The XX Factor

The War on Contraception

This is the third legislative session in a row in which Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the sponsor of the “Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act,” has introduced a bill that would bar federal funding for family planning clinics. This time he is finally getting some traction: Astoundingly, House Republicans have expanded his attack to encompass all funding for contraception, zeroing out funding for family planning services in the continuing resolution to fund the government through September, which passed the House this afternoon.

Why are Republicans going after birth control while most of the country worries about record unemployment? The move against contraception funding is a surprising turn towards the right, even for such a conservative Congress. Historically, inroads against contraception access have been difficult for activists on the Christian right because, unlike abortion, contraception is politically popular in this country: A Harris interactive poll conducted on the 50 th anniversary of the pill demonstrated that 86 percent of Americans think the pill was good for society, and the Guttmacher Institute reports that contraceptive use is near-universal among sexually active straight women.

The short answer is that the recent emphasis on fiscal discipline has opened up a new path towards restricting contraception access. Remember, funding is the common theme of two other bills attacking reproductive health access in the House, HR 3, the “No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act,” and its cousin, HR 358, the “Protect Life Act” , both of which would make insurance plans that cover abortion ineligible for tax deductions. Anti-abortion activists and legislators have calculated that by framing anti-abortion proposals as austerity measures, they can bring along Tea Partiers and other fiscal conservatives. As Pence has put it : “What is more fiscally responsible than denying any and all funding to Planned Parenthood of America?”

The timing couldn’t be better, from the Christian right’s perspective: Its last best effort to take on contraception, abstinence-only education, faces an uncertain future, because after a long decline, teenage pregnancy rates started to rise right around the time such programs went into effect. Tying contraception to spending cuts gives them a new chance for victory. By painting Planned Parenthood as the 21 st century version of Reagan’s welfare programs, social conservatives can portray all federal spending on family planning as a corrupt giveaway to the undeserving. Dana Loesch tested this rhetoric out to heavy applause at CPAC last week, bellowing, “But you’re not empowered when you’re expecting Uncle Sam to act like your sugar daddy, and take care of your abortions and take care of your birth control, and pay your bills and everything else?”

Others opponents of reproductive rights have also figured out how to wield the fiscal conservatism card. Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council wrote an op-ed last June pressuring Mitch Daniels to support cuts to contraception funding by using fiscal conservatism as the rationale, raising the alarm that money spent on family planning “BREAKS DOWN TO $391,506 A DAY.” Last month, Kathryn Jean Lopez of the National Review, not usually one to forefront fiscal conservatism in her writing, vividly outlined the strategy and compiled a hefty number of quotes from conservatives who cast the opposition to Title X in strictly budgetary terms–for example, by calling contraception spending “special-interest giveaways.”

Of course, rhetoric that attacks federal funding for contraception as a state-subsidy for promiscuity obscures the fact that continuing Title X is one of the more fiscally sound things the government can do: Research from the Guttmacher Institute demonstrates that every dollar spent on family planning saves the government four dollars down the road.

But how will the strategy play politically? Better, certainly, than attacking legal access to contraception, which is about as popular as ice cream. If attitudes toward abortion funding are any indication, the approach may play well: Although Gallup polling routinely demonstrates that most Americans want abortion legal in at least some circumstances, a hefty majority supports the ban of federal funds for abortion, and a slim majority opposes insurance funding of abortion. A lot of people in these last two groups aren’t anti-abortion, but when abortion is portrayed as luxury item instead of a medical procedure, they come around to the view that it should only be available to those who can afford it, like liquor or video games.

The question now is whether Republicans will be able to put contraception in the same category.

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.