For anyone who had a whiff of doubt that the conservative movement has been completely hijacked by extremists, last week should have laid to rest all doubt. It’s not just a ridiculous conspiracy theory that President Obama was somehow not born in the U.S. was touted so much on Fox News that Obama finally had to get special dispensation to release his long form birth certificate. It’s also that the war on contraception—which 99 percent of women who’ve had sex with men have used at some point in their lives—has become not just a lark in service of federal budget negotiations, but a major priority on the right.
Friday afternoon this became clear when Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who had previously claimed he wanted a “truce” in the culture war, signed into a law a bill cutting off all federal funding for reproductive health services to Indiana. There was a lot of lip-smacking about abortion from Indiana Republicans, as usual, but as with the previous fight over funding of family planning, this has nothing to do with abortion. The funds were already not going to abortion services. These funds were for contraception, STD testing and treatment, and cancer screening. The explicit target of this attack is Planned Parenthood, but the move will likely mean that all federal funds to the state will be cut off, which suits the anti-choice movement behind this just fine. After all, this has never been about fetal life or even just one organization, but about an ideological opposition to the idea that sexually active women should get to have their health. “Close your legs” has gone from a crude joke to the Republican party’s favored policy stance, even though such a view is the political equivalent of opposing the cuteness of puppies. How did this happen? How did a handful of far right extremists manage to get not just the conservative movement but the Republican party marching in lockstep behind their anti-contraception views?
There’s three separate forces at work that have put us in this situation: intimidation from anti-choicers, the mob mentality, and the anti-pleasure/puritanical streak in America. The intimidation aspect is vague but unsettling. Think Progress interviewed Indiana state senator Vaneta Becker about the new law, and while she was willing to go on the record opposing it, she claimed that many other Republican legislators agree with her, but are intimidated into supporting anti-choice extremism.
The mob mentality has played a major role in this. The extremists were smart to make this all about Planned Parenthood, instead of a more vague war on contraception. If you want to get a howling mob of people on your side, create an enemy and present them to the right as the devil, and they will be so eager to collect a scalp they won’t stop to think of things like, “Do I really oppose what this person or organization does?” or “What will happen if we destroy this week’s enemy?” All they know is that Person A or Organization B has been deemed a socialist-abortionist-secret-Muslim or whatever, and they want to stomp them into the ground and then crow about having collected another scalp. The realities of the situation are irrelevant to the howling mob. This has been demonstrated repeatedly, as the howling mob has been sicced on ACORN, on Van Jones, on Shirley Sherrod, on scientists whose emails on global warming did nothing to discredit the theory, and on countless others. It’s become a routine on the right now. Right wing media sets up the scapegoat of the week, the howling mob mindlessly descends, and either they get a scalp or they continue to scream for blood, never pausing for a moment to consider if their victim deserves this abuse, or what larger purpose all this might be serving.
But none of this would work if there wasn’t a knee-jerk antipathy towards pleasure built into the American psyche. By any reasonable measure, telling women to “close their legs”— a favorite retort on the right—should be considered beyond the pale. Telling people to cut themselves off from sex, a natural and normal part of the human experience, should be treated as an obnoxious statement on the same level as telling people to cut themselves off from laughter or hugs or music. But the puritanical streak in our society allows many, many people to say that abstinence should be the first and only choice for women who don’t want or can’t afford to conceive.
Not that liberals should pat ourselves on the back. We don’t offer as full-throated a defense of sexual pleasure as a basic right of humanity. All too often we speak about sexual health in cold, clinical terms that allow listeners to assume that we think of sexual activity as an inevitability, allowing abstinence-only types to position themselves as idealists. But by claiming sex as not just an inevitability, but a good thing, we can reclaim the moral high ground as the idealists. We’re demanding not just a chicken in every pot, but a healthy, self-determined sexual life for every citizen, no matter their income level, sexual orientation or gender.
We should go beyond arguing that institutions like Planned Parenthood minimize negative health outcomes of sexual behavior, and start talking about how they maximize the good for our entire society with what amounts to a minimal investment. A government that works to guarantee its citizens access to a healthy sexuality gets so much on their return. People with more stable, healthy sex lives are happier for it, and happier people are better spouses, better workers, and better citizens. But happiness is also an end in and of itself, something Thomas Jefferson realized well enough to build the right to pursue it into the Declaration of Independence. We should stand by that value, and part of it is allowing our citizens the tools to pursue sexual pleasure and happiness in a healthy fashion.