Welcome to the 1940s

Fifty-two years ago this week, the History Nerd came into the world, kicking and screaming, I imagine, as much as any infant does. I bring up this historical tidbit only because my birthday got me thinking: What if my parents had used birth control nine months earlier? Why, I wouldn’t be penning this, that’s for sure. Or maybe I would have come along at a later point, but not become a history-loving nerd so obsessed with the past I have to blog about it in my idle moments.

Another great thing to come out of CT--the end of laws against birth control. Thank you, Estelle Griswold!

Of course, if my parents had been using birth control, they would have been criminals, since another five years had to pass for the Supreme Court to overturn a Connecticut law that made birth control illegal. Unless, of course, it was natural birth control, like the rhythm method, the form championed by my parents’ Roman Catholic faith. For all I know—and I don’t really want to think about it too deeply—they were practicing the method, it failed, and there I came.

Jeez, who thought this women's suffrage thing was a good idea?

Thoughts about contraception, of course, were fueled by the ongoing ridiculousness spouted by certain Republican males this political season (with the most recent coming the other day, courtesy of Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett). Why are these guys so obsessed about sex and women’s bodies—in such a demeaning, patriarchial way (not in the normal, red-blooded, straight-guy way that millions of other American men obsess about those topics)? A female friend said what I had been thinking: These recent attempts to limit contraception and invade the privacy of pregnant women make it feel like we’re stepping back into another era. You just keep waiting for some conservatives to start with, “And that voting thing, maybe that wasn’t such a smart idea either.” (Certainly not for the candidates who keep spewing all the crazy talk…)

I’ve come to believe that the men leading the attack on women, whether fueled by religious conviction, misogyny, or both, aren’t conservatives at all. They’re reactionaries. Instead of trying to conserve something fairly long established and widely believed—women should have equal rights—they want to turn back the clock. They certainly aren’t being good Republicans. It was, after all, Richard Nixon who championed Title X of the 1970 Public Health Service Act. Yes, Tricky Dick had plenty of faults, but he supported some key government actions that served the public weal. Title X made good on Nixon’s pledge the year before: “No American woman should be denied access to family planning.” The government would provide assistance to women who could not afford birth control. Funds went to Planned Parenthood and independent clinics for this purpose.

Title X—so hard to believe in this climate—had bipartisan support in Congress. Here are the words of one Republican representative from Texas: “We need to take sensationalism out of this topic. If family planning is anything, it is a public health matter.” That was George H.W. Bush, who later, as president, reiterated his support for contraception, even boasting about his efforts to support family planning. By then, though, he had jumped onto the anti-abortion bandwagon, and–based on several public comments he made as a presidential candidate and once in office–he seemed hung-up on the idea that people were using abortion as birth control. The man had obviously never talked to a woman who had an abortion. None I know who have gone through that experience ever equated it to popping a pill or inserting an IUD.

From now on, we should call 'em "bushies."

Bush, of course, came from a family that long championed “family planning.” Before going to Washington to serve as a Connecticut senator, Prescott Bush helped raise money for (cue the evil-sounding music) Planned Parenthood! Bush and his family later claimed the senator never had any affiliation with PP (read more about it here and here), but George H.W. was so gung-ho about family planning that in some circles he was known as “Rubbers.”

Of course, I can hear some of today’s Republican say that Nixon and the older generations of Bushes were not conservatives. If you want to see the roots of today’s Republicans, go back to the revered Ronald Reagan. All right, and as a quick search of the public record of his eight years in office reveals, he almost never mentioned contraception or birth control. When he did, it was usually in reference to a change to Title X his administration tried to ram down the throats of federally funded clinics that dispensed birth control. Under the so-called “squeal rule,” the clinics were supposed to tell parents if teens under 18 received birth control. Reagan said in February 1983, “I don’t think government has a right to stick its nose into the family and tell parents what they can or cannot know about their children.” So, he tried to paint it as an “anti-big government” position rather than an anti-contraception one. Still, there was no doubt that the measure was a sop to the social conservatives Reagan turned to for support. The courts, though, struck down the change. Despite those efforts, Reagan said very clearly early during his presidency that he was not against contraception. And he told a group of evangelicals he did not fault the intent of Planned Parenthood and other clinics to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortion.

Which brings us to today. When Mitt Romney wants to do away with Planned Parenthood (what would Prescott say?), and Sick Rick Santorum offers us these sentiments:

“One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country…. Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

Is that conservative? Or a desire to return to a Dark-Ages past, fueled by religious tenets, that is so out of step with what most Americans believe? And, of course, a slap at the rights of women, to control their sex lives and their bodies.

I keep hoping Santorum and the Catholic bishops and evangelicals who spout such things would just go away. Or that Republicans with some sense of decency would call them on the carpet. Since Nixon and Prescott Bush aren’t around, I guess it’s up to George H.W. Bush. Are you listening, Rubbers?

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