Would a President Gingrich Ban the Birth Control Pill?

If history is any guide, Newt Gingrich’s views on birth control, abortion, and the controversial “personhood” movement will be likely targets for Democrats if he wins the 2012 GOP nomination for president.

Gingrich recently signed the “Personhood Republican Presidential Candidate Pledge" which affirms that “unborn children” should be regarded as persons with full legal rights “from the moment of conception ... without exception and without compromise.” Gingrich signed the pledge after taking heat for an earlier statement stating that human life began after embryo implantation in the womb (which occurs a few days after fertilization). His campaign has since clarified: “Newt believes that human life begins at conception, that is, at the moment of fertilization.” If enacted into law, this seemingly small distinction could have serious implications for the legality of many forms of birth control.

The “personhood” movement represents the most ideologically consistent endpoint of the anti-abortion movement. In their view, once a human sperm fertilizes an egg, the zygote deserves full protection as a legal “person” comparable to a born child. Under this standard, abortion would become illegal even in cases of rape and incest -- one of the goals of “personhood” advocates. However, recognizing fertilized eggs as legal persons would also have serious implications for issues other than abortion. As Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh describe in their 2010 paper, this includes potentially limiting women’s ability to receive in vitro fertilization and physicians’ ability to treat women with life-threatening ectopic pregnancies. But one of the biggest political issues would be the legality of many forms of birth control.

According to Personhood USA, “birth control that causes the death of a living human being would be affected.” Hence, IUDs would also become illegal because they are “designed to kill the tiniest children by preventing implantation.” Medications such as “Plan B” or the “morning after pill” (which can block implantation of a fertilized egg) would also be outlawed.

“Personhood” advocates would likely also ban most (if not all) forms of birth control pills. The prescription information for popular birth control pills Ortho Tri-Cyclen and Trinessa states:

Combination oral contraceptives act by suppression of gonadotropins. Although the primary mechanism of this action is inhibition of ovulation, other alterations include changes in the cervical mucus (which increase the difficulty of sperm entry into the uterus) and the endometrium (which reduce the likelihood of implantation).

For these reasons, the American Association of Pro Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists argues that birth control pills are not merely contraceptives (preventing fertilization), but also abortifacients (abortion-inducing drugs). Mississippi “personhood” advocates similarly opposed “forms of the pill which act to prevent implantation of the newly formed human into the lining of the womb.” Because birth control pills can prevent implantation in the same manner as IUDs, the logical implication is that they would also have to be outlawed, even if some “personhood” advocates claim otherwise. (Methods of birth control that worked solely by preventing fertilization would remain legal, including condoms, spermicidal foam, and the “rhythm method.”)

“Personhood” ballot measures have been soundly defeated in every state where they have come before the general electorate. Colorado voters rejected “personhood” measures twice (2008 and 2010) by a 3-to-1 margin -- in a swing state divided nearly evenly between Republicans, Democrats, and independent voters. In strongly conservative Mississippi, the 2011 “personhood” measure was defeated by a 58-42 margin due to opposition not only from pro-choice voters but also many generally anti-abortion voters concerned about potential restrictions on birth control and in vitro fertilization.

So what does this mean for the 2012 presidential election? The hard-fought 2010 U.S. Senate race in Colorado may provide a lesson.

In 2010, Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet narrowly defeated GOP challenger Ken Buck by 48% to 47% (with the remaining votes going to minor party and independent candidates). Originally Buck supported the Colorado “personhood” measure, even though he later attempted to soften this view. He became an easy target for Bennet, who repeatedly portrayed Buck as “too extreme for Colorado.” After the election, the Colorado state Republican Party chairman admitted that Buck lost because he alienated independent women voters alarmed by Buck’s views on birth control and abortion.

If Gingrich wins the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, it would be the first time that a “personhood” supporter would be on the national ballot. In 2008, John McCain declined to endorse the “personhood” movement. Rather, American Right to Life, which describes itself as “the personhood wing of the pro-life movement,” attacked John McCain in 2008 as “pro-abortion“ for supporting legal abortion in cases of rape. In 2012, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachman have also signed the Personhood Pledge. In contrast, Mitt Romney is anti-abortion, but has not signed the Personhood Pledge and supports legal abortion in case of rape or incest.

If Gingrich (or any other “personhood” supporter) wins the 2012 GOP nomination, the future legality of birth control pills and IUDs would immediately become a national political issue, to the detriment of the Republicans. Just as the “personhood” issue tipped the swing state of Colorado in favor of the Democrats in 2010, it could also tip a few critical swing states in favor of Obama in 2012. In a 2010 New York Times story on swing-state voters, small businessman Ron Vaughn spoke for many independents when he said: “I want the Democrats out of my pocket and Republicans out of my bedroom.” If the eventual GOP nominee supports “personhood,” they risk alienating these independent voters for whom outlawing birth control pills and IUDs would be anathema. In other words, “personhood” could give the 2012 election to Obama.

This is not the change I am looking for.

(Note: I am pro-choice on abortion and strongly opposed to the “personhood” movement. Docs4PatientCare does not take a position on this issue.)