Birth-control debate a winner for Democrats

Melinda Henneberger
Reporter February 21, 2012

The beauty of the current birth-control conversation for Democrats is that they not only have public opinion on their side but also have cannily managed to make contraception a front-burner election-year campaign issue — by complaining that Republicans are making it front-burner election-year campaign issue.

The answer, in other words, to the many who are wondering why the Republicans would want to ride such a losing pony is: They don’t.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011. View Archive

“No one is making birth control a topic,” Rick Santorum’s long-time media consultant and friend John Brabender told me. “It’s not an agenda that anyone’s running on. But it’s a distortion that works to [the other side’s] benefit to imply we’re for limiting access to birth control.’’

The narrative that it’s conservatives who won’t stop talking about pills, gels and contraceptive foam is probably set in stone at this point; a story in today’s Washington Post reports that contraception has “suddenly become an obsession of the 2012 presidential campaign. To many observers, it seems that the clock has indeed been turned back.”

The first two such observers quoted in the piece are leaders of the contraception lobby, whose job is to monetize real and perceived attacks, exactly as their counterparts on the right do: “As Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, said incredulously on Saturday during a rally in Austin: “Somehow in this country, in 2012, this election might turn on whether women should have access to birth control.’ ”

Incredulously, or hopefully? It’s Democrats like Richards who keep saying this is what the election will turn on. Which is smart, if you are Cecile Richards, because for any campaign or cause these days, outrage is oxygen. (See Komen vs. Planned Parenthood.) And if the election does turn on contraception, her team wins.

When I looked back at a tape of what Republicans have been saying on the topic, what’s striking is how reluctant they are to go there.

Yes, even including Santorum’s 71-year-old bankroller, Foster Friess, whose assets may until now have buffered him from the news that his jokes need work.

But when he recycled a fragment of an (at least) 50-year-old funny about an aspirin held between the knees being all the birth control a nice girl needs, it was in response to Andrea Mitchell’s question about whether he was concerned that Santorum’s views on birth control and women in combat roles could hurt his viability as a candidate.

His first response was to deflect the question: “I get such a chuckle when these things come out. Here we have millions of our fellow Americans unemployed, we have jihadist camps being set up in Latin America, which Rick has been warning about, and people seem to be so preoccupied with sex!”

The aspirin inanity that followed has been successfully cast as his candidate’s “agenda,” mainly through the efforts of Democratic fundraisers: “We’ve already accumulated 65,000 signatures on our petition opposing their Aspirin Agenda,” Sen. Patty Murray said in a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraising letter Friday. “But I’m too mad to stop at ‘opposing.’ It’s time we punished the people responsible by taking away their jobs. The DSCC is ready to send the GOP agenda back to the 1950s where it belongs — and send these Republicans packing. Will you click here and give $5 or $10 to help us raise $100,000 by the end of today to fire anti-choice Republicans?’’

The result? Big bucks, according to a well-reported piece in the Huffington Post that claimed that for Democratic lawmakers, all the talk about birth control “couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, giving them the chance to launch a well-oiled, comprehensive effort to lock in women’s votes ahead of the 2012 elections” and raising healthy sums for candidates across the country.

It is certainly true that some on the right have long pushed against government funding for Planned Parenthood because of the abortion services it provides, and Santorum isn’t for funding the outfit, either. And although contraception, free or otherwise, is not the intended target, every Republican presidential candidate has repeatedly vowed to undo every last word of the Affordable Care Act, including the parts that insist on affordable birth control for poor women.

But in every interview Santorum has given on the topic of birth control — in 2006, last summer and recently — he always stresses that he supports Title X funding for contraception. He’s also said he would strenuously oppose any state effort to ban birth control. And do we really believe that a guy who freely allows that he’d bomb Iran if they didn’t let inspectors into nuclear facilities is hiding his true intentions regarding the pill?

When Charlie Rose asked Santorum on CBS about what Freiss had said, the candidate repeatedly tried to steer the conversation to the economy and jobs, but Rose wasn’t having it, insisting that voters “need to understand how you differ from what this guy said.” His response? What Friess said was “a bad joke, a stupid joke,” not reflective of his own views. “I voted for Title X federal funding of birth control.”

Because the opposite will be assumed if I don’t spell it out, no, I do not happen to share Santorum’s views on birth control, which he feels is harmful, leaving women, in particular, vulnerable because it unmoors love from responsibility. For one thing, I don’t see how we could ever reduce the abortion rate without contraception, and lots of it. At the Catholic marriage-preparation class known as Pre-Cana that my husband and I attended 20 years ago, I was the only one of the several dozen brides-to-be in attendance who admitted in a women-only discussion circle that I would not be following church teaching on contraception. (Nobody from the office formerly known as the Inquisition popped out to drag me away, but it did set off a livelier discussion than you might think, the highlight of which was one extremely nice young woman arguing that perhaps I would do enough other good works in life to squeak into Heaven anyway.)

Andrew Sullivan has wondered if maybe President Obama accidentally on purpose lured conservatives into the current uproar over contraception by originally denying religious exemptions from a health-care mandate requiring employers to provide insurance that includes free contraception.

Not sure I buy that, but if so, that was some high-level chess game; after some strong initial blowback from what even some liberal allies saw as an incursion on religious liberty, a compromise has soothed allies and the White House has successfully portrayed any who are still upset about the constitutional implications as single-minded soldiers in the ongoing war against women.

And the result, as things stand, has such a vast upside for Democrats that Nancy Pelosi could not have planned that all-male photo op in front of the House Oversight Committee any better herself.

For previous She the People columns, go to washingtonpost.com/shethepeople.

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