Once upon a time #Republicans supported #birthcontrol

Posted on February 24, 2012. Filed under: Uncategorized |

via New Deal 2.0, [and NPR] where Ellen Chesler provides some great historical insights into the current culture war being waged against birth control access.  Among the most surprising facts is “that conservative avatar [Barry] Goldwater was in his day an outspoken supporter of women’s reproductive freedom — a freethinker who voted his conscience over the protests of Catholic bishops and all others who tried to claim these matters as questions of conscientious liberty and not sensible social policy.” Following in Goldwater’s steps, “Obama sees a clear opening for skeptics wary of the extremism that has captured Republican hopefuls in thrall to the fundamentalist base that controls the GOP presidential primary today. Holding firm on family planning — even if it means taking on the Catholic hierarchy and other naysayers by offering a technical fix that would have insurers cover costs instead of the churches themselves — is a calculated political strategy by the Obama campaign, not a blunder as it has been characterized by many high powered pundits, including progressives like Mark Shields of PBS and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post.”

So, why have modern conservatives strayed so far from Goldwater’s tolerance and/or support for limited government when it comes to the privacy of the bedroom?  Chesler says:

“A bit of history going all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal is instructive. Back then, birth control was still illegal in this country, still defined as obscene under federal statutes that remained as a legacy of the Victorian era, even though many states had reformed local laws and were allowing physicians to prescribe contraception to married women with broadly defined “medical” reasons to plan and space their childbearing.

The movement’s pioneer, Margaret Sanger, went to Washington during the Great Depression, anticipating that Franklin Roosevelt, whose wife Eleanor was her friend and neighbor in New York, would address the problem and incorporate a public subsidy of contraception for poor women into the safety net the New Deal was constructing. What Sanger failed to anticipate, however, was the force of the opposition this idea would continue to generate from the coalition of religious conservatives, including urban Catholics and rural fundamentalist Protestants who held Roosevelt Democrats captive, much as they have today captured the GOP. It was Catholic priests, and not the still slightly scandalous friend of the First Lady, who wound up having tea at the Roosevelt White House.”

Chesler observes that “The U.S. government would not overcome moral and religious objections until the Supreme Court protected contraceptive use under the privacy doctrine created in 1965 under Griswold v. Connecticut. That freed President Lyndon Johnson to incorporate family planning programs into the country’s international development programs and into anti-poverty efforts at home. As a Democrat still especially dependent on Catholic votes, however, Johnson only agreed to act once he had the strong bipartisan support of his arch rival Barry Goldwater’s endorsement and also the intense loyalty and deft maneuvering of Republican moderates like Robert Packwood of Oregon in Congress. Packwood, in turn, worked alongside Ohio’s Robert Taft, Jr. in the House and a newcomer from Texas by the name of George H. W. Bush. “

In other words, support for contraception was a bi-partisan issue.  However, it’s important to recognize that family planning programs were as much if not more about curbing the number of dependent children on welfare rolls as it was about women’s rights to reproductive freedom.  It took a movement led by Loretta Ross and other women of color to challenge the assumptions of mainstream family planning organizations.

Equally important was the “sacred work” of  clergy who allied with Planned Parenthood during the 1960s to make contraception more widely available, especially to young unmarried women (keep in mind that Griswold only concerned marital privacy).

During the 1980s, this bipartisan support fell apart: “Bush would remain a staunch advocate of reproductive freedom for women until political considerations during the 1980 presidential elections, when he was on the ticket with Ronald Reagan, accounted for one of the most dramatic and cynical public policy reversals in modern American politics. Reagan had supported California’s liberal policies on contraception and abortion as governor, and Bush as Richard Nixon’s Ambassador to the United Nations had helped shape the UN’s population programs. But Republican operatives in 1980 saw a potential fissure in the traditional New Deal coalition among Catholics uncomfortable with the new legitimacy given to abortion after Roe v. Wade and white southern Christians being lured away from the Democrats around the issue of affirmative action and other racial preferences. Opposition to abortion instantly became a GOP litmus test, and both presidential hopefuls officially changed stripes.”

So, are conservative Republicans overreaching?  Well, there are signs that moderate Republican women who support easy access to birth control are starting to grumble (although senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who have supported legislation requiring insurance companies to provide birth control coverage aren’t among them).  The Hartford Courant had an excellent editorial on “Catholic women must speak out about birth control” where Maura Casey observes that the majority of Catholic women use birth control and “would consider themselves irresponsible mothers” if they didn’t tell their children about contraception.  She says that Catholic women need to stop whispering among themselves and publicly take a stand on this issue.  “Silence is a luxury we can no longer afford,” she concludes.

I think moderate GOP women need to speak out too — and remind their party that they use birth control and they vote.

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    Heather Munro Prescott

    Heather Munro Prescott

    Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, CT.

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