President Obama has often spoken of the influence his mother had in shaping his life. Stanley Ann Dunham was smart, worldly, independent and free-spirited. The president has said he "learned about empathy" from her. He also learned to relate to the struggles of families trying to make the most of their lives with few financial resources to do so. He has cited her healthcare struggles -- specifically as a woman claimed by two forms of gender specific cancer -- as being fundamental in lending direction to his political moral compass. Therefore when I heard the news that the president is very close to caving on one of the most important healthcare issues facing women, for the purposes of political expediency, I couldn't help but think that were his mother alive today she would tell him that his compass is off, and he is in grave danger of losing his way.
Just a few months ago I wrote that it was through women's health issues that President Obama could end up leaving his greatest legacy. I stand by that statement today. It's just that when I first wrote it I assumed the president's legacy on these issues would be positive. That now seems less likely.
A non-partisan panel convened by the Institute of Medicine recommended that insurance companies be required to cover birth control for free as a form of preventative care under the new healthcare law. I can't think of any medication that more accurately fits the definition of "preventative" than one whose sole purpose is to prevent something, in this case, pregnancy. As I noted at the time of my last piece on this subject, "If the government follows the panel's recommendations, this could end up being not just one of the most important moments in the reproductive rights movement since Roe v. Wade, but the most important moment ever." (Click here to see a list of the most important reproductive rights cases besides Roe v. Wade. Click here to see a list of ancient forms of birth control.)
Though contraception access seems like one of those no-brainer issues that people of all political stripes who agree on little else, should be able to agree on, of course in politics today nothing is that simple. Despite the White House already publicly agreeing to exemptions for religious institutions, some religious leaders are arguing that the language doesn't go far enough. According to the New York Times, "after protests by Roman Catholic bishops, charities, schools and universities, the White House is considering a change that would grant a broad exemption to health plans sponsored by employers who object to such coverage for moral and religious reasons. Churches may already qualify for an exemption. The proposal being weighed by the White House would expand the exemption to many universities, hospitals, clinics and other entities associated with religious organizations."
In other words, the changes being considered by the White House would essentially render the medical panel's recommendation null and void, allowing any employer to claim religious reservations and thereby deny covering contraception as preventative care.
As I have written before, I am one of the few people who can find gray area in just about any political issue, from capital punishment, to affirmative action, and yes, abortion. The lone exception for me is really birth control accessibility because it directly affects so many other issues, which is why opposition to its availability leaves me perplexed, not to mention angry.
To the consternation of some readers I do use words like "personal responsibility" in my writing and stand by doing so. People shouldn't knowingly make personal choices that they expect other people to pay for. But just as you can't expect people to pull themselves up by their boot straps if you hide all of the boots from them, you can't place obstacle after obstacle in someone's way, and then criticize them for taking too long to get to the finish line, or for giving up and quitting the race altogether.
That's precisely what obstacles to birth control do to poor women and families -- and increasingly to middle class families as well. If fiscal conservatives want to spend less on government programs like welfare, then why not make it easier for families not to have children they cannot afford to raise? And if religious conservatives are so opposed to abortion and consider it a crime against humanity, then why not make it easier for fewer women to find themselves in the position of seeking one? But another concern in all of this is the slippery slope it puts us on when we start practicing religion in the examining room. What happens when an institution wants to claim religious exemptions for covering treatment for an AIDS patient who contracted the HIV virus in a manner they consider morally questionable?
Those of us who are tired of this political posturing should remember that the real culprits in the political standoff over contraception are not conservatives. At least they are fighting for something that they believe. The White House appears not to be fighting at all and this fact makes it seem as though the president and those around him no longer know what they actually believe in, or what they stand for. If we can't get the president to fight for something as simple as birth control -- something studies show 99% of sexually active women in this country have used and something polls show the overwhelming majority of Americans believe should be administered without insurance co-pays -- then how can we expect him to have the courage and conviction to fight on the issues that are less clear cut?
Studies show that the average American woman aspires to a family comprised of two children in her lifetime, a family much like the president's own. Not only does he have two daughters, his mother, an only child, also had two. This seems to indicate that the phenomenal women that have shaped the president's life understand the value of family planning in a way that he, and the men he surrounds himself with in senior positions within his administration, do not.
If President Obama is not man enough for the fight for women and families, perhaps he should hand the reins over to someone who is.
I can think of a few good women who could handle the job. He happens to be married to one of them.
Keli Goff is the author of "The GQ Candidate" and a Contributing Editor for Loop21.com where this piece originally appeared.