What's the matter with the Republicans? Okay, don't snicker – what isn't the matter with them. But it's a serious question. Republicans haven't always been completely crazy; they used to talk about the economy, jobs and other things that matter to the U.S. electorate. But now, Republicans seem entirely obsessed with women's bodies. As Americans struggle through the toughest time in decades, the GOP is fixated on birth control, abortion and vaginas.
Because of Rick Santorum (who opposes not just abortion, but contraception), even former moderate Mitt Romney has come out swinging against federal family-planning programs for low-income women. The fact that abortions would undoubtedly increase among low-income women who don't get family-planning help doesn't seem to matter. Meantime, Senate Republicans have opened up a fight over whether women's contraceptives should be covered by health insurance if employers are philosophically opposed to contraception.
The week before last, radio provocateur Rush Limbaugh went on a three-day rant against a law-school student who dared to say she thinks birth-control pills should be free. He called her a "slut" and a "prostitute," and told her to send him sex tapes so that he could watch her contraceptive devices at work. Even to his fans, he sounded unusually vile. The backlash was immense. What's notable is that not a single leading Republican had the good sense to sound appalled.
In Texas and Virginia, Republican legislators (who are overwhelmingly male, it goes without saying) are trying to discourage abortions by forcing women who want them to undergo vaginal sonograms. This invasive procedure, which is usually used for detecting abnormalities such as ovarian cancer, involves the insertion of a 10-inch probe in order to take an ultrasound image. The idea, disproved by all evidence, is that a woman who is forced to see an image of the fetus may change her mind. Garry Trudeau, the Doonesbury cartoonist, has savagely satirized the vaginal probe in his strip as "the shaming wand."
The furor over forced sonograms was so great that Virginia legislators backed off. Now they will only require a woman to have an abdominal ultrasound – the "jelly on the belly" version – even though this less invasive procedure reveals nothing during the first trimester of pregnancy. As one state senator, a doctor, put it, "I might as well put the ultrasound probe on this bottle of Gatorade."
In other reproductive news, the Oklahoma Senate has approved legislation that bestows the legal rights of "personhood" on embryos from the moment of conception. The law is so extreme that even Baptists are opposed, because it would theoretically make some forms of birth control illegal, as well as in vitro fertilization.
Thankfully, the women of America are not entirely defenceless in countering these idiocies. A female legislator in Oklahoma proposed a "spilled semen" amendment that would make it an offence against unborn children for a man to ejaculate semen anywhere but into a vagina. In Virginia, another female legislator proposed that men who want Viagra should be required to submit to rectal exams.
How could Republicans be so suicidal? The overwhelming majority of Americans practise and believe in contraception, and even if they don't, they don't believe in denying it to others. Public support for legal abortion has been inching upward; according to a recent Pew poll, a small majority of Roman Catholics (52 per cent) and even a sizable chunk of evangelicals (34 per cent) think abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances.
No wonder Barack Obama and the Democrats are making hay with what they've billed as "the Republican war on women." Even Republican women are beside themselves. Many of them can't stomach the idea of supporting the knuckle-draggers who are running for office. "If they're going to decide on women's reproductive issues, I'm not going to vote for any of them," one told The New York Times. "Women's reproduction is our own business."
So what happened? The short answer is that the Republicans have been hijacked by the social conservatives and the Tea Party – temporarily. Many of the most credible potential candidates for president are sitting out the race. To win the nomination, Mr. Romney has jettisoned his moderate beliefs. Once he's the candidate, he'll tack back to the middle of the road and turn into a moderate again.
Fortunately, there is no real contest for the nomination, and never was. Mr. Santorum and Newt Gingrich don't stand the ghost of a chance. The idea that Mr. Romney can be beaten by any of these fringe characters is a fantasy concocted by the media, desperate for a horse race. Progressives like to tell scary bedtime stories to each other.
But really, we can all relax. America is in no danger of turning into something from The Handmaid's Tale. I will bet a pile of toonies that the next president of the United States will be a social moderate with a Harvard law degree who has no plan to either legalize gay marriage or roll back reproductive rights for women.
Meantime, as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank predicts, the monologues will continue.