As the overcrowded Republican debates will remind us Tuesday night, there's still a lot of go-nowhere candidates in the primary race, serving no real purpose but to add noise to the already clangorous stream of lies.
Carly Fiorina, in particular, has fallen from her peak moment as the surprisingly smooth purveyor of bullshit that she came across in the first two debates, and now seems only to remain in the race so we can admire how much the veins on her neck stick out when she's called out for her relentless abuse of basic truths about reproductive health care and Planned Parenthood. But her lies go beyond just factually incorrect statements. Fiorina is trying to sell a narrative about American attitudes on reproductive rights and sexuality that simply has no relationship to reality.
Tuesday, Michelle Ye Hee Lee of the Washington Post Fact Checker dug into a falsehood-packed claim make by Fiorina in late November on these issues. "The vast majority of Americans agree, what Planned Parenthood is doing is wrong," Fiorina said on Nov. 29 on Fox News. "That’s why the vast majority of Americans are prepared not only to defund Planned Parenthood, but also to stop abortion for any reason at all after five months.”
Fact Checker took each of these sentences in turn and found that all of them are untrue. No polling data shows Americans supporting a blanket ban on abortion after 20 weeks, as most polls only ask about bans that have exceptions for things like rape or the health of the mother. Reliable polls show Americans support federal funding of Planned Parenthood, and the only poll that shows otherwise was an opt-in internet poll. Assuming that what Fiorina meant by "what Planned Parenthood is doing" refers to fetal tissue donations, once again we find that Fiorina just plain is lying — even with a Fox News poll that primed respondents with the word "disturbing," they couldn't get half, much less the "vast majority" of respondents to agree that it should be stopped.
This style of fact-checking is, by design, all about the trees, while leaving the view of the forest unremarked upon. But what is fascinating about Fiorina's statements is that her lies about the statistics are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the untruth she is pushing. The larger lie here is the narrative. Fiorina is working that old conservative stand-by, this idea that there's a "silent majority" of Americans who are sitting around appalled at the kids these days, who are supposedly irresponsible and sexually loose. But it's an idea that doesn't actually hold much water when you look at it.
Fiorina's language paints a picture of Planned Parenthood — five-month abortions! Things too unspeakable to mention! — that stems more from the lurid fantasies of the Junior Anti-Sex League than from anything the venerable reproductive health organization is actually up to. To hear Fiorina talk, you'd think the bulk of patients walking into a Planned Parenthood are not just getting abortions but are visibly pregnant, having waited for five months out of either laziness or because they think they can get a better price for the bigger fetus. We're meant to recoil in horror at the wretched depths that feminism and the sexual revolution have supposedly brought upon us.
The realities are much different, of course. The right-wing stereotype of the lazy slut who only gets around to aborting when her jeans stop fitting has never had any bearing on reality. On the contrary, the evidence shows sexually active women generally tend to be responsible. For instance, 80 percent of Planned Parenthood patients receive services to prevent unintended pregnancy. More than 99 percent of sexually active women use contraception at some point in their life, showing that, despite conservative stereotypes linking sexuality to irresponsibility, the reality is that most women are pretty conscientious about this stuff.
Abortions after 20 weeks only constitute 1.2 percent of the procedures. And while people who express disapproval of these abortions might be thinking of the stereotypical lazy slut, many have a lot more sympathy for women who get these abortions if they know their reasons. A lot of these abortions are done for health reasons, because fetal defects are often not detected until then. In other cases, women were, in fact, trying to be responsible and get abortions earlier, but because of the many obstacles to getting affordable abortion care, they end up having to take that long to raise the money. It turns out that, when you tell Americans why women need these abortions, the majority of Americans support access.
The reality is that anti-choicers like Fiorina are scared. American attitudes about sexuality are shifting rapidly. As Gallup polling on "moral" issues shows, there's a stampede to the left when it comes to questions of premarital sex, contraception and even homosexuality. In 2001, for instance, barely half of Americans approved of premarital sex. Now, 68 percent of Americans do. Acceptance of divorce, unwed motherhood and contraception has also soared.
In other words, Americans are bringing their views in line with their actual behavior. Premarital sex is nearly universal — 95 percent of Americans have indulged! — and has been for decades. The idea that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue is falling out of fashion. Increasingly, people just find hypocrisy off-putting.
This is why the right is really escalating the war on Planned Parenthood right now. The organization's cheerful sex positivity and its ubiquitous presence is a constant reminder not just that Americans have sex, but that don't even feel bad about it anymore.
The right's lurid lies, the invocation of ugly stereotypes about the patients, the relentless defunding efforts, the picketing of clinics: It's all part of a larger strategy to stigmatize the organization and all it stands for. Clearly, the end goal here, if they can't shut Planned Parenthood down, is to make women feel ashamed about themselves for going there. And that, in turn, would help restore some of the sexual shame that Americans are quickly abandoning.
That's why Fiorina's "vast majority" lies are so toxic. The idea that there's some silent majority out there, sneering judgmentally at women who use Planned Parenthood and wanting to toss them in the gutter is simply not true. But she wants you to believe it is, which is why she lies, over and over again, about the even easily checkable polling data on these issues.