The GOP’s Cognitive Dissonance on Contraception Will Haunt Them in Mid-Terms

Their need to control women’s bodies is so fierce it trumps their desire to reduce poverty

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The Republican war on birth control continues, and poor women, young women, and women of color are in the crosshairs as the GOP threatens to undo decades of progress in giving women control of their reproductive destinies. But the mid-terms may prove a reckoning.

Kathleen Sebelius, who was head of the Department of Health and Human Services under President Obama, recently warned that the Trump administration is attacking poor women’s access to contraception. First up is a rule designed to decimate Planned Parenthood by banning any health clinic that provides abortion services from receiving Title X funding, which is the main federal family planning program for low-income women. This program alone provides services to some 4 million women.

Then there’s the move to suspend the requirement that federally funded family planning clinics offer the full range of contraceptives, from popular hormonal methods like the Pill to expensive IUDs. Instead, money could flow to clinics that offer dubious “natural family planning” methods that are often unreliable, especially for young women. According to Sebelius, “The government would impose significant barriers for contraception and could rapidly undermine the significant progress made on teen pregnancies and reduced abortion rates.”

Funding for the Title X family planning program has also been under attack since the Republican Party took over Congress. For fiscal year 2019, the program is funded at $260 million, down $57 million from 2010, which is only 40 percent of what the program needs to provide family planning to all the low-income women who want it.

From the perspective of political philosophy, these attacks on federal family planning programs make absolutely no sense. It’s no big secret that the Republican Party really hates any expenditures that have to do with poor people. From the Medicaid program, which a number of GOP-controlled states have refused to expand out of spite and which House Speaker Paul Ryan has been dying to gut since he was in college, to the Head Start program, which the Trump administration proposed slashing by $85 million, to the much-derided proposal to end the food stamp program and replace it with boxes of peanut butter, canned veggies and Spam, there’s nothing dearer to the heart of today’s Republicans than not spending money on the least among us.
It’s no big secret that the Republican Party really hates any expenditures that have to do with poor people. So logically, you would think Republicans would love any program that promises to reduce both federal spending and poverty.
So logically, you would think Republicans would love any program that promises to reduce both federal spending and poverty. And few things are more efficient at doing this than the federal family planning program. Title X family planning funding helped avert 2.2 million unintended pregnancies in 2010 alone—the same year that total public expenditures on unintended pregnancy were a staggering $21 billion. Poor women are more at risk for unintended pregnancy, and unintended pregnancies themselves, according to Brookings Institute researcher Isabel Sawhill, also perpetuate a cycle of poverty.

According to a broader analysis of all federal family planning funding, including money that goes to the Medicaid program, investment in family planning results in a net benefit of $13.6 billion annually, or $7.09 for every tax dollar spent. Paul Ryan would be doing cartwheels over any other program that produced a seven-to-one return on investment.

And there’s another reason the Republican’s hostility to the Title X family planning program makes absolutely no sense—it was their idea in the first place. Lost in today’s GOP attacks on Planned Parenthood and contraceptive access is the fact that federal family planning funding was very much a GOP baby.

When the idea for a federal family planning program was first floated in the 1960s, it was the Republicans who largely led the way because the Democratic Party was afraid of offending its Catholic base at a time when many Catholics were thought to be opposed to birth control. Leadership on the issue fell to none other than Congressman George H.W. Bush, whose father, Senator Prescott Bush had been a major backer of Planned Parenthood. George Bush was so ardent in his support of family planning that he earned the moniker “rubbers.”

In a 1968 speech to Congress, Bush seamlessly blended the moral and financial arguments for federal family planning funding: “Sitting as I have on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, which has responsibility for social-security legislation, I have heard almost endless testimony to the effect that our national welfare costs are rising phenomenally, prompting me to wonder how we can take basic steps to arrest it. But the problem is by no means wholly financial; it is emphatically human, a tragedy of unwanted children and of parents whose productivity is impaired by children they never desired.”
Lost in today’s GOP attacks on Planned Parenthood and contraceptive access is the fact that federal family planning funding was very much a GOP baby.
Bush was the primary sponsor of legislation that in 1970 created the Title X family planning program. It was signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon, who had called for a national family planning program as one of his first acts as president and who said that “no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition.”

Fast forward to the 1980s and the rise of the Christian Right, which slowly cannibalized the Republican Party. At first, it was enough for Republican politicians to oppose abortion; support for family planning programs remained bipartisan. But in the 1990s, international family planning programs came under attack as conservative activists sought to undercut the United Nations Population Fund by claiming that U.S. family planning funding was a backdoor way to support abortion. By the mid-2000s, many evangelical Christians began embracing the claim of Pope John Paul II that birth control fostered a “contraceptive mentality” that led to abortion, promiscuity, and the breakdown of the family. As the Republican Party lurched to the right, support for domestic family planning increasingly ran afoul of Republican orthodoxy. In 2011, the GOP-led House of Representatives voted to defund Title X family planning services entirely, although the appropriation was restored by the Senate.

So if federally funded birth control saves taxpayers money and the Republican Party long had an ideological affinity for family planning programs, what’s really behind the efforts to strip poor women of access to birth control? The answer is that the GOP’s need to control women’s bodies is so fierce that it trumps their desire to save money or reduce poverty. And the women whose reproduction is easiest to control are those women who are dependent on government-funded services. The GOP will attack family planning access for low-income women to scratch its deep-seated itch to have a say over somebody’s uterus.

But the effort may well backfire in the mid-term elections, as women become increasingly aware that attacks on birth control for the most vulnerable may well spiral into broader restrictions for all women and are part and parcel of the patriarchy. The Trump administration has moved to give employers broad leeway to refuse to provide birth control to their female employees—a sort of Hobby Lobby on steroids—which has been blocked for now by a judge who said the “sweeping exemption” could end contraceptive coverage for tens of thousands of women. Now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s casual reference to common forms of contraception as “abortion-inducing drugs” brought into focus for many women the stakes of this election for reproductive health if the Republicans continue to pick judges.

Indeed a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 36 percent of young women say contraceptive access is a critical midterm issue for them. In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is in a tight race with a Democratic candidate who backs increased family planning access, suddenly reversed course and announced her support for over-the-counter oral contraceptives. She previously supported draconian cuts to Planned Parenthood, which are opposed by 71 percent of Iowans. In Iowa as elsewhere, the GOP may well pay the price on Election Day for its cognitive dissonance on birth control.

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