The Pence amendment has come and gone, and along with it the attack on Planned Parenthood of America (PPA), which was really an attack on legal abortion. Pence passed the House by a big majority, but the budget including it then fizzled by a wide margin in the Senate. Even a handful of conservative senators couldn?t stomach the prospect of America?s mainstay of low-cost women?s health services collapsing; the final vote was 44-56. (For the record, Mike Pence is a Tea Party hopeful, known fondly to his supporters as ?Rush Limbaugh on decaf.? He lost with his amendment, but now he?s made a big name for himself in the national news?all good for him in the Republican race for the White House.)
It?s easy to look at the effort to defund PPA as the latest in a mind-numbing onslaught from the right-to-life movement that?s been going on for years. But it?s not just business as usual. Pence was a sign that the Tea Party is applying its no-holds-barred method to reproductive rights (along with everything else). That means that while it?s shrieking about taxpayers? money, it?s also making noises about contraception, which right-to-life has tied to abortion at least since the 1980s. The draconian Human Life Amendment, which lurked around Congress for years until it finally came up for a vote and went down to defeat in 1983, could have banned the IUD and birth control pills along with abortion as felonious assaults on a constitutionally protected person in utero?a fertilized egg.
There was a time when right-to-life activists pursued an ostensibly ?woman-friendly? approach to anti-abortion politics. A ?woman-friendly? pro-lifer will seem like an oxymoron, but yes, the pro-life movement had divisions just like any other. By the late 1990s, right-to-life centrists (relatively speaking) were unhappy with the impasse the movement had reached?chipping away at abortion rights but not at the solid majority of Americans who supported them. They thought to aim for the political center by softening the standard misogynistic denunciations of pregnant women (and their selfish, lustful ways) that had driven the movement from its beginnings in the Catholic hierarchy in the 1960s.
The new anti-abortion line stressed its ostentatious sympathy for women, who supposedly sought abortions because dogmatic feminists and/or loutish men diverted them from their real desire to have babies. The great success of the woman-friendly line was in convincing Justice Kennedy in 2007 in Gonzales v. Carhart to vote to uphold a congressional ban on a particular procedure for late-term abortion because women needed to be protected from ?post-abortion syndrome??a spurious category, cooked up by the movement, that is recognized by no reputable medical or psychiatric body. Kennedy is the sole swing vote in these cases.
The Pence amendment is a message to American women that, as far as the Tea Party is concerned, the ?woman-friendly? days are over. But Pence more than overreached; it touched off a reaction across the center-left. The amendment was so bad that it prompted two Democratic congresswomen, Gwen Moore and Jackie Speier, to speak up on the House floor about their own experiences with unwanted pregnancies?a bit of feminist feistiness that?s rare these days.
The Tea Party could not have chosen a more mainstream target. PPA has been a constant in American women?s?and couples??lives for more than fifty years. For several generations of women across lines of income, race, and class, its clinics are a sanctuary, practically a shrine, of dependable, decent treatment of reproductive needs. For women over sixty, it was where you went in the 1960s for your first birth control pills, because no one else would give them to you. For women under thirty, it?s where you go today if you?re stuck in the South or the West and there are no reputable abortion clinics around.
The in-your-face quality of the attack on PPA draws from the playbook of the 1980s, when New Right Republicans could have cared less about women?s votes?and saw them hemorrhage from the party as a result. What does it mean? We could be in for another push for the contraceptive-free Christian family, an ideological fantasy that?s been languishing for decades. Legal scholar Reva Siegel pointed me to Kathryn Lopez, a conservative columnist with a background at the Heritage Foundation and the National Review, who touts Pence?s amendment as a visionary piece of legislation. Enough of PPA?s false claims to provide for women?s reproductive needs, Lopez writes, enough of the sexual revolution it caters to. America can?t turn back the clock, she concedes, but it?s time to question the ?contraceptive mentality that treats human sexuality as just another commercial transaction.?
It?s a tricky one for the Right, because that ?contraceptive mentality? is a foundation of modern society, a pillar of heterosexual relations, a necessity without which America as we know it wouldn?t exist. Americans like their ?contraceptive mentality?; in fact they cherish it. An economic downturn with millions unemployed does not seem the moment to be talking about limiting contraception. But then audience appeal is not what the new Republican Party is about; it?s vanguard politics and revolution all the way.