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Sex on Wednesdays | Bitten Right in Their Hypocrisy

Fetal Personhood Proves Tricky for Republicans

There’s some overlapping pill news this week that will change what you can get at the pharmacy. The manufacturer of OPill—the progestin-only birth control pill that became the first oral contraceptive to be approved for over-the-counter sale—has shipped out. It will be available in pharmacies within the next few weeks and has a suggested retail price of $19.99 a pack with 3-month and 6-month supplies available for a slight discount ($49.99 and $89.99 respectively).

At the same time, CVS and Walgreens announced that they had gotten their certification to distribute Mifepristone—one of two pills used in medication abortion—and would begin to fill prescriptions in certain states within the next few weeks. Mifepristone still requires a prescription and is only available in states where abortion is legal. Of course, this may be temporary because the Supreme Court is set to weigh in on a bulls**t case involving to Mifepristone that may make it much harder to access.

I’ve written about all of this so many times that I doubt anyone wants to hear me rant again, but if you do, please read or re-read: Anthony Comstock Continue to Fuck Us All and Oh My OPill.

Right now, I want to talk about another pill: the very first birth control pill and a wonderful piece of hypocrisy I just learned about involving the family who made a great deal of money selling it.

The history of how the birth control pill came to be is fascinating. I highly recommend Jonathon Eig’s book Birth of the Pill and/or the Cliff’s Notes version in the form of a Terry Gross interview with the author. Both tell the story of the complicated development of the pill, which includes some brave scientists bucking the restrictive laws of the time and some high unethical clinical trials that took advantage of women in Puerto Rico where birth control was legal.

Here’s the Mari’s Notes version:

Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger teamed up with philanthropist Katherine McCormick to develop a woman-controlled method of contraception. They recruited scientists Gregory Pincus and John Rock who worked on the concept behind the pill. The team also worked with the pharmaceutical company G.E. Searle.

Pincus had previously worked at Searle where he’d proposed a birth control pill, but the company did not believe there was a market for it and did not want to take the risk of developing it (those pesky Comstock laws meant birth control and birth control research was illegal). As often happens, however, another scientist at the company accidentally invented an ovulation-blocker that became the basis for the first pill.

The drug was originally approved to help regulate menstrual cycles, which was a deliberate move by the team. They knew “birth control” had little chance of getting FDA approval, but women soon heard about what else it did, and many approached doctors to have their cycles “regulated.” Searle noticed the interest in its new drug and changed its mind on birth control. The company was suddenly happy to shepherd the first oral contraceptive through the FDA approval process and into the mouths of millions of women. Enovid was approved in 1960, and the company tripled its profits in just four years. In 1964 alone, Searle netted $24 million off of the drug.

That helped make the Searle family very rich. Yes, it may have been the invention of aspartame—the artificial sweetener in Diet coke—that allowed them to sell the company to Monsanto for $2.7 billion in 1985, but the family fortune was built on birth control. It turns out that since 1998 that fortune has been used to support conservative organization and political candidates.

new CNN article by Casey Tolan tells the story of the Daniel C. Searle who ran his great grandfather’s company from 1977 until Monsanto took over. In his retirement, Daniel set up the Searle Freedom Fund to promote free market trade. Over the years, the foundation has given money to every pet conservative cause: think limiting voting rights, expanding the private prison systems, preventing local governments from controlling firearms, using public education funds to pay for private school, denying climate change, and loosening child labor laws.

Not surprisingly, the fund has also given money to groups that fight against women’s reproductive rights, including their right to birth control. Searle has given money to the Heritage Foundation which would like to get rid of the pill so we can bring “consequentiality back to sex.” It has also given money to the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Reason Foundation, both of whom filed briefs supporting Hobby Lobby in its lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. Other beneficiaries of the fund’s money wrote briefs in the Dobbs decision supporting the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

The Searle Freedom Fund was set up with planned obsolescence because Danny boy was scared that after he died its grantmaking would drift to the left. The fund, which will close next year, has $24 million left and seems to be using much of it to get Donald Trump re-elected.

Is there any story more emblematic of capitalism and conservatism than a family making tons of money selling birth control to women and then—when they are no longer profiting from it—using that money to chip away at women’s rights to access birth control and abortion?

PS: Searle also made and profited off of misoprostol the drug used with mifepristone in medication abortions—though their hypocrisy showed less here because they did not want the drug used or marketed for abortions. That approval came after the company was sold.


Fetal Personhood Gets Tricky for Republicans

Last week we talked about the ruling in Alabama that allowed three families to sue a clinic for mishandling frozen embryos using an 1872 “wrongful death of a minor child” law. The judges agreed (8-1) that the law applied to “unborn” children as well, even those that—or should I say who—are in a petri dish and barely visible to the naked eye. The implications for IVF were instantly clear: fertility clinics around the state instantly halted their programs amid fears of lawsuits, and everyone looked to state legislators for a solution.

They came up with one. Both the House and the Senate passed bills that provide parents and clinicians with immunity from criminal or civil liability. While this may re-open the doors of IVF clinics, it does nothing to change the dangerous idea that fetuses are people too.

As outrageous as Chief Justice Parker’s concurrent ruling was, it is not the origin of fetal personhood in Alabama. That was decided by 59% of voters before the fall of Roe. In 2018, Alabama voters passed Amendment 2 known as the “Sanctity of Life Amendment,” which declared that the state’s policies recognized the rights of the unborn. At the time, the ACLU warned:

Our worry is that this amendment will prove to be much more insidious than it seems at face value, touching on much more about healthcare than just abortion. We hope that Alabama legislators will commit to ensuring that any clarification on this amendment will take into account the importance of having access to safe, high quality reproductive care in our state.

Spoiler alert: they didn’t. Which meant they were scrambling to get legislation written last week. But let’s not be fooled into thinking this resolves the issue. Robin Marty, executive director of West Alabama Women’s Center and author of the Handbook for Post-Roe America, explained why it’s not enough:

There can be no “fix” from either side of the aisle that still asks us to affirm that “personhood” starts at the moment of fertilization. Excluding those involved in IVF from liability does not fix this—instead it enshrines the idea that it should be a crime but no one will prosecute at the moment. Excluding an embryo outside of the uterus does not fix this—instead it enshrines that “personhood” begins at fertilization except if the pregnancy is outside of the body. There is NO fix that is acceptable short of a repeal of the Sanctity of Life amendment.”

A number of other states have or are considering laws that would define life as beginning at fertilization. What’s possibly worse is that other states are considering laws to teach this as fact in public schools.

The West Virginia Senate passed a bill last week that would mandate school children watch a three-minute video about “Baby Olivia.” To be clear, Olivia is not a baby yet. The video is about “her” fetal development. It starts with sperm and egg meeting followed by a flash of life and a voice over saying, “this is where life begins, a new human being has come into existence.”

The video was developed by anti-abortion group Live Action run by activist Lila Rose. She may be best known for going “undercover” at Planned Parenthood clinics across the country pretending to be a 15-year-old in need of an abortion in an attempt to catch the organization doing something untoward. While actual doctors claim this video is riddled with misinformation, Rose insisted to NPR that it’s accurate “This is when we date the beginning of human life. So it’s not, like, an opinion. It’s not a belief. It’s a scientific fact.”

“We say it is true so it’s true” is not much of an argument.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) essentially said the video is bulls**t, and even some Republican legislators in West Virginia admitted to being uncomfortable with it. GOP majority leader Sen. Tom Takubo who is… wait for it… a doctor… called the bill “grossly inaccurate.” Sen. Charles Trump, also a Republican, was upset by the religious content: “It is an imposition of what is fundamentally a religious or spiritual belief. I don’t think it is a matter of proven or established science. Sen. Mike Woelfel, a Democrat, agreed: “I would gladly show that video in a Catholic school that my grandchildren attend. But I’ve taken an oath to obey the Constitution and to uphold it.”

Fetal personhood may be the issue that finally bites Republicans in their own hypocrisy (or at least nibbles at it a little bit). You can’t claim to be the pro-family party if you’re seen as preventing people facing infertility from starting a family. At the same time, coming out and saying that it’s ridiculous to call a clump of cells in a freezer a child could alienate some of their reliable base like Lila Rose and her followers. As Linda Greenhouse said in a New York Times piece thanking the Alabama Supreme Court:

With its decision deeming frozen embryos to be children under state law, that all-Republican court has done the impossible. It has awakened the American public, finally, to the peril of the theocratic future toward which the country has been hurtling.

Republicans had hoped to get there without anyone noticing. The National Republican Senatorial Committee told candidates that they should always align themselves with IVF. House Speaker Mike Johnson tried to do just that when he applauded the Alabama legislator for their quick fix to the IVF problem, but people quickly pointed out that the national-level bill he has sponsored to make fetuses people does not have an IVF exemption.

This may all be too confusing for your average Republican bear. When asked whether embryos were children, Joni Ernst (R-IA) said, “I don’t want to say they’re not children.”

Way to take a stand Joni.

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