Civil Liberties

Culture Warriors Resort to Propaganda

Since the first casualty in war is the truth, it is no surprise to see a great deal of deceit in the culture clash over abortion and contraception.

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“We are in a war,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius told NARAL Pro-Choice America last October. Since the first casualty in war is the truth, it is no surprise to see a great deal of deceit and dissemblingâ€"on both sidesâ€"in the culture clash over abortion and contraception.

Exhibit A: The Virginia General Assembly’s passage of bills requiring an ultrasound and waiting period before an abortion. Proponents pretend the measure is merely about medical safety: It is a “precaution for the health and safety of women,” says Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, sponsor of the Senate bill. It will protect “the safety of the mother,” says the Family Foundation’s Victoria Cobb. It will “enhance women’s health,” according to Del. Mark Cole.

If that were the case, then one would expect physicians to be all for it. You would think groups such as the Medical Society of Virginia and the Richmond Academy of Medicine would chime in, lending the weight of professional expertise to the cause of patient safety. They haven’t.

Who does support the bill? Pro-life groups such as Americans United for Life, the Virginia Society for Human Life, the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists. And Del. Todd Gilbert, who during debate denounced abortion as a “lifestyle convenience.” And the Family Foundation, which called an early vote on the bill a “truly historic moment for pro-life Virginians.” Waitâ€"why not a “truly historic moment for women’s health and safety”? Because the statement appeared on the Family Foundation’s website, where the group need not maintain any pretense about its aims.

This reveals the patient-safety argument for what it is: propaganda, the propagation of transparent falsehoods for political ends. There is a lot of that going around. Virginia’s social conservatives should feel uneasy that they share the tactic with their liberal Democratic antagonistsâ€"who offered up Exhibit B in the debate over the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate.

Concerns about religious freedom were just an “excuse” to deny women contraception, fumed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The New York Times agreed the whole affair was “a phony crisis over ‘religious liberty,’ ” and insisted that Catholic bishops, Catholic Democrats such as former DNC chief Tim Kaine, and others “aren’t really concerned about religious freedom.” Churches, said The Times, are “free to preach that birth control is immoral, but they have not been given the right to laws that would deprive their followers or employees of the right to disagree with that teaching.”

The liberal ThinkProgress, an arm of the Center for American Progress, echoed the sentiment with a petition urging signers to “tell Congress not to block affordable access to contraception.… Doctors and families, not politicians and pundits, should decide what prescriptions women can access.”

But nobody was proposing to deny women access to contraception, let alone to require agreement with Catholic doctrine about it. Note what was at issue: A new federal mandate that all insurance policies cover contraception. That is precisely what ThinkProgress claimed to object toâ€"politicians making health care decisions. The question was whether the government should grant religious institutions a conscience exemption from that requirement.

Doing so would not “deny” or “block” access to contraception, which would remain readily available and easily affordable even for women who work at Catholic institutions. But the right to choose contraception does not entail a right to have it paid for by someone else, any more than the right to own a firearm under the Second Amendment entails the right to a free Smith & Wesson. And yet The Times insisted, with almost Orwellian flair, that the debate concerned “the freedom to choose birth control.” That freedom was never in peril. The freedom of religious institutions to follow their consciences was.

Similarities are not equivalencies, but they can be instructive. And it is instructive that in each of these cases the parties perverting language for political ends also are the ones seeking to impose their will on others by force. That is not a coincidence. Coercion and deception are each efforts to make an end run around the free will of others. Like war, they happen when we become too impatient with obtaining consent through persuasion and truthâ€"when we decide other people’s consent need no longer concern us. The lies of war are especially handy, because they do double duty. When we tell them to others, we can also tell them to ourselvesâ€"thereby easing our consciences for having steamrollered theirs.