Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Is It About Contraception?

Although I have been skeptical of Robert Altmeyer's on-line book on authoritarians, it did raise one interesting point I wished Altmeyer had described in more detail. When authoritarians play the Global Change Game (a complex, multi-player role playing game in which participants play the nations of the world and are supposed to learn of the difficult environmental challenges the world faces), they lacked a capacity for international cooperation, and they refused to curb population growth. Alter describes three authoritarian iterations of the game* in considerable detail and watches three quite different outcomes, but in all cases, they refuse to curb population growth, and in no case does Altmeyer go into detail about how or why this was so. I wish he had, because it might shed some light on conservatives’ determination to defund Planned Parenthood and outrage at insurance companies being required to cover contraceptives for free.

This is baffling in particular because it is directly opposed to another reason often posed for opposing birth control, the demographic arms race. The demographic arms race viewpoint rests on the assumption that (1) people’s social and political viewpoints are immutable encoded on their genes and can never be changed by education and assimilation, and (2) “they” will continue to breed like rats so “we” have to start having more babies just to keep up. This was the viewpoint Margaret Sanger ran into among eugenicists who were all in favor of providing contraceptives to poor immigrant women, but opposed making them available to native-born American women. It is rampant on the hard right in people like Mark Steyn who say, If you cannot outbreed the enemy, cull 'em." It has been rampant, too, on the hard left, among Third World revolutionaries who denounce birth control as soft genocide and regard a woman’s role as breeding babies for their glorious revolution. It might be called an attitude of “contraception for thee, but not for me.”

But that is not what is going on here. What we are seeing here is more an attitude of “contraception for me but not for thee.” In other words, a determination to lose the demographic arms race. I’m talking about people like Fox New's Greg Gutfeld quipping “Eliminate poverty by eliminating the poor.” (This, too, is an old trope, widely used by the hard left to explain why contraception has no role in fighting poverty). Although I cannot find the link, Glenn Beck denounced an African ecoligically sustainable project (funded by Al Gore and George Soros, of course) as genocidal because African women who participated started using contraception and having fewer children. And the Washington Times' Jeffrey Kuhner has openly come out and denounced contraception as unnatural and un-Christian.

It makes me want to sigh and roll my eyes and ask them, how many children do you have? For Beck the answer is apparently three natural and one adopted. Gutfeld, although married, apparently has none. And Kuhner's Wikipedia entry mentions a wife but no children, although it is brief enough to possibly be omitting them. Is it so far-fetched to assume, then, that all three men practice contraception? And that their righteous indignation is therefore more thatn a little hypocritical? This attitude, too, is nothing new. When Margaret Sanger began her practice among poor immigrant women, a number of birth control devices (such as condoms, diaphragms or cervical caps) had, in fact, been invented. Birth rates among middle class, native born women somehow managed to fall. When she tried to obtain birth control for the poor, she ran into fierce resistance and a campaign to outlaw contraception altogether. But somehow these fierce struggles never seemed to do much to raise birth rates among the middle class.**

So why are so many people on the right denouncing contracepting for the poor as immoral, while practicing it themselves? I can think of two possible reasons. Some people oppose widespread availability of contraception because they believe it will encourage sex outside of marriage. If every woman could be required to present a marriage certificate as a precondition to getting contraception, they would probably not object. Others really do have religious objections to all contraception as immoral.

But they run into a problem. Any serious attempt to deny access to contraception to the general public would run into a firestorm of opposition and be quickly defeated, at considerable political cost to the people proposing it. So that rules it out. The best they can hope to do is to deny access to women who are not in a position to resist. Right wing religious groups have been doing that in Republican administrations since Reagan in foreign aid, steering funds to religious organizations that seek to deny birth control to Third World women. And now they are getting bolder and moving on to deny such access to our own poor and powerless women at home.
*By contrast, players with low authoritarian scores coopeated well. Although Altmeyer does not discuss the reason for their opposition to birth control, it seems unlikely to have been about hostility to casual sex in an political and ecological role playing game. Most likely, the demographic arms race viewpoint was at work.

**I also got some fascinating lessons on the subject in Constitutional Right when we got to Griswold vs. Connecticut. As late as the 1960’s, Connecticut had anti-contraceptive statutes on the book. (So did Massachusetts). No one had ever been prosecuted under these statues, our professor explained, but that did not mean they were without effect. Connecticut is a very small state geographically, and little more than a suburb of New York City. Women who could afford a private doctor evaded the law by going to a New York doctor for their birth control. But poor women could not afford a private doctor, and the law did succeed in keeping Planned Parenthood from setting up a clinic. The effect was to deny contraception to the poor and only the poor. (He did not discuss what respective birth rates in Connecticut were at the time. Presumably they retained the last resort of sterilization). The struggle over allowing such a clinic, he said, was one between rival elites over whether the poor should be allowed to practice birth control. The poor remained passive and took no part.


Blogger Roger Moore said...

Another possibility is that authoritarian leaders correctly perceive contraception as a long-term route out of poverty and want to deny it to their followers as a way of keeping them poor and dependent. They come up with explanations for their followers to justify why contraception is evil, but those explanations are really just stories. The leaders have no problem breaking the rules because one of the core tenets of authoritarianism is that rules are for little people.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Enlightened Layperson said...

Except that a lot of these authoritarians are people who openly hate the poor and make no secret about it. (Have you seen Jon Stewart's latest piece on the sort of class warfare Fox is openly waging?)

2:16 PM  

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