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Anti-science and anti-contraception

By Laura Sessions Stepp, Special to CNN
May 22, 2012 -- Updated 1513 GMT (2313 HKT)
 Women hold signs in a protest against presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's stance on women's health care.
Women hold signs in a protest against presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's stance on women's health care.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Laura Stepp: Conservatives are choosing to ignore science
  • Stepp: Some myths: Contraception causes abortion and prostate cancer
  • They reject scientific contradictions of their religious teachings, she says
  • Stepp: Opposition to birth control is a losing battle as new generation grows up

Editor's note: Laura Sessions Stepp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly with The Washington Post, who specializes in the coverage of young people. She has written two books: "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both" and "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children through Early Adolescence." She is a consultant to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

(CNN) -- How can it be that we are firmly into the 21st century and reading claims that birth control pills can cause prostate cancer and abort babies? Or, my personal favorite, that a woman can be considered pregnant before her egg unites with a sperm?

Such falsehoods are being touted not by yahoos but by educated conservatives who, in growing numbers, choose to ignore what science tells them.

According to a paper in a recent American Sociological Review, conservatives with at least a bachelor's degree have, over the last several decades, lost their faith in science to an amazing degree. Although the paper doesn't cite advances in contraception specifically, they are clearly one victim of this disaffection.

Our country's top health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, counts contraception as one of the 10 greatest health achievements of the 20th century. Yet recently:

Laura Stepp
Laura Stepp

-- A state legislator from New Hampshire, opposed to insurance companies being required to pay for birth control, called attention to a report suggesting that birth control pills cause prostate cancer. (Certain drugs in those pills become waste and eventually pass into the environment, according to the report, exposing men to carcinogens.)

The representative based her statement on findings that originally appeared in the British Medical Journal, findings that one author of the study later characterized as only a hypothesis, and were seriously questioned in a subsequent BMJ article.

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-- Some members of Congress, in their attempt to derail legislation requiring insurers, including the insurers of some religious organizations, to cover birth control, falsely argued that Plan B, the "morning after" pill taken after sex in order to avoid pregnancy, causes abortions.

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It does not, nor do other methods of contraception, James N. Martin, Jr., president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, pointed out in a letter to the editor in USA Today. "The definition of contraception is to prevent pregnancy, which occurs at implantation," he wrote.

The morning-after pill is often confused with another drug, RU-486, which, he said, does induce abortion and is therefore not considered contraception.

-- Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law a bill prohibiting abortions that occur 20 weeks after a woman's last period begins. (This is in contrast to starting the 20-week count about two weeks later, when fertilization likely occurs.) As Amanda Marcotte notes in RH Reality Check, Arizona conservatives, in effect, said that women could be pregnant before egg and sperm unite.

Apparently they were dozing off during ninth-grade biology.

Not all political conservatives are Flat Earthers, of course. But there are proportionately more of them than there used to be, according to the Review article.
For that piece, Gordon Gauchat, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, analyzed information from the General Social Survey, conducted every year since 1972 by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago.

He found that in 1974, the year Republican Gerald Ford became president, 48% of conservatives trusted science, a higher proportion, interestingly, than found among liberals or moderates.

By 2010, however, that number had fallen to 34%, while the degree of trust among moderates and liberals remained stable. Of particular note: Confidence dropped among conservatives who held bachelor's degrees, not those who only finished high school.

Gauchat theorized that because educated conservatives are more politically engaged than other voting blocs, they are more likely to seek information that conforms to their ideology. As the Los Angeles Times, writing about Gauchat's work, pointed out, some of them have big money to spend spreading their ideas.

"Right-wing think tanks, funded by corporate interests to undermine the scientific consensus on such expensive-to-fix phenomena as climate change, have proliferated, as have conservative cable-TV networks, blogs and radio talk shows," the Times noted. "These outlets are talking to a well-educated audience. And they're presenting a very one-sided view of scientific issues."

Gauchat also wrote about the influence of the religious right, "which rejects scientific contradictions of religious teachings on such issues as evolution and stem-cell research, and the growing use of science to inform public policy in such areas as environmental protection."

"Conservatives, ever wary of government interference with the free market, started to resent the scientists. ... Rather than debate remedies, they have turned on science itself. ... (They) really have their own subculture, complete with ontological claims about what the world is about."

Here's what the world is really about when it comes to using birth control: Women, notably millennials, the largest generation ever, are pursuing higher education, jobs and careers, having sex and bearing children, all according to a timetable that works best for them, their partners and their babies.

They couldn't do this if birth control wasn't accessible, affordable and safe. Demonizing it amounts to telling these women to throw out their briefcases and take up their vacuum cleaners. Conservative opposition to contraception has a last-gasp ring to it, and most Americans know that.

One indication is a poll recently published by the Public Religion Research Institute, a think tank supported by a broad spectrum of scientists and religious experts. The poll showed a majority of Americans, including a majority of Catholics, believe that most employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception at no cost.

Another sign of change is the perceptible ease with which young men talk about and support contraception, including methods being developed for them.

Nick Halzack, a 23-year-old policy intern working in Washington, says he looks forward to the day when male birth control, in various testing stages around the country, goes on the market.

"My generation has always had contraception," he says. "It was a part of our sex education and is a part of our relationships. We are just beginning to get engaged in the politics, and the fight against it is a losing battle."

The opinions used in this commentary are solely those of Laura Sessions Stepp.

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