The War on Birth Control
By Rachel Maddow
February 10, 7:57 PM
Rachel Maddow is a political commentator and host of
MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show."
In 2008 in Colorado, a rebel faction of antiabortion
activists decided to pursue a "personhood" initiative.
Over the objections of the mainstream antiabortion
movement, they proposed amending the state's
constitution to redefine the word "person" to include
zygotes. Under the proposal, "from the moment of
fertilization," a woman would be considered two people
under Colorado law. When the initiative went before
voters, it failed by more than 40 points.
The same activists brought up the measure again in 2010.
They changed the "moment of fertilization" language to
"the beginning of biological development," but the
intent - and the electoral result - were the same. Even
with that year's conservative electorate, Colorado
voters said no to "personhood" by more than 40 points.
The mainstream antiabortion movement opposed the
Colorado effort because its members believed a challenge
to it might have the unintended effect of reaffirming
Roe v. Wade. They also worried that a blunt effort to
ban all abortion might cause a backlash that would set
back their incremental chipping away at abortion rights.
But voters seem to have rejected "personhood" for a
different reason - legally redefining a "person" would
not only criminalize all abortion but would probably
outlaw hormonal forms of birth control as well. Hormonal
contraceptives generally prevent an egg from being
fertilized in the first place, but the at-least-
theoretical possibility that they might also prevent a
fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus was enough
to raise the specter of birth control pills being viewed
as an instrument of homicide.
In Colorado's U.S. Senate election in 2010, the
Republican candidate, Ken Buck, endorsed the
"personhood" initiative during the primary. He later
backed off that position, but Democrat Michael Bennet
hammered Buck for it throughout the campaign. As the
rest of the political map turned deep red that year,
Buck lost - and lost the vote of Colorado women by a
whopping 17 points.
Undeterred, the "personhood" folks tried again, getting
their measure on the ballot in Mississippi last year.
There were national predictions that any antiabortion
ballot measure could pass in Mississippi, but it failed
there, too, and by double digits. After a grass-roots
campaign that included a "Save the Pill!" rally and
billboards saying the measure would make "birth control
a lethal weapon," Mississippians voted it down by 16
After Mississippi rejected "personhood" and its threat
to contraception, after Colorado rejected it twice, Newt
Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul attended (Paul by
satellite) a Personhood USA candidates forum in South
Carolina. All signed a pledge to pursue "personhood" at
the federal level. Mitt Romney did not attend the event,
but when asked on Fox News before the Mississippi vote
last year whether he would have supported such a measure
as Massachusetts governor, he replied, "Absolutely."
This is critical context for understanding the national
media scrum over health insurance and contraception.
Taken together - Republicans' condemnation that birth
control be a required benefit of health insurance, their
insistence that Planned Parenthood lose all federal
funding, their threat to cut federal Title X support for
birth control and their support for "personhood"
measures that threaten the legality of hormonal birth
control - today's Republican candidates are all Ken Buck
There is no constitutional infirmity in requiring
religious institutions to follow the same insurance and
labor regulations as other employers. Twenty-eight
states already require that health insurance plans cover
contraception; eight states do not even exempt churches
from that requirement, as the Obama administration's
rules would, even before the president announced an
expanded religious exemption on Friday. New York, whose
Catholic archbishop has railed so vehemently against the
administration on this issue, already lives under the
rule he decries - it's state law. The rule is also
partially enshrined in federal law thanks to a December
2000 ruling of the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission. More than a dozen congressional Republicans
proposed that this same rule become federal law in 2001,
to a furious outcry from precisely no one.
The right has picked a fight on this issue because
religiosity is a convenient partisan cudgel to use
against Democrats in an election year. Despite that,
some Democrats and even some liberals have embraced
their logic. The thinking inside the Beltway seems to be
that religious voters will turn against Democrats unless
the White House drops the basic idea that insurance
should cover contraception.
Time will tell on the political impact of this fight,
but the relevant political context here is more than
just a 2012 measure of Catholic bishops' influence on
moral issues. It's also this year's mainstream
Republican embrace of an antiabortion movement that no
longer just marches on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade to
criminalize abortion; it now marches on the anniversary
of Griswold v. Connecticut, holding signs that say "The
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