At this year’s Netroots Nation in Minneapolis, I was fortunate enough to be on two panels, one on right wing extremism and one, put together by Advocates for Youth, on the war on contraception. Jos at Feministing blogged the war on contraception panel, where Sarah Audelo from Advocates, Kaili Joy Gray from Daily Kos and I had a conversation on the escalating attacks on contraception access from the religious right. I’m happy to note that the crowd that showed up to the panel was sizeable and diverse and with much more of male presence than you usually have for panels covering reproductive rights at generalized political conferences like Netroots Nation.
I went into the panel expecting the audience to have a large base of knowledge about the war on contraception as it currently stands, because the attacks on Planned Parenthood’s funding received extensive media coverage, and because just this week, North Carolina became the third state in the country to pass legislation cutting out family planning funding, provoking a battle with the federal government. And while people were definitely cognizant of the war over Planned Parenthood, I found there were many feminist-minded folks out there who were surprised to learn about the breadth and the historical length of these attacks. For instance, many people I spoke with after the panel had no real knowledge of the trend of pharmacy refusals, where women come to the doctor with a prescription for birth control, medication to treat STIs, or even medication to staunch uterine bleeding, and find themselves refused their medications by a pharmacist who has religious objections to women engaging in sex for non-procreative purposes.
A number of people also were intrigued by my characterization of abstinence-only education as part of the war on contraception, but I think once you point this out, it seems obvious. After all, the “education” aspect of abstinence-only was basically false and misleading anti-contraception propaganda that often serves to discourage the use of contraception when the students invariably behave like the human beings they are and have sex.
One of my conclusions on the panel was that, as depressing as the war on contraception can be, it can also be viewed as an opportunity. One of the ongoing problems for pro-choicers is that the anti-choicers have a tendency to facetiously claim that they don’t object to women’s rights or to sexual liberation, but that they believe that an embryo or a fetus is a full human being and that abortion is “murder." Most of the public tends to accept this claim at face value, and the debate between pro- and anti-choice is seen in the mainstream media as unbridgeable divide between people who focus on women’s rights and people who focus on “fetal rights." But as I noted on the panel, the notion that anti-choicers fight against contraception rights exposes that all the blather about “life” is just that, blather. If anything, contraception actually saves lives, particularly when it comes to condoms protecting against the transmission of HIV. And so, as the war on contraception escalates, pro-choicers can highlight the distance between anti-choice claims to be “pro-life” and their actual demands, which are focused on sex and gender.
The number of people I spoke to who had no idea how long the war on contraception has been going on, or how serious it is, speaks to how much of an opportunity we have for education. Let’s face it; people who are motivated to take in a panel on reproductive rights at a lefty political conference know a lot more about politics and current events than the general population. If many of them don’t know how overt anti-choicers are when it comes to their hostility towards sexual rights, then the public at large definitely doesn’t know. Which means that shifting opinions on the anti-choice movement is likely more a matter of education than ideology. If we can get the information out about how the anti-choice movement fights the birth control pill right along abortion, we can guess the people who learn this will be quick to draw the right conclusion, which is that the anti-choice movement is dangerously radical and anti-woman.
Of course, this is only an opportunity if we treat it like one. My concern is that the response to the anti-choice movement’s bolder attacks on contraception will not be to use this to highlight the anti-sex, anti-woman ideology underlying the opposition to abortion, but instead, pro-choicers will simply de-prioritize defending abortion rights in order to protect contraception. This concern was brought up on the panel, and right now, things aren’t looking so hot. For instance, while it was immediately effective to respond to attacks on Planned Parenthood by circulating fact sheets that showed that 97 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services are not abortion, the strategy carried the unfortunate implication that there was something shameful about the other 3 percent of services. Indeed, when Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards went on The Rachel Maddow Show to talk about the de-funding attempt, she dodged Maddow’s direct questions about abortion and managed never to even say the word, focusing entirely on contraception.
This is exactly the wrong framing. The better framing is to say, “These attacks on contraception come as no surprise. The anti-choice movement has always been about attacking women’s rights, and the fetus thing is mostly a P.R. strategy to conceal their motivations.” It’s true that anti-choicers are linking contraception to abortion in order to attack contraception, but we can turn that strategy on its head. If they’re going to link contraception and abortion, then pro-choicers should embrace that. And we should use the fact that contraception is widely accepted and even popular to help change the framing of abortion.