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The Authoritarian Agenda Behind Attacks on Contraception

Tuesday, 26 April 2011 06:57 By Amanda Marcotte, RH Reality Check | Op-Ed
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In a recent piece for the American Prospect, Sarah Posner outlined how the fringe of the religious right increasingly dictates the larger conservative agenda, as evidenced by the bold Republican push towards open war on contraception.  Sarah writes about the reason for the attacks on Planned Parenthood:

It is not solely about shutting down Planned Parenthood's federal funding because the organization provides abortion services (indeed federal funding of abortion is already banned by the Hyde Amendment). It's about shutting down Planned Parenthood because it provides contraceptives. That is a target because, as Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has put it, "an arrogant corrupt Washington elite" has "declared war on marriage, on families, on fertility, and on faith."

Mike Huckabee has started to join the chorus of anti-contraception voices as well, calling Planned Parenthood "Planned Barrenhood"---basically signing off on the idea that any attempt to control fertility is wrong, no matter how you do it.  While the official argument is that this is still just about abortion, the mask slips more and more all the time, and the public is beginning to be clear about how radical the anti-choice agenda really is. And the thing is that when you drop the bloviating about fetal life and attack contraception head on, it's much harder to distract people from how viciously misogynistic this agenda really is. 

Take, for instance, the reaction of the California Catholic Daily to a new Guttmacher report demonstrating no real difference in contraception use between religious and non-religious women, even Catholics.  Ninety-eight percent of Catholic women use contraception, only one percentage point less than the public at large.  Instead of viewing this as evidence that church teachings are sexist, out of date, and have no relationship to women’s actual needs and lives, California Catholic Daily lashed out at women for being disobedient to the dictates of the celibate men who are supposed to know better than women what they need for their lives:

Basically, the report said, Catholic women have ignored their bishops. "In real-life America, contraceptive use and strong religious beliefs are highly compatible," the Guttmacher news release quoted Rachel K. Jones, the report's lead author, as saying....

The Institute seemed to take some glee from the finding that Catholic women are ignoring Church teachings.

No evidence was produced of the "glee" that the notoriously sober-minded researchers at Guttmacher were accused of demonstrating.

But what I find most interesting about this is how the feigned concern for the fetus has been dropped completely, and the entire focus is on controlling women.  Catholic women are criticized solely for disobedience, solely for not blindly following the dictates of leaders who don’t know or care much about the actual circumstances of women’s lives.  Women seem to exist solely to obey without asking questions, and the fact that women don’t actually do this is treated like an embarrassment for the Catholic Church.  The perception that the Guttmacher Institute is laughing at the Catholic Church stems mainly from this humiliated stance; the author seems to be cringing because they’ve been called out for not keeping "their" women on a tighter leash.

I fail to see how this is not misogyny. Casting women in a role of supplicants who should simply reproduce as much as their masters tell them without daring even a peep of protest---and suggesting that women’s failure to comply to hateful, unmanageable rules is a humiliation for their masters---strikes me as misogyny distilled.  The reaction to Guttmacher’s study on other right wing sites didn’t do much to dissuade me from seeing the objection to reproductive rights as simply a display of dominance over women.  In fact, the humiliated stance was so great that some bloggers denied that women who use contraception are really Catholic, saying things like, "Now, Guttmacher determined that anyone who went to services at least once a month was an observant member of their religion (ha!), so we don’t know just how 'Catholic' these self-described Catholics are," even though by putting "Catholics" and "contraception users" into separate cateogories means that only two percent of Catholic women are Catholic.

Catholic Culture reacted to the news with ad hominem attacks on Alan Guttmacher though he's been dead for 37 years.  They couldn't dispute the findings, so it was more a reaction along the lines of, "Yeah, we can't control our women but your mom is ugly neener neener neener!"

Anti-choice commenters reacted to the news in similar fashions, denying the findings without evidence or making ad hominem attacks.  But above all things, Catholic women were criticized for their lack of blind obedience. A commenter at California Catholic Daily compared women to naughty children refusing to eat their vegetables:

Their point is simply an immature view which any parent has heard arguments like that from their children from time to time.

Women who rejected church teachings had their intelligence insulted:

The reason Catholic couples use artificial means is because they are unaware of Church teachings and most don't understand NFP.

I think a better explanation is that women do understand NFP and know that it's not for them, and have chosen an option that fits with their lifestyles. The assumption that 98 percent of Catholic women are too stupid to know what's best for them is pure misogyny.  Indeed, the fact that NFP doesn't work for the vast majority of women was presented as the main reason that it should be their only option:

When people are truly educated on the dignity of men and women, the awesome privilege of cooperating in creating another soul for heaven, and on the benefits of Natural Family Planning (which requires sacrifice, a dirty word today, but helps married couples develop respect for their spouse) contraception will be a thing of the past.

In other words, the reason the commenter supports natural family planning is he assumes that it will fail and pregnancy will come from it.  That, and sacrificing---your health, the happiness of your marriage, your family's financial future, your sexual pleasure---is an end in and of itself.  If you wonder why suffering is just good for its own sake, then this commenter has an answer for you: stop asking questions.

Please, Lord, give us courageous rectors of seminaries who will teach the men all they need to know. I grew up when "the Church teaches it, do it, and that's the end of it, or you'll end up in hell."

And this is all what's underlying the war on contraception: misogynist authoritarianism. In other words, the war on contraception is a war on the bedrock values this country stands for---equality, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, and democracy---and looks to replace those things with blind obedience to authority and second class status for women.

Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte writes for and manages the blog Pandagon. She's the author of the book It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.


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