Bipartisan Support for Family Planning Used to Be a Thing. What Happened?

Written by Hannah Evans, Population, Health, and Environment Specialist | Published: January 24, 2019

One of the most polarizing issues facing the U.S. today centers around women’s reproductive health and family planning services. In fact, the mainstream Republican agenda is in complete ideological opposition to family planning, and has gone so far as to label it immoral. But a quick look back in time reveals a clear shift: Many Republicans used to be outspoken advocates for reproductive rights. What the heck happened?

 “It is clear that the domestic family planning services supported by the federal government should be expanded and better integrated… It is my view that no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition.”

Can you guess who wrote this incredibly progressive statement? President Richard Nixon, in 1969! Nixon, along with many other prominent politicians from both sides of the aisle, worked to allocate government funds to non-profit organizations in order to increase access to family planning services for marginalized women and men. Nixon signed the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970 (Title X) into law in 1970 — drastically expanding federal funding for family planning services for low-income women. The bill had wide support in Congress and with the American public when it passed.

George H.W. Bush was once such a strong supporter of expanding access to family planning that he earned the nickname “Rubbers” from his House colleagues. As a congressman, Bush urged Congress to “work even more closely with… private agencies such as Planned Parenthood” to increase access to birth control for American women. He, along with his father, former U.S. Senator Prescott Bush, believed that family planning was essential to global development, and was outspoken in his support of U.S. aid being funneled to international organizations that provide it. In his eyes, access to contraceptives held great economic and societal importance, both as a cost-effective innovation in public health and as a precursor for development.

So it’s only recently — within the past 40 years — that Republicans have shifted their ideological stance on family planning. This is largely due to the advocacy work done by anti-abortion campaigners, who succeeded in conflating the wide array of reproductive health services with unscientific beliefs about abortion and regressive beliefs about women. Following the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide, anti-choice groups began rallying behind a unified message: that abortion caused the breakdown of the nuclear family and disassociated women from their “most important” societal role as mothers.

By 1979, the Moral Majority was established, and became extremely influential in reshaping conservative ideology so that it reflected the movement’s own views on Christian values, morals, and social norms. Among the ideas popularized by the Moral Majority was the portrayal of women’s reproductive autonomy as “anti-family” and a threat to the greater society. The Moral Majority was an early supporter of Ronald Reagan, who is largely responsible for reversing progressive, bipartisan policies regarding reproductive health. As Reagan’s Vice President, George H.W. Bush shifted his stance on family planning so that it aligned with the GOP’s anti-abortion platform, thus prompting the consolidation of the party’s values and paving the way for some of the most intense attacks on women’s health in history.

In an international context, the UN has long considered family planning a human right. It’s been over 50 years since UN member states signed the Teheran Proclamation at the International Conference on Human Rights. The proclamation states that parents have the basic human right “to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children.”

Like other human rights, family planning should transcend political barriers because its benefits to society are irrefutable. In fact, there are many places throughout the world (take Rwanda, for example) where family planning services are becoming more available, reflecting a broader global trend in favor of progressive, rights-based approaches to healthcare and development. We need to reverse the strange and regressive ideologies that have consumed partisan politics and stifled progress, because despite politically-driven disagreement, certain rights should always remain unalienable. Let’s all work together to ensure a better, safer, and healthier future for all people.