Birth Control? Really?

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has become the darling of the Republican Party’s religious right as we head into the second quarter of the presidential primary season. Mr. Santorum’s views on many social and cultural issues are unabashed, although they are not particularly unique. He opposes gay marriage and the very idea that gay people deserve fair and equal treatment in civil society. He has attacked feminism as an assault on family values. And he opposes abortion rights.

Frankly, this critique is hardly new, as far as it goes. But Mr. Santorum actually goes further in his assaults on modern life. He has attacked the very idea of birth control, an issue that many Americans probably regard as having been settled 50 years ago.

Ordinarily, Mr. Santorum’s views could be dismissed as those of a crank. The problem is, it’s becoming clear that his growing numbers of supporters apparently agree with his implicit contention that contraception should be outlawed—in the name of Christianity.

Mr. Santorum, to his credit, hasn’t tried to hide this knuckle-dragging world view. “Many of the Christian faith have said … contraception is O.K.,” the former senator said last fall. “It’s not O.K. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” With some pride, Mr. Santorum noted that “no president has talked about” the evils of birth control. Well, he’s right about that.

What started as a debate over abortion rights a generation ago—a debate in which principled people can and do have reasonable differences—has deteriorated into the spectacle confronting us now, when a major presidential candidate can argue not simply that abortion is wrong, but that birth control is “not O.K.”  If a candidate made such a declaration even a decade ago, he or she would have been dismissed as a laughing stock. But the intolerance of the religious right has become only more stringent in this, the second decade of the 21st century. It is fair to argue, as many liberals and Democrats should, that the religious right is determined to criminalize contraception. Yes, they’re coming after your birth control.

At long last, has it really come to this? It is one thing for a religious organization to demand an exemption to health-care insurance mandates regarding abortion services or access to contraception. But when a presidential contender argues that birth control is “not O.K.,” it’s time to check the calendar to make sure that it really is 2012.

This debate has no place in presidential politics. How horrifying that it is actually taking place.