The President vs. the Pill


Most concerned voters know where George Bush stands on abortion—he backs the Republican call for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortions even in cases of rape and incest. But how many people know that his interest in controlling what a woman does with her body extends to contraception? That’s right, the born-again wannabe-president-again has repeatedly used his power to curb access to birth control, which some 95 percent of American women use at some point in their lives.

Now, family planning advocates are working to let voters in on the president’s little-known record. Planned Parenthood is running TV ads in swing states drawing the difference between John Kerry and Bush on abortion and birth control. And NARAL Pro-Choice America has its interim president, Elizabeth Cavendish, traveling the country explaining the ways Bush has attacked contraception. “When people hear about it, they really feel convinced that Bush is a menace to our rights,” says Cavendish.

A prime example is the “faith-based” health plan for federal employees unveiled late last month, which specifically excludes coverage of contraception. Tailored to fit the tenets of the Catholic Church, the new plan will deny assistance with artificial insemination, sterilization, and abortion. Though it reduces the number of procedures covered by insurance, Kay Coles James, director of the Office of Personnel Management, told The New York Times the plan gave federal employees “more opportunities to make choices.”

It’s worth noting that James, now part of the Bush administration, is a former spokesperson for the National Right to Life Committee.

Birth control was also front and center in Bush’s recent “family priorities” campaign ad, which begins talking about “teenage abortions” and then slips into a discussion of emergency contraception, or the morning-after pill, which actually prevents pregnancy if taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex. “Kerry even voted to allow schools to hand out the morning-after pill without parents’ knowledge,” an ominous voice tells viewers.

Never mind the ad’s inaccuracy (Kerry didn’t actually vote for legislation that authorizes schools to give students the morning-after pill; he voted to allow parents more control over how schools spend federal dollars, which, in some cases, could be spent on the pill). Its message is clear: Bush is not just running against abortion, he’s moving the bar to include pregnancy prevention.

No one who paid attention to the May scuffle over emergency contraception should be surprised. After all, Bush stacked the Food and Drug Administration’s scientific panels with appointees who succeeded in blocking the drug from becoming available over the counter. His appointees to the FDA Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee weren’t just religious conservatives, they were among a fringe minority of religious conservatives who object to certain kinds of contraception, insisting they’re forms of abortion.

For instance, Joseph B. Stanford, a Utah physician Bush appointed to the FDA committee, refuses to prescribe the birth control pill, saying it’s “incompatible with Christian values.” As Stanford—and the “Human Life Amendment” plank of the Republican Party platform—would have it, pregnancy, and life, begin when a sperm and egg meet. Thus, the IUD, the birth control pill, the patch, the vaginal ring, and other hormonal contraceptive methods become objectionable because they either can or are designed to work after fertilization.

Bush started his term by removing a budget provision that required some insurance companies serving federal employees to cover contraception. Then federal National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention removed fact sheets about sex education and the effectiveness of condoms from their websites. Bush went on to cut funds for family planning throughout his time in office while pouring money into “abstinence-only” education, which forbids frank discussion of birth control. For the past three years, Bush has withheld $34 million for international family planning from the United Nations Population Fund. Meanwhile, he is promising to increase abstinence funding, already at record levels, and to insist that nearly one-third of domestic funding for HIV/AIDS be spent on abstinence.

The president has installed several far-right conservatives to wage the war against contraception. He appointed Tom Coburn, a former Republican congressman who has opposed condom use, as co-chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS. Dr. W. David Hager, another Bush appointee to the FDA reproductive health panel, is a former spokesperson for the Christian Medical Association and co-author of a book that recommends scripture reading and prayers for various ailments.

Sadly, the “prayer method” doesn’t work very well when it comes to preventing pregnancies—an idea not lost on voters. When the advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America conducted focus groups in swing states, female voters between 18 and 39 said that the single most convincing election message about choice is that the next president will make a range of decisions that affect not only abortion, but also birth control. Yet most in the focus groups were unaware of Bush’s record on contraception.

That’s where the new political ads come in. “If they understand that their most intimate liberties are at stake,” says Cavendish, “they’ll vote for John Kerry.”

Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at Milano Graduate School, New School University.