The War on Contraception Goes Mainstream

The Catholic Church’s fight with the White House makes an extreme stance seem reasonable.

Jude Ellison Sady Doyle

The Duggar family--the stars of the The Learning Channel show <i>19 Kids and Counting</i>--performs at the Values Voter Summit in September 2010 in Washington, D.C. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Last week, the progressive blogosphere was full of articles about the War on Contraception. They were largely motivated, of course, by the Catholic Church’s fight to forbid insurance-provided birth control to employees of religious organizations, and Obama’s compromise.”

Plenty of men wouldn’t relish the thought of single-handedly providing for a family the size of a baseball team. But until those men see themselves as targets in the War On Contraception, this fight is for the ladies.

But after a year of coordinated assaults on Planned Parenthood, personhood” initiatives that stood to make oral contraceptives illegal, and other bizarre attacks on protected sex, we hardly need a reason to talk. The war has been declared; the battle lines are drawn; not getting pregnant” is the new abortion. 

But in the midst of all this a few questions stood out. Namely: How is it that in a country where 99 percent of women have used birth control we are fighting over whether people should be able to get birth control? How did a position this extreme and alienated from the will of the people enter mainstream political conversation? 

People are talking about Oh, the war on contraception has begun.’ It hasn’t begun,” author Christina Page told me. What’s begun is that we finally have the agenda in its full bloom in Congress.”

In her book How The Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, Page argues that right-wing attacks on abortion are cover for a far more radical agenda. The real target of organized anti-choicers, she says, is not abortion. Abortion is just the divisive, emotional topic used to mobilize grassroots support. The real target of the organized anti-choice movement – as opposed to individuals who are anti-abortion – has always been birth control. Page told me she’s been recommending since 2008 that reporters ask all GOP candidates about their position on contraception.

The media wasn’t willing,” she says, because they thought asking made them look foolish.” 

But in fact all current GOP presidential candidates have publicly opposed contraceptive access. While we weren’t looking, the war on contraception has quietly managed to attain mainstream legitimacy. 

It’s worth noting how very far from the mainstream the roots of the anti-contraception movement are. In our conversation, Page mentioned Quiverfull, a radical religious movement aligned with the Christian Patriarchy Movement. (Yes, they actually call themselves the Patriarchy Movement.) Quiverfull believes that children are a blessing, and that to refuse such a blessing – under any circumstances, in any way, or for any reason – is a sin. Oh, and also that true believers will impregnate their wives as many times as humanly possible, in order to raise an army” and eventually rule the United States. In the grand scheme of wacky cult strategies for world domination, this one’s fairly practical: They plan to overcome us through sheer numbers.

But examining the Patriarchy Movement is useful to understanding what it would look like if we lost the War on Contraception.” In practice, women within Quiverfull and similar evangelical anti-contraception movements can have well over a dozen children. Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, the most high-profile representatives of the movement (who star in The Learning Channel show 19 Kids and Counting), recently tried for their twentieth. Women are kept from working not only by religious rhetoric, but by the sheer physical burden of cycling rapidly through pregnancy and childbirth while bearing sole responsibility for massive amounts of domestic work. Daughters are enlisted early to assist, and like their mothers, they work full-time; home schooling is central to the movement. 

Of course, denying women education and income and putting them in a near-perpetual state of physical vulnerability makes them totally dependent on men. Which is the point: As Libby Anne, a woman raised in the Christian Patriarchy Movement, put it, a woman is always under male authority, first her father, then her husband, and perhaps, someday, her son.” And if she wants out, she can’t get out, because she’s been systematically denied the economic and social power necessary to escape. Anne got free because her parents took the fairly heretical step of allowing her to attend college. 

Page argues that this vision, dystopian and unlikely as it sounds, is essential to understanding anti-choice conservatism. She lists the seemingly paradoxical stances of the anti-choice movement: They’re against abortion, but also against contraception that reduces the likelihood of abortion, but also against child care for working parents. 

None of what they do makes sense,” she says, unless you understand the vision of a forced return to Quiverfull-style family structures.

But anti-contraception politicians are not about to frame their policies in such stark terms. (Santorum has come close, claiming that contraception is not okay” and a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” His candidacy has been endorsed by Jim Bob Duggar.) 

Ann Neumann, editor of The Revealer, has covered the conscience clauses in depth. She says the agenda has emerged from a complicated set of alliances – the political heft of the Catholic Church allied with the cultural heft of evangelical Christianity; social conservatives allied with fiscal conservatives; attacks on women allied with attacks on publicly funded healthcare – that pursue goals largely through bait and switch. 

Fiscal conservatives have an interest in leveraging religion’ talk to their anti-‘entitlements’ objectives,” Neumann told me. If you push a free enterprise’ Republican on the cost savings of free contraception, their second line of defense will be the moral’ one. In other words, free enterprise folks are necessary to this mix in that they cover for the social conservatives.” 

This approach works for attacks on reproductive healthcare, Neumann says, in a way that it would not work for other medical issues, simply because of who it affects.

Contraception and any other reproductive care has been ghettoized as women’s to such an extent that it’s hard to get any meaningful defense riled up,” she told me. 

Of course, one imagines that there are plenty of men who wouldn’t relish the thought of single-handedly providing for a family the size of a baseball team. But until those men see themselves as targets in the War On Contraception, this fight is for the ladies. 

And though losing this fight seems inconceivable – we are basically arguing over the right to have recreational orgasms with people we like – and the temptation to mock may be irresistible, pro-choice Americans shouldn’t assume victory. After all, just a few years ago, it was inconceivable we’d hear a presidential candidate publicly oppose the existence of contraception. 

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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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