Most of the fallout was predictable from a video released a couple of weeks ago that falsely accused Planned Parenthood of selling fetal body parts: that there would be an initial flurry of media excitement followed by an inevitable debunking, that the people behind it would turn out to be a bunch of unsavory religious-right radicals, that media interest would wane while Republicans continue to puff up in feigned outrage and use this as a pretense to attack family planning programs.
But there was one thing up in the air: Which of the Duggar family-sized team of wannabe Republican presidential candidates was going to grab the brass ring as the most opportunistic exploiter of this non-scandal? This week, it looks like the winner of this stiff competition is the dark horse: “libertarian” candidate Rand Paul.
Paul really put himself out front by going on Fox News on Sunday and declaring that he was going to lead Senate efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. “I’m going to try to force a vote on this,” he explained. “I think the time is now to discuss whether taxpayer dollars should be going to such a gruesome procedure.”
Most procedures one gets in a doctor’s office, it should be noted, fall under the category “gruesome.” (Unlike with fetal tissue, for instance, there really are people who buy and sell teeth pulled in dental offices, a practice that is both lucrative and disgusting, but since it involves men’s health care, it’s not being attacked by Republicans.) But we’re going to assume he means abortion when he talks about a “gruesome procedure,” making his statement—that taxpayer dollars are going to it—a flat-out lie, as spending federal money on abortion has been banned since the ‘70s. The money Paul wants to take away is strictly for contraception, STI testing and well-woman exams.
One thing he’s not lying about: Senate Republicans really are hustling to pass this bill, which is fast-tracked for this week.
But Paul’s eagerness to be the face of this new attempt to defund Planned Parenthood isn’t a result of a special fondness for mendacity on his part. After all, this entire campaign is built on the lie about “selling” fetal body parts, and concerns about basic honesty haven’t seemed to trouble a single Republican who wants to pander on this front. The likelier explanation is that Paul sees this as a perfect way to shore up his support with the religious right, which is typically seen as less than friendly to the libertarian wing of the Republican Party that Paul claims to speak for.
In their pure, ideological forms, libertarianism and Christian conservatism do seem at odds. In theory, libertarians should have a hands-off approach when it comes to social issues, not wanting to tread on the individual’s right to get gay-married or have an abortion if he or she wants. In practice, however, many so-called libertarians like Paul are just as rabidly anti-choice and anti-gay rights as their conservative Christian brethren. But politics is often more about optics than policy, and Paul is struggling to gain the trust of evangelicals whose enthusiasm for bringing the government boot down on the neck of gays and women understandably makes them wary of the word “libertarian.”
This problem is made all the more difficult by the fact that Paul is still running a campaign trying to convince younger voters that he’s out to protect their civil liberties, a message that’s hard to convey when you’re simultaneously pandering to religious right voters who want said liberties stripped from gays and women. Paul’s attempts to thread that needle have been largely incoherent, telling religious-right audiences that he’s totally on their side and then turning around and telling others that he doesn’t see attacking abortion or gay rights as a priority.
But defunding Planned Parenthood is a smart way to marry the libertarian identity to the Bible thumping image. Most federal funding that goes to Planned Parenthood is from social spending programs, namely Medicaid reimbursements and Title X family planning funding. Stripping that satisfies the libertarian hostility towards social spending on things like food and health care. It’s particularly appealing to attack sexual health care in this way. As all the griping about the HHS requiring insurance companies to cover contraception shows, a lot of conservatives see access to safe sex as a luxury that should only be available to those who can pay out of pocket instead of as a public health issue.
For the religious right, defunding Planned Parenthood is appealing because it will, simply put, mean a lot more people who have sex will face negative consequences such as unwanted pregnancy and STIs. For those who see sex as sinful behavior that deserves punishment, the more consequences the better.
What makes this particularly insidious is that attacking Planned Parenthood allows everyone in the Republican base, whether they are more libertarian or more socially conservative, to push their ideology without any real fear of having to pay personal consequences for it. Most of them are well-off enough not to need Planned Parenthood’s services.
For the religious right, this gives them an opportunity to rail about the evils of sexual liberation without having to talk about their own use of private sexual health care services. For libertarians, it’s an opportunity to claim that you are more deserving of contraception access than the poor, because you’re a Randian superhero and they are just shameful dependents who need to suffer for the lack of merit. No matter what flavor of right winger you are, they all have this in common: a desire to feel self-righteous while in fact just being deeply selfish.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.