Charmaine Yoest Tries to Give the War on Women a Pleasant Face

Emily Bazelon profiles Charmaine Yoest in the New York Times Magazine. Yoest knows that the anti-choice movement needs to improve its reputation, but despite this, she can't give up on the overt sexism and the anti-contraception sentiments.

Emily Bazelon published a fascinating profile of anti-choice leader Charmaine Yoest, head of Americans United for Life, in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. Bazelon’s theory, which I fully agree with, is that Yoest has set out to put a friendly face on the anti-choice movement, mainly by putting on a patient smile instead of resorting to the heated anger anti-choicers quickly exhibit towards the vast majority of American women who reject the idea that our bodies are not our own. According to Bazelon, Yoest also intends to sell the agenda of rolling back women’s gains by being more careful not to mention less politically popular anti-choice policy goals, such as restricting access to contraception, even while continuing to work towards those goals.

Politically, it’s a smart idea. In fact, it’s such a smart idea, it used to be the governing mantra of the anti-choice movement, which coasted for decades with the mainstream media taking their bad faith claims to be motivated by “life” at face value, and generally not looking too hard at the ways the anti-choice movement attacked sex education and contraception, even though these lower the abortion rate. Indeed, as recently as 2008, you had politicians like Barack Obama talking about finding “common ground” on contraception with the anti-choice movement. Since then, years of relentless attacks on previously non-controversial policies like federal subsidies and insurance coverage of contraception have made it impossible to ignore the militant misogyny of the anti-choice movement. Add to that the parade of ill-informed comments on rape and abortion, and you have a perfect storm of incidents waking the public up to the true nature of the anti-choice movement, which is, as it’s always been, a movement whose sole purpose is to take away women’s ability to control their fertility and therefore their lives.

Yoest is smart to know that this looks bad, and that the anti-choice movement better start looking nicer if they want to start getting their mainstream media pass again. But it’s a sign of how loose anti-choicers have gotten with misogynist rhetoric that Yoest fails to make it through the interview pretending that she’s only in this for “life,” instead of restoring retrograde gender roles. Right at the top of the article, Bazelon quotes Yoest expressing a deeply offensive, incredibly sexist view of women.

“We’re fighting Planned Parenthood to protect women,” she said. “When those babies aren’t born, that is a loss for their mothers, and that’s part of why they need a chance to live.”

Anti-choicers are trying to evade charges of misogyny by claiming they intend to “protect” women, but as Yoest makes clear here, “protecting” women means nothing more than telling women they have to have babies whether they want to or not. Yoest couldn’t be clearer here about her view of women’s basic ability to decide for themselves about when to have children: She believes they are incapable of making that call. It’s a worldview based around the idea that women are for baby-making, as an oven is made for baking. A woman has no more right to say no to baby-making than an oven has a right to say no to bread-baking. It’s a sexist view, but the fact that it’s backed up by denial of health services and abortion bans that drive women to self-harm moves it right into the realm of misogyny.

Yoest knows it’s politically unpalatable to oppose contraception, but she does it anyway.

Nor does Yoest advocate for reducing abortion by increasing access to birth control. When I asked what she thought about a study, published in October, which found a 60 to 80 percent drop in the abortion rate, compared with the national average, among women in St. Louis who received free birth control for three years, she said, “I don’t want to frustrate you, but I’m not going to go there.”

She also repeats the scientifically false claim that the IUD has “life-ending properties,” a belief that is clearly a rationalization for hostility to a form of contraception that gives women a great deal of control over their fertility. Yoest reflexively fights any kind of expansion of health care that could improve contraception use, not just with her war on Planned Parenthood but also on the Affordable Care Act. This is a woman who may claim to refuse to talk about it, but it’s not hard to figure out how she feels about contraception, especially forms that give women a great deal of control over when and if  they get pregnant. 

It’s fascinating, because the easiest way for the anti-choice movement to get its reputation back, besides reining in the politicians who get loose lips about what they really think of rape victims, would be to give up on the war on contraception. Strained claims that contraception doesn’t work don’t fly with the public at large that has intimate experience with contraception, nor does it comport with the actual evidence. Focusing on contraception gives the angry hoards more opportunities to say things—like Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a “slut”—that give the whole game away. Politically, it’s just a failure. So why does someone as smart as Yoest refuse to give up the war on contraception, even as she acknowledges to reporters that it’s politically toxic?

My guess is this: Because they don’t have much choice if they want to keep women from controlling their own lives. In the past, fighting abortion rights was quite probably enough to keep women as second class citizens. For cultural and historical reasons, women didn’t use contraception as consistently as they could on average. But two generations after the invention of the pill, the mental barriers to using contraception have fallen away. We see this in the way that abortion rates have cratered among women with economic and educational privileges, while declining access for poor women has made their abortion rates go up. The share of teenagers who use contraception the first time they have sex is at an all-time high and likely to go up. If you want women’s lives to be derailed by unwanted childbirth, attacking abortion isn’t going to get the job done anymore. You really have to attack contraception. Which is why, no matter how politically inconvenient it is, anti-choicers will continue to do so.