At National Right to Life's conference this year, Mitt Romney set out to convince anti-abortion leaders he was their candidate. At the podium, he rattled off his qualifications. To a layman's ears, it sounded pretty standard for abortion politics. He wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. He supports teaching only abstinence to teens.
But for those trained to hear the subtleties, Mr. Romney was acknowledging something more. He implied an opposition to the birth control pill and a willingness to join in their efforts to scale back access to contraception. There are code phrases to listen for - and for those keeping score, Mr. Romney nailed each one.
One code phrase is: "I fought to define life as beginning at conception rather than at the time of implantation." The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists defines pregnancy as starting at implantation, the first moment a pregnancy can be known. Anti-abortion advocates want pregnancy to start at the unknown moment sperm and egg meet: fertilization. They'd also like you to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that the birth control pill prevents that fertilized egg from implanting in the womb.
Mr. Romney's code, deciphered, meant, "I, like you, hope to reclassify the most commonly used forms of contraceptives as abortions." In fact, he told the crowd, he already had some practice redefining contraception: "I vetoed a so-called emergency contraception bill that gave young girls abortive drugs without prescription or parental consent."
No matter that emergency contraception has the same mode of action as the birth control pill and every other hormonal method of birth control. To the anti-abortion movement, contraception is the ultimate corruptor. And so this year, the unspoken rule for candidates seeking the support of anti-abortion groups is that they must offer proof they're anti-contraception too.
Unannounced candidate and former Sen. Fred Thompson at first denied he had been a lobbyist for the contraception advocacy group the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. Until billing records materialized proving he worked for the group, he somehow had "no recollection of it."
Presidential hopeful Sen. Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, beefed up his anti-contraception resume by co-sponsoring a bill to de-fund the nation's largest contraception provider, Planned Parenthood, by excluding it from Title X family planning for the poor. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's campaign officials boast he has "consistently voted against taxpayer-funded contraception programs." And Mr. McCain reports that his adviser on sexual-health matters is Sen. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, who leads campaigns claiming condoms are unsafe and opposing emergency contraception.
Another presidential candidate, Rep. Tom Tancredo, like Mr. Romney, has ventured far into the "contraception-is-abortion" territory. According to Mr. Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, emergency contraception "cheapens human life and simply uses a woman's body to dispose of the child instead of a doctor." By the same logic, so do the birth control pill, the contraceptive patch, the IUD, the NuvaRing, and the Depo-Provera shot - which, it's worth noting, together account for 40 percent of the birth control American women use.
The American public is unaware of the new wave of anti-contraception activism by opponents of abortion, which makes it much easier for politicians to appease the anti-contraception base. Take, for example, President Bush. While he has delivered some big anti-abortion victories for the religious right in the last seven years (Supreme Court Justices John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr., and the so-called partial-birth abortion ban), anti-contraception work has taken up more of his energy. He attempted to strip contraceptive coverage for federal employees; appointed anti-birth control leader David Hager to the FDA panel that approves and expands access to contraceptive methods; chose another contraception opponent to oversee the nation's contraceptive program for the poor; defunded international family-planning programs, and invested unprecedented sums into sex-ed programs that prohibit mention of contraception.
For now, the candidates vying for the Right to Life endorsement are doing their best to avoid directly answering mainstream voters' simple questions on the subject, such as, "Do you support couples having access to safe and effective birth control options, including emergency contraception?" Considering that even 80 percent of self-described "pro-life" voters and a majority of Republican voters strongly support contraception, it's no wonder why.
Cristina Page, author of "How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex," is spokeswoman for birthcontrolwatch.org. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.