We don't need something new to fight about

Posted: May 09, 2006 8:05 PM
Just in time for Mother's Day, The New York Times devoted the cover of last Sunday's Times Magazine to a frightening-sounding new expose: "The War on Contraception."

What with an actual war in Iraq and a bunch of jihadists seeking ways to blow us all up, and Iran declaring they are going for the nuclear option, you might think people would have their hands full of enough war without opening up this new domestic front. But as Times columnist David Brooks recently remarked, the paranoid style in American politics, once the special province of marginalized conservatives, is fast becoming the latest fashion among the formerly highbrow.

On close inspection, "The War on Contraception" dissolves into an acute case of projection of aggressive impulses. The bulk of the article describes a renewed effort not by religious people to stop contraceptives, but by social liberals to shut down abstinence education programs, or to force Catholic hospitals and pharmacists to prescribe emergency contraception (which may sometimes function as an abortifacient). Yes, a tiny minority of Americans do have moral objections to contraception. And yes, a few are pharmacists, who want to keep their jobs and refer contraceptive-seeking clients to others. (It is particularly amusing to see the Times report breathlessly the "news" that Pope John Paul II opposed artificial birth control.)

From the sidelines, it is hard to perceive much of a threat here. According to the Guttmacher Institute, itself a rather fierce critic of abstinence education, the federal and state governments spent $1.26 billion on contraceptive services in 2001, and the states spent another $187 million. The Times claims that 98 percent of women worldwide who have had sex have used contraceptives, and that 93 percent of Americans support the use of contraception. Ninety-five percent of parents support abstinence education in schools, but 94 percent also support teaching about birth control in schools.

So why this new declaration of a nonexistent war? The author thoughtfully supplies the real motive here:

"Democrats, meanwhile, have had their difficulty with the abortion issue, and their new hopes are pinned to a strategy that focuses on contraception as a way to reduce unintended pregnancy. Last month, Senators Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton -- an anti-abortion Democrat and an abortion-rights Democrat -- introduced legislation that would require insurance companies to cover contraceptives. In part, the idea is to force Republicans to support contraception or be branded as reactionaries."

You recall the old joke among the GOP? A man comes up to a Republican at a party and says, "There are two political parties in this country: the wicked party and the stupid party." And the Republican says, "Which one are we?"

It looks like the best and brightest Dems have decided to give the Grand Old Party a run for its money: Stupid, they've decided, is the new key to electoral victory.

It just might work. It's not that the American people are stupid, but they have limited attention to spare to analyze politics. Not long ago a friend (who, unlike me, is not a Catholic pro-life Republican, but who trusts me anyway) forwarded me an urgent e-mail from some interest group warning the sky would fall because Bush had nominated some anti-contraception doctor for an advisory commission. "Listen," she told me, "I'm too busy to check this out, but it panicked me. I just want to know: Do I have to worry about my daughters being able to get contraceptives down the road?"

"I'm not saying the guy won't do something you don't like," I told her, "but legal contraception is not in jeopardy."

Americans have enough real serious problems and disputes without manufacturing nonexistent reasons for hating and fearing one another. Happy Mother's Day.