(WOMENSENEWS)–Perhaps if the pill had not been invented, the race for the Republican presidential nomination would be going very differently.

In case you missed it, Mitt Romney serendipitously scored a rare laugh in a debate leading up to Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary when he waved away a question about states outlawing birth control. "Contraception; it’s working fine," he said. "Leave it alone."

If only we could take him at his word.

Romney succeeded in his effort to evade scrutiny about whether he shares the far-out views of his party’s base on birth control,abortion and gay civil rights. Those are topics he really doesn’t want to talk about.

But the rest of us should not let Romney and the other candidates off the hook so easily. We should be vocal about exposing the GOP’s campaign to turn back the clock.

Just 50 years ago people in Connecticut were arrested, fined and sentenced to prison for distributing birth control to married couples.

Forty-five years ago a Massachusetts man was prosecuted and imprisoned over the state’s quaint "Crimes Against Chastity" statute for exhibiting and providing birth control to an unmarried woman.

The Supreme Court put an end to these violations of individual liberty. In 1965, in Griswold v. Connecticut, the court ruled that there was a marital right to privacy embedded in the Bill of Rights that bars states from banning contraception. That right to privacy is the foundation for Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision guaranteeing a woman’s legal right to abortion. In 1972, in Eisenstadt v. Baird, the court extended the rights articulated in Griswold v. Connecticut to unmarried men and women.

Targeting Legalities

The GOP is now attacking that legal bedrock.

From personhood amendments that define a fertilized egg as having legal rights to defunding Planned Parenthood’s family planning services, undermining access to birth control is front and center on the Republican agenda.

This disproves the commonplace idea–popular among TV punditsand politicians alike–that these elections will only be about the economy, not social issues.

The past several weeks of the Republican presidential race should put that to rest. Republican voters may tell pollsters that the economy is their No. 1 issue, but that’s only because a rightwing, social agenda is already secured.

The most extreme elements of the anti-abortion and anti-gay movements effectively eliminated all candidates who dared to deviate from their dogma.

Jon Huntsman’s defense of same-sex civil unions in lieu of gay marriage used to be polite opinion on the Republican right; now it’s a heresy that disqualifies even a true conservative.

Only four years ago Sarah Palin tried to downplay the fact that she thought abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest. Now GOP candidates explicitly (or, in Romney’s case, surreptitiously) favor endowing fertilized eggs with individual rights.

Rick Perry proudly proclaims he has seen the light and incest and rape victims must be forced to bear the child of their abuser. With the rise of Rick Santorum, an avowed opponent of mothers who work, I almost miss Palin.

How did we get to this place? Many readers here might remember the anti-feminist women’s campaigns against the Equal Rights Amendment, publicly funded child care, sex education and gay civil rights of the 1970s.

A Rightwing Takeover

Sex, feminism and gay rights were critical in fueling the rightwing takeover of the Republican Party, a story I tell in my upcoming book "Delirium: How The Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America."

The right had no mass popular support, no so-called base, before it followed conservative religious women in their crusade against feminism, gay rights and the sexual revolution. These pioneering women were responsible for forging the Christian right into the largest voting bloc in the Republican Party.

Christian right sexual fundamentalists put Newt Gingrich in power and forced the impeachment of President Bill Clinton over a private sexual affair. They cast the critical votes that gave George W. Bush his 2000 win. They make up the majority of the supposedly small-government, liberty-loving Tea Party.

Santorum promises that as president he’ll talk about the "dangers of contraception" which, he says, gives "a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be."

When we contemplate that Iowa voters raised Santorum into the top tier of presidential contenders, it’s instructive to recall that we have the Iowa Republican Caucus to thank for the repugnant, unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

The race for the Republican nomination, with its focus on gays, birth control and zygotes, culminates 40 years of sexual counterrevolution.

The good news for those who value individual freedom and women’s rights is that the sexual fundamentalists are far out of the mainstream of American opinion. The GOP’s 2012 nomination circus has unmasked the cultural extremism and weird obsessions of the voters who control the fate of the Republican contenders.

The question is, are Americans paying attention?

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Nancy L. Cohen is a historian and author of "Delirium: How The Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America." You can follow her on Twitter @nancylcohen or email her at info(at)nancylcohen.com.

For more information:

“NH House Passes Fetal Homicide Bill,” Ms. Magazine: