BOSTON — Maybe Siri was being an alarmist. When I asked my BFF, the talking virtual assistant behind my new iPhone 4S, where I could find birth control, she answered, “I didn’t find any birth control clinics.”
This response wasn’t nearly as chilling as the one she uttered last fall when Siri was asked to find an abortion clinic and pointed to an anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy center.” Nevertheless in this charged atmosphere, she gave me a digital pause.
Sunday marked the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that supported a woman’s right to abortion. The big news this year is that we’ve run the reel right back past the 1973 Roe decision on abortion. Next up for debate is the 1965 decision of Griswold v. Connecticut. This ruling made contraception legal by overturning laws that could send you to prison for giving birth control to married couples.
I used to think that leaders for reproductive rights were either hyperbolic or hyperventilating when they claimed that pro-life politics were targeting contraception. It was only the frayed fringe of the movement that equated birth control with abortion or with sex run amok. But an attack that was once, um, inconceivable, is now gestating in the public square.
In politics, Rick Santorum was the test-tube candidate for this anxiety. Last October, the would-be president said, “Many in 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.” For this, he won over folks like the Duggar family, stars of the TLC reality show “19 Kids and Counting.”
In Iowa, nearly all the candidates pledged to support the “personhood amendment” that would undermine IUDs, emergency contraception and the pill. Mitt Romney stopped one waffle short of agreeing. In New Hampshire, the ABC News debate featured candidates weaseling away from talking about the right to privacy that undergirds Griswold. And, by the way, Romney’s platform boasts that he’ll eliminate Title X family planning programs.
Without Title X, the Guttmacher Institute’s research says that the number of abortions would be one-third higher. Question to Siri: “Are these people crazy?” Answer: “I don’t know what you mean by ‘Are these people crazy?’”
Right-wing politics is one thing, but the idea that contraception is now controversial has crept into the mainstream and even its once-liberal rivulets. Consider what happened in health care reform. There was a knock-down argument last summer about making insurers cover birth control under the Affordable Care Act. Despite the Fox News commentator who compared covering contraception with covering pedicures, the administration made this mandatory. The uterus was recognized as a legitimate piece of anatomy.
But in short order, the White House got embroiled in an issue over a “conscience clause.” Could religious institutions — including colleges, nonprofits, even hospitals — get an exemption from paying for birth control for their employees on moral grounds? If a corporation is a person, is a hospital a worshiper? About 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women use contraception, but it was only after months of handwringing that the Obama administration said that the religious employers are not exempt.
Meanwhile, the FDA said it was safe to sell emergency contraception — the “morning-after pill” — without age restrictions over the counter. But the administration overruled it on the grounds that some imaginary 11-year-old might not read the directions correctly. The White House redefined a socially conservative choice: contraception as controversy.
No one is reaching into your medicine cabinet tonight to confiscate the pill case. You don’t attack this head on. You follow the 39-year-old pro-life script: Chip away at access, hack away at funding, raise anxiety about sexual morals, argue about the legal precedent, and make politicians more afraid of the angry minority than the incredulous majority. Step by step you make a certainty — family planning — into a subject for debate. What happens next?
Question for my virtual assistant: “Siri, am I paranoid?” Answer: “I would prefer not to say.” Thanks, hon. And let’s keep in touch.