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Contraception: Time for a 'Just Ask' Campaign?

August 27, 2014

When candidates seek to satisfy their political base without antagonizing the political center, they often engage in a tightrope act, and the latest high wire act is on contraception.

The Obama administration last week unveiled a set of new rules designed to ensure that workers affected by the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision would still be able to obtain contraceptive coverage. The new procedure may be so arcane that it will have little practical effect in terms of expanding contraceptive coverage, but it is a clear challenge to Republicans officeholders and challengers who are opposed to family planning. So where's their outrage? Why the virtual silence?

Steve Benen, producer of MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show, speculates that, "Republicans realize they're out of step with the American mainstream when it comes to birth control, and the issue has left the GOP terrified."

I am not so certain. We're surely not talking about former Senator Rick Santorum, who as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination last time warned of the "dangers of contraception," and who earlier in his career indicated that contraceptives were "harmful" to women. Are we talking about the GOP members of the U.S. House who voted to defund Title X, the federal program that provides family planning services to low-income households? Are we talking about the state legislators in Texas, New Jersey and other states who have voted to slash state support for contraceptive services? Or are we?

I suspect that a lot of Republicans, certainly at the grassroots level, are not very enthusiastic about axing government support for family planning, and there are some GOP members of Congress who actively support birth control, but they are, unfortunately, few in number.

Can it really be true that the attacks on contraception are over? It's possible, of course. In response to changing public sentiments, Republican opposition to gay marriage is starting to fade, so why not contraception?

The arguments for government support of contraception certainly know no partisan boundaries. Republicans as well as Democrats ought to be enthusiastically supporting government programs that, according to the Guttmacher Institute, save taxpayers $5.68 in Medicaid expenditures for every dollar spent on it. And whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, you should be supporting government-supported family planning services that, by preventing unplanned pregnancies, prevent more than half a million abortions every year. And it's not just the policy arguments. Political polls have long shown that the American people support the provision of contraceptive services.

So there are plenty of reasons why Republicans -- and even a few Democrats -- who have been anti-contraception might want to change their position now, and with a crucial election coming up the timing could not be better. So is that what's happening? Is the political silence just a lull, or is it the prelude to a genuine shift?

While I hope it's a shift, I have my doubts. There's only way to find out: Ask. The questions are pretty straight forward. Are you pro-contraception or anti-contraception? Do you believe the government should help to provide access to family planning services or not? Do you support Title X? If not, why not?

Candidates can run, but they cannot hide, masters of obfuscation though they may be. It cannot be that hard to get a straight answer. Right?

This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on August 27, 2014 on The Huffington Post

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