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Santorum, birth control and a culture war victory at risk

"You know, back in my days, they used Bayer Aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees..." -- Foster Friess, Feb. 16, 2012

Do you watch "Mad Men"?

If so, you know that one of the things that drama about a 1960s advertising agency does best is transport you back to the days when women still were "gals." We think we remember what that was like. We use words like "sexist" and "paternalistic" to describe it.

But that is jargon, and no amount of jargon can deliver the same visceral jolt of "Oh, my Lord" as a "Mad Men" scene where one of the "gals" in the office seeks a prescription for those new birth-control pills but first must endure a humiliating lecture from her doctor. "I see from your chart that you're not married," he says. "And yet, you're interested in the contraceptive pills." He warns her that if he thinks she is becoming "easy" or a "strumpet," he will take the pills away.

When a Foster Friess describes how things were "back in my days," it is worth remembering that those are the days he is referring to.

Mr. Friess, a major financial supporter of presidential wannabe Rick Santorum, made his comment in an interview with MSNBC. Mr. Santorum quickly disavowed it. "A stupid joke," he called it.

We seem to be talking an awful lot about women's reproductive health lately. Not just the usual zero sum battles about abortion but a wholly new battle about contraception, something most of us would have thought utterly uncontroversial just a few short weeks ago.

But since then, we've seen President Barack Obama forced to compromise on an ill-considered mandate requiring religious institutions to provide contraception to their employees. We've seen the GOP convene an all-male panel to testify on women's reproductive concerns. We've seen debate over Title X, a 1970 law providing free contraception to indigent women. We've been treated to Rick Santorum's bizarre views on contraception, which he opposes because he says it doesn't work (!) and is dangerous and harmful to women, to boot.

And we've seen Foster Friess attempt to make a funny.

You might let it go as just that, save for a nagging certainty that in a few ill-chosen words, Mr. Friess managed to capture something telling and important about the way he and other social conservatives see this country.

It has been argued that they seek to forestall the future, to interdict social and demographic trends suggesting tomorrow's America will be gayer, browner and more Islamic than today's.

But that's only half the story, isn't it? Mr. Friess' "joke" suggests they seek not just to challenge tomorrow's changes, but also yesterday's. They seek to re-impose what they regard as "the good old days," as in a time when women were "gals" to be lectured by doctors on their sexual morality.

That should be an eye-opener for those who feel yesterday's victories are impervious to challenge or change. Maybe it is time to wonder if that assurance is not misplaced. The very fact that we are debating contraception in 2012 suggests that it is -- and that those who are sanguine about battles won 40 years ago might do well to reconsider.

One is reminded of the old axiom that says, the future is not promised to us.

Well, neither, apparently, is the past.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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