The GOP Answer to “War on Women”: Capitulation

A little while back in Crisis, I wrote about how supposedly pro-life Catholic candidate for a Virginia Senate seat, Ed Gillespie, when accused of wanting to overturn Roe v. Wade and enact a personhood amendment to the Constitution—as well as to “ban certain forms of contraception”—oddly replied that he actually wanted to make “contraceptives easier to obtain” by making birth control pills available without a prescription. At the same time, he skipped over the Roe v. Wade question entirely while in effect denying that he had ever favored a personhood amendment—even though support for such an amendment was included in the Republican Party’s platform while Ed Gillespie was chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The candidate’s reply thus did not seem to fit the charge lodged against him, or at any rate all of it. Accused of favoring typical measures constituting what Democrats characterize as a “war on women,” Gillespie instead hastened to make sure that the whole world knew that what he actually favored was an important element in the anti-life agenda of the Democrats. For some this reply may have seemed to be a fluke or a lapse or an inconsistency on the part of a professed pro-life candidate (who also happens to be a Catholic).

It turns out, however, that for some Republicans this seems to have become the preferred reply to the charge of conducting a “war on women”; it may even signal a trend. Colorado Republican congressman Cory Gardner for example, who is challenging Democratic senator Mark Udall, has not only adopted the same line in favor of the promotion of contraception; he has actually produced a television ad in which he assures a group of women, sympathetically nodding their heads in agreement, that: “I believe the pill ought to be available over the counter, around the clock, without a prescription, cheaper and easier for you.” And not only does Cory Gardner endorse birth control; he waxes enthusiastic about it; his plan, he tells the women in the ad, means “more rights, more freedom, more control for you.”

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Yet like Ed Gillespie in Virginia, up to now Cory Gardner has not only had a pro-life record; he has been one among 142 House co-sponsors of a Life at Conception Act. No doubt in anticipation of his switch to his forthcoming pro-contraception television ad, however, he recently publicly abandoned his original position and withdrew from co-sponsorship of this personhood amendment. Again like Ed Gillespie, he seemed to recognize that public championship of contraceptives is really incompatible with support for a personhood amendment. As liberals fear, this type of amendment would presumably rule out the morning-after pill, which operates by preventing the implantation in the uterine wall of an already fertilized ovum (a human embryo).

The connivance of both the FDA and the American medical profession in continuing to call this abortion-inducing drug “emergency contraception,” as if it were merely preventive of conception, represents one of the more notorious examples of today’s institutionalized dishonesty. You can go on calling it contraception, but it still actually involves the destruction of an already formed human life. Thus, when erstwhile pro-life politicians such as a Gardner or a Gillespie come out for the wider availability and distribution of contraceptives, necessarily included today is this form of early abortion. These politicians have thus effectively renounced their earlier pro-life positions, whether they admit or not.

And that some pro-life politicians evidently are now quite willing to do this represents an ominous new sign on the contemporary political scene. All of a sudden, for some politicians who had declared themselves to be pro-life, championing the promotion of birth control now trumps maintaining a principled pro-life stance.

Nor do Colorado’s Gardner and Virginia’s Gillespie seem to be the only Republican politicians now prepared to make this switch. Reportedly, Mike McFadden, who is challenging Minnesota’s Democratic Senator Al Franken, has similarly taken the same public stand. Also, Thom Tillis, running for the Senate in North Carolina, seems to have come out in the same way. And there may be others.

And then there was the 2012 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal penned by Louisiana Republican governor Bobby Jindal in which he argued that it was big government that forced women to go to doctors to get prescriptions for their pills. He too advocated over-the-counter, non-prescription birth control, writing that “I believe that we have been stupid to let the Democrats demagogue the contraceptives issue.” At the time this did seem to be some kind of a lapse on the part of a Republican conservative and pro-life (and Catholic) politician; it seemed incongruous that such a supposedly strong conservative would respond to the “demagoguing” of the contraception issue by the Democrats by adopting one of the major anti-life positions of the Democrats; but now it seems that, unfortunately, it may indeed constitute a new trend.

What seems to be the case here is that this sudden public espousal of greater access to birth control—surely it already enjoys near universal availability in America today—by representatives of America’s officially pro-life party evidently constitutes their answer to the Democratic accusation of a Republican “war on women.” This fake, wholly trumped-up accusation lacks any true foundation in reality, but it has nevertheless proved to be an amazingly successful tactic for the Democrats. The Republicans simply don’t know how to answer it, and have quite regularly floundered helplessly when taxed with the charge that they are engaged in a “war on women.”

It is one of the mysteries of present-day politics, in fact, that when confronted with this false charge, most Republicans seem quite incapable of responding with what is simply the truth, namely, that the election is not about any “war on women.” There is no such war, certainly no difficulty for anybody at all anywhere in obtaining whatever contraceptives they might wish. The government itself continues to subsidize and supply them on a massive scale under various programs. The same thing is actually—and tragically—pretty much true of abortion today as well.

Why cannot these Republican politicians candidly and forthrightly reply, when faced with these false charges, by seizing the occasion to articulate what the election is about, namely, by reiterating the positions that they have all prepared in their campaign literature—but which they often are unable to state because the discussion gets diverted to the supposed “war on women”?

And while they are at it, why couldn’t they take the occasion to point out that, as polls consistently show, unrestricted abortion is opposed by a clear majority of Americans? How are they harmed when “accused” of taking the position favored by a clear majority of Americans? Why they refuse to respond in a principled and persuasive fashion to the “accusations” lodged against them is another one of the great mysteries of present-day politics. As Republicans, they should be proud that, since 1980, the Republican Party has been—honorably—officially committed to the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Do the Gardners and Gillespies agree with this Republican policy and commitment? With their advocacy of contraception—which today necessarily and inescapably includes abortion-inducing drugs—they would seem to have abandoned not only the pro-life cause that they formerly said they favored, but the stated official position of their own political party as well. (But don’t look for any criticism of them from party sources on this last score: for the “big tent” policy remains only too actively alive and well!)

However that may be, what we seem to have here with these Republicans who have now gone over to the public promotion of greater access to contraception is their belated answer to the charge that they and their party are engaged in a “war on women.” The press reports on their promotion of their new cause pretty consistently take this for granted. As a Washington Post story described the phenomenon, it constitutes “a way to push back against the perception that their party holds outdated notions about women and sex.”

The usually reliable Republican pollster, Kellyanne Conway, interprets the phenomenon in exactly the same way. She is quoted as observing that “if anything it probably defangs the increasingly concerted effort by the political left to caricature male Republican politicians as anti-women, anti-birth control, anti-rainbow and sunshine.”

It is evidently to counter these very unspecific charges that these Republican candidates are now opting to promote birth control in a public way. Nobody has provided any data to show that they might gain many or any additional votes thereby. Indeed it is likely that they will lose more pro-life votes by their new position than they will ever gain on the other side. Voters favorable to today’s anti-life policies probably prefer the real thing championed by the Democrats to the newly minted views of “conservatives,” which might well in fact be perceived as having been adopted out of pure expediency.

Yet these candidates actually seem to be more concerned with appearing to be respectable in today’s society rather than garnering any additional votes. It is surely a reflection on what our society has become that one is obliged to seek respectability by coming out in favor of what the Catholic Church teaches is “intrinsically evil.”

Be that as it may, we are nevertheless unhappily only too likely in the present social climate to see even more Republican candidates adopting this same line. Indeed, in the absence of any other cogent answer to the accusations of a “war on women”—and the Republicans truly do not seem to have any other answer—this could well come to constitute the typical or even the standard Republican response to the accusations that have so confused and even unhinged them.

If this turns out to be the case, it goes without saying that the official pro-life position of the Republican Party will be seriously compromised and undermined—just as the former pro-life positions of the candidates mentioned above have now been compromised and undermined. If those Republicans who have so unwisely adopted the position of beating the drum for increased birth control imagine that their new position somehow constitutes a strategy for the “war on women,” they are badly and tragically mistaken. For their new positions really amount to a capitulation to the anti-life forces of our day.

Editor’s note: The image above is taken from an internet video ad produced by the Cory Gardner campaign for U.S. Senate in Colorado justifying his reversal of support for the unsuccessful personhood state ballot measure in 2010.


  • Kenneth D. Whitehead

    Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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