Population Matters

Birth Control and the GOP

August 28th, 2012

As someone who has worked on both sides of the political aisle, I often get asked why more Republicans are not supporting family planning?   With the GOP Convention in Tampa about to go prime time, that’s an excellent question.

There was a time, of course, when the GOP fully embraced the idea of making birth control more widely available both at home and abroad.  In 1968, Rep. George H. W. Bush, told the U.S. House of Representatives:

The federal government, along with many state governments, has taken steps to accelerate family-planning activities in the United States, but we need to do more. We have a clear precedent: When the Salk vaccine was discovered, large-scale programs were undertaken to distribute it. I see no reason why similar programs of education and family-planning assistance—all on a voluntary basis—should not be instituted in the United States on a massive scope. It is imperative that we do so: not only to fight poverty at its roots, not only to cut down on our welfare costs, but also to eliminate the needless suffering of unwanted children and overburdened parents.

The following year, President Richard Nixon actively supported the creation of Title X, the federal program that has given tens of millions of uninsured and low-income individuals access to family planning services. When he signed the bill into law, he 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.

But while Nixon was proud to sign Title X into law, many Republicans today would be just as happy de-funding it.  Last year, in fact, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to do just that even though research suggests that in 2008 Title X-supported centers helped prevent 973,000 unintended pregnancies, which would have resulted in 432,600 unintended births and 406,200 abortions.

For a party that is overwhelmingly opposed to abortion it is both tragic and ironic that so many Republicans want to abolish the federal and state funding sources that help women avert unintended or unwanted pregnancies.

GOP opposition to international family planning assistance is less widespread, but here too many in the party have drifted into the opposition camp.  But why?  Michael Gerson, a prominent columnist and a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, wrote a column last year that made a persuasive case for international family planning assistance.  Writing from the Democratic Republic of Congo, here’s what Gerson had to say:

 The very words “family planning” light up the limbic centers of American politics. From a distance, it seems like a culture war showdown. Close up, in places such as Bweremana, family planning is undeniably pro-life. When births are spaced more than 24 months apart, both mothers and children are dramatically more likely to survive. Family planning results not only in fewer births, but in fewer at-risk births, including those early and late in a woman’s fertility. When contraceptive prevalence is low, about 70 percent of all births involve serious risk. When prevalence is high, the figure is 35 percent.

Gerson went on to conclude:

Contraceptives do not solve every problem. But women in Bweremana want access to voluntary family planning for the same reasons as women elsewhere: to avoid high-risk pregnancies, to deliver healthy children and to better care for the children they have. And this is a pro-life cause.

In 2008, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, George W. Bush’s Director of the CIA, gave a speech at Kansas State University in which he warned about the dangers of rapid population growth in failing countries.  He said:

Today, there are about 6.7 billion people sharing our planet. By mid-century, the best estimates point to a world population of more than 9 billion. Most of that growth will occur in countries least able to sustain it, a situation that will likely fuel instability and extremism, both in those areas and beyond.

Many poor, already fragile states — where governance is difficult today — will grow rapidly. In Afghanistan, Liberia, Niger, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the population is expected to triple by mid-century. The number of people in Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Yemen will more than double. Furthermore, all of those countries will have large concentrations of young people. If their basic freedoms and basic needs — food, housing, education, employment, and so on — are not met, they could be easily attracted to violence, civil unrest, or extremism.

Gerson and Hayden are not the only GOP voices willing to back international family planning assistance.   As Secretary of State, Colin Powell was quite supportive.  Indeed, I have a nagging suspicion that many prominent Republicans are privately ashamed of seeing some of their fellow party members publicly vilifying birth control and contraception.

Actually, it’s more than a nagging suspicion.  In recent weeks, I have talked privately to a number of Republicans, including some savvy political operatives, who are privately aghast at what Santorum and other social conservatives are saying about birth control.  Many would like to speak out, but fear that they would be shouted down by the social conservatives.  That’s too bad.  Their voices need to be heard at the Republican National Convention and beyond.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, President

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