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The Increasingly Disturbing War Against Women’s Rights

When Foster Friess, the billionaire backer of Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign, suggested yesterday that women should simply place aspirin between their legs rather than use contraception, it was the latest salvo of a culture war that has been raging for months. “Culture war,” in fact, increasingly seems too vague a term for the current conversation in the country about women’s rights. That conversation is acquiring an increasingly retrograde tone, one that should cause liberals to be alarmed.

It’s hard to pinpoint where the current upsurge in dismissive rhetoric about women’s rights began. Anti-abortion sentiment has long been a staple of right-wing politics, of course. But recently, conservatives have seemed particularly fixated on Planned Parenthood. Last February, congressional Republicans sought to eliminate funding for Title X, a federal grant program that provides HIV testing, contraception, and cancer screenings (through pap smears and breast exams). Title X, Republicans claimed, was funding abortions at Planned Parenthood, which Senator Jon Kyl said did little else.

Kyl had his facts badly wrong, it turned out. Abortion represents only 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services, and the organization is legally prohibited from using Title X funds to cover abortion-related expenses. This didn’t seem to bother Kyl. The Senator’s comment about Planned Parenthood’s activities “was not intended to be a factual statement,” said his spokesman. Another fact that apparently didn’t trouble him: Title X has funded the early detection, over a 20 year period, of at least 55,000 cases of cervical cancer, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Obama preserved Title X during the budget showdown, but the administration’s attitude toward abortion and contraception has been muddled. In December, the Health and Human Services secretary overturned the Food and Drug Administration’s ruling making Plan B, commonly known as “the morning-after pill,” available to all women over the counter. A seventeen-year-old girl can get the morning-after pill without a prescription; a sixteen-year-old cannot.

Last summer, a group called the Susan B. Anthony List issued a pledge to GOP candidates, essentially asking them to make it much harder for women to obtain abortions in America; all the candidates but Herman Cain, Gary Johnson, and Mitt Romney signed it. In 2011, according to the Guttmacher Institute, more than 1,100 abortion-restriction measures were introduced by lawmakers at the state level; 135 passed. Most recently, during the past few weeks, the Susan B. Komen Foundation attempted to end its $600,000 annual contribution to Planned Parenthood (though Komen backtracked after a public fight), and President Obama touched off a firestorm by proposing that all organizations, including religious institutions, be required to offer employees health care plans that cover contraception.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric from Rick Santorum—now leading in the Republican polls nationwide—has been almost casually ugly. Not content to merely demand that all abortions be criminalized, including in cases of rape and incest, he also smothers his prohibitionist ideology in smug condescension. A woman who has been impregnated by rape, in Santorum’s description, is someone who should “make the best of a bad situation.”

Taken individually, these incidents all seem like isolated events. Taken together, they start to look like a disturbing trend. Increasingly, what we are seeing from the right when it comes to women’s issues is not conservatism but radicalism: a bid to roll back the gains and freedoms that feminism has managed to earn for women. During the various imbroglios over Planned Parenthood, for instance, why weren’t more conservatives making a principled case against abortion while also conceding—and applauding—the important role that the organization has played in allowing women to take control of their health and their lives? We are adamantly pro-choice; yet we could certainly respect a principled abortion opponent who took this position. Unfortunately, this is not what we have heard from most conservatives. Instead, we have seen a rush to demonize Planned Parenthood wholesale, oblivious to the crucial work it does for women.

These attacks are coming almost exclusively from the right. But liberals are not entirely blameless. For a long time on the left, there has been a notion that social issues—among them women’s issues, chiefly abortion—were somehow a waste of time. The real matters for liberals to fight on, according to this worldview, were economic ones, and everything else was a distraction. This view was expressed most crudely by Ralph Nader, who infamously derided such issues as “gonadal politics”; but one often hears it articulated in softer forms.

We would all prefer to live in a world without deep conflicts over cultural issues. But that is not the world in which we live. Over the past generation, women have gone from being second-class citizens to being full and equal partners in American life. The ability of women to make their own reproductive decisions—on both birth control and abortion—has been a central part of this revolution. Defending and expanding on these gains should not be a side-issue for liberals: It is a core component of our political philosophy. If conservatives are going to pursue a rollback of women’s rights, then there must be no doubt that liberals are prepared to make a strong and unambiguous stand.