Many Americans are puzzled by the all-out attacks by the Trump administration on contraceptive services: the administration has signaled its intention to take contraception out of the list of no co-pay preventive services authorized by Obamacare; it has made clear its eagerness to defund Planned Parenthood; and it has appointed longtime ideological opponents of contraception to positions of power in the federal bureaucracy, including direct oversight of family planning programs. The question becomes, why is an administration firmly opposed to abortion taking steps that will only assure more unintended pregnancies, some of which in turn will lead to an increased demand for abortions? What became of that short-lived moment in American politics when contraception was viewed as the main point of “common ground” between supporters and opponents of abortion? The answer, simply put, lies in the ascendancy of the religious right as a dominant force in the Republican party.
A look at three generations of the Bush political dynasty is telling about the fate of support for contraception among Republican politicians, and the end of such common ground. In the 1940s, Prescott Bush, a senator from Connecticut, served as national treasurer of the recently founded Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In 1970, his son, George H.W. Bush, then a Congressman from Texas, was the Republican sponsor of a bipartisan bill, Title X of the Public Health Act, the first legislation that authorized federal spending to make family planning services available to low income women (and later, to teenagers as well). Title X, it bears mentioning, was signed by a Republican president, Richard Nixon. As for Congressman Bush, he was such an avid promoter of contraception that his nickname in the House was “Rubbers.” Neither Bush nor some others who voted for Title X supported the legalization of abortion that would occur shortly, but they all agreed on the desirability of preventing unwanted pregnancy.
But when George W. Bush, grandson of Prescott and son of the first President Bush, was president from 2000-2008, his administration was marked by a deep hostility to contraception and a willingness to rely on “junk science” to discredit it: for example, domestically his administration funneled millions of dollars to “abstinence only” programs that promoted false information about the effectiveness of condoms, both with respect to pregnancy prevention and HIV prevention. And in the 2016 election cycle, his brother Jeb, a presidential candidate, scornfully told a conservative group, “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues,” and made clear his determination to defund Planned Parenthood.
What happened in the period between the senior Bush’s promotion of contraception and the third generation’s repudiation of it? This dramatic shift cannot be understood apart from the rise, starting in the 1970s, of the religious right as a powerful force that Republican politicians ignored at their peril. Beginning with the Reagan presidential campaign in 1980, this movement has acted as a disciplined voting bloc. And while opposition to abortion was the key defining issue for this ascendant movement, contraception, from the beginning, was a target as well.
Not surprisingly, Planned Parenthood, as a major provider of contraceptive services, quickly became demonized. Even before most Planned Parenthood affiliates began to offer abortion, the religious right opposed the organization because of the confidential services that were provided to teens, the nonjudgmental information about sexuality offered to its patients, and—particularly enraging—the fact that Planned Parenthood received public funding as a Title X provider. This statement, from a fundraising appeal of an anti-abortion group in 1980, is illustrative of the range of accusations which some religious conservatives leveled against the organization: “Planned Parenthood promotes sexual perversion, homosexuality, pornography, abortion, family destruction, population control.”
In the years since the emergence of the religious right in the 1970s, some within the movement have escalated their critique of contraception. From initially opposing contraception because it facilitated out of wedlock sex, to later also claiming that use of contraception supports an “abortion mentality,” more recently an additional argument against contraceptive methods is that they themselves should be understood as “abortifacients.” This argument, typically applied to emergency contraception, intrauterine devices (“IUDs”) and other hormonal methods (including, by some opponents, “regular” birth control pills), rests on the view that pregnancy occurs at the moment sperm and egg meet. This view is at odds with the long established medical principle that pregnancy begins with the implantation of a fertilized egg.
While abortion remains a divisive issue in American society, the desirability of contraceptive use is a nearly universally held value. As a Center for Disease Control report states, “Virtually all women of reproductive age in 2006-2010 who had ever had sexual intercourse used at least one contraceptive method at some point in their lifetime.” But given that 45 percent of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended, clearly many women need help in obtaining the most effective (and expensive) methods. Should their reproductive health needs be held hostage to a movement that has a non-scientific understanding of contraception but an outsize influence on Republican electoral politics?
Carole Joffe is a professor in the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco. She is the author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars.