Sex, birth control, and the far right social agenda

This guest post is from women’s health advocate Shirley Kailas. Please find her full bio after the break.

Something really fascinating and enormously important has just happened, and I’d like to take a moment to bring it front and center now that most of the hubbub has died down. As covered last week, HHS recently decided to require insurance companies to cover birth control without co-pays. Many intelligent articles have been written explaining why this is such monumental news from a public health perspective, and it is, but for the purpose of this reflection, I’m interested in discussing a different perspective.

Instead, I’d like to reflect on something fairly remarkable that we just got to witness: what influential social conservatives really have up their sleeves, and it ain’t pretty. Most of the time the core beliefs behind all forms of conservatism are quite purposefully disguised behind layers of convincing rhetoric and/or conflated with something that they’ve already convinced a large audience is an instantly recognizable societal ill.

Thus, we saw a fair share of conservative groups sticking with the usual anti-choice MO of attempting to conflate contraception with abortion and claiming that “many Americans” have moral objections to it. I’m not going to waste much time on these arguments because they’re not where the real action’s at, but let’s establish once and for all that a) emergency contraceptives do not act as abortifacients and b) 99% of sexually active women have used contraception at some point in their lives, across all religious groups, and the general U.S. population seem to be very supportive of this choice. Done and done.

What is interesting about what we saw in the reactions to the HHS decision is that many commentators could not refrain from airing out beliefs that are actually entrenched in the far right social agenda. Behind the flimsy arguments stated above are the things social conservatives truly believe about contraception and women. Concerns include 1) how will we punish women for having non-procreative sex if it doesn’t result in a pregnancy? 2) If women have access to contraception, we won’t be able to force them to breed and thus largely take away their ability to be present in the public sphere and 3) this will cause women to stop everything they are doing and have sex with anyone or anything in sight. In an op-ed written by Jeffrey T. Kuhner, he writes that,

The proposal is profoundly immoral. Contraception violates the natural moral order. It decouples sexual intercourse from its main purpose: procreation…It strikes at the very heart of a function, self-renewing civilization-having children and perpetuating one generation to another. This is why practically every major religion and most cultures have rightly believed that birth control, pornography, homosexuality and adulatory are wrong. They threaten the basic institution of society: the traditional family.

These claims are rooted in a deeply held longing to return America to the “golden age” of moral order when (white) women knew their place was making babies in the home, sex outside of marriage for women was wrong, and the nuclear family reigned supreme. In this world (white) men were in charge and women had no right to self-determination. While completely misguided, it is understandable that in this time of great instability in our country, a desire for this imagined “utopia” with a clear moral order has surfaced.

Instead of dismissing this ideology as backward and not worth our attention, I am suggesting something else. The more we dismiss the far right based on their flimsy surface arguments and regressive ideology, the more power we give them. Just as they’ve been allowed to define discourse on abortion, taxes, the deficit, and so many other things, their next target is contraception and they just might succeed in moving the discourse surrounding it so far to the right that a new framework emerges; a framework that accepts that contraception is as controversial as they make it out to be.

Right now we have public opinion on our side, and there was a fair amount of backlash against the right’s extremism on this issue, but we need to remain vigilant in poking holes in their flimsy surface arguments on contraception and start tackling these issues from their core. We need to show that all these beliefs run completely contrary to our real values of equality and freedom. The reaction to the HHS decision gave millions of Americans the rare opportunity to see just how extreme the roots of right wing ideology are, and I hope, understand them in a new way. We cannot pass up this opportunity to point it out, and keep pointing it out.

If we make every effort to reveal the ideology at the heart of conservative arguments against contraception (and every other social and economic issue), we will take away some of its power. The conservative movement has channeled the very real frustrations of living at this point in time into a vehement adherence to racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist ideology. Once we start acknowledging this, we can start channeling our energy into tackling the real problems we face.

Shirley currently resides in DC where she is an advocate for women’s health and reproductive rights, gender equality, and social justice. You can send non-death threat related emails to her at and follow her on her new twitter account @ShirleyKailas.

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  • Kensuke Nakamura

    Using tools violates the natural moral order. It decouples hands from its main purpose: masturbation.
    Also talking decouples mouths from eating and oral sex.
    And nipples should be cut off of males babies just like foreskin since nipples have no purpose on a male.

  • Jasper

    This is so well-written! I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about them controlling the discourse and the terminology of the discussion on some many important issues. That’s one of the reasons I insist on labeling their positions as antichoice rather than prolife. I just refuse to allow them to claim that for themselves when they so often have a complete disregard for the lives of women (or their doctors). You’re also right that they have a chokehold on the media when they report on issues of abortion and contraception. Too often the discussion is framed as controversial when it couldn’t be further from the truth, and they manage to take the issue out of the realm of science/a healthcare issue into the realm of ideology.

    This point is talked about in a chapter of the book “The War on Choice.” Gloria Feldt mentions that those who define the issues win the debate.

    “The hard right’s strategy is to create controversy that positions us–a group that serves more than 5 million people a year–as extremists on a political issue, instead of the trusted, credible reproductive health experts we are.”

    She also talks about how antichoice people are constantly crying foul/unbalanced when any topic on women’s health states medical and scientific facts without also mentioning that some people think it’s immoral and controversial (ie they don’t turn it into ideology):

    “…the media’s interpretation of “balance” usually amounts to giving undue airtime and attention to a minority extremist group that opposes the position of the majority of Americans. When people are on the fringe of an issue debate people who represent a majority, the exposure legitimizes the fringe and runs the risk of making representatives of the mainstream appear to be extremists. That’s FALSE balance.”

    I think these are really important points to understand, and are crucial for the prochoice movement to address because when we allow them to control and frame the discussion we are constantly being put on the defensive rather than being able to actively work on the offensive, so to speak. The wear us down chasing after all their talking points and refuting them instead of setting the agenda ourselves.