Remember the Fertility Olympics at the first Republican primary debate? First off the block was Rick Santorum. He’d served Pennsylvania in the Senate for 12 years; he could balance budgets and cut spending, he said. And he and Karen had seven children. Michele Bachmann sprinted up beside him. She was a businesswoman, a wife of 33 years, and the mother of five children and 23 “beautiful” foster children. By the time the camera moved to Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, politics and experience were an afterthought.
Romney said he was the father of five, grandfather of 16. Pawlenty was a husband, father of two (needless to say, beautiful) daughters and — this surely distinguished him from the field — “a neighbor.” Neither mentioned he’d been a governor.
Herman Cain was “not a politician” — but he was the father of two and grandfather of three. Ron Paul said nothing of his five children and 18 grandchildren, but pointed out that as an OB/GYN he’d delivered more than 4000 babies. Only Newt Gingrich declined to mention his reproductive accomplishments.
This head count was code for the candidates’ “pro-family” — that is, antiabortion — credentials. The ritual is de rigueur since Sarah Palin brandished her five children, including a late-life Down-syndrome baby and a pregnant unmarried daughter, not only as proof of her inviolable commitment to procreation but also as qualifications for office.
So Pawlenty, obviously ball-less, dropped out of the race first. Cain’s nonprocreative activities sidelined him. All those foster children did Bachmann no good. After all, what kind of woman lets someone else bear her kids while she gallivants about for decades, unpregnant? And the two frontrunners, spawn-wise, are neck and neck for the 2012 nomination.
From those first minutes of the primary season, it has become ever clearer: It is not enough to be antiabortion. A successful Republican candidate must also be pro-natal. He must endorse the logic of radical antiabortion politics to its absurd end: Every reproductive cell is a potential human life, and therefore deserves protection and preservation. Every baby that can be born must be born.
That’s Catholic doctrine, which until now has not been shared by most evangelical Protestants. In 2010, two surveys found that nine out of 10 evangelical leaders approved the use of artificial birth control.
No longer. To win over the GOP base, every candidate must drink the Clorox of reproductive-political purity: antiabortion, pro-baby.
What they didn’t bargain for is that Clorox is lethal.
For 40 years, the antiabortion movement has ridden a brilliant strategy of wrenching the focus of the debate from the pregnant woman to the unborn child. The dead fetuses in jars, the Precious Feet, the 1984 film The Silent Scream, claiming to offer scientific proof that fetuses feel pain — with each additional image, the persona of the beloved, assailed proto-baby has gained heft and emotional power. It passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act; it raised the outcry against the use of fertilized embryos in stem-cell research. Most recently, it is pushing “personhood” amendments through state legislatures that would confer full constitutional rights from the moment of conception.
And the story of the unborn child has moved more and more Americans. Just slightly more than half now approve of abortion in all or most cases, down from solid majorities in the 1980s.
This month that narrative slammed into a wall. President Obama announced the rule — part of the 2011 Affordable Care Act — that church-owned institutions must provide insurance coverage for free contraceptive services for women. The Catholic bishops and their Republican pals went berserk.
But most people did not: Six in 10 favor the mandate, including the same percentage of Catholics. Two of three women do.
Asked to specify the ideal number of children for a family, Americans overwhelmingly answer “two,” according to a Pew Research Center survey, and that’s been true since the 1970s. Among women at the end of their reproductive years — ages 40 to 44 in 2006 — 43 percent had two kids, 22 percent had one, and 22 percent three, the survey found. Only 4 percent of American women matched the GOP candidates’ birthrate, with five or more children.
Those small families say one thing: American women — indeed, almost every single one of them, including Catholics — use artificial birth control at some time during their reproductive lives.
But the response to the Church-Obama standoff suggests something else, too: Opposing abortion is not the same as wanting babies.
In fact, for the vast majority of people in the world, contraception isn’t about babies at all — except those to be prevented. Eggs and zygotes are not unborn children. They are parts of a woman’s body; using an IUD is as much like killing as pulling a tooth is. Even if a recent Gallup poll is accurate in its indication that 51 percent of Americans believe abortion is immoral, only 8 percent think contraception is.
Sure, many people choose not to make more children in order to be better parents to the ones they already have. But, when popping the Pill, women are not doing “family planning.” They are living their reproductive freedom — a freedom that, nearly 100 years after Margaret Sanger opened the first birth-control clinic, they take for granted.
Feminists have long understood that contraception and abortion are about the same thing: women’s control over their own destinies. Now the secret is out: Conservatives understand the same thing, and they don’t like it.
But it’s too late to change the conversation, at least before November 6. I can hear them slapping their foreheads at Right to Life headquarters. Darn! Why didn’t we make a movie of a fertilized egg screaming in anguish as a giant IUD prevents it from attaching to the uterine lining?
This fight is depressing. I mean, why are we still having it? But it is not a distraction from the “real” issues of the economy. Decades of data show that being able to prevent or end a pregnancy, or to time the spacing of wanted births, not only enhances women’s health; it also improves their chances of gaining education, economic independence and power. Increasingly, international covenants recognize access to contraception as a human right for women and adolescents, underwritten by the rights to equality, bodily autonomy and health. Birth control is no side issue.
So we can thank the Catholic Church, which excludes women from everything, for restoring women to the center of reproductive politics — and, indirectly, for exposing Republican misogyny to the Klieg lights of election-year politics. Both the women and the misogyny are where they should be.
“Poli Psy” is a twice monthly column by Judith Levine. Got a comment on this story? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.