Conservative Media's Birth Control Talking Points Make Their Way To The Supreme Court

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in the next big reproductive rights case, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, some of right-wing media's favorite talking points about women and sex have made their way into amicus briefs filed with the Court.

On March 25, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Hobby Lobby, a case that could allow secular, for-profit corporate employers to impose their religious beliefs about birth control on employees by blocking their right to obtain contraceptives on company insurance plans. A ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby would not only significantly impact the religious freedoms of employees who have no moral objection to preventive health services like birth control, it would have a sweeping effect on years of corporate law precedent. But that hasn't stopped conservative, religious, and anti-reproductive rights groups from filing amicus briefs with the Supreme Court in favor of Hobby Lobby's position, parroting arguments often heard in right-wing media.

In a recent article in Slate, legal expert Emily Bazelon detailed how many of these amicus briefs, filed largely by religious conservatives, voiced arguments from a bygone era when it comes to reproductive rights. Bazelon wrote, “If it sounds like I'm describing a 1960s enraged sermon about the pill, I guess that's the point[.] I could be”:

[T]he American Freedom Law Center, which says it “defends America's Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values,” sees contraception, instead, as Pope Paul VI did in 1968. In its brief, AFLC quotes the former pope like so:

“It has come to pass that the widespread use of contraceptives has indeed harmed women physically, emotionally, morally, and spiritually -- and has, in many respects, reduced her to the 'mere instrument for the satisfaction of [man's] own desires.' Consequently, the promotion of contraceptive services -- the very goal of the challenged mandate -- harms not only women, but it harms society in general by 'open[ing] wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.'”

The Beverly LaHaye Institute, the research arm of Concerned Women for America, drives home this point, arguing that the government should have considered:

“the documented negative effects the widespread availability of contraceptives has on women's ability to enter into and maintain desired marital relationships. This in turn leads to decreased emotional wellbeing and economic stability (out-of-wedlock childbearing being a chief predictor of female poverty), as well as deleterious physical health consequences arising from, inter alia, sexually transmitted infections and domestic violence.”

And so, as the AFLC argues, contraceptives of all kinds aren't medical or related to health care at all. They are “procedures involving gravely immoral practices.” Protected sex demeans women by making men disrespect them. (Just as Pope Paul VI did decades ago, the AFLC presents this as true inside marriage as well as out.) By separating sex from childbearing, birth control is to blame for the erosion of marriage, for the economic difficulties of single motherhood, and even for the rotten behavior of men who beat their girlfriends and wives. Birth control is the original sin of modernity. Its widespread availability changed everything, for the worse.

While these amicus briefs don't necessarily represent either the litigants or society at large (the actual plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby case aren't Catholic, and American Catholics appear to have rejected the “immoral[ity]” of birth control), they are reminiscent of right-wing media's long opposition to the contraception mandate.

For example, in a recent segment on Fox News' Fox & Friends, Elisabeth Hasselbeck hosted Ralph Reed to expound on how the policies of the Obama administration have put the nation on a path towards “moral decay.” Reed specifically complained that Obama's policies, like the contraception mandate, are “openly hostile to Christians and their right to speak in public”:

Fox News host and former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee also reflected the conservative arguments found in the amicus briefs. In January, Huckabee claimed that policies like the contraception mandate are a result of Democrats sending the message to women that “they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of government.”

Perhaps most famously, Rush Limbaugh launched a right-wing media smear campaign against Georgetown Law Student Sandra Fluke, labelling her a “slut” and “prostitute” for advocating for affordable birth control. As the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) requirement that preventive services be covered without co-pays (including those that only directly benefit men or women) was rolled out, right-wing media continued this distortion of the contraception mandate, calling it “floozycare” that encourages “promiscuity” and “unsafe sex,” dependent on women “hoeing yourselves out.”

Yet these vulgar non-sequiturs are disproved by the facts. A recent study from Washington University School of Medicine found that “providing no-cost contraception did not result in riskier sexual behavior.” In fact, one of the study's authors told Media Matters that the decision to study the link between the contraception mandate and sexual behavior was in order to correct misinformation on the topic specifically from right-wing media figures like Limbaugh.

Other amicus briefs echoing the arguments of the corporate plaintiffs continue to insist that contraceptives work like “abortifacients” by terminating a pregnancy. This same argument has incessantly been repeated in right-wing media outlets like Fox News, National Review Online, and The Weekly Standard, despite its inaccuracy.                                                     

Justice Antonin Scalia has already shown himself to be sympathetic to such dubious talking points -- he recycled verbatim the right-wing myth that, if the Supreme Court upheld the ACA, the federal government could ultimately require consumers to purchase broccoli. Should Scalia or any of the other conservative justices similarly take to some of these throwback arguments on women and sex, it won't only be fundamentalist legal arguments that are validated, but the rantings of Rush Limbaugh, too.