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Santorum and the 'Anti-contraception' Conservatives

January 08, 2012

If the current GOP presidential primary campaign is remembered for nothing else, it will be known for the meteoric rise of the "anti-contraception conservatives."

The Republican leadership has been anti-abortion since time immemorial, but there was a time, not that long ago really, when Republican leaders supported or, at least, countenanced government support for contraceptives. Those days appear to have vanished faster than Cain's candidacy or even Gingrich's lead in the polls.

In the past week, Rick Santorum, the newest shooting star in the Republican firmament, has stunned national audiences by suggesting that the U.S. Supreme Court in 1965 erred in overturning a Connecticut law banning contraception. Wow. Did he really mean that? Surely it must have been another slip of the Santorum tongue.

Apparently not. Back in October, when Santorum was still an asterisk in the polls, he told, "One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country." As he went on to explain in the interview, contraception is "a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be."

Wow. It looks as if Santorum wants to get government off your back, and back into the bedroom... in a big way. Not content to only oppose gay marriage, he also thinks the Supreme Court erred in overturning state sodomy laws. What's next? Criminalizing adultery and pre-marital sex?

Late last week, when he was taking a hammering from New Hampshire voters, Santorum insisted that, despite his personal opposition to birth control, he is not trying to ban it. Maybe what he meant to say was that while he, personally, would not ban birth control; he would defend to the death the right of states to ban it.

In their headlong drive to satisfy social conservatives, GOP presidential aspirants are ignoring the views of rank-and-file Republicans. While a large chunk of the Republican electorate opposes abortion in one form or another, there has never been a substantial bloc in opposition to contraceptive services. Overwhelming numbers of Americans believe that women should have access to family planning and reproductive health services. Earlier this fall, Mississippi voters soundly rejected a "personhood" amendment to their state constitution that would have outlawed abortion and several forms of modern contraception.

In fairness to the Republicans, presidential primary races -- Democrat or Republican -- rarely tend to produce balanced, carefully nuanced positions. Candidates generally tilt to the political extremes. But in their race to appease social conservatives, the GOP presidential candidates are rushing like a pack of lemmings to the sea.

When Governor Rick Perry launched his presidential bid, he trumpeted the fact that Texas this year slashed funding for state supported-family planning clinics by two-thirds. Not to be outdone in the bidding war, Mitt Romney upped the political ante by calling for elimination of Title X, the federal program that gives low-income women access to family planning services.

The tragic irony is that nothing would do more to promote abortion than restricting access to contraceptives. The Guttmacher Institute says that eliminating publicly-supported family planning services would increase the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions in the U.S. by two-thirds. Title X-supported centers alone helped avert 406,200 abortions in 2008.

Given those statistics, anti-abortion advocates should be enthusiastic supporters of family planning. The fact that many are not strongly suggests that they truly are "anti-contraception," not just anti-abortion.

While Santorum and others who take an anti-contraception position are clearly out of step with a lot of Republicans and certainly most Americans, that doesn't mean that a new President or a new Congress wouldn't try to limit a woman's access to contraception. Rick Perry wasn't the only governor who eviscerated state-support for family planning clinics this year; New Jersey's Governor Christie also slashed state funding. And the U.S. House of Representatives this year tried hard to eliminate Title X.

The escalating assault on contraception is really a war on women and their reproductive health and rights. That it has gotten as far as it has in the past 18 months is unnerving. Santorum may not be the next president of the United States or even the Republican nominee in 2012, but he is not the end of the "anti-contraception" conservatives.

It's important for women and men in this country to speak out loudly against this latest assault on reproductive health and rights.

This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on January 8, 2012 on The Huffington Post.

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