Republicans, the Pill, and the War on the Family

Why did Republicans do so well in the 2014 elections? Among the reasons emphasized by pundits and operatives on both sides of the political aisle has been the ability of Republican candidates to counter effectively the charge that they would escalate the so-called “war on women.” A key example cited by both left and right has been the Colorado Senate race in which the Democratic incumbent, Mark “Uterus” Udall, tried to label his Republican opponent, Cory Gardner, as an extremist on women’s issues centering on abortion and contraception. The story is that Mr. Gardner made a brilliant move by running away from his previous support for a Personhood law (which would grant full legal, human rights to the unborn) and calling for legislation making the birth control pill available over-the-counter without a prescription. It is highly doubtful that such a policy will “win” any votes for otherwise conservative candidates. One thing is certain, however: The attempt to bypass, yet again, the proper role of families in guiding their children’s moral and medical choices as they reach maturity will harm our most important institution and undermine development of free and responsible adults.

Mr. Gardner is not the only Republican to seize on over-the-counter oral contraceptives as a sure means of inoculation against the “anti-woman” charge—Thom Tillis, the new Senator from North Carolina, and Louisiana Governor (and probable Presidential candidate) Bobby Jindal also have backed the idea. But Mr. Gardner’s switch is particularly important because it has been lauded as crucial to his victory. He announced support for this “reform” in an op-ed piece in the Denver Post. Here he likened the birth control pill to Advil, Pepcid, and other medications that have been “proven safe.” Under these circumstances, he argued, it is foolish to impose the extra costs and especially the extra time and trouble involved in seeing a physician to get a prescription for an oral contraceptive. Politicians, he argued, should stop playing politics and instead “make life easier for women” by approving the uncontrolled distribution of the pill.

It is always dangerous to be seen as opposing “making life easier for women.” For decades now we have allowed feminists to pose as the true and only representatives of “women” taken as an abstraction defined by internal plumbing. It should be obvious that such a view degrades women in general, and specifically those women who happen not to see themselves as feminists (more than three-quarters of American women according to a poll by the leftist Huffington Post). Nonetheless, elections, speaking engagements, and even jobs regularly are lost by those—male or female—foolish enough to get on the wrong side of the feminist narrative. What is more, most Catholics are highly aware that those who agree with the official position of the Church on artificial contraception (that it closes a couple morally and spiritually as well as physically to God’s gift of life, robbing sex of its true, full nature, and bringing a separation where there should be full union) are a minority even within their own faith. But this issue is too important to allow Mr. Gardner’s tactic to pass, as it has, as a mark of genius instead of yet another substantial retreat in the very real war against the natural family.

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In discussing Mr. Gardner’s proposal, one should begin by at least mentioning the not-so-small problem that some forms of the birth control pill actually are not contraceptives, but abortifacients (they do not prevent conception but rather prevent the fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall, causing an abortion). It also is worth mentioning that the pill has side effects and complications (increased risk of cancer and heart attack being only the most obvious) that Mr. Gardner fails to take into account. And we should remember that the “over the counter” battle is not limited to the contraceptive pill, for there has been a very real and powerful push for dispensing the so-called “morning after” pill over the counter. A move like that advocated by Gardner can only increase pressure for free availability of that “other” pill that induces abortions, often with significant complications.

Most important, however, is the effect Mr. Gardner’s proposal would have on the family. Mr. Gardner is proposing further marginalization of the family as an institution in American law and public life. Once again, a supposedly conservative public figure is proposing to increase “choice” at the expense of families, their right to self-government, and their ability to form the characters of their young members.

It appears that most “conservative” proponents of over-the-counter birth control pills see themselves as making a rather brilliant tactical move. If available over-the-counter, the pill almost certainly would no longer qualify for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). This would short-circuit “the Hobby Lobby Problem.” By this I mean the troubles some Republicans have with defending the rights of employers to uphold their religious beliefs in designing the health insurance they provide to their employees. Hobby Lobby may have won its lawsuit to be allowed to not subsidize abortifacients, but the issue is not going to go away anytime soon—so why not simply take contraception off the table by putting it on the drugstore shelf? Unfortunately, this rather craven attempt to side step an important issue of religious freedom is ill-considered. Where minor children are concerned, the “solution” Mr. Gardner proposes is less one of simply allowing for free markets than one of pre-empting the natural and necessary role of parents in important decisions. One should consider, here, court decisions striking down laws requiring parental consent for teenagers to undergo abortions. In both instances the government is cutting parents out of crucial, life-altering decisions in the name of “choice” where the choice makers are children operating in precisely the kind of morally compromised, stress-filled environment where parental guidance is most needed.

To make the pill available over the counter is to eliminate the role of the family in the crucial decision of minor children to become sexually active. True, other forms of contraception are available over the counter. But, while the decisions involved are important, it is not a small step but a giant leap from purchasing a pack of single use contraceptives (condoms) to placing oneself on medication to be sexually available at all times. Some may see the result as liberating. Certainly many young men find it liberating to have young women easily and consistently sexually available and, especially in the era of “hooking up” culture, many young women may experience similar feelings of liberation. But it is short-sighted and dismissive of central facts of human nature to deny that the decision to “go on the pill” is crucial to a person’s identity and character.

Obviously, the fact that a young woman has chosen to take oral contraceptives does not mean that she has chosen to be “available” for sex to anyone at any time. Protestants, who generally have no theological issue with contraception in and of itself, can see it as fully consistent with married life. But it clearly is a commitment to availability for sex. And this life-altering decision is not one the government should place squarely on a minor child’s shoulders by placing the relevant drug next to the Advil and the Pepcid.

Even those who see no non-hygiene related issues with premarital sex and contraception should recognize the importance of the decision involved—and also the importance of maintaining the role of a minor child’s family in making it. Sadly, availability of the pill can be a means of avoiding difficult discussions about sexual morality and too many parents believe that chemistry and a lesson in “tolerance” from a teacher can make for an easier and better life without the need for messy discussions about the conduct involved.

Our society already places far too much pressure on women to excel in every aspect of life simultaneously. To push down to minor children the decision whether to take oral contraceptives in a world filled with sexual imagery and the identification of maturity and success with sexual activity is deeply unfair and unwise. It is based on the false notion that the chemical changes brought about by the pill can make sex “safe” both biologically and emotionally, that sexual conduct will not affect one’s character and life prospects so long as one (almost) never can get pregnant. It also increases the pressure for all Americans, but especially young women, to face life’s choices alone, lest they be labeled cowards or, even worse, “prudes.”

A nation of dis-embedded individuals, separated from their families in making important decisions, but subject to outsized demands from a heartless consumerist mass culture (and, in the case of young women, the demands of hormonal adolescent boys) is not truly free, but merely abandoned. This is not the stuff of ordered liberty or of people capable of exercising it.

Over-the-counter pill proponents may claim that a simple “not available to minors” rule will solve all these problems (if they even admit that they exist). Unfortunately, as we know from our experience with tobacco and alcohol, such rules are destined to fail in short order. The drug store clerk is no substitute for the family doctor, let alone parents. It is long past time to call a halt to further sexualization of our children and to re-embrace the role of the family in character formation. Until we do, families will further erode, leaving our kids alone to face an unmerciful popular culture and politicians who seek to gain and maintain power by “making it easier” for the culture of death to claim another generation as its victims.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared December 5, 2014 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a screen shot of a Planned Parenthood video ad critical of North Carolina U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis for a proposal permitting over-the-counter birth control. 


  • Bruce Frohnen

    Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

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