How Not to Ask Politicians About Abortion Policy


A plea to the media to ask politicians about policy and not personal views on abortion. The HPV vaccine doesn’t lead to sex, but figure skating can lead a gender studies professor to write a book.

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Bill Maher asks why Focus on the Family is always wrong

Vice Presidential debate abortion question

HPV vaccine doesn’t lead to promiscuity

Any way you slice it, the HPV vaccine doesn’t influence sexual activity

O’Reilly continues to be irate that he’ll never get to bone Sandra Fluke

On this episode of Reality Cast, I’ll review why asking a politician’s personal feelings on abortion is pointless, why the HPV vaccine doesn’t lead to more sex for teenagers, and why figure skating is a rich avenue for gender analysis.

Bill Maher had some funny stuff to say about Focus on the Family in a recent episode.

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They get away with it because this country has a short freaking memory. For instance, everyone pretends not to know that the same conservative groups who opposed desegregation now are freaking out about gay marriage.

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The first presidential debate didn’t even mention women’s rights, not that anyone seemed interested in anything outside of a pissing match about tax policy anyway during that debate. But the one and only vice presidential debate moderator, Martha Raddatz, did make mention of abortion. But she did so in a way that is emblematic of everything that is wrong with the Beltway press’s approach to this issue.

  • debate 1 *

The only time someone’s personal views on abortion, as influenced by their religion, matters is if that person is actually making a personal decision about abortion. That makes this question offensive on multiple levels. First of all, it conflates personal views of abortion with policy approaches. Already, there’s enough confusion in the country about the difference between your personal views on abortion and your policy views. That’s why so many people will tell pollsters they’re “pro-life” and then deny that they want to ban abortion or claim there’s a way to structure the law that allows “good” women to have abortions while denying those dirty sluts theirs. That’s why you have strange discussions where ordinary voters say, “I think it’s okay to have an abortion, but not for those women who use it for birth control,” by which they usually mean that they think women who have multiple abortions should somehow, I don’t know, be scolded or something. But there’s no way to write policy around that. The fact of the matter is that we’re facing a movement that wants to pass policies restricting abortion, not a movement of people who want to sit around tossing out hypotheticals about when it’s “okay” to have an abortion, in their personal opinion, as if they’re ever going to be appointed the abortion judge. So asking questions that reinforce that confusion is just irresponsible.

I’ll add that the question assumes that men own women’s bodies, because it assumes men have the final say over an abortion decision. They don’t, unless you assume that men own their wives or something.

To their credit, each candidate saw the problem immediately, which is that their own personal beliefs don’t matter when it comes to discussing women’s legal rights. Paul Ryan, the Republican, tried to reframe the question not as a religious one.

  • debate 2 *

Now, just because Ryan claims that supporting abortion bans is a matter of science and reason doesn’t actually mean that he proved his point. In fact, he didn’t. He told a story about projecting his and his wife’s hopes and dreams onto an embryo that he admits looks like a bean on the monitor. That’s not science or reason. That’s conflating his personal, subjective experience with objective reality. The truth of the matter is that a bean on a monitor proves nothing. Many women who seek abortions get the same ultrasound, but they almost never change their minds. Ryan’s feelings are not, no matter what he says, objective fact. But what his answer made clear is that he got that Raddatz asked a completely wrong question. 

Joe Biden directly addressed the main problem with Raddatz’s question:

  • debate 3 *

What’s fascinating to me is how little it’s understood that this debate is about religious liberty. The anti-choice movement is a religious one; their only actual argument against abortion rights is a religious one. They toss around words like “science” and “reason”, but if you examine their claims at all on this front, they fall apart. Science makes observations about the world, but it doesn’t make moral decisions about who has the right to control a woman’s body. I appreciate that Raddatz wanted to remind the audience that this debate is a debate over whether or not the government should be used by religious groups to impose their dogma on everyone else. But she could have asked the question in a way that was more direct, instead of talking about this issue in personal terms.

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insert interview

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One of the oddest things, when you step back from it, about the existence of a loud and politically powerful movement of misogynists and sex-phobes that call themselves “pro-life”, but who are actually just anti-choice is this: Because they’re always making outrageous claims that don’t make a lick of sense but that spread like wildfire, there’s a lot of money spent on research to see if their nonsense has any merit. We’ve been forced to prove that contraception prevents abortion, even though, on its surface, that’s like proving eating prevents hunger pains. Not that it causes anti-choicers to back off, of course. People who reject common sense tend to reject science, too. I don’t expect anti-choicers to be swayed by this new study, either.

  • hpv 1 *

Okay, let’s take the conservative concerns on quickly, just to show that they aren’t really something that’s rooted in reason and therefore are unlikely to changed by reason. First of all, HPV is so common that everyone who is sexually active is at risk, which means they define “promiscuity” so broadly that everyone who doesn’t die a virgin is guilty. Second of all, if the vaccine did encourage girls to have a bit more sex than they otherwise would, conservatives are literally claiming that’s so bad that dying of cancer is the better option. But stepping back from that, let’s examine the claim that getting a vaccine at 11 would influence your sexual decision-making one way or another. Here’s another reporter describing the conservative claim in more detail:

  • hpv 2 *

That line of thinking only makes sense if you don’t know anything about human behavior, due to having lived under a rock with a lizard family your whole life. Kids get a ton of vaccines, and none of them cause any difference in behavior. Most kids can’t even tell you what vaccines they got and what they’re for. Even if you tell your kid that this vaccine prevents one virus they could get from sex, it takes a special level of paranoia to believe that means a kid will somehow think that means that it’s all on. It’s particularly silly to think that they’d think that means it prevents pregnancy, which even very small kids know is different than catching a disease. The fact of the matter is that young people’s decision to have sex very rarely rests on considerations like disease at all. They tend to be more worried about emotional and social factors, then maybe pregnancy. Those who think at all about disease will know there’s others out there, like herpes or chlamydia. But anti-choicers know all this. We’re talking about people who push for laws that would force pregnant women to die rather than get abortions. Given the choice between saving lives and punishing sex, they’ll pick the latter.

That said, this study can probably go a long way towards convincing people who’ve been naively sucked into anti-choice legends to return to common sense and get their daughters vaccinated. With that in mind, how did they do this study and how much better is it than previous studies that had the same results? Well, they went beyond just self-reporting of sexual activity.

  • hpv 3 *

So there you have it: Girls who have the vaccine do not report higher levels of STDs, pregnancy or any other markers of sexual activity. But they do have one STD that’s much less common! You know, HPV, which leads to cervical cancer. And no, for those who are still paranoid, it’s not enough to simply get regular Pap smears as an adult. Those are just tests to see if abnormal cells are present, but aren’t prevention in the purest form. If you have abnormal cells, they still have to be removed with expensive surgeries. Whereas a simple three course round of vaccines means avoiding the problem altogether.

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And now for the Wisdom of Wingnuts, Bill O’Reilly’s Sandra Fluke obsession continues without even letting up for a moment edition.

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Needless to say, Fluke was demanding that insurance companies cover contraception as preventive care, which it is. But women’s health insurance covering their health care is, according to Bill O’Reilly, “degrading” to women. The best way to respect women is to call women who work under you repeatedly, demanding sex from them until they sue you for harassment, I guess. It’s also honoring women to treat contraception like it was going a little crazy shoe shopping. O’Reilly seems to think a) women’s needs don’t matter and b) men, who are the only people who matter in his world, don’t need contraception. Both of these beliefs are not just wrong, but kind of strange to hold with such conviction. If you watch the whole clip, you’ll see the other hosts were kind of embarrassed for him. 

Follow Amanda Marcotte on Twitter: @amandamarcotte