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It was inevitable. Sooner or later, political pundits would be looking for that Etch A Sketch moment when conservative Republicans would quietly retreat from their war on contraception. But are the pundits right? Is that moment really here? Are we witnessing a ceasefire in the assault on women and their reproductive health? Has the prospect of a gender backlash in the general election caused social conservatives to lose the courage of their convictions?
Hardly. The high-flying rhetoric has cooled since the departure of Rick Santorum from the race for the GOP presidential nomination, but the work of reducing government support for family planning continues apace.
With the nation's attention now riveted on the economy and the upcoming presidential race, social conservatives have been quietly at work in the state legislatures. Arizona last month passed a law aimed at defunding Planned Parenthood clinics in that state, and now Pennsylvania's legislature is edging closer to doing the same. The Missouri legislature took a different approach, sending to Governor Jay Nixon a bill that would give employers the right to refuse to provide health care coverage for services that go against their religious or moral beliefs.
In Congress last month, the House Appropriations Committee approved a State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill that would substantially reduce U.S. support for international family planning assistance. Rejecting the president's budget request of $642.7 million, the Committee approved a $461 million appropriation for international family planning, $180 million less than the president's request, and $149 million below the current funding level. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that a cutback of that size would deny eight million women in poor countries access to contraceptives, resulting in 2.2 million more unintended pregnancies and one million more abortions. Six thousand more women would die from pregnancy-related causes.
Meanwhile, social conservatives are arguing that women really don't care about contraception and reproductive health. The gender gap? Forget about it. According to the anti-abortion lobby, it was a fluke. Citing a recent poll showing Romney gaining 13 percentage points among women voters, a writer for lifenews.com claims that the "overblown rhetoric" of Planned Parenthood and its supporters has backfired.
That's wishful thinking. If Romney is closing the gender gap that opened up earlier this year, it's not because he is winning converts to his plan for shutting down Planned Parenthood clinics. To the contrary, with Santorum out of the race, Romney has been downplaying his opposition to Title X in hopes that women will be more receptive to his message about jobs and the economy. Locked into a losing position on family planning, Romney and his political allies desperately want to change the subject.
And they could easily succeed. With the Euro on the verge of collapse and U.S. job growth slowing down, voters might overlook what Romney proposes to do on reproductive health and rights. In the end, the fate of family planning could be tied to the fate of the Euro. That's politics. In a representative democracy such as ours, minority views can emerge triumphant when they are aligned with the right political party. The success of the Tea Party two years ago was not attributable to public disdain for contraception and family planning, but Tea Party victories empowered and emboldened their socially conservative allies to defund family planning clinics. Similarly, if Romney wins the presidency this fall, he will not have a mandate to put Planned Parenthood out of business, but that will not stop him and his allies in Congress from doing so.
The political rhetoric may have abated, but the legislative assaults on contraception and reproductive health are far from over. Opponents of family planning are hoping that women will get distracted by other concerns, and unless more is done to keep this issue before the voters, they could just succeed. If they do, the worst is yet to come.
This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on June 4, 2012 on The Huffington Post.