It only took about an hour into the 20th Republican debate Wednesday for the candidates to find something they could agree on. After sparring over the fine details of earmarks, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum agreed that it’s all right for women to serve in the military but birth control, well, that’s a slippery slope that leads to the breakdown of society.
Supporting the right of women to serve in the armed forces, itself a completely irrelevant debate considering 167,000 women are active-duty military, while trying to limit access to birth control, betrayed a profound ignorance on the way that women lead their lives.
Even the way moderator John King posed a viewer-submitted question over contraceptives to the candidates, asking them if they “believed” in birth control, seemed to suggest that contraception is some form of rare unicorn that exists only in the imagination.
The candidates’ answers were even more surreal.
Gingrich skipped answering the question and instead accused Obama of infanticide for his vote as an Illinois state senator in favor of protecting abortion providers. Romney mischaracterized the birth control mandate (it exempts the Catholic Church) and said the president’s decision was the worst religious persecution in the history of the country. Presumably because the religiously intolerant zealots who chased his ancestors to Mexico did not also mandate that their employers provide them with contraception.
Paul, a licensed OB-GYN, corrected the misconception that the morning-after pill is an abortifacient but then explained that the pill isn’t immoral, it’s the women who take it who are immoral for needing to use it in the first place.
“I think it’s sort of like the argument—conservatives use the argument all the time about guns. Guns don’t kill, criminals kill,” he said. Birth control and guns, the same thing, essentially.
Santorum backtracked on his previous claims that birth control harms women and instead discussed the unraveling of American society.
“What we’re seeing is a problem in our culture with respect to children being raised by children, children being raised out of wedlock, and the impact on society economically, the impact on society on society with respect to drug use and all—a host of other things when children have children,” Santorum said.
By Santorum’s own reasoning, it would seem that the best way to prevent all of the complications from unplanned pregnancies would be to provide more birth control and sex education, not less. Santorum linking issues of poverty and drug use to birth control reduced complex problems to one root cause: Women’s control over their own lives. For Santorum, women’s autonomy is the biggest threat to the American moral fiber.
Romney summed up what Santorum has been getting at for the whole campaign—for the candidates, attacking contraception is a reaction against the changing make-up of the American family.
“…This is a discussion about, are we going to have a nation which preserves the foundation of the nation, which is the family, or are we not? And Rick is absolutely right,” Romney said.
The nuclear family model that Romney and Santorum defend looks less and less like the rest of the country. As much as 39 percent of Americans say that marriage is becoming obsolete, and those who choose to marry tend to be older and more settled in their careers, according to the Pew Research Center. Many other couples choose to live together but not marry and, yes, single-parent homes are on the rise. Factors including the economy, education, and income-level all play into the changing demographics of American families, with both positive and negative consequences.
And, so what? Families are changing. As men who aspire to the highest elected office in the land, Romney and Santorum should attempt to understand the different realities for families, rather than undermine them. Usually when a politician rants about a social ill, he is quick to propose a prescription but, after railing against the decay of society, Santorum promised he’d instead go out and “talk about things.”
“You know, here's the difference between me and the left, and they don't get this. Just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it,” he said, forgetting for a moment that he is, in fact, running for a government office.
The most frightening thing about this campaign is that Romney and Santorum are telling the truth when they say their views on contraceptives aren’t about women, or health—it’s really just all about them.