Politicians can say the dumbest things in political campaigns, particularly in primary contests where they are playing to a narrow political base. In the 2012 race for the GOP presidential nod, former Senator Rick Santorum drew political flack when he criticized birth control and famously opined on the "dangers of contraception."
It would be easy to dismiss the "dangers of contraception" rhetoric of the once and future GOP presidential aspirant as just idle talk, particularly since Santorum is no longer serving in the U.S. Senate and does not appear to be on the fast track to winning the 2016 Republican nomination. But Santorum is not alone in his hostility to contraception. Far from it. Numerous Republicans, on and off the campaign trail, have voiced their concerns about birth control. A few years ago, Rep. Steve King took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and ominously warned that increased access to contraception was leading to a "dying civilization." Seriously.
A couple of years ago Ross Douthat, the New York Times blogger and author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, blamed "the world that contraception has made" for "declining marriage rates, steadily rising numbers of children born out of wedlock" and "millions upon millions upon millions of abortions." Really?
But it's not the insane rhetoric or the tortured logic that concerns me. It's where the rhetoric meets the road that worries me. Forget, for the moment, anyway, what is being said about contraception and focus instead on what the Republican leadership is actually doing in Congress to address the "dangers of contraception."
The House Appropriations Committee this month has taken up arms against Title X, the federal program that has been supporting family planning clinics serving low-income communities for nearly half a century. The Committee is voting today to eliminate all funding for Title X. This is not the first time that the House has tried to ax Title X, but this time around the Senate could easily concur. This time it's for real.
The House and Senate Appropriations Committees are also taking dead aim at sex education in the schools. Thanks to sex education, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate has rapidly declined over the past two decades, but despite the historic decline, the U.S. still has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world. The House Committee, however, is voting today to eliminate all funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program. The Senate Committee already has approved an 80-percent reduction in the program.
Not content with curbing sex education and access to contraception in this country, the House Appropriations Committee is also slashing support for women overseas. The Committee has approved $461 million for family planning and reproductive health programs, a cut of $150 million from last year's funding level. The Committee bill also eliminates all funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and reinstates the Global Gag Rule, which bars U.S. foreign assistance to family planning providers who advocate for abortion rights.
The war on contraception, whatever the motivating fears or concerns, is not just rhetoric. It's real, and it will lead to more unwanted pregnancies and, by implication, more abortions. The Guttmacher Institute reports that publicly funded family planning services helped women in the U.S. avoid 2.2 million unintended pregnancies in 2010, including 1.7 million pregnancies that were prevented due to services provided by safety-net health centers, many of them supported by Title X.
Family planning in developing countries is a matter of life and death. In the poorest areas of sub-Saharan Africa, as many as one out of ever 30 women may die as a result of pregnancy-related causes. Many others will suffer severe health complications. Family planning in the developing world also reduces infant and child mortality and combats hunger and poverty. In addition to saving lives, it saves money by reducing the need for health care, education, and other forms of U.S. foreign assistance.
The proposed cutback in U.S. support for international family planning assistance does not reflect a diminished need for contraception in the developing world. There are still an estimated 225 million women in the developing world who want to avoid a pregnancy but are not using a modern method of contraception.
The benefits of expanding access to contraceptive services, whether at home or abroad, are well documented and well understood by most Americans. Polls suggest that average Republican voters remain supportive of contraception, but somehow opposition to family planning has become a political litmus test in Republican primaries. George Pataki, the former New York governor, may be the only Republican presidential aspirant who is not enlisting in the renewed war on contraception.
What are they afraid of? What is so threatening or wrong about giving women the ability to space or limit their pregnancies? Why is it that a party that has pushed so hard to defend privacy and personal liberties in so many other realms is so dead-set on depriving women of their reproductive choice?
Seriously, I do not know the answer to these questions. I am one of those rare people in Washington who has worked on both sides of the political aisle, and I still do not get it. Tell me again: What is so "dangerous" about contraception?