Despite President Obama's accommodating move last week, conservative leaders are hurtling along in their attempt to restrict birth control. They've gained a righteous head of steam so quickly they don't seem to care that they're about to careen off the tracks.
They're not backing down despite polling that shows 99 percent of women in the United States will use contraception in their lifetimes, and 56 percent of voters support the requirement that health care plans cover prescription birth control with no deductibles or co-pays.
Let's review: First the Department of Health and Human Services gave churches an exemption from playing by the rules of the Affordable Care Act -- an exemption NOW continues to oppose. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wanted other religiously affiliated institutions -- such as Catholic hospitals and universities -- to be excused as well. They lobbied hard, with influential newspapers like The Washington Post taking the bishops' side. The Obama administration chose instead to keep the refusal clause narrow but require insurers to absorb the cost of birth control for employees of religiously affiliated institutions. When the bishops didn't get everything they wanted, GOP legislators took up the charge, with a twist: Now they want to give a pass to any employer that claims providing their employees with access to birth control coverage goes against their religious beliefs. I shudder to think how many women such a loophole would affect.
But there's no need to do the math. Because what this right-wing runaway train is headed for is every woman it can possibly reach. Intruding into women's reproductive lives typically starts with women who are most economically vulnerable -- those who depend on government assistance or -- gasp -- private insurance, to pay for their health care costs. Even if you can afford to pay for your own pills, is it fair that you are being asked to, when other preventive services and medications are covered under health care reform?
The conservative talking point of the moment is that this fight is about religious liberty. Religious institutions do have important rights in our democracy. But their rights must be weighed against individual women's rights and against our society's shared interest in public health. Thus, a religiously affiliated employer's first amendment rights must be weighed against: women's constitutional rights to religious freedom (1st Amendment), privacy (Griswold v. Connecticut), and equal protection (14th Amendment); women's statutory rights against sex discrimination (Title VII) and pregnancy discrimination (Pregnancy Discrimination Act) in the workplace; the increasingly recognized international human right to unfettered access to basic health care (and birth control is obviously basic health care for women); and society's interest in assuring public health, a key aspect of which is availability of family planning.
Looks like the scale is weighed heavily in favor of a woman's right to birth control access. Additionally, religious entities do not have blanket immunity from every law and regulation in the land that conflicts with their tenets, so why should this directive be any different? Oh, that's right -- this one affects women.
Conservative candidates are campaigning on a platform that is proudly hostile to family planning funding and to the idea of a government safety net. This kind of vilification of women and poor people combined with allusions to religious persecution and unfair taxes sure does rile up the conservative base. While candidates like Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are likely driven by political expediency, some of our most powerful opponents -- like the bishops -- clearly have ideological fervor fueling them.
So, the question becomes: Is anti-contraception zeal about protecting the bishops' religious liberty or is it about keeping women in a perpetually disadvantaged status? A woman who cannot control her reproductive life, who cannot plan her own family, is unable to contribute to the community on her own terms, and moreover is at the mercy of men and the state. Turning back the clock in this way is not only unjust but stupendously dangerous.
That's why we must get out the word that opponents of birth control coverage are opponents of birth control, period. And they are hazardous to our health -- the health of women and the health of this nation. Talk to your friends and family, contact your legislators. Tell them we must all stand together. Yes, the bishops and their radical right cronies in government will keep making their ridiculous demands. But we don't need to give in to them. We can stand up for women's rights and wave victoriously as their crazy train leaves the station.