Think it’s hard to talk honestly about sex in your own social circle? Try doing it with a bunch of legislators and TV-news types. President Obama has his work cut out for him if he’s going to fulfill his vow to bring some sense to our long, tortured national debate over sexual and reproductive health.
To make the point, you needn’t look much further than the furor over the size of Obama’s stimulus package. (OK, stop giggling. This is a story about sex, but not everything is a pun!) Over the weekend, House GOP leader John Boehner was groping for an excuse to reject the stimulus bill. Ultimately, he reached for a battle-tested red herring: anti-choice, sex-panic rhetoric. Boehner dug through $825 billon and found a lousy $200 million in family-planning money to demonstrate that the bill is “bloated.”
The press ate it up. George Stephanopoulos grilled Nancy Pelosi on “controversial spending” proposals, like “hundreds of millions” on family planning. The New York Times reported on “such controversial pieces as millions in spending for family-planning initiatives.” Chris Matthews wondered aloud whether the Democrats are aiming to recreate China’s one-child policy. Seriously.
Nancy Pelosi tried cooling the boys down. The money is a small slice of $87 billion meant to help states deal with Medicaid costs that are breaking their banks, she explained. It will ultimately save cash by preventing costly maternity care for unintended pregnancies. And by the way, it’s just money for birth control—a far cry from one-child rules or abortion.
But whatever. All those facts were too little, too late. Obama reportedly demanded the House take the birth control money out of the bill, and it got yanked.
There’s hope for the great unifier’s ambitions, though. After all, this is a man who, remarkably, turned the political quagmire of reproductive rights into one of his best jabs during the campaign. In the final debate with John McCain, Obama answered a question about Supreme Court nominations with unapologetic support for Roe v. Wade. When McCain pressed, Obama rope-a-doped him with an utterly reasonable rejoinder.
“Look, it divides us,” he conceded. “But there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, ‘We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies.’”
It was one of several exchanges in which Obama made McCain look petty while earning himself the pragmatic laurels he’s now wearing. He used the same rhetorical maneuver when jumping into one of Washington’s longest-running, abortion ping-pong matches in the opening hours of his administration.
Last Friday, on Day 3 in office, Obama dutifully kept with tradition by making a show of knocking down the “global gag rule.” The less-partisan name for the rule is the Mexico City Policy, which Ronald Reagan created by executive order in 1984. It cuts off U.S. foreign aid to all organizations or clinics that “perform or actively promote” abortion.
The policy’s language pretty much covers anybody doing anything meaningful in reproductive or sexual health. So health workers in poor, rural villages around the globe—and the foreign-aid bureaucrats working with them—have had to lie, cheat and steal in order to maintain indispensable funding for stuff ranging from HIV tests to domestic-violence counseling. Not to mention family planning itself.
But judging from Republicans’ behavior already this month, he’ll find nothing but quicksand on unintended pregnancies, too. Boehner’s hysteria over the Medicaid birth-control funding isn’t the only example. There’s also an eleventh hour Bush administration regulation that left family-planning advocates in horror.
The new policy—which took effect on Jan. 19, Bush’s literal last day in office— vastly expands the so-called “provider conscience” rule to cover just about anyone working or volunteering in a federally funded facility. In particular, it protects them from discrimination charges not only if they won’t perform abortions, but also if they refuse to provide even information about birth control—or any other reproductive health service they find offensive.
Several Democrats have vowed to undo the move. But it remains unclear whether Obama’s order halting all of Bush’s “midnight regulations” covers this one, too, and whether Congress can do anything about it.
That’s just the first of many small-scale, proxy wars that have come to define the abortion debate today. (Did you catch Sen. Sam Brownback actually trying to get Eric Holder to say the Americans with Disabilities Act extends to fetuses during his confirmation hearings?) Then there’s the nonsensical discussion over sex education in public schools. And the abstinence-only strings Bush tied to global AIDS money. And the big one: The two Supreme Court seats Obama will likely be asked to fill.
The chances for finding common ground seem slim. Still, Obama appears unafraid. The president said in his global gag rule statement that he plans to get the conversation moving “in the coming weeks.” Brace yourselves.
Kai Wright is a regular contributor to The Root.