15 PM

It really was an interesting, but horrifying article. There's nothing that frustrates and irritates me more than right-wing thinkers imposing their intolerant religious beliefs across a secular society. This stance is insulting for everyone; monogamous unmarried couples, married couples, single men and women, and gay men and women - across the board. My lifestyle choices, and my body's freedom should be governed by no one but myself. To purposely put my well-being at risk because some lame-brained extremists don't agree with what I do in the privacy of my home, makes me sick. Keep the politics out of my pants.

Posted by: Rachel at May 18, 2006 09:56 AM