Birth control is a no-brainer. Americans have agreed that family planning is a good thing as far back as 1936, when Gallup first asked whether Americans favor the birth control movement (which, at that time, was still largely illegal and underground). Sixty-one percent said, “yes.”
So how did we become a society which stages an annual budget showdown over funding family planning and Planned Parenthood, the one organization that does more than any other single provider to give women access to birth control?
If you think that abortion is the wedge, think again. Planned Parenthood is under rabid, near-constant assault by right-wing extremists not because of abortion, although abortion certainly continues to be a divisive issue in America. It is under attack because, as Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa tweeted in March 2017, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
The truth is that the war on women has always been, at its root, a war to preserve white supremacy. Planned Parenthood is the lightning rod, with its commitment to helping women decide what’s best for them, not best for their race.
This isn’t an abortion war. It’s a fight to preserve whiteness.
When birth control went bad
Gallup started asking Americans a new question in 1938: “Would you like to see a government agency furnish birth control information to married people who want it?” Sixty-two percent of respondents answered affirmatively, a level of support that grew to 67 percent over the next decade.
Despite popular support for safe, reliable and affordable contraception, the nation’s laws banned birth control as obscene and immoral. In fact, it wasn’t until 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Eisenstadt v. Baird that every adult, whether married or unmarried, was finally accorded the legal right to contraception.
It was against this landscape that Congress enacted the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970, designed to pay for education, counseling, and the provision of low-cost contraceptives and related medical services to those who could not afford it. That bill wasn’t signed into law by left-wing liberals promoting free love.
It was signed by Republican President Richard M. Nixon.
In his statement about the bill, President Nixon said: “It is noteworthy that this landmark legislation on family planning and population has had strong bipartisan support. I am confident that by working together at federal, state, and local levels—we can achieve the goal of providing adequate family planning services within the next 5 years to all those who want them but cannot afford them.”
Federally-funded family planning through Title X (and Medicaid) continues to serve about 7.8 million low-income women per year with services including affordable birth control, cancer screenings, breast health, testing and treatment of sexually transmitted infections and other routine reproductive health care. None of these funds has ever been used for abortion care, except in extreme cases.
Funding for Title X peaked in FY 2010, when it received $317.5 million. But in the aftermath of the Great Recession, there was a major push by Tea Party conservatives in 2011 to reduce the federal deficit by slashing programs across the board. For the first time since Title X began, the House voted in 2011 to wipe out the program, and to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal funds for any reason. They drew a line in the sand over the issue, threatening to bring the entire government to a standstill and precipitating 800,000 federal worker furloughs, delaying tax refunds, and withholding paychecks for American soldiers.
For most Americans, the shutdown show down over family planning was perplexing, especially since Title X and Planned Parenthood comprised a miniscule portion of the $1 trillion-plus federal budget.
“I am really stunned, and I am angry as a woman, that we have come to this after weeks of negotiating on numbers,” mused Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) in an interview with ABC News in April 2011, “that there those in the Republican Party in the House who are willing to shut down the government, take people’s paychecks away from them because they want to deny women access to health care in this country.”
At the time, Planned Parenthood urged the media to be clear about what Congress was fighting over: “What’s at stake is not ‘abortion funding,’” the organization said in a statement to the media that was published by NPR. “Abortion services are not covered by Medicaid or any other federal program. The Hyde amendment settled that issue more than 30 years ago. The truth is that the rider regarding Planned Parenthood would bar Planned Parenthood from being paid by Medicaid and other federal programs for providing women with birth control, cancer screenings, HIV testing, and testing and treatment for other STIs.”
(In fact, in 2011, Planned Parenthood was providing affordable birth control to 2.5 million patients annually.)
In the last hours before the shutdown, Republicans blinked and the budget passed with funds for both Title X and Planned Parenthood still intact. But to have to relitigate the value of birth control a half century after the pill was approved by the FDA was ridiculous. A protest sign at a Michigan rally spoke for countless women when it read, “It’s 2011. WTF?”
The racist roots of the War on Women
As men shipped off to join the allied forces in World War II, women entered the workforce to fill the void. But as the war drew to an end, a new problem emerged: How would they stuff those millions of “Jeannies” back into the bottle?
In 2012, the Atlantic wrote about the genesis of the term “War on Women.” The article attributed the first use to noted sociologist Willard Waller. In February 1945, Waller wrote an editorial in The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine issuing this warning: “When our soldiers get through fighting the Germans and the Japs, they will have to fight their own women.”
And the impetus for the impending war at home? No, it wasn’t about those sassy gals who had gotten too big for their britches:
“If we are to have an adequate birth rate, we must hear less talk about women’s rights and more about their duty to the race,” Waller wrote. “The plain fact is, women do not produce children under the conditions of freedom and equality that have existed in the United States since the last war. The birth rate among educated, emancipated women is very low indeed, since few women manage to compete with men and, at the same time, produce their due number of children.”
Waller concluded that “a woman’s ownership of her body should be subordinate to her obligation as the trustee of the race.”
Here we find the intersection of sexism and racism at its hideous apex. The white woman’s duty — ahead of her duty to her man, her country and her god — was to have as many white babies as possible.
In public, politicians and pundits felt comfortable calling “emancipated women” sluts. (Exhibit A: In 2012, when the Affordable Care Act mandated that insurance policies cover birth control without a co-pay, conservative shock jock Rush Limbaugh asked, “Why do they want the government to pay for pills that make it easy for them to whore around?”) But in private, they were called something equally as sinister: Race traitors.
The time-honored tactic of shaming women who refused to procreate within marriage wasn’t working. A new weapon had to be deployed.
Blessed are the baby bumps
I was born in 1960, and grew up in an era where pregnant women quietly left their jobs before they started showing. There was no such thing as a visibly pregnant teacher. Even the word “pregnant” was verboten. Decent women were “expecting” or “with child.”
By the time my daughter had her first child in 2013, stomachs were out of the closet. There wasn’t a Hollywood magazine cover that didn’t have a celebrity white woman with tight fabric stretched across their swollen bellies. “Baby bump” entered the lexicon, and everyone was showing theirs off. We became a culture obsessed by white women and their growing families. We watched teen moms forge their way on MTV. We saw white celebrity women at the beach wearing bikinis at seven months. The maternity fashion silhouette went from tent to tight.
On television, we loved Kate and her eight. We hailed the Duggars, the evangelical royal couple who begot 19-plus children and earned a reality show for their obedience to divine law.
While popular culture was pushing pregnancy to the masses, the Quiverfull movement has also begun to gain traction among evangelicals and white supremacists. Quiverfull adherents do not use birth control, believing that only God “opens and closes the womb.” The name comes from Psalm 127, 3-5: “Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” (Notably, the movement sees family planning as “the hallmark of selfish feminists” and birth control as the gateway drug to abortion.)
Why do white evangelicals need scores of babies in their quivers? Ask Nancy Campbell, a Quiverfull leader and author of Be Fruitful and Multiply. In a 2009 NPR interview she explained that “we look across the Islamic world and we see that they are outnumbering us in their family size, and they are in many places and many countries taking over those nations, without a jihad, just by multiplication.”
The womb is the incubator for tomorrow’s army of white Christians. That’s a powerful weapon, and the need for deployment could not be more urgent.
“Somebody else’s babies”
The candidacy and presidency of Donald J. Trump ushered in an era of overt racism that has bested the Reagan Era. Anti-immigration rhetoric and the quest to “make America great again” has invited the honest airing of the white supremacist philosophy that undergirds the attacks on Planned Parenthood: “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
That was a tweet from Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa on March 2017. When rebuked for his statement, King doubled down on CNN:
I’ve said the same things as far as 10 years ago to the German people and to any population of people that is a declining population that isn’t willing to have enough babies to reproduce themselves, and I’ve said to them, ‘You cannot rebuild your civilization with someone else’s babies, you’ve got to keep your birthrate up, and that you need to teach your children your values.’
When Congress dug in to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Republicans hastened to assuage the surprise backlash by keeping the most popular aspects of the law, including coverage of pre-existing conditions, and allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26.
But the House plan to repeal and replace Obamacare continued to target Planned Parenthood, making it ineligible for Medicaid reimbursements or federal family planning grants under Title X. Since none of those funds can be used to pay for abortions, the “ban” would have put at risk Planned Parenthood’s ability to provide birth control and preventive services to patients who needed it most. This in spite of the fact that a March 2017 Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found that 75 percent of Americans (including a majority of Republicans) support continuing current federal Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood to cover non-abortion services for low-income women and families.
The profoundly unpopular replacement healthcare bill was withdrawn on March 24, 2017 rather than risk an ignoble defeat. But that didn’t stop President Trump from making good on his promise to defund Planned Parenthood. On April 13, 2017, behind closed doors and without any media fanfare, he signed a bill allowing states to withhold Title X funding from agencies like Planned Parenthood which also provide abortions.
At present, it is unknown how the measure will affect Planned Parenthood’s 800 health centers across the United States. At worst, it could threaten the 1.5 million low income women who come to Planned Parenthood every year for birth control and preventive health care (almost one-third of the entire population that is now served under Title X). It’s also not clear that they will stop at defunding Planned Parenthood, which has always been the standard bearer for birth control.
In 2014, the Guttmacher Institute assessed the impact of publicly funded birth control services through Title X. According to the report, without Title X, the rates of unintended pregnancy, unplanned birth and abortion might have been 33 percent higher. In fact, without publicly funded family planning services from all sources (including Medicaid), there would have been nearly one million unintended births.
As long as a good chunk of them are white, that’s exactly what right wing extremists are hoping for.