The Centers for Disease Control is not the first place one looks to for ideas on conflict resolution but, with one issue that has divided America, it should be. A recent CDC study revealed that between 1990 and 2004 abortion rates plummeted by 50 percent in the U.S. The researchers suggest one common-sense policy approach is most responsible: access to contraception.
As political campaigns around the country take very different stands on the abortion issue there is no question that this argument will intensify. And the stakes couldn't be higher. The next president, if history is any measure, is likely to appoint two Supreme Court justices. Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide, currently stands by one vote. The next election will likely decide whether Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land. Against this political backdrop, another, potentially more important, reproductive rights conflict may get lost. In fact, the issue many candidates don't want voters to think about is not abortion, but contraception and the media hasn't called them on it.
Access to contraception is the only proven way to reduce unwanted pregnancy rates. It's no wonder that Americans on both sides of the abortion debate overwhelmingly support contraception. Yet few know that more and more candidates vying for their vote don't. Across the states, anti-abortion organizations have added anti-contraception activities to their agenda and expect those they help get elected to office to join in these efforts. Since this issue isn't on most voters' radar, most complacently comply.
North Kentucky Right to Life, for instance, will not endorse a candidate unless he or she states that the standard birth control pill is an abortion method (a widely held, but scientifically unfounded, belief within the anti-abortion establishment). Wisconsin Right to Life asked legislators to ban emergency contraception from state university campuses and opposed efforts to provide rape victims with pregnancy prevention too.
Missouri Right to Life convinced its allies in the state legislature to completely discontinue the state's family planning program. Georgia Right to Life organized its favorite legislators to support a bill that would reclassify all hormonal methods of birth control as abortion. In Virginia, pro-life legislators, taking marching orders from their local anti-contraception groups, successfully defeated legislation that clarified, using scientific evidence, that contraception is not abortion.
In the last eight years, on the federal level, anti-abortion organizations have used their political leverage to undermine the nation's contraception program, Title X. They have appointed anti-contraception ideologues to oversee the program. Not surprisingly, they have under-budgeted it while the number of Americans relying on Title X has swelled. Anti-contraception groups have gummed up the gears of the FDA with like-minded ideologues and have successfully obstructed Americans from gaining greater access to the most effective contraception methods. They were the brains behind the recently leaked HHS proposal that sought to reclassify the most commonly used forms of contraception as abortion.
The questions being posed to candidates on all other critical issues facing the nation today demand cogent and solution-oriented answers. A candidate isn't considered serious about the economy without answers on how to create new jobs. Who would be labeled pro-environment without a position on fighting noxious emissions? No discussion of escalating gas prices is complete without a candidate explaining his or her position on energy alternatives too. But, oddly, no anti-abortion candidates are ever asked about their position on contraception despite the fact that their views on the matter often differ dramatically from what the public wants and what works.
As we teeter on the precipice of reversing Roe v. Wade, candidates' positions on contraception and pregnancy prevention are more important than ever.
What's most frightening in light of the precariousness of the right to choose, is how closely tethered it is to the right to contraception. A candidate's position and, whenever possible, legislative record on ensuring contraceptive access should be closely examined in elections at every level.
Candidates should be asked plainly, "Do you support contraception?" And "If so, what have you done and what will you do to ensure access to it?"
In 2006, soon after South Dakota passed a near total ban on abortion, I was scheduled to debate Jim Sedlak, vice president of the American Life League.
Before we took the stage I asked if he was disappointed by how "limited" the near total abortion ban was. He replied without irony, "Was it the perfect law? No. Would we have liked it to ban contraception? Yes." It's not that those opposed to contraception are unwilling to answer the question, it's simply that no one ever thinks to ask.
Page is the author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex and spokesperson for BirthControlWatch.org