Right-wing media have spent nearly a decade making false claims about birth control -- and now those falsehoods have found their way into the mouths of Supreme Court justices.
The Supreme Court on March 25 heard consolidated arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, which examine whether for-profit businesses can deny employees health insurance coverage based on the owners' personal religious beliefs, a radical revision of First Amendment and corporate law. The owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga argue they should not be forced by the government to provide their employees insurance which covers certain forms of contraception, because they believe those types of birth control can cause abortions.
The owners are wrong. Medical experts have confirmed they are wrong, repeatedly and strenuously, including experts at the National Institute of Health, the Mayo Clinic and the International Federation of Gynecology. The contraceptives Hobby Lobby objects to -- which include emergency contraceptives like Plan B and long-term contraceptives like Intrauterine Devices (IUDs) -- delay an egg from being fertilized, and as the former assistant commissioner for women's health at the FDA noted, "their only connection to abortion is that they can prevent the need for one."
Despite this overwhelming medical evidence, the myth that some of the contested forms of birth control are "abortifacients" has gone all the way to the Supreme Court -- and now has been repeated by some of the justices themselves. During the oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby case, Justice Antonin Scalia responded to a point made by Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, the lawyer for the government, by referring to "birth controls ... that are abortifacient."
JUSTICE SCALIA: You're talking about, what, three or four birth controls, not all of them, just those that are abortifacient. That's not terribly expensive stuff, is it?
GENERAL VERRILLI: Well, to the contrary. And two points to make about that. First, of course the -- one of the methods of contraception they object to here is the IUD. And that is by far and away the method of contraception that is most effective, but has the highest upfront cost and creates precisely the kind of cost barrier that the preventive services provision is trying to break down.
Justice Stephen Breyer, while describing the position of the Hobby Lobby owners, also referred to "abortifacient contraceptives."
This misunderstanding matters because it could determine the outcome of the case. In order to win, a majority of justices may have to understand there is a compelling government interest in facilitating equal access to contraceptives across health insurance plans. It is an entirely different and more difficult question if the justices examine whether there is a compelling interest in the government facilitating access to abortion. Even though federal law explicitly prohibits federal funding of abortion and these birth control methods are not abortifacients, if the justices mistakenly think abortion is involved, this case becomes far more dangerous.
So whether the employees of for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby are guaranteed access to basic preventative health care could ultimately come down to whether the justices act on the reality that these forms of birth control do not cause abortions. Whether for-profit companies are considered religious persons, a drastic change to constitutional corporate law, could come down to whether the justices act on the reality that these forms of birth control do not cause abortions. Whether the rights of gay and lesbian employees are respected, and whether taxes, vaccines requirements, minimum wage, overtime laws are all upheld could come down to whether the justices act on the reality that these forms of birth control do not cause abortions.
This simple lie about birth control could set up a chain of events that drastically alter health care by rewriting First Amendment and corporate law in this country -- and it's a lie that comes straight from the media, who have been pushing it for almost a decade.
Studies came out as early as 2004 pushing back on the idea that Plan B caused abortions, but Media Matters has repeatedly noted the tendency of journalists to get their facts wrong when addressing the issue. In 2005, CNN host Carol Costello gave a platform to a pharmacist who refused to fill a prescription for birth control pills because she thought they were equivalent to "chemical abortion." In 2007, Time magazine called the morning-after pill "abortion-inducing," while an AP article pushed the false Republican claims that emergency contraception destroys "developing human fetuses." In 2010, The Washington Times repeatedly equated emergency contraception to abortion.
And there was Lila Rose, the anti-abortion activist who in 2011 released videos heavily edited to deceptively portray practices at Planned Parenthood clinics, and who has equated contraception to "abortion-inducing drugs" which she claims exploit women. Rose and her mentor, James O'Keefe, defended their manipulation and falsification of evidence as "tactics" against the "genocide" of abortion, and she was supported and promoted on The O'Reilly Factor, Hannity's America, The Glenn Beck Show, The Laura Ingraham Show, while her work was been featured by Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, and National Review.
When the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, and medical experts including the Institute of Medicine recommended including comprehensive coverage for contraception as part of the preventative care provisions, right-wing media freaked out, calling it "immoral" and "a way to eradicate the poor." Fox News ignored the overwhelming support for the resulting contraception policy, instead pretending that Catholic hospitals and employers were being victimized -- even as exemptions and accommodations were included for churches and religious nonprofits. By 2012, Fox News' Michelle Malkin was referring to the contraception regulations as an "abortion mandate." Now, right-wing media figures have used the Hobby Lobby case and others to bring back this lie, from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal, while Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham have become particularly fond of discussing these "abortifacients."
As Media Matters has previously explained, right-wing talking points demonizing birth control made their way into the amicus briefs presented to the court before the case was even argued, and Justice Scalia in particular has been known to repeat verbatim right-wing myths, such as the dubious idea that if the Supreme Court upheld the ACA the federal government could ultimately require consumers to purchase broccoli.
But the presence of the "abortifacient" lie during oral arguments takes this worrying tendency to a new level, raising the prospect that right-wing media's lies could potentially determine the outcome of a crucial case for religious and corporate law, hugely damaging reproductive rights in the process. If women lose the guarantee for their basic preventative health care, and corporations are granted even more flexibility as "persons" with religious rights, right-wing media will be partly to blame.
Clinging to persecution fantasies that seem to grow darker each year, conservative voices continue to hype doomsday scenarios in which President Obama is scheming to confiscate firearms, socialize American medicine, silence his critics through brute political force, and wage violent class warfare. Allegedly under siege at every turn as their freedoms are stripped away, conservatives embrace an imagined status as perennial victims.
The result? Wallowing in self-pity and convinced of the dark forces moving against them, conservatives launch attack after attack, insisting they're fighting forces at home akin to Hitler's Nazi storm troops. They complain louder and louder that America has become like Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler when 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
Nazi analogies aren't new and conservatives didn't trademark them. But the cries have become far more frequent during Obama's sixth year in office.
Four years ago, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes accused the management of National Public Radio of having "a kind of Nazi attitude" for firing commentator Juan Williams. Former Fox host Glenn Beck frequently immersed himself in offensive Hitler rhetoric during Obama's first years in office, while the then-burgeoning Tea Party movement did the same. And so did Rush Limbaugh, who obsessed over Obama-Nazi comparisons in 2009: "Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate."
In 2009, the Anti-Defamation League, led by Holocaust survivor Abe Foxman, documented the Tea Party's growing reliance on "Nazi comparisons" as a way to express its anti-Obama rage. Yet today the Nazi claims arrive effortlessly and on a depressingly regular basis as conservatives line up to compare this president, his allies, and this country to one of the worst chapters in civilized history.
The thoughtless rhetoric not only captures how detached Obama's critics have become from reality (not to mention the blanket insensitivity involved), but it also reveals the bizarre view conservatives have of their alleged political strife.
Fox News contributor Dr. Ben Carson recently claimed America is now "very much like Nazi Germany" in that it has a government "using its tools to intimidate the population." Carson defended the insulting comparison by suggesting American conservatives are being targeted and intimidated by the government: "Maybe if I don't say anything, I won't be audited, people won't call me a name."
Audited? Name-calling? Historical note: Those were certainly among the least painful afflictions Jews suffered during the Nazi reign of terror. "I know you're not supposed to say 'Nazi Germany,'" said Carson. "But I don't care about political correctness."
New research confirms that providing women access to free birth control does not result in women having sex with more partners -- a false claim that has been repeatedly pushed and promoted by conservative media, and which contributes to their efforts to stigmatize women's sexuality.
Providing women with no-cost contraception did not result in "riskier" sexual behavior (defined by the researchers as "sex with multiple partners") but did reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions, according to a comprehensive study from the Washington University School of Medicine.
As Amanda Duberman noted at the Huffington Post, having new empirical data to push back on the moralizing arguments against birth control is helpful, but raises the question: "why do we care?" The fact that researchers felt the need to study this particular claim about birth control at all reveals an "implicit stigmatization" of women's sexuality (emphasis added):
It is a small, pervasive set of voices that leads researchers to consider "multiple sexual partners" over the course of an entire year "risky sexual behavior."
The past decade of research has confirmed what women's health advocates already knew: the benefits of reducing barriers to birth control access far outweigh any subjectively determined adverse effects.
What's unfortunate is that making a case for something many women need relies on the implicit stigmatization of their sexuality. That researchers and health advocates need to presume harsh judgement of sexually active women to convince skeptics of birth control's utility just reminds us how far we have to go.
Duberman is right; it should not matter whether women have more or less sex when taking birth control pills. But it's not just a small set of conservative political voices pushing this offensive criticism of women's sexuality and inspiring scientific research. Conservative media have played a role in forcing this conversation, repeatedly slut-shaming women who use birth control and insisting that anyone who supports government funding for free contraceptives is equivalent to a prostitute.
Will Ferrell was the target of conservative ire this week after tweeting a picture encouraging uninsured Americans to get health care coverage.
On February 24, Ferrell's "Funny Or Die" humor website tweeted a photo of the comedian holding a sign with the words #GetCovered, a hashtag affiliated with the Department of Health and Human Service's efforts to encourage young people to sign up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act's new health care exchanges.
Cue the wrath of right-wing media figures.
Right-wing media figures are baselessly stoking fears about calls to reduce inequality and expand opportunity to low-income Americans, claiming that these efforts are evidence of persecution of the rich and class warfare.
Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin dismissed discussions of income inequality as a "war on wealth"meant to shame and bully job creators.
Last week, billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins wrote an inflammatory letter to The Wall Street Journal that likened an alleged "progressive war on the American one percent" and "demonization of the rich "to Nazi Germany's Kristallnacht, asking:"Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant 'progressive' radicalism unthinkable now." Perkins' letter received widespread criticism.
In her January 29 syndicated column, Malkin defended Perkins, deeming the reaction to Perkin's controversial letter as further evidence of a "bullying epidemic" she labeled as "wealth-shaming" by "the grievance industry":
Amen, amen, and amen. Perkins barely scratched the surface of the War on Wealth that has spread under the Obama regime.
The deadliest threats come from the men in power in Washington who stoke bottomless hatred against "millionaires and billionaires" through class-bashing rhetoric and entrepreneur-crushing policies -- while they pocket the hard-earned money of the achievers trying to buy immunity. It's high time to shame the wealth-shamers and their cowed enablers. Silence is complicity.
Fox Business contributor Charles Payne similarly defended Perkins' remarks, arguing that the wealthy have "justified rage" and Perkins "may be a couple of years ahead of the curve."
Someone alert Bill O'Reilly, Matt Drudge, Michelle Malkin and the rest of the right-wing media team that spent last year alternately belittling and hysterically hyping Chicago crime: their argument just fell apart.
Conservatives, led by O'Reilly, Drudge, and Malkin, callously used Chicago crime to attack President Obama and push back against his support for stronger gun laws. Pointing out that Obama's hometown is Chicago and his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is the city's mayor, they frequently highlighted the fact that the city struggled with well-publicized gang shootings despite some of the tightest laws in the country. The right tagged Chicago as a gun control test case and deemed it a miserable failure. (Fox contributor Katie Pavlich: "Slaughter in Gun Control Chicago")
O'Reilly has alternately compared Chicago's murder rate to "many Holocausts," and "Afghanistan." The Drudge Report linked to 134 "CHICAGOLAND" crime headlines last year, all meant to convey the image of a lawless city on the verge of bloody collapse. And Malkin let loose with her usual invective, denouncing Chicago as one of many Democratic-run "hellholes"; urban centers teeming with "juvenile delinquency, organized crime, ruinous government dependency, corruption and out-of-control spending."
Conservative conspiracists such as Rush Limbaugh even claimed Democratic politicians want the city's murder rate to remain high so they can use the killings to advocate for stronger gun laws. It's all part of a larger conservative media movement to portray Obama's former hometown as being driven under by murder and violence. They seem to want the city to become a symbol of doom and "urban decay," just as conservative pundits have enjoyed mocking Detroit's tough times.
It was also part of a larger, racially-tinged and hollow attempt in the wake of the Trayvon Martin trial to accuse Obama of ignoring crime, which according to the conservative media telling is raging out of control. (It's not; it remains on a steady decline.)
But suddenly the Chicago taunts have gone quiet. Suddenly the claims that strict gun laws are useless and that Democratic mayors oversee killings zones have disappeared. No more "CHICAGO LAND" links or cries of "Holocaust," and Malkin has for now stopped referring to Chicago as "America's Bloody City."
Why? Because even world-class misinformers like those would have a tough time making a case against "Obama's Chicago," given the fact that the murder rate there last year fell to its lowest level since Lyndon Johnson was president, while the booming metropolis welcomed a record number of 46 million tourists last year.
That's right, despite the endless right-wing attacks on Chicago and the permanent conservative depiction of the Second City as a hell hole, Chicago last year experienced the fewest murders since 1965; 413 in 2013. (Context: Chicago at its worst tallied 943 murders in 1992.) The city's overall crime rate in last year fell to a level not seen since 1972, and every one of the Chicago's 22 police districts registered a decrease in crime last year.
"The drop is legitimately stunning," noted The Atlantic's Philip Bump.
2013 was an epic year of right-wing media misinforming the public on the health care debate, particularly on women's health issues. Ignoring women's health experts, conservative media spent this year stoking fears about everything from birth control to maternity care, ignoring science, distorting state and federal regulations, and demonizing women's health care options in the process. These are the top six scare tactics from 2013.
Right-wing media figures capitalized on provocative advertisements for Obamacare from non-profit groups in Colorado to attack a woman who uses free birth control as a "slut," "whore," and "prostitute."
Conservative media viciously attacked Texas State Senator Wendy Davis after she announced her candidacy for governor, linking Davis to infanticide and calling an image of her with kids "sick" and "disgusting."
Fox News launched an aggressive campaign to smear a California law that would protect transgender public school students from discrimination. And because the network's coverage of the law lacked commentary from experts or actual transgender people, Fox's commentators were able to manufacture wild horror stories based largely on transphobic misinformation.
On August 12, California Governor Jerry Brown (D) signed a law that would prohibit public schools from barring transgender students access to school facilities and athletic teams that correspond to their gender identity. In the days before and after the bill was signed into law, Fox News commentators peddled a number of baseless attacks on the measure:
Fox's fear mongering was based on several flawed right-wing talking points about the law, including the claim that male students would pretend to be transgender to sneak into the girls' bathroom and the assertion that students are too young to understand gender identity issues.
Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin invented a conspiracy theory that the clothing chain Forever 21 was intimidated by the Obama administration into claiming that its decision to cut worker hours was not a result of the health care law.
Media outlets are reporting that Forever 21 is cutting the hours of some full-time employees and reclassifying them as part-time. In a statement on Facebook, the company said that the cuts affect "less than 1% of all U.S. store employees" and have nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act:
Forever 21, like all retailers, staffs its stores based on projected store sales, completely independent of the Affordable Care Act. After a recent evaluation, Forever 21 realigned its staffing needs to better reflect sales expectations. This realignment impacted less than 1% of all U.S. store employees. Forever 21 values all of its employees and made every effort to affect as few employees as possible in this realignment.
Despite the company's explicit refutation and a lack of evidence to support her conspiracy, Malkin argued that Forever 21 was cowed into denying that the Affordable Care Act played a role in its decision to reduce worker hours.
On America Live, Malkin said that Forever 21's statement on its decision was evidence that "the intimidation campaign of this White House has worked rather effectively." Malkin added that companies that have "had the audacity to talk about the connection between Obamacare and cutting benefits and cutting full-time employees to part-time" were "punished," so "of course a company is going to deny that it had anything to do with Obamacare."
From the August 15 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:
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Fox News took the Interior Secretary's remarks on the urgency of climate change out of context to claim that the Obama administration is engaged in a "witch hunt" to purge climate deniers from the agency.
Fox & Friends hosted contributor Michelle Malkin Tuesday to suggest that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is planning on conducting a "witch hunt" because she said she "hope[s] there are no climate change deniers in the Department of the Interior." Malkin added that Jewell was "talking like a cult leader" and insinuated that the administration is full of "eco-zombies."
But extended video from the meeting undermines this attack. Jewell was not trying to intimidate anyone; rather, she was emphasizing the signs of climate change already evident on our public lands, and encouraging the department to heed those signs and address the broader issue through renewable energy leasing and other measures.
Here's what Jewell actually said and how Fox News clipped the video to make it seem like she was announcing a "witch hunt":
JEWELL: I hope there are no climate change deniers in the Department of the Interior. If you don't believe in it, come out into the resources, go on to some [federal] land, go to Alaska where the permafrost is melting, go into the Sierra, which used to retain a lot more water in its frozen form that's now running off the hillsides quicker, and we don't have the storage capacity to be able to serve the downstream users like the demand requires. We have far-reaching impacts in every part of the department, but we are in a unique position to actually be able to do something about it. How exciting is that?
From the August 13 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:
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