Culture War?

Is Contraceptive Debate GOP’s New ‘Terri Schiavo Moment’?

The all-out assault on women’s reproductive rights may backfire come November. By Michelle Goldberg.

Some conservatives, watching their party consumed by a nationwide debate over birth control, have started to suspect a liberal plot.

“They desperately want people’s attention off of the economy and Obamacare,” said Rush Limbaugh. “And the culture war, they think they can go back to their archive pages and bring that issue back.” On the Legal Insurrection blog, William Jacobson, an associate professor of law at Cornell, recalled George Stephanopoulos’s question about contraception at the January 7 Republican debate, which many on the right considered absurd. “Well what do you know, about a month later the Obama administration proposes administrative rules … which would require free contraception be provided even by religious institutions which oppose contraception on religious grounds,” he writes. “It’s almost as if Stephanopoulos got the memo first. Unless, of course, you believe in coincidences.”

If only Democrats were so clever. Yet even though at least a few right-wingers seem to recognize the dangers in a drawn-out battle over family planning, the GOP just can’t stop itself. And so, increasingly, the question of women’s access to birth control, one largely considered settled for the past few decades, has now moved to the center of our political debate. Conspiracy-minded conservatives are wrong that Obama orchestrated this. But they’re right that it will likely help him.

On Thursday, Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling firm, released a memo attributing improvements in Obama’s approval rating largely to unmarried women, and suggesting that controversies over birth-control coverage are buoying him (PDF). “We may yet look back on this debate and wonder whether this was a Terri Schiavo moment,” it says. “The Obama position finds a two-thirds majority among suburban voters and a 61 percent majority among single women. These results loom large when voters prefer Democrats over Republicans by 52 to 26 percent on women’s issues, including a 36-point margin among senior women and a 47-point margin among unmarried women.”

Until quite recently, conservatives knew better than to take on reproductive rights so directly. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, remember, the right focused its attack on so-called partial-birth abortion, a late-term procedure that even many pro-choice advocates find disturbing, if sometimes tragically necessary. The strategy then was to erode abortion rights around the edges, without alarming women in the center. Now several Republican presidential candidates proclaim a desire to ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and we’re having a nationwide argument about whether women deserve contraceptive coverage in their insurance plans.

This argument shows no signs of abating. At a hearing on Thursday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) assembled an all-male panel to discuss the birth-control mandate, leaving many women apoplectic. (Then he sent a tweet comparing his witnesses to Martin Luther King Jr., apparently unaware that the civil-rights hero was once a member of a Planned Parenthood committee, or that he described a “striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts.”)

The same day, in a now-infamous MSNBC appearance, Foster Friess, the wealthy patron of the pro-Rick Santorum super PAC, dismissed the idea that birth-control coverage matters. “On this contraceptive thing, my gosh it’s such [sic] inexpensive,” he said. “You know, back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.” His message was clear: ladies, keep your legs closed!

The uproar over the Issa spectacle and Friess’s astonishing comments obscured more significant reproductive health news coming out of Oklahoma. There, the state senate passed a personhood bill similar to the constitutional amendment voters rejected in Mississippi last year. It’s widely expected to pass the Oklahoma House as well, and could thus become the first personhood measure to actually become law, setting up a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.

Like the Mississippi amendment, the Oklahoma law defines an embryo as a legal person. Beyond abortion, it would outlaw forms of contraception, like the IUD and some birth-control pills, which prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. It could also proscribe in vitro fertilization as currently practiced, since it results in embryos being frozen or destroyed. “[R]eproductive services for many people are the only option to conceive and have a future,” says Eli Reshef, medical director of the IVF program at Oklahoma City’s Bennett Fertility Institute. “We don’t know if that will be encroached upon by personhood or not. We expect the worst-case scenario.”

If and when this law is enacted, it will ensure that women’s access to reproductive health care remains a burning issue—and one that Mitt Romney will have to fully address. “People are looking to see if a candidate is just going to talk pro-life or act pro-life, and acting pro-life looks like personhood,” says Keith Mason, president of Personhood USA. “The line becomes less clear between [Romney] and Obama the more he resists making his positions clear.” Pro-choice women, as well as women who are conflicted about abortion but not about birth-control pills or IVF, will be equally interested in his stand.

These intertwined attacks on reproductive rights represent a dangerous and depressing new pinnacle in conservative reaction, with ominous consequences for women’s health. But they also represent a real opportunity for politicians who will fight back. Obama didn’t plan any of it. But things could hardly be working out better for him if he had.