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Is Kirsten Powers mainstreaming an anti-contraception argument? Yes.

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, March 14, 2011 21:31 EDT
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Even The Liberals: it’s a nickname I’ve now made up to describe a particular kind of writer/pundit. This is a person whose inadequacies as a thinker and writer prevents him/her from making it in the business as a straight liberal, but who has discovered that pretending to be a liberal while mouthing right wing arguments for right wing media outlets provides steady work and attention. And they don’t care if you’re a hack! In fact, so much the better, because that means you’re drawn to the easy, but well-compensated work of trying to mainstream hard right arguments by pretending that you, Even The Liberal, agrees with them.

ETLs are a breed I usually ignore; their hackery is so obvious that it’s not even fun anymore. But I did pay mind to Kirsten Powers, who mouths right wing arguments while pretending to be a liberal on Fox News most of the time, recently, because she was trying advance really fringe anti-contraception arguments in The Daily Beast recently. In my piece at RH Reality Check, I linked other people refuting her argument, but it was honestly so obvious that Powers was cherry-picking and misrepresenting statistics to argue that contraception doesn’t prevent abortion that I didn’t really think it required much more than being intellectually honest to see what she was up to. Yes, she maintains that she’s pro-contraception, but that’s part of the ETL schtick. In reality, she argued that Planned Parenthood should be defunded because they can’t prove that their services prevent abortion. (Never mind that family planning services are a good in and of themselves, regardless of abortion.) My main argument was that Powers is a privilege-blind twit, whose ready assumption that everyone else in the world shares her ability to pay for contraception, find endless amounts of time to pursue it, etc. is just wrong.

Much to my chagrin, I was reminded that Powers has remarkably thin skin, because she flooded my reply column on Twitter with screeching demands that I “retract” my honest, fact-based assessment of her hackery. Really, she should develop a thicker skin; there’s no reason to think that a single person calling bullshit on her “I’m a liberal, but I agree with radical right wing arguments” act is going to bring an end to the gravy train. There’s just too much demand for faux liberals trying to give fringe right arguments a veneer of moderation for Powers to really worry about that, I’d think. Still, if she’s going to basely accuse me of misrepresenting an article she has already had to retract for factual errors, I feel bound to respond. Not by retraction! Unlike Powers, I’m in the right and not a liar. But I will perform the close reading she demands of her piece to demonstrate that it is not a matter of a liberal coming around to the idea of defunding federally subsidized contraception for millions of women because of the facts. I will instead argue that she is taking fringe right wing arguments, polishing those turds up, and pretending that they’re moderate instead of radical anti-contraception arguments.

Though I will happily grant, and have granted on Twitter and on RH Reality Check, that Powers supports legal contraception. I imagine she and her friends find a lot of use for it! Her article was merely an attack on contraception access for women who don’t share her privileges. She’s a soft anti-contraception person, not a hard line one, though I imagine that she borrowed these hack arguments from hard line anti-choice sources, and hard line anti-choice sources are linking her argument all over, agreeing with the obvious fact that she’s pushing for reduced access to contraception.

Let’s start our close reading from the top of her article:

During the recent debate over whether to cut off government funding to Planned Parenthood, the organization claimed that its contraceptive services prevent a half-million abortions a year. Without their services, the group’s officials insist, more women will get abortions.

I’ll admit I bought the argument—it makes intuitive sense—and initially opposed cutting off funding for precisely that reason.

Then I did a little research.

The “I used to believe X, until I saw the evidence, and then” rhetorical device is about setting the audience up for an argument about why you don’t believe X anymore. In this case, X is the contention that contraception services prevent abortion. Indeed, this is an intuitive argument, as most people take contraception precisely so they don’t get pregnant on accident and require abortion services. It’s so intuitive, in fact, that the only people who argue that contraception doesn’t prevent abortion are anti-choice nuts, who have elaborate conspiracy theories to explain their belief that contraception causes abortion. Part of the process of being an ETL is learning to take these wild-eyed conspiracy theories and put a moderate-sounding spin on them so that they don’t sound like nut-brained screech-a-thons, and that’s what Powers is trying to do here. She took great pains to demand that I pay attention to the rhetorical flourishes that make her seem moderate, but I’m more interested in the fact that she thinks it’s appropriate to try to take truly fringe ideas and make them mainstream.

And in this paragraph, she establishes that she intends to do that by making like she had a sober-minded, open-minded engagement with all the evidence, and was forced to conclude, more in sorrow than glee, that contraception doesn’t prevent abortion, so neener neener defund Planned Parenthood. I contend that someone actually looking at all the evidence would do that. And that someone who has determined to make an argument against widespread access to contraception would instead choose to cherry pick and distort evidence to support an anti-contraception claim.

So which does Powers do? Well, if you guessed “cherry picked and distorted”, give yourself a cookie.

Turns out, a 2009 study by the journal Contraception found, in a 10-year study of women in Spain, that as overall contraceptive use increased from around 49 percent to 80 percent, the elective abortion rate more than doubled. This doesn’t mean that access to contraception causes more abortion—though some believe that—but that it doesn’t necessarily reduce it.

Her plausible deniability line is to claim that she isn’t necessarily saying that contraception causes abortion, but hey, she’s not saying it doesn’t. It’s a mystery, but wow, look at that there correlation! (That she probably grabbed off an overtly anti-contraception source.) A reader would be forgiven for thinking more contraception caused that abortion rate to go up! It’s just such a mystery what else could have happened!

Unless, of course, you actually read the paper she links. Then you will discover that there is someone who disagrees with the contention that “contraception prevents abortion” is still an open question—the authors of the paper. They repeatedly point out that many barriers to contraception access that lead to a high abortion rate, including Catholic guilt (no, I’m not kidding), and the greater percentage of the population that are young immigrant women with, you guessed it, reduced access to contraception. But one factor above all other really stands out as to why the increase in the abortion rate should be taken with a major grain of salt: due to increasing liberalization and better tracking methods, the number of abortions that are reported rose dramatically. Which means less that the actual abortion rate rose than the number of reports of abortion did. In other words, we really don’t know if the actual abortion rate went up, but what we do know is that the number of unsafe, illegal abortions was likely going down, so this is all a good thing.

So, Powers is lying about what the data really suggests, and she’s doing so in a way that supports an anti-contraception position, even if she doesn’t state so bluntly.

The next part of her piece is the part she retracted, because she openly conflated numbers from different reports in Guttmacher research in order to shore up an anti-contraception case that she claims she’s not making. Beyond just the factual error she makes, however, there’s a bigger error she doesn’t retract. Powers references only women who are getting abortions and their answers on a survey as to why when determining that ready contraception access doesn’t prevent abortion. But as Lindsay notes, this requires disregarding the largest, most important group of people you need to look at when asking “how is abortion prevented?”—women who successfully prevented abortion. Do they have better access to contraception than women who don’t prevent abortion?

The answer is yes, they do. Guttmacher has already protested the way that Powers distorts their body of research, cherry-picking a very narrow survey answer and ignoring the larger amounts of data they’ve collected that indisputably show that improved contraception access prevents abortion. Within the space of five paragraphs, Powers manages to misrepresent the findings and research of two bodies of researchers. If she really was agenda-free, then she wouldn’t do such a thing to them, but would present their research honestly and with respect for the hard work they do. I will take special note of the fact that Guttmacher’s press release argues that women’s contraception use improves if they are permitted to use the contraception they determine is best for their individual circumstances. On Twitter, Powers disagreed with the experts and their conclusions, screeching at me that poor women who can’t afford the birth control pill if Planned Parenthood is defunded should use condoms instead. I feel that Powers is not in the best position to determine the proper contraception use for people she doesn’t know or care about, but that the best people to make that determination are the people involved and their trusted health care professionals.

Powers then goes on:

Asked about the “Contraception” study, the Guttmacher numbers and why no women were saying they got abortions due to lack of access to contraception, a Planned Parenthood spokesman emailed this Orwellian response: “I think the biggest barrier is access to affordable contraception.” Huh?

I was pointed to a Planned Parenthood study that showed that one in three women voters reported having struggled with the cost of prescription birth control at some point.

It’s unclear whether Planned Parenthood officials simply don’t understand statistics or are so accustomed to having their claims unquestioned that they think if they repeat them often enough, the facts will disappear.

If she was, as she claims, simply taking an open-minded approach to the situation, then why is she so eager to dismiss, without evidence, the argument that women often go without being able to afford contraception? It’s a behavior that only makes sense if you approach this as an ETL piece, where Powers is trying to mainstream anti-choice arguments.

Obviously, you can complain of struggling with the cost of prescription birth control and also face an unwanted pregnancy for reasons that have nothing to do with lack of access to birth control.

Talk about Orwellian double speak! Powers is suggesting that there’s a difference between having access to and being able to afford contraception. But she never considers the possibility that women being studied by Guttmacher who neglect to fill out the “lack of access” bubble while getting an abortion may have made the same distinction! When trying to argue that women getting abortions had access, Powers assumes this means they could not only get a doctor’s appointment, but could afford it. But later, she denies that being able to afford your contraception impinges on your access. The word “access” changes for Powers, depending on what works for the bottom line anti-contraception argument. A strange habit for someone trying to be merely open-minded, honestly. But it makes sense if someone has an anti-contraception agenda.

For the record, when pro-choice activists say “access”, we mean not only the legal right to buy it, but ability to afford it, the time to get it, and the social privileges to get yourself physically there to get it. All of which I address in my RH Reality Check piece. No one is denying that Powers supports the legal right to buy it, but she is overtly opposed to Title X funded to make contraception more available to women who struggle with getting regular access to contraception. This is an attempt to mainstream anti-contraception sentiment by softening it, but the result—poor and underprivileged women losing access—is the same.

To preserve its federal subsidy, Planned Parenthood continues to claim that without its contraception services the abortion rate will go up. This deception smacks of a fleecing of taxpayers in an effort to promote an ideological agenda, rather than a sincere effort to help women plan families.

Powers denied on Twitter that she denied that contraception prevents abortion, but in this passage, she characterizes the argument that contraception prevents abortion as a “deception” and an “ideological agenda”. Saying that the contention that Title X-funded contraception prevents abortion is a “deception” is, I think we can all agree, a way of saying that it’s a deception, i.e. a lie. I’m not sure how Powers can justify claiming that she didn’t say that contraception services don’t prevent abortion when she straight up says that this is a “deception” created to fleece taxpayers. Either Planned Parenthood is lying, or contraception prevents abortion, and taking away the Title X-funded contraception access for millions of women will cause more abortions. I don’t really think she gets to have it both ways.

What is that ideology, exactly? To find out, you have to dig through Planned Parenthood’s tax forms because the group certainly isn’t going to tell you. According to its most recent tax filing, the purpose of Planned Parenthood Federation of America is to provide leadership in “[a]chieving, through informed individual choice, a U.S. population of stable size in an optimum environment; in stimulating and sponsoring relevant biomedical, socio-economic, and demographic research.”

So it is, in reality, a population-control organization.

Cherry-picking a single quote and putting a distorting spin on it doesn’t strike me as the behavior of someone who simply has an open mind and is just looking at all the evidence. You can Google Planned Parenthood’s tax filing, and you can read all the parts Powers left out when quoting their 990:

THE PURPOSE OF THE FEDERATION IS: (A) TO PROVIDE LEADERSHIP:
- IN MAKING EFFECTIVE MEANS OF VOLUNTARY FERTILITY REGULATION, INCLUDING CONTRACEPTION, ABORTION, STERILIZATION, AND INFERTILITY SERVICES, AVAILABLE AND FULLY ACCESSIBLE TO ALL AS A CENTRAL ELEMENT TO REPRODUCTIVE HEALTHCARE:
- IN ACHIEVING, THROUGH INFORMED INDIVIDUAL CHOICE, A U.S. POPULATION OF STABLE SIZE IN AN OPTIMUM ENVIRONMENT; – IN STIMULATING AND SPONSORING RELEVANT BIOMEDICAL, SOCIO-ECONOMIC, AND DEMOGRAPHIC RESEARCH;
- IN DEVELOPING APPROPRIATE INFORMATION, EDUCATION, AND TRAINING PROGRAMS. (B) TO SUPPORT AND ASSIST EFFORTS TO ACHIEVE SIMILAR GOALS IN THE UNITED STATES AND THROUGHOUT THE WORLD.

So, they put health care as their first concern. But beyond that, Powers misrepresents the “population control” aspect of Planned Parenthood. It’s clear from the wording that what they’re saying is that individual women making fully empowered choices helps keep the population at a stable size. I’m unclear on what is objectionable about allowing individual women the right to say, “I don’t think I can fit 15 children in my one bedroom apartment.” I don’t know if the loaded term “population control” to characterize individual choices that maximize resources for individual children is something you’d reach for if you were approaching this in an agenda-free way.

In fact, after quoting part of this, Powers then turns around and lies about what is in it.

Funny, this was never mentioned in the gauzy $200,000 advertising campaign launched last week. It also doesn’t make it into the “About Us” section of the group’s website, which repeatedly claims its mission is to protect women’s health, when in fact the real mission is to keep the birth rate at whatever level the leaders believe it should be.

Where in “informed individual choice” does Powers find “keep the birth rate at whatever level the leaders believe it should be”? On the contrary, the mission statement highlights individual choice, which is to say leaving the choice of how many children to have not in the hands of Planned Parenthood’s leaders, but in the clients it serves. They say “individual choice”, she says they’re forcing their beliefs on you.

This is a mainstreaming of a very fringe anti-choice argument. Anti-choicers have a real love of pretending that they’re blocking access to birth control services for poorer people for their own good, often using overtly racist arguments to do so. As the argument I had with Powers on Twitter demonstrates—particularly when she made a “let them eat cake” comment saying that women whose subsidized pills were cut off should just go to CVS or switch to condoms—this is about creating a situation where the haves have birth control and the have nots do not. The feigned concern for lower income women is particularly odious, and I really do wish people who wish to deny services to lower income women wouldn’t put on some pose that they wish to force childbirth on the unwilling for their own good.

Powers, unsurprisingly, finishes her piece by demanding an end to federal subsidies to Planned Parenthood. Her conclusion on its own demonstrates that my contention that she’s mainstreaming fringe anti-choice arguments was true; the notion that family planning subsidies are controversial is a relatively new one in American politics. It’s so obvious that I feel like I’m wasting my time demonstrating that Powers is a liar and a fraud with her Even The Liberal act. But this really isn’t about Powers—though goodness knows her ego is huge enough that she can’t see that!

No, I wrote this lengthy close reading of her piece to show why it’s so hard to deal with a landscape where blatant lying has become so acceptable. The reason that lies get legs is that refuting them is really time-consuming! Powers dashes off a few cherry-picked statistics, distorts the evidence, and misrepresents her position, and it takes like three times the amount of words to thoroughly debunk her bullshit. Not everyone can do this all the time. The right is basically drowning out the truth with lies, and frankly, I don’t know what to do about it. Suggestions are welcome!

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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