Contraception and the contradictions of American conservatism

Amid the ongoing debate over America’s economic fortunes, the culture wars begin anew – just in time for election season. Part of this is due to President Obama’s poorly managed and much maligned health care compromise over whether religious organisations must include converge for contraceptives and the morning-after pill in their employee health care plans. It was a lightning rod for the right-wing base and led to outrage among Catholic leaders. It also spurred a Republican-proposed congressional bill allowing business owners to deny birth control coverage over religious and moral objections. Last week, it failed narrowly in the Senate. The vote might also have cost the Republicans a senate seat after Olympia Snowe, a rare moderate Republican from Maine, threw in the towel on a re-election run, before siding with the Democrats in killing the measure.

Then on Friday erupted a bizarre and bigoted fight between Rush Limbaugh, a popular conservative radio host, and a Georgetown University law student named Sandra Fluke, a women’s rights advocate who was prevented from testifying against the contraception bill. Nevertheless, the Democrats gave her a chance to speak about her running battles with Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution that does not cover contraception in its student health insurance plan. For her efforts, on Wednesday Mr. Limbaugh used his nationally syndicated radio show to call her a “slut” and someone who “wants to be paid to have sex”, suggesting, it seems, that buying contraception means you want to sell sex in order to earn the money back. On, Friday he followed this up by suggesting that Ms. Fluke testified to “having sex so frequently that she can’t afford all the birth-control pills that she needs”.

Virginia, meanwhile, has been hosting its own sex related row. Last week the General Assembly, its legislative body, moved closer to passing a law mandating women to get (and see) an ultrasound of their foetus before they go through with an abortion. Seven states already have similar laws. But in Virginia, the latest vote (it still needs approval by the House and the governor’s signature) followed a week of acrimony over whether the ultrasound must be done using a vaginal probe, considered by many as a form of state-sponsored rape, or only abdominally, which does not allow for a clear image or emit a noticeable heartbeat during early pregnancy, when most abortions occur. In response to the ire over earlier drafts mandating the vaginal procedure, Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s popular Republican governor, insisted that the final bill allows for a choice between the procedures. The senate agreed; though the measure’s backers were the least bit pleased with McDonnell, rumoured to have national political ambitions.

It’s difficult to tell who will benefit from the acrimony. By picking such fights the GOP risks alienating female moderates, a key constituency nationally. The primary candidates have already distanced themselves from Limbaugh’s remarks and Doug Schoen of Forbes thinks the contraception talk will doom the Republicans in the autumn. Time will tell. But beyond this, and dare I say what is more interesting, are the questions these rows ask about conservatism and the Republican party today. How can a party calling for limited government also stand for state intervention into the most private aspects of our lives? If Obama is for too much government, what are the Republicans for?

To help answer these questions, we should see conservatism, in America and elsewhere, as something not to be understood uniformly (i.e. all about Edmund Burke) but morphologically, that is as something whole that is made up of different conceptual parts. Conservatism can be made up of concepts like limited government, free markets, a strong military and a defence of moral values. But it doesn’t have to be for all of them. There is always going to be the potential for contradictions between the traditionalists, advocates of laissez-faire economic policies and purveyors of moral standards.

What matters is whether these differences significantly disrupt the core elements of conservatism, such as a disposition to ‘preserve’ or to resist ‘radical change’. Opposing the welfare state and upholding certain moral values (like an aversion to ‘sexual promiscuity’) may be consistent with what it means to be a conservative in America. Both elements are to a degree change averse.

This may hold. But where there are problems for the conservatives is in finding agreement over the role of the state. It is here that the coherence of American conservatism risks falling apart. For Rick Santorum and his supporters, the state is welcome to take a more active role in promoting the values in Christian moralism in order to maintain a sense of ‘community’ (see Ursula Hackett’s recent PiS article on this). But a free market Romney supporter will have little in common with these Bible Belt denizens. In the past, Republican leaders have been able to keep the shaky coalition together; but as the religious base feels more emboldened by these culture war rows, finding a candidate that can keep all the disparate groups happy will become more difficult.

Ultimately, though, this may depend less on finding another Reagan – who adroitly held America’s various ‘conservatisms’ together (for the most part) – and more on what these conservatisms oppose. Obama can unite them like nobody else. This may, just, mean a united right come November – no matter who their candidate may be.

A Blake Ewing is a journalist and DPhil Candidate in Politics at Oxford. He is the Graduate Editor of Politics in Spires. 

About Alexander Ewing

A Blake Ewing is a Lecturer at St Catherine's College, Oxford and a DPhil student in political theory at Oriel College, Oxford, where he works on the interrelationship between ideology, philosophy and history.
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