Simple question

Republicans seem unable to admit that birth control, in itself, is a good thing. That inability itself should be highlighted, and endlessly broadcasted.

After reading a transcript of the Republican debate last night, I think the media should ask a very simple question:

“Leaving aside questions of government policy and abortion, do you personally think that the invention of effective birth control technologies—condoms, the pill, diaphrams—has been a good thing for society?”  (I’ve phrased that to leave out all the methods that anybody, however oddly, believes to be abortifacients.)

Mark has already suggested that Mitt Romney should be asked a similar question, but it’s now clear that all the Republican candidates, even Ron Paul, now feel a need to waffle on whether the existence of contraception itself is good or bad. This is simply unbelievable—and, for the party, unsustainable.

I don’t normally think that single questions can determine elections, and I’m as ready as the next person to attribute most of what happens in elections to economic factors. But sometimes position-taking matters. And even lack of position-taking can matter if it suggests a position that’s extreme enough.

Eventually, either the press or the Democrats are going to make sure that the question gets asked in a forum where the follow-up question—”simple question, sir: government policy aside, has it been a good thing?”—can be pursued. And no would-be Republican nominee will have the guts (or, in Santorum’s case, the eccentric conscience) to say yes. At that point, Obama, not to mention Steve Israel, can start running, over and over, a thirty-second spot of the eventual Republican nominee’s refusal to say yes.

Devastating. And the Republicans will deserve the devastation.

Update: I’m not suggesting that candidates be penalized for matters of personal faith if they’re deliberately willing to bracket their faith for public policy purposes. For instance, Catholic politicians whose religion leads them to oppose the death penalty—as allegedly orthodox Catholic Rick Santorum, by the way, rather hypocritically doesn’t—sometimes (like Jerry Brown) say they will impartially enforce existing laws that provide for the death penalty’s existence. In such cases, their religious beliefs are rightly considered irrelevant. But since the Republican candidates are explicitly and loudly unwilling to acknowledge that kind of separation, we are entitled to regard their faith as a direct indication of their policy intent: because they do.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

28 thoughts on “Simple question”

  1. Mark, let’s face it. Whoever wins the Republican nomination (and don’t forget, it still might be Bush or Daniel) will quickly pirouette away from questions of contraception. It will probably be a non-issue in the election.

    1. I think you mean “Andy, let’s face it.” 😉 This one’s on me, not my estimable colleague.

      But my whole point is that the Democrats shouldn’t *let* him pirouette, and that if they play their cards right, he won’t be able to. The Republicans’ distrust of contraception should be, and I think eventually will be, as famous as John Kerry saying “I actually voted for the 87 billion dollars before I voted against it” (and I remembered that it was 87 billion without having to look it up).

      1. My bad; sorry, Andy. Bet you a dinner it doesn’t last last two weeks in the presidential election.

        1. No apology needed, MikeM: I would never be offended by being mistaken for Mark.
          As for the two weeks: no bet because it’s too hard to measure that. (Did George W. Bush spend “two weeks” talking about the $87 billion?) But if you can think of a better way of operationalizing the question of whether this will be a big issue in the campaign, you’re on.

          1. I just added a calendar item for November 7th to see how salient the issue was. We can figure it out then.

      2. For that matter, I’m not sure if the Republican base will let their nominee pirouette. Especially if it’s Romney, who so desperately needs to convince the troglodytes that he is too a real conservative. As for Santorum, I doubt he’d want to pirouette anyway. And I’m not really taking anyone else seriously right now.

  2. A followup question should then come to those who claim to oppose birth control – “Will you then return any contributions from makers of birth control?”

  3. “I think that the genius of American inventors has been a great thing for society.”
    “Condoms are not an effective birth control technology.”
    “Did you know that birth control pills have been linked to strokes and cancer?”
    “You’ve got a dirty mind.”

    1. I’m afraid I don’t get it. Do you think these would be effective answers? Or are you making fun of what would be ineffective answers?

      1. Most politicians are very good at giving non-answers, even to followup questions. Considering that journos barely penalize politicians for flat-out lying, and don’t penalize them at all for evasiveness or bald nonresponsiveness, I don’t see how your questions could get politicians in trouble.

        I agree that an honest answer would be devastating, which is why you won’t get an honest answer.

        1. I, OTOH, do not agree that an honest answer would be devastating, at least for Catholic Santorum.

          I would say [speaking as Santorum] “I am personally opposed to contraception because it is against the teachings of my religion. You might have guessed that from the size of my family. I would never practice contraception, and I would try to teach my children to follow my religious principles. On the other hand, that is a question of personal opinion, not a political question of how I will goven when elected President. Congress passes legislation, and it will be my job as President to execute that legislation. In my position Teddy Roosevelt called “my bully pulpit” I will try to convince the American people of the correctness of my opinions. But I will never let my personal opinions interfere with my doing my job according to the requirements of our great Constitution.”

          That sounds to me like a pretty good shield against the darts thrown by the opposition.

          When did it become such a terrible thing to be a Catholic?

          1. You are confusing Rick Santorum with Tim Kaine, and Rick Santorum’s Talebanic constituents with Kaine’s non-Talebanic constituents. Yes, Tim Kaine did exactly this with the death penalty. He signed death warrants, although he thought this went against Catholic teachings. It worked for him because: a.) Catholics and liberals understood the reasoning and respected it; and b.) the lunatics got their barbecue anyway. It wouldn’t work for Santorum. The lunatics would view it as a sign of squishiness, and the liberals and moderates would never believe that Rick Santorum has any commitment to the rule of law.

          2. You would say that, but I doubt that would be Santorum’s answer.

            He, and many of the other Republican presidential hopefuls, tend to denigrate folks using birth control as sluts, fornicators, etc.

          3. Santorum has explicitly stated that he opposes contraception:

            “I think it’s harmful to women. I think it’s harmful to our society to have a society that says that sex outside of marriage is something that should be encouraged or tolerated, particularly among the young. And I think we’ve very, very harmful longterm consequences to our society. Birth control to me enables that, and I don’t think it’s a healthy thing for our country.”


            “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.”


            “The whole sexual libertine idea; many in the Christian faith have said, well, that’s OK, contraception is OK. It’s not OK, because it’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

            Plenty of politicians are Catholic. But most politicians who are Catholic don’t go around inveighing against contraception, as Santorum does. I get the impression that most commenters here are men, and you’re not quite realizing how massively unpopular this stance is going to be among women. It’s just awful and we’ll hate it. Women vote more for Democrats anyway, but if Santorum is the nominee, he’ll be trounced in the women’s vote. I’m hearing outrage from my friends who are not political junkies.

  4. Andy,

    About this: “I’m not suggesting that candidates be penalized for matters of personal faith if they’re deliberately willing to bracket their faith for public policy purposes.”

    How is this bracketing supposed to work? He (or she)says: ‘Although I feel strongly this is wrong, nonetheless I’ll go along if the majority’s for it.’ That’s hardly a plus in my view.

    Also, since there is no penality for reverting to the “bracketed” stance, shouldn’t we assume that this reversion is more likely than not?

    So, why shouldn’t we hold peoples’ often bigoted, ignorant, hypocritical and superstitious beliefs against them? The candidate (and, for that matter, the citizen) who doesn’t want to be judged on his faith, or judged for his willingness to pimp out a claim of faith, has but one good-faith utterance on the subject, ‘My faith is none of your business.’

    We should not accept any professed faith as shorthand for the articulated ethical principles which we have a right, even a duty, to ask candidates about. If a candidate doesn’t have or can’t articulate a clear ethical principle, or set thereof, this should disqualify. And ‘I believe what the Bible Torah Koran Red Book etc says’, shouldn’t substitute. This said, I think the rest of your post asks for a clear statement from the GOPers about the ethicality of contraception, and I think that’s badly needed.

  5. I’m under the impression that the pill works by preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg and is therefore considered by ‘life begins at conception’ adhearants, a form of abortion.
    Please correct me if I am wrong.

    The answer to the question would be that contraceptives have been bad for the nation, promoting an irresponsible life style, lax morals, STDs and since they are not effective unwanted pregnancies, welfare dependency (by those dark people) and abortions. The fact that all of those things were going on before redily available contraceptives won’t stop them from insisting it is true, anymore than contrary facts stop righties from slinging any other BS. The Echo Chamber will repeat it night and day and the Serious Media will never question the factuality. In three weeks it will be common wisdom never to be doubted or questioned again.
    Right now they are happily cooking their own gizzards just fine and I say let ’em stew in their own juice. When your opponent is self destructing never get in the way.

    1. In fact, the pill works by preventing ovulation. So there is no egg in the first place, let alone a fertilized one.

    2. And while we’re on the subject, Plan B/the morning-after pill/emergency contraception also works by preventing ovulation, not by preventing implantation. Just FYI.

      1. Thank you both for the information.
        Most surprising about the morning after pill. I believe it has been referred to as “the abortion pill”. If what CF says is correct that is a gross misnomer.

        1. According to the manufacturer’s web site:
          “Levonelle® One Step is thought to work in different ways depending on where you are in your cycle. For example:

          ” o It may stop an egg being released from the ovary (i.e. prevents ovulation)
          ” o It may prevent sperm from fertilising any egg that may already have been released
          ” o It **may stop a fertilised egg from attaching itself** to the lining of the womb” [my emphasis]

          1. So in the last case the morning after pill could be called an abortion pill if we say life begins at fertilization.
            Is fertilization conception or is conception the attachment of the fertilized egg? Can we call an egg that fails to attach a miscarriage? That doesn’t seem right.

          2. The pill and emergency contraception (EC) were both designed to prevent ovulation by mimicking hormonal patterns of early pregnancy. Secondarily, they make the mucus membrane thicker, blocking some sperm. This is how the pill, EC and most other forms of hormonal contraception have been proven to work. The hormones in question also cause the uterine lining to be thinner. In theory, if an egg is released and fertilized it *may* be less likely to thrive on the thinner uterine lining. However, this has never been proven. There is currently no way to detect fertilization (at least in humans in large scale studies), and therefore no way to test what makes implantation (a.k.a. conception, or the attachement of the fertilized egg) more or less likely.

            Most the facts above are on Planned Parenthood’s website, which I’ve tried to link to twice. I’ve left the link off this time on the chance that that link was triggering the spam filter.

  6. Let’s try a simpler question, like “Do you believe that the earth is/is not the center of the universe?” or “Do you believe that the earth is/is not more than 6,000 years old, if not do think that modern geology is a hoax?”

    1. All science is a hoax perpetrated by God to test our faith and woe be unto him that is found wanting. BAAAAD SCIENCE! BAAD!

  7. since the Republican candidates are explicitly and loudly unwilling to acknowledge that kind of separation, we are entitled to regard their faith as a direct indication of their policy intent: because they do.

    A more direct indication of policy intent is to ask about policy intent instead of specifically asking “leaving aside questions of government policy.” You could ask a pro-life politician (1) when do you think abortion becomes unacceptable as ending a life with a type of consciousness (or for whatever other reason)? but you could also ask (2) when do you want abortion to be illegal as ending a life with a form of consciousness?

    THAT BEING SAID, even if there are more direct indications of policy intent, it still makes sense to ask about these personal beliefs because there is some indication of policy intent. Santorum can whine about how he does support people’s economic and political right to use contraception as a luxury good if they want it. However, maybe Santorum’s politics, because of his personal beliefs, involve encouraging the growth of a society in which people are discouraged from using birth control. Lots of factors. Relevant question.

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