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Over the last two decades, the U.S. has become a sexually healthier nation. Rates of infectious disease transmission (e.g., AIDS/HIV), teen pregnancy and reported rapes have declined. However, the 2010 right-wing Republican victories at both the Congressional and state levels put these gains in jeopardy. America might well be on the verge of a new “dark ages” in terms of sexual health.
The gains in sexual health were the result of intelligent public health policies supported by the last three administrations, Clinton, the RINO Bush (if in uneven manner) and Obama. However, this more progressive policy is now under attack.
The increasingly reactionary Republican party’s systematic legislative campaign to impose Christian moral values is designed to secure final victory in the culture wars but under a different name, austerity. It is using the very recession it facilitated, with never-ending calls for a balanced budget and deficit cuts, to continue the Christian right’s long-fought war against sexuality, including sexual health. Austerity has replaced repression as the watchword of the new right.
The proposed cuts in sexual health programs in the Republican current federal budget plan and in initiatives across the country are realizations of the Tea Party’s political agenda. As a movement anchored in the white Christian right, it speaks to a profound fear of sex. (See “Culture Wars Redux: The Tea Party Congress and the Likely Return to Social Purity,” CounterPunch, December 3-5, 2010)
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Much of the current public debate about the Republican sexual-health agenda has focused on its effort to terminate funding to Planned Parenthood clinics. The 1977 Hyde Amendment already prohibits federal funding prohibits support for abortion services. The current Republican initiative is to end federal support for Planned Parenthood as a provider of family planning and other sexual-related services. It expresses the politics of vengeance, both against the organization and those in need of its services.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2011 imposes more than 70 cuts targeting a variety of programs. It cuts programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ($1.4 billion) and the National Institutes of Health ($1.6 billion).
However, the major assault is on public health services that benefit the poor and needy. These services include screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., STDs, HIV), breast and cervical cancer testing (i.e., Pap test or pelvic exam), prenatal care, sex education and vasectomies for men. It will eliminate all support for Title X family planning ($318 million) and the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative ($110 million). In addition, there will be cuts to the Women Infants and Children program ($747 million) and the Maternal and Child Health Block Grants ($50 million).
These cuts are intended to hurt and they will. Millions of Americans take advantage of Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services and, if they are defunded, these people will bear the burden. The singling out of Planned Parenthood is, like the efforts by the Wisconsin governor to break the civil-service unions, a political agenda masquerading as a financial necessity.
The Christian right’s war against a woman’s right to choose an abortion remains at the heart of the culture wars. For all the right’s rage, the U.S. abortion rate declined by nearly one third between 1981 and 2005. According to Guttmacher, the U.S. abortion rate in 1981 was 29.3 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 and by 2005 it had dropped to 19.4. Sadly, in 2008 and as the recession took hold, it crept up to 19.6 per 1,000 women.
The most hysterical example of this effort was the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” a bill introduced in January and backed by 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors. At the time, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) dubbed it a top priority. It contained a provision that sought to redefine rape and incest. The amendment, put forward by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), proposed that the rape exemption be limited to “forcible rape,” thus excluding statutory rape and other non-forcible forms of rape. Under enormous popular pressure, the Smith proposal was withdrawn.
The battle over abortion rights is being fought out even more belligerently at the state level. In states across the country Republican legislators are seeking to impose harsher anti-abortion programs. For example, the Idaho and Iowa legislatures passed fetal pain laws and restricted abortions after 20 weeks. (See “The New Abortion Wars: Recalling the Lessons of the 1920s,” CounterPunch, June 25-27, 2010)
Sex education programs are under serious attack across the country.
One of the first hearings organized by the new Congressional Tea Party Republicans was held in March do undermine the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) Act, a program that provides state funding for comprehensive, scientifically-based and age-appropriate sex education. The program was a well-meaning attempt to redress the 2007 Community-Based Abstinence Education (CABE) Act that provided $113 million for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and, even more sinister, spread misinformation about condoms, contraception, HIV and supported the rise of fictitious “crisis pregnancy centers.”
At the state level, things are getting ugly. In Montana, the Republican Senate moved to require local school district to secure a parent’s written consent before their child could attend a sex education class and it prohibited schools from using instruction materials from organizations that provide abortion services – i.e., Planned Parenthood. In Mississippi, legislators adopted a bill that allows local school districts to choose between a sex education curricula that (i) promotes abstinence only or (ii) that promotes “abstinence plus” (i.e., abstinence plus information on contraceptives); the bill’s bad faith in indicated by the fact that it prohibits teaching about the proper use of a condom.
Against the ongoing battle in Wisconsin over public-employee unions, Juneau County DA Scott Southworth’s effort to halt sex education instruction might have been missed. This Republican stalwart denounced a new state sex-ed program as “sick and shameful piece of legislation” that encourages illegal sex among minors and compared it to “teaching children about alcohol use, then instructing them on how to make mixed alcoholic drinks.” He went so far as to warn teachers that teaching the program “could lead to criminal charges.”
The Republican agenda seeks to savage support for HIV/AIDS program, both domestically and internationally. Over 1.1 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. Obama’s proposed 2011 budget sought an increase in funding for the Ryan White AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) by $105 million over 2010 level. According to AmFAR, Congressional Republicans are seeking to cut domestic HIV/AIDS discretionary spending by 6.5 percent (from $7.58 billion to $7.09 billion); reduce spending for HIV prevention at the CDC by 8.3 percent (from $799 million to $732 million); cut treatment for 4,300 people under the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) program; and reduced NIH AIDS research by 8 percent (from $3.18 billion to $2.93 billion).
Republican cuts are also targeting the Bush administration’s signature non-military foreign-policy program, President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). They seek to cut it by 13.1 percent (from $6.74 billion to $5.86 billion). AmFAR estimates this will cut treatment to more than 9 million people, including 3.6 million children in pediatric and orphan services, in poor and developing countries across the globe.
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The Republican party, spearheaded by the Tea Party and old-line white Christian culture warriors, is waging a bitter class war against the American people. Speaking in the name of what was once referred to as the (white) “little man,” but truly representing the interests of the rich and super-rich, the Republicans are legislating the greatest transfer of wealth from the public to today’s robber barons. It is taking place on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age a century ago.
This process of institutionalized robber is most evident in never-ending reports of the millions of unemployed or underemployed, the millions of foreclosures and the growing disparity between the rich and everyone else. However, it is most intimately lived out in the sexual life and relations everyone has.
The Republican right’s program to destroy the sexual health of the nation is but one consequence of a vicious campaign of class war. It is an intended consequence of an interlocked “conspiracy,” a self-serving financial or economic agenda (i.e., the transfer of wealth) linked to a religiously-inspired moralistic or social agenda (i.e., the culture wars). The goal of this “conspiracy” is to secure ever-greater wealth and power for the ruling oligarchy and inflict pain and suffering on everyone else.
The establishment of a new “dark ages” will be marked by the rise in STDs, teen pregnancies, rape and cervical cancer. This new “dark ages” will likely be an era of de-enlightenment, the triumph of a corporatist, patriarchal consumerism over all more humanistic values. It will be very much like the 1950s, but with an ever more mean-spirited vengeance. Are we ready?
DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.