The GOP’s Race to the
Dark Ages

Rick Santorum thinks Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 case that invalidated criminal bans on contraception, was wrongly decided. He’s off the deep-end on this one, and completely out of touch even with his fellow Catholics, but his statement provoked an exchange at last night’s debate about whether states should be permitted to ban birth control. 

Mitt Romney feigned surprise — and emphasized that he would be absolutely, positively against banning birth control — but the moderators failed to ask him about his enthusiastic support for “personhood” bills that would effectively ban certain kinds of birth control (not to mention fertility treatments). Santorum turned the question to be all about the Griswold ruling on a “penumbra” of rights created under the constitution, anathema to conservatives because of how it underpins Roe v. Wade, and, as Chris Geidner points out, Lawrence v. Texas. They claim these rights are not actually found in the Constitution but were created by “activist judges” — this from the people who think the 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection to fertilized eggs.

It seemed that the moderateors, George Stephanopolous and Diane Sawyer, threw out those questions for sport: after all, criminalizing birth control would require either the passage of a “personhood” bill, which couldn’t be pulled off even in Mississippi, or the overturning of Griswold combined with the political will in a state to pass a ban on birth control, quite possibly one of the most popular inventions in the history of the world. (Don’t you think Big Pharma makes a bundle on birth control pills? They’d squash such a thing faster than you can say progestin.)

That’s not to say that Santorum’s, or any of the Republicans’ views on this issue aren’t dangerous, or to minimize the absurdity that in 2012, we had a presidential debate about whether to ban birth control. For real? Well, yes, for real. Some conservative think tankers argue there has been a “war on fertility.”

But there was another question, which garners far less notice, that raises far more immediate concerns about the Republicans’ designs on birth control, and how they exploit religion to create political conflicts where none do or should exist. In answering a question about gay marriage, Newt Gingrich said:

You don’t hear the opposite question asked. Should the Catholic Church be forced to close its adoption services in Massachusetts because it won’t accept gay couples, which is exactly what the state has done? Should the Catholic Church be driven out of providing charitable services in the District of Columbia because it won’t give in to secular bigotry? Should the Catholic Church find itself discriminated against by the Obama administration on key delivery of services because of the bias and the bigotry of the administration?

The bigotry question goes both ways. And there’s a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is concerning the other side. And none of it gets covered by the news media.

Oh, wah, wah. Gingrich’s complaints have been covered here at RD, and a throrough investigation of his claims reveal them to be an effort to create a right that doesn’t exist in the Constitution. (Gasp!) Gingrich’s first reference was to Catholic Charities shutting down its adoption services entirely rather than risk having to place a child with a same-sex couple. Just like Jesus would’ve done. But his second reference goes more to the contraception question. He’s referring to the Department of Health and Human Services decision not to renew a contract with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to provide services to victims of sex trafficking, because the Bishops would not refer victims, many as young as 12 and brutalized by rape, for a full range of reproductive care, including contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion. Conservatives jumped on this decision as supposed proof of the Obama administration’s anti-Catholic bias. Catholics beg to differ.

The right to free exercise of religion, a First Amendment right, does not entitle a religious organization to a government contract. Nor does it entitle religious organizations to have every one of their beliefs accommodated by the government. The USCCB wants the Obama administration, for example, to exempt all colleges, universities, and hospitals from the requirement under the Affordable Care Act that their health insurance provide employees co-pay-free birth control, even though churches themselves are already exempt. A Catholic and an evangelical university have sued HHS over the rule, citing “religious liberty.”

Republicans have been making their intentions on access to birth control clear since they began campaigning to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood. They say it’s about federal funding going to abortions, but that’s already banned by the Hyde Amendment. The funding they’d eliminate is funding for family planning services (which would help prevent unintended pregnancies and abortions, but who cares). They say this, too, is a matter of religious conscience, because they want no taxpayer money going to Planned Parenthood just because it does perform abortions, even if the money doesn’t directly fund them. 

After the Mississippi personhood measure failed, anti-choice fans of an “incrementalist” approach cheered. They fear a personhood measure would be a faulty challenge to Roe should one reach the Supreme Court, damaging their efforts to end legal abortion. They prefer slowly chipping away at access to abortion through the record number of restrictions enacted at the state level last year.

There’s an incrementalist approach to restricting access to birth control, too. It hinges on the “religious liberty” argument, and Gingrich is right about one thing: this tactic deserves more scrutiny than it has received.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email