Ideological Contraception: Why the Birth Control Debate Is Hurting Conservatism
The politics of birth control have captivated America’s attention, and most mainstream conservatives are not happy about it.
In 2008, we were absolutely annihilated by then-Senator Obama in the battle to appear modern, cosmopolitan, fresh-faced, and vital—and the election tallies proved that our disdain for the premium that modern politics places on urbanity and aesthetics does not change the reality that such qualities do resonate with voters whom we cannot afford to write off and with the news media with which we are stuck. Paul Ryan speaking about how massive deficits will harm his young children, Chris Christie explaining in clear language how the union members who refuse to contribute anything towards their benefits are really the selfish class warriors: conservatives instinctively understand that these are winning issues, subjects in which good politics and good policy dovetail to show that our ideas are clearly the forward-looking approach.
Equally instinctively, most of us cringe when Rick Santorum proves unable to separate his personal views on contraception from what merits mention during a presidential campaign, and cringe twice when Rush Limbaugh deploys abusive and backwards rhetoric. It does not take a keen observer of U.S. politics to understand that, whatever the merits, any time the Right can be portrayed as trying to stuff twenty-first century America back into an antiquated, Eisenhower-era moral straitjacket we hand our disingenuous opponents a gift-wrapped propaganda victory. Though an obvious caricature, the narrative that Republicans are reactionary fuddy-duddies who want to shove the nation into a time machine and blast us back into “Leave It to Beaver” poses a chronic electoral problem that limits our appeal to college-aged and suburban voting blocs who otherwise represent ripe, natural constituencies for substantive fiscal reform.
Given these stereotypes, we can all acknowledge that conservatives must approach an issue like birth control with extra caution—yet too many among us have committed damaging and unforced errors. Santorum’s hopelessly muddled messaging has made one of our leading presidential candidates look uncomfortably like the theocratic boogeyman that liberals have always made him out to be. The former Senator has proven totally incapable of clearly and cogently distinguishing between his personal distaste for the moral implications of birth control and the commonsense argument from economic liberty that reveals the new requirements to lack any foundation in logic or real principles.
Sure, the mainstream media is complicit in fanning the flames, but a man who wants to lead our party and our country simply cannot cloud a straightforward question of freedom with polarizing remarks like these:
One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country. Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that's OK; contraception is OK. It's not OK. It's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.
Here Santorum is not making an argument about life, that area in which the crocodile tears shed by social-engineering liberals over “legislating morality” are so baseless and insulting. Rather, he is saying that as President he will advocate against contraception simply because he thinks it is immoral in and of itself. And this is profoundly not conservative.
To behave as if Americans need our political officeholders to lecture us on faith and morals above and beyond their capacity in governing is to sharply break with our intellectual heritage. It is impossible to imagine Thomas Jefferson or Barry Goldwater confusing our citizens’ cries for leaders who defend all Americans’ rights to conscience and religious freedom with a desire to have one moral tradition enshrined in law. To try and legislate one’s neighbors into morality is not to uphold the teachings of real conservatives like Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, it is to completely reject them: those brilliant men passionately denounced arrogant governments who thought themselves entitled to use the force of law to micromanage a society’s organic character into some particular, arbitrary vision of the ideal community.
A wide gulf separates the notion that government should not force private organizations to cater to specific customers—particularly when doing so would compromise fundamental principles—and the idea that the United States needs career politicians to preach their personal morals to us from on high. Taking the former position combines the commonsense appeal of libertarian logic with the proud Burkean legacy of getting government out of the way of social traditions that work well; the latter would actually have provided a legitimate target for Newt Gingrich’s misguided charges of “right-wing social engineering.”
It may be that neither position is particularly popular with the American people, and that the most expedient course of action would be to abandon the fight altogether. But the legacies of Reagan, Thatcher, and countless others stand testament to the fact that shaping public opinion is both morally and politically superior to simply chasing it; standing on our principles is always more honorable than fruitlessly hunting some “middle ground” that will drift further leftward every time we think we have moved into it. If we conceive of it properly, as a fight for economic liberty, for freedom of conscience, and against government intrusion into our personal affairs—then conservatives should regard the Birth Control Battle of 2012 as a hill worth dying on, opinion polls be damned.
For my part, I’m actually optimistic that many Americans might rally to that commonsense position. But framing the issue as a Big Government Moral Crusade will drive away otherwise amenable Americans faster than you can say “progesterone.” It is critical to stand on the right principles, and doubly critical to make precisely the arguments we mean to make.
Unless conservatives are extremely careful, the birth control issue will become a damaging ideological contraceptive, preventing our commonsense Burkean and libertarian values from ever taking root in the minds of millions of our fellow Americans, where they might otherwise have developed into a beautiful revival of our finest political principles.