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The GOP's war on women 

Why candidates on the right are happy to label birth control a wrong

Back in the good old days, a kinder, gentler Republican Party, seeking to punish women who dared to have sex for the pleasure of it, targeted only those who accidentally got pregnant — by forcing them to bring their fetuses to term. Today, it seems, that scheme doesn't punish enough women for the perceived sexual sins committed by so many. In the GOP of the 21st century, the standard-bearers aim to make sure all fertile women pay for their pleasure with a pregnancy and childbirth.

Everywhere you look, birth control is under attack, most notably by all of the candidates competing for the Republican presidential nomination. To advance the cause, the candidates are allied with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has cleverly framed its war against women as an issue of religious freedom — a talking point that the candidates, especially Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, have jumped on.

For the Republican base, with its antipathy to what it calls "Obamacare," the controversy over birth control is quite perfect. That base, as it exists today, is largely composed of the religious right, which stands in opposition to women's equality, and the Tea Party movement, which was organized by political operators in opposition to the health care reform legislation that became law in 2009 as the Affordable Care Act.

At a deeper level, though, the appropriation of the bishops' position by the Republican candidates is the full-flower expression of what might be called the Romanizing of the Protestant right — a cross-pollination of convenience between historically opposed factions of Christendom, a phenomenon that has unfolded with little fanfare over the course of the past three decades.

The bishops' crusade

At issue, of course, is that provision of the law that started out by requiring employers — those that provide health insurance benefits to their employees — to include contraception as part of their health-benefits package, and to provide it without demanding a co-payment. Churches were exempt from the requirement, but institutions that serve the general public, such as hospitals and universities, were not. The Obama administration amended that last Friday, when it announced that the insurers for organizations that oppose birth control based on religious beliefs — not the organizations themselves — would be responsible for providing contraception free of charge.

Not that it mattered much to the Conference of Catholic Bishops. Earlier this week, its general counsel, Anthony Picarello, told USA Today: "It's the unstoppable force meets the immovable object."

In many areas of the country, the only accessible hospital is a Catholic hospital, thanks in part to an aggressive program of mergers with secular hospitals undertaken by the church in the late 20th century.

For Romney, the controversy has been a two-fold gift in his quest for the Republican nomination, allowing him to attack President Barack Obama over the health care law, a major bugaboo of the right, while deflecting attention from Romney's own role in creating a similar health care scheme for Massachusetts during his term as its governor. (Never mind that, in 2005, Romney required Catholic hospitals in that state to offer emergency contraception to rape victims.) And with the focus on birth control, Romney gets to allay, somewhat, evangelicals' suspicions of his Mormon faith, shining a light on what unites them as he trots out the members of his large family on the campaign stage.

But the Republican field's opposition hardly begins and ends with the bishops' crusade against the women employees of their more than 600 hospitals and more than 200 colleges and universities. (Catholics for Choice offers a thorough 2005 fact sheet, in PDF form, on its website.)

Both Romney and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum told George Stephanopoulos in a January ABC News debate, that Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court case that legalized the use of contraception in all 50 states, was wrongly decided. But this was before the bishops' crusade against the new health care regulations became a cause celebre, and Romney, with an eye toward the general election, then doubled back, punting the question to Rep. Ron Paul. "We can ask our constitutionalist here," Romney said. "...I don't know whether a state has a right to ban contraception."

Paul took the punt as an opportunity to pivot into a riff on the Patriot Act, failing to mention that, just two years ago, he introduced a bill that would have allowed states to ban birth control, effectively overturning Griswold. (Paul's "We the People Act" died in committee.)

Santorum has stated that contraception, in and of itself, is simply wrong. "Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that's OK, contraception is OK. It's not OK," Santorum told a blogger at caffeinatedthoughts.com in October, Salon's Irin Carmon reported. "It's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be," he added.

But it was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the twice-divorced recent convert to Catholicism, who really got the anti-contraception party started at a campaign event in Florida, when he piously announced that he and third wife Callista had just come from attending Mass, where the priest read to the congregation a letter from the bishops about the ostensible assault on the church's religious freedom by the Obama administration's new health care regulations. As Sarah Posner of religiondispatches.org reported from the scene, Gingrich essentially lied to his supporters, saying that the Obama administration was making Catholic institutions provide abortion coverage to their employees.

In his primary speech the following night in Orlando, Gingrich coupled his pugnacious attacks on Obama for allegedly conducting a "war on religion" with vicious swipes at Romney, whom he termed "dishonest." Just moments later Romney picked up Gingrich's "war on religion" theme in his own primary-night victory speech, albeit packaged in the slightly softer language of "religious freedom." He's since upped the rhetoric, declaring, "This kind of assault on religion will end if I'm president of the United States."

Festival of fecundity

Early on in the campaign, fecundity emerged as a theme, as the candidates with the most populous families touted their numbers at each campaign stop. Santorum never fails to mention his seven home-schooled children, or Romney his five sons and 16 grandchildren. Ron Paul chimes in from time to time about his five children and 18 grandchildren, while Gingrich omits the numbers while noting that he is a grandfather. (In a major fecundity fail, Gingrich's three marriages yielded only two children, which raises suspicion of contraception use.)

Also-rans Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, and Rep. Michele Bachmann also flaunted their large families as assets to a base that has become increasingly hostile to the right of women to control their own fertility.

It is perhaps a natural evolution of the decades-long, right-wing campaign to overturn legalized abortion. At the time Roe v. Wade was decided in 1971, the theological belief — that abortion was murder — was particular to the Roman Catholic Church; most Protestant denominations considered abortion to be a sin, but not the taking of a human life.

Around the same time, a handful of politically savvy right-wing Republicans saw among a certain strain of conservative Southern evangelical Christians the potential for organizing a right-wing political movement. Preying on the conservative Christians' fear of a society that was rapidly changing, thanks to the movements for civil rights and women's rights, organizers sold these largely anti-Catholic Protestants on a theological position that was essentially Catholic.

Among the handful of men who organized the religious right, two of them, Richard Viguerie and the late Paul Weyrich, hailed from the Roman Catholic Church, and chafed at the liberalization of certain church teachings that took place in the early 1960s. Together with former Nixon administration bureaucrat Howard Phillips, who was raised Jewish but converted to a right-wing form of Christianity, and the Southern Baptist Ed McAteer, Weyrich and Viguerie tapped the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, a segregationist Southern Baptist minister, to lead their cause, and the religious right was born with the fight against abortion the movement's loudest rallying cry.

The adoption of this point of Catholic theology by evangelical Christians marked something of a truce, especially in the South, where anti-Catholic sentiment had been one of the hallmarks of fundamentalist Christianity. By the dawn of the 21st century, that uneasy truce had grown into an alliance between right-wing Catholics and conservative evangelical Protestants.

Now evangelical Christians of the right appear to be adopting yet another Catholic theological talking point: the purported sin of contraception. At its most extreme, this anti-contraception evangelical crusade manifests as the Quiverfull movement, which writer Kathryn Joyce has termed the "Christian patriarchy movement" — a world in which the tenet of "wifely submission" is teamed with the rejection of contraception to create enormous families for the purpose of winning the demographic battle for right-wing Christian hegemony.

This melding of the misogynist elements of Catholic theology with Christian right patriarchal extremism finds its most sublime expression in the endorsement of the very Catholic Rick Santorum by Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar. The Duggars, the poster family of the Quiverfull movement, star in the TLC reality show, 19 Kids & Counting.

"He's a proven Christian conservative," Jim Bob Duggar said of Santorum during a CNN interview at an Iowa campaign stop last month. "He has always done what's right."

As an adherent to the doctrine of wifely submission, Michelle Duggar, mother of 19, might be loathe to disagree, even if she wanted to.

The Komen conundrum

While the war against women may play well in the Republican base, it could backfire in the general election — but only if Democrats seize the moment with framing and messaging of their own to counter the right's false allegation of an antipathy toward religion by Democrats and the president.

We know that Catholics don't do what the bishops tell them to, and that, in fact, the unified, monolithic "Catholic vote" the bishops would have you believe they can deliver simply no longer exists. Catholic voters have long voted much the same as the general population, divided more along lines of race and class than by their Catholic identity.

Signs of hope for the Democrats are to be found in the enormous push-back suffered by Susan G. Komen for the Cure in response to the breast cancer-awareness organization's decision earlier this month (since somewhat rescinded) to pull funding for breast-cancer screenings from Planned Parenthood clinics.

Polls show what demographers call an "enthusiasm gap" between likely Democratic and Republican voters in the 2012 elections, with Democrats currently on the losing end of that equation. If Republican candidates keep up their attack on contraception, they may find a suddenly energized contingent of women voters determined to keep them from taking power.

Adele M. Stan is Washington correspondent for AlterNet, where an earlier version of this story first appeared.

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