The War on Contraception Gets Mainstream Attention

Nancy Cohen explains how sex is polarizing Americans politically. The question of contraception comes up during the Republican debate, which sets the mainstream media ablaze on a subject we've been hammering for years.

Nancy Cohen explains how sex is polarizing Americans politically. The question of contraception comes up during the Republican debate, which sets the mainstream media ablaze on a subject we’ve been hammering for years.

Subscribe to RealityCast:
RealityCast iTunes subscription
RealityCast RSS feed

Links in this episode:


“Up With Chris Hayes” discusses contraception kerfuffle

Rachel Maddow on the contraception kerfuffle

Lou Engle blames tornados on abortion

On this episode of Reality Cast, I’ll be talking with Nancy Cohen about the way the sexual revolution backlash is causing political polarization. Also, not one, but two segments on the stunning introduction of the contraception controversy into the coverage of the Republican primaries.

This budding 13-year-old feminist on YouTube just came to my attention, and I want to give her props.

* slut shaming *

You go, girl. Seriously. I wish I was so smart at 13.


The good news is that the mainstream media, confronted with Rick Santorum repeatedly noting that he wants an overturn of Griswold v. Connecticut, has finally started to accept that perhaps there may just be some anti-contraception sentiment out there, generated by the anti-choice movement. The bad news is that, like with abortion, the entire focus is going to be on the legal right to buy it, without consideration for issues like access and affordability. This became clear when George Stephanopoulos asked this question at the New Hampshire Republican debate last weekend.

  • Griswold 1 *

Romney immediately deflected the question, which suggests to me that it’s pretty toxic right now for anyone trying to get social conservative credentials to openly embrace contraception as a fundamental legal right. Instead, he addressed it as a question of state legislation.

  • Griswold 2 *

The thing is, he’s not running for state government, nor is he running to be a legislator at all. He’s running for President, which means an executive office. He wouldn’t be crafting legislation. But he would be appointing Supreme Court justices. That means that his consideration of whether or not one has a right to privacy actually does matter. I don’t know that we can be confident that if Griswold, which was the court decision that legalized contraception as a matter of privacy rights, was overturned, that means that we wouldn’t see some states at least severely restrict contraception. I could see, for instance, conservative states passing laws requiring you to be married or some such nonsense.  I do get why Stephanopoulous gets frustrated with him, though, because Griswold and Roe were decided on exactly the same grounds, which is a right to medical privacy. If you accept the argument that Roe and other decisions also based in privacy, such as Lawrence v. Texas, should be overturned because there is no right to privacy, you have to accept that you’d extend the right to ban contraception to the states.

Ron Paul tries to dodge the question in an even more entertaining way.

  • Griswold 3 *

This is a disingenuous answer, since Paul supports bans on abortion, especially at the state level. If the interstate commerce clause simply banned state and federal government from restricting any kind of economic activity, then that would apply to abortion as well as contraception. What’s weird is that he has the commerce clause completely backwards. It actually gives the government the right to regulate commerce. It specifically states, “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” Paul is seeing a “not” that’s not in there. The government has a right to ban the sale of all sorts of stuff, as long as it doesn’t interfere with an individual’s basic rights. The question then was do people have a right to sexual privacy, and the court said yes. What’s ironic is that the anti-choice movement gets this in a way people trying to be anti-abortion but pro-contraception don’t: the legal right to contraception and the legal right to abortion are, constitutionally speaking, the same right.

Rick Santorum is the only person who addresses this question that actually gets this.

  • Griswold 4 *

I mean, the only thing he gets is that you can’t separate Roe from Griswold. He’s wrong about the “creating rights” thing. Conservatives like to throw the word “penumbra” around to make it all sound very scary, but all it really means is you take the rights expressed in one part of the Constitution and the rights expressed in another, and add them together to understand this new debate. A lot of your rights when it comes to the justice system are rooted in this penumbra, for instance. Privacy is something that’s established under not just the 4th Amendment, but the 3rd. There’s no reason to think that a right expressed twice in the Constitution is somehow less valid than one expressed once.

While all this is very interesting, I would rather journalists address the nitty-gritty of the candidates’ views on contraception. Ask them not just if they think it should be legal, but if they think it should be subsidized and covered as preventive care under health care regulations.


insert interview


You didn’t think I was just going to leave the whole contraception exchange at the New Hampshire debate to one segment, did you? I mean, I’ve spent years now trying to get people to open their eyes and see what’s going on with the anti-choice movement coming after birth control, and finally—finally—it’s getting some mainstream attention. This is exciting stuff, though sadly it’s only happening because the right is finally pushing so hard that it’s impossible to avoid this question. “Up with Chris Hayes” had a segment featuring friend of this show Irin Carmon, whose own work exposing the anti-contraception bent of the anti-choice movement has caused some feather-ruffling in the Beltway. Irin defended herself from critics who whined about her characterizing Rick Santorum as “coming for your birth control”, claiming she was being hysterical.

  • birth control 1 *

I think this is an important thing to consider. Far too many Beltway journalists have decided that unless an immediate ban on all forms of contraception is within the realm of the possible, it’s unfair to warn the public that the anti-choice movement is gunning for contraception. But that’s a really silly way to look at it. After all, we know that anti-choicers are happy to work piecemeal. They may want to end the use of contraception altogether in the U.S., but if they can’t have that immediately, they will chip away at access. And low-income women are the first attacked, in no small part because they have less power and few defenders. If someone is coming after your birth control, and they only have 50% success, that’s still completely terrible and counter to all public health and basic common sense goals.

The panel went on to talk about Mitt Romney’s non-answer, where he pretended that he didn’t know that there was a big time Supreme Court decision in 1965 allowing legal contraception.

  • birth control 2 *

Part of the problem is that because Romney went to Harvard Law, he knows full well that there’s no way to parse the problem of opposing Roe while supporting Griswold, since they were fundamentally decided on the same grounds. During this segment, I learned something I didn’t really know before about Mitt Romney, a factoid that makes his claim to be ignorant of Griswold and its impact sound even more fishy.

  • birth control 3 *

Rachel Maddow also covered the new focus on contraception, and the problems that it’s creating for the candidates. For instance, Rick Santorum in the past has been up front about his belief that contraception is wrong and no one should be using it. But Rachel confronted him during the commercial break when he was doing a live radio show, and suddenly he’s being dodgy.

  • birth control 4 *

Okay, well most people who want to wait until they’re married to have kids use contraception for that purpose. Something like pretty much all of them, except for a couple of religious nut outliers. Santorum is trying to argue basically the contraception somehow causes out-of-wedlock births—man, I hate that term—because it lets people think they can have sex and then they get pregnant. Luckily for us, we actually have data to disprove this argument, and not just common sense. The record high for teen pregnancy was not 1966, the year after Griswold was decided. Nor was it after condoms became ubiquitous in the 80s and 90s. It was actually in 1958, when it was twice as high as it is now. True, there were a lot of shotgun marriages back then, but so what? The difference is not in contraception use, but in mores regarding marriage and pregnancy. The only discernible effect that contraception has had on the so-called out-of-wedlock birth rate is that it lowered it.

It seems that the anti-choice movement has put the Republicans candidates in between a rock and a hard place. As Romney’s dithering shows, they can’t come out and support contraception rights, much less do something like say that contraception should continue to be subsidized by the government. If they do that, the religious right will turn on them. But they can’t openly pander to the religious right by stating in mainstream spaces that they’re going to fight against contraception access, because that’s going to alarm anyone who is a potential general election voter, as well as tons of moderate Republicans. After all, like most of the country, most Republicans use contraception, and aren’t going to like hearing that lambasted. Seems like anti-choice radicalism is becoming quite the albatross.


And now for the Wisdom of Wingnuts, the abortion is blamed for everything edition. Right Wing Watch got audio of Christian minister Lou Engle blaming abortion for bad weather.

  • engle *

This is why I get so angry at people who dismiss the abortion wars at being a matter of “both sides” being to blame for how ugly everything is. Look, one side is arguing that women’s reproductive rights are good for women, for families, and for society. The other is arguing that abortion causes God to send tornados. There’s no equivalence here. The antis aren’t even playing with reality-based materials here.