Fact v. Fiction

09.20.13

Uncle Sam Isn't Invading Your Sex Life

How conservative activists are co-opting the "War on Women" rhetoric to lie about Obamacare's healthcare exchanges.

The healthcare exchanges, where uninsured people can apply for healthcare coverage and learn if they’re eligible for government assistance, are one of the biggest parts of the Affordable Care Act and are opening up on October 1. Republicans are frantically casting around for ways to force Obamacare to fail. In Congress, that means passing bills trying to defund the healthcare bill. But anti-Obamacare activists are trying a different tactic: Trying to scare uninsured people, especially young people, out of signing up for insurance through the exchanges.

Of course, since the exchanges are the single best way for uninsured people to get insurance, that basically means trying to convince the unwitting that they’re better off with no insurance at all. (Needless to say, a hard sell.) The solution that some conservative activists have come up with is to swipe pro-choice rhetoric about sexual privacy and dignity, hoping to convince the public—and especially young women—that Obamacare poses the same threat to your privacy and bodily integrity as bans on abortion and restrictions on contraception. Never mind that most of the people stealing pro-choice rhetoric are themselves anti-choice; they know that pro-choice arguments are good ones, and they’re going to poach them even if they have no relevance to the exchanges.

It all started with Betsy McCaughey, the woman who first floated the lie that Obamacare would feature “death panels” to determine if elderly people get to live or die. McCaughey wrote a panicked piece for the New York Post claiming that a provision in the Affordable Care Act would basically keep an electronic database of your sexual practices. She claimed that the law pressures doctors to ask patient a bunch of questions about who they’re having sex with and then to turn that information over to the government in the form of electronic health records. In case her appropriation of the privacy concerns of pro-choicers wasn’t obvious enough, she angrily denounced feminists for supposed hypocrisy: “Where are the women’s rights groups that went to the barricades in the 1980s and 1990s to prevent the federal government from accessing a woman’s health records?” It’s unclear what she’s referring to—McCaughey tends to write from half-remembered recollections and stuff she just makes up—but this is probably a reference to the pro-choice movement that fought to protect women’s privacy against incursions made by anti-choice politicians.

PolitiFact immediately deemed the article a “pants on fire” level lie, both because the electronic health records program that McCaughey refers to is not part of the Affordable Care Act, and, more importantly, because nowhere on the record is there any information about sexuality besides your gender. It is true that doctors do ask questions about your sex life, because that’s important information to help determine your course of health care, but McCaughey’s faux pro-choice posing about sexual privacy is nothing but a pack of convenient falsehoods.

Sadly, the fact that this is an egregious lie appears to have done nothing to stop it from taking off in right wing propaganda efforts. Fox News is heavily pushing the idea that Obamacare represents a major government intrusion into sexual privacy. Investors.com also touted the claim. Then Generation Opportunity, a Koch brothers-funded group mostly focused on trying to scare young people out of buying insurance on the exchanges, created a couple of videos that suggested getting the insurance meant having a creepy Uncle Sam investigate your vagina or rectum, depending on your gender.

The videos were a clear rip-off of a couple of pro-choice videos that protested  intrusive laws restricting abortion access, such as this one by Lizz Winstead or this one by David Cross and Amber Tamblyn. Of course, the actual pro-choice videos make a lot more sense, because anti-abortion laws like mandatory ultrasounds and waiting periods really are about the government using the doctor’s office as a weapon to control and punish female sexuality. The Affordable Care Act, despite what conservatives might try to say, has nothing in it at all about trying to shame or control a woman's private sexual matters. On the contrary, one of the biggest provisions in the bill is making preventive care like contraception and STI counseling copay-free, a provision that allows people more freedom and control over their own sex lives.

The Affordable Care Act, despite what conservatives might try to say, has nothing in it at all about trying to shame or control a woman's private sexual matters.

Without the context of an actual attack on sexual privacy, therefore, the anti-Obamacare ad ends up reading like a puzzling rant against the mere act of going to the doctor at all, as if people don’t understand that while it’s always mildly embarrassing to strip and answer questions, it’s better than the alternative of not being on top of your health.

Of course, it’s all very ironic that the same conservative media that is trying to raise an alarm about sexual privacy invasions that aren’t even happening also tends to be incredibly supportive of actual invasions of sexual privacy by employers and the government. For instance, opponents of Obamacare want to give employers the right to opt out of providing employees the earned contraception benefit, which amounts to giving your employer a vote in whether or not you choose to have non-procreative sex on your own time. And, of course, abortion restrictions are all about having the government intrude upon and cast judgment on your private sexual choice-making.

There’s a reason that pro-choice organizations that actually defend women’s privacy and women’s health have universally come out in support of Obamacare. At the end of the day, by getting more women access to better medical care—including the nearly 13 million women of reproductive age who don’t have health insurance—women have more choices and more power, therefore more privacy.

Not that we should be surprised to see bastardized versions of pro-choice arguments used in this way. Swiping progressive rhetoric to forward anti-progressive agendas is a long-standing tradition on the right. Anti-racism is invoked to attack affirmative action. Anti-choicers have taken to claiming they want to ban abortion to protect women. Conservatives routinely try to argue that social welfare programs somehow exacerbate poverty. (They don’t.) Even back in the days when feminists were fighting for the right to vote, the argument against suffrage was that it was bad for women to have the vote. Bad faith arguments and right-wing politics go together like peanut butter and jelly.

The good news is that conservatives may pose all they want as the protectors of sexual rights and privacy, but it doesn’t mean anyone has to buy it. These kind of attacks are not only based on lies, but are happening in front of a backdrop of an endless stream of news stories of Republicans actually trying to invade women’s privacy and control their sexual decision-making by limiting access to abortion and contraception. When October 1 rolls around and the health care exchanges open up, I suspect that conservatives are going to find that attempts to scare young women out of using them will have largely been in vain.