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Contraception: The Unspoken Campaign Issue

Scientific truths factor little when courting a right-wing constituency.
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Lately, most of the GOP presidential candidates have been whispering sweet somethings to the religious right. If Americans could hear what they've been saying, most would be really turned off.

For example, on his first date with National Right to Life committee this year, Mitt Romney set out to convince anti-abortion leaders that he was their Mr. Right. At their national conference, he rattled off what made him special. To layman's ears, it all sounded pretty standard: He wants to overturn Roe v Wade. He supports only teaching abstinence to teens. But for those trained to hear the subtleties, Romney was admitting to his anti-abortion sweethearts something more. He inferred an opposition to the birth control pill and a willingness to join in their efforts to scale back access to contraception. With this political pillow talk there are key phrases, codes, to listen for -- and for those in the religious right keeping score Romney nailed each one.

One code was "I fought to define life as beginning at conception rather than at the time of implantation." The pregnancy specialists, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, define pregnancy as starting at implantation. This makes sense, given implantation is the first moment a pregnancy can be known. The anti-abortion movement would like a pregnancy to start at the unknown moment sperm and egg meet, fertilization. They'd also like you to believe, despite only evidence to the contrary, that the birth control pill prevents that fertilized egg from implanting in the womb. (Even the anti-abortion movement's most respected physicians have attempted to prove to their brethren these claims are false to no avail.) Romney's statement, to the anti-abortion movement, is code for "I, like you, hope to reclassify the most commonly used forms of contraceptives as abortions." In fact, he told the crowd, he already had some practice redefining contraception, stating, "I vetoed a so-called emergency contraception bill that gave young girls abortive drugs without prescription or parental consent."

No matter that emergency contraception has the same mode of action as the birth control pill, and every other hormonal method of birth control, scientific truths factor little when courting a right wing constituency. To the anti-abortion movement contraception is the ultimate corruptor. This year the unspoken rule for candidates who want to go all the way with anti-abortion groups is that they must offer proof they're anti-contraception too.

Even before they announce, anti-abortion candidates preen their credentials by ridding themselves of any association with pregnancy prevention policies. Senator Fred Thompson, for example, is now denying that he was a lobbyist for the contraception advocacy group the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. He admits to his lobbying involvement in the national nightmare of the savings and loan crisis and his work to reduce the size of settlements for victims of asbestos exposure. But his work to expand access to contraception? He somehow has "no recollection of it."

Presidential hopeful Senator Sam Brownback, like Romney, makes passes at the anti-contraception wing of the Republican party. "Life is worthy of respect and protection from the moment of conception," he says. He beefed up his anti-contraception profile by co-sponsoring a bill to de-fund the nation's largest contraception provider, Planned Parenthood, by excluding it from the Title X family planning program for the poor. Senator John McCain's campaign officials boast that their candidate has "consistently voted against taxpayer funded contraception programs." And McCain reports his advisor on sexual health matters is Senator Tom Coburn, who is famous for leading campaigns claiming the condom is unsafe and opposing expanded access to emergency contraception. Another presidential candidate, Congressman Tom Tancredo, like Romney, has ventured far into the "contraception is abortion" territory. According to Tancredo, emergency contraception "cheapens human life, and simply uses a woman's body to dispose of the child instead of a doctor." By the same logic, so do the birth control pill, the patch, the IUD, the ring, and the shot which, it's worth noting, comprise 40 percent of the birth control American women use.

The American public is unaware of the new wave of anti-contraception activism by opponents of abortion. Possibly they are unwilling to believe something so wacky and ironic. Whatever the reason, it has made it easier for politicians to stroke the anti-contraception base. For example, while Bush has delivered some big victories for the anti-abortion movement in the last seven years (Roberts, Alito, Federal Abortion Ban), the anti-contraception work has taken up more of his time (attempting to strip contraceptive coverage for federal employees, appointing anti-contraception leaders to critical posts including the contraception advisory panel of the FDA and to oversee nation's contraception program for the poor, de-funding international family planning programs, investing unprecedented sums into sex-ed programs that prohibit mention of contraception except for failure rates.)

In their affair with the "Right to Life" movement, the candidates are being unfaithful to the American public that is devoted to family planning. And like any cheater, they're doing their best to avoid directly answering questions such as: Do you support couples having access to safe and effective birth control options, including emergency contraception?" Considering that even 80 percent of self-described "pro-life" voters and a majority of Republican voters strongly support contraception, these candidates should soon figure out how risky an affair it is.

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