The Body Politic

Forty years after the Supreme Court settled it, we’re somehow having a birth control debate. And Scott Brown’s political future could hang in the balance.

Just a few years ago, these conservative efforts to stymie women’s rights went largely unnoticed by the mainstream. Many American women — too many — thought the fight for equality was over. Flash forward to 2012. Our cultural obsession with social media now ensures that these sexist policies and extremist healthcare providers won’t go unseen—word gets around too fast. Were Gransinger to write his letter today, his Facebook wall would be defaced and Twitter would go berserk with a #stopGransinger campaign.

Not convinced? Well, the Internet all but exploded in January when the breast cancer organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced it was pulling its funding of Planned Parenthood — money meant for cancer screenings for low-income women. More than 1.3 million tweets were written in a week, and thousands of protest messages were left on the organization’s Facebook wall. Komen quickly reversed its decision, a top official resigned, and Planned Parenthood wound up raising $3 million. Similar online furor was directed at Rush Limbaugh when he called Sandra Fluke — the Georgetown law student who testified at a Democratic hearing about insurance coverage for birth control — a “slut” and a “prostitute.” (He also suggested that Fluke should put up videos of herself having sex. Very classy.) The public outrage led to the quick withdrawal of major Limbaugh advertisers, and forced him to apologize.

In April, Bill Baird, now 79, offered a reminder that this decades-long fight is still far from settled in a letter he wrote to Fluke. “There will always be those who will try to deny us our freedoms,” he wrote. “As you have seen, it takes eternal vigilance to fight against those forces.”

It remains to be seen, however, if this rancor over these latest attacks on women’s healthcare will create lasting change. Limbaugh’s advertisers are already trickling back, and despite the defeat of the Blunt amendment, anti-abortion and anti-birth control legislation continues to make its way across the states. A bill being considered in Kansas would ban lawsuits against doctors who omit information about prenatal tests that might lead a pregnant woman to get an abortion. And Arizona recently tried to pass a bill that would have allowed employers to deny women coverage for birth control unless they could prove that they were taking contraception for a non-sexual medical reason — like acne.

Cristina Page, author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, says we’re at an unprecedented time in American politics. “This year, every GOP presidential candidate opposed access to contraception, something unimaginable even just five or six years ago,” she tells me. Still, Page remains optimistic. If President Obama succeeds with universal coverage of birth control, she says, it will “do more to protect and expand access to contraception than any president before him.”

Amundson is similarly hopeful. She calls Elizabeth Warren’s stance on the issue heartening, and notes that the latest polls show increasing support for Obama among women. Still, she says, the fact that this is even a debate at all is “indicative of a political climate where women are not seen as equals.”

In the meantime, it’s quite possible that this most unlikely of controversies in this most unlikely of states could prove incredibly important to the Senate race. Right now polls show Warren and Scott Brown deadlocked, but much of Brown’s appeal is in his bipartisan appearance. By portraying Brown’s vote on the Blunt amendment as a kind of extremism on women’s health issues, Warren could put a dent in her opponent’s moderate image. Because even though Republicans have long been known for disdaining anything that could mean sexual freedom for women, it never hurts to give voters a bit of a reminder.