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In 1985, Margaret Atwood released The Handmaid's Tale, a dystopian novel set in a future where women's reproductive freedom was brutally controlled by a group of allegedly god-fearing men. It was made into a movie, an opera and now, 30 years later, it's become real life.

I wish this were hyperbole. I would much prefer that the reproductive rights of women in the United States were not under constant and relentless bombardment by a group of men (and one woman) who would like to become that country's chief executive. It would be nice if even one of them recognized that this is the 21st century and that women in the United States have had a legal right to choose abortion for more than 40 years.

Let's just look at a tiny sample of the nuanced positions adopted by the 2016 Republican nominee candidates, which appeared to have been scripted on the wall of a cave.

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Senator Marco Rubio: "I think future generations will look back at this history of our country and call us barbarians for murdering millions of babies who we never gave them a chance to live." Ben Carson: "I am totally opposed to killing babies."

Or how about Donald Trump calling Planned Parenthood an "abortion factory," before doing an about-face and offering meagre support for that organization, a slimy move even for a man who has a PhD in slime?

The Republican candidates have used the recent Planned Parenthood controversy to establish their bona fides as the least woman-friendly fellow on the ticket. In each case, though, the candidates – from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to former Texas governor Rick Perry to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker – have for years been fighting to erode women's reproductive freedom.

All three instituted brutal legislation at the state level to restrict access to abortion (though courts have struck down some of those restrictions).

These men, who idealize the notion of a tiny and hands-off government, have no problem insisting that the government's hands perform an internal exam on a woman before she can have an abortion – a procedure, to be clear, which is her right.

The Planned Parenthood commotion is a red herring, although a convenient one for the Republicans. To recap: Over the past month, the anti-choice Center for Medical Progress has released six videos, shot surreptitiously with Planned Parenthood doctors and other officials, in which the sale of fetal tissue is discussed. There are more videos yet to be released.

Selling fetal tissue for profit is illegal under U.S. law. What is allowed is charging a certain amount to cover the costs of, say, research and shipping the tissue (which is inarguably valuable to scientists, and has been crucial in the development of vaccines and treatment of disease).

Planned Parenthood has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and calls the allegations "outrageous and completely false."

Its supporters point to the fact the organization helps millions of women (and men) every year, providing affordable contraception, cancer screening and other services to clients who might not be able to pay for care elsewhere.

But complexity of argument is about as useless as an ice cream umbrella in a year when every candidate is trying to claim the most self-righteous ground.

So Carly Fiorina, the lone female Republican contestant, speaks of the "moral depravity" of Planned Parenthood, and Senator Ted Cruz calls the organization "callous and heartless." Jeb Bush wonders if $500-million (U.S.), the group's federal funding, isn't too much to spend on "women's health care." As we all know, health care is much more cheaply provided at night in dark alleys.

The Republicans have already tried unsuccessfully to cut off Planned Parenthood's federal funding. They'll try again. At least four men running for president successfully defunded the group when they were state governors.

The scandal isn't about fetal tissue (abortions provide about 3 per cent of Planned Parenthood's services and aren't publicly funded). It's that women's freedom is under threat across the United States: The National Women's Law Center has outlined the historic repression of abortion rights, with 135 new restrictions passed in 2011 and 2012 alone. Many women are now required to travel great distances or endure humiliating examinations before they can gain access to the care that is their right.

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This repellent sideshow will, with luck, turn off a great portion of American voters. It's been called a "war on women," but it's not, really. It's a war on anyone who cares about freedom.

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