The Church, the GOP, and a Few New York Times Columnists v. American Women

This year is the 20th anniversary of what was called the “Year of the Woman” in the U.S. So far the anniversary year is not going well.

The year started early. In mid-December, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius – backed by President Obama – overruled the FDA’s recommendation to make the “morning after pill” available over-the-counter to women under the age of 17, or available on the shelves to any women. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), led a group of 14 Democratic senators who demanded that Sebelius explain the scientific rationale behind her decision. Murray was one of the three female Senators newly-elected in 1992. The Senators have yet to receive an answer.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker began the attacks on reproductive rights on Day 1: “On Jan. 1, 2012, his state’s Department of Health Services … cut Planned Parenthood out of its Well Woman Program, which serves 45- to 64-year-old women without health insurance.” wrote Akiba Solomon of ColorLines. This was but the first tiny skirmish. NARAL president Nancy Keenan ** noted that last year

… 26 states enacted 69 anti-choice measures…, the second-highest number since the organization started tracking such data in 1995…. Two pro-choice governors, Mark Dayton of Minnesota (D) and Brian Schweitzer of Montana (D), vetoed anti-choice bills and kept 2011 from breaking the record for state-level attacks…. Keenan also said that 2012 could be even worse for women’s reproductive rights. The organization’s analysis of state government shows that 44 states are under anti- or mixed-choice control.

Nick Baumann of Mother Jones wrote a post yesterday, “Not satisfied with making it harder to obtain legal abortions, [social conservatives] want to limit access to birth control, too.” My own U.S. senator, Marco Rubio (R-Florida)

introduced a bill that could cut off birth control access for millions of women by allowing even non-religious employers to refuse birth control coverage as long as they cite a religious reason. In other words, if your boss doesn’t want to cover birth control in the company health plan because he says it would offend his religious beliefs, he wouldn’t have to – even if his Cialis was still covered. Rubio’s bill could also allow states to refuse to provide birth control through Medicaid, which provides family planning services to millions of poor women. 

In the House, H.R. 3, a/k/a the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act,” Laura Bassett wrote in the Huffington Post,

… sponsored by Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), would also enact strict procedural requirements for private insurance companies that cover abortions and deny tax credits to small businesses that purchase health insurance plans offering abortion coverage. Eight-seven percent of private insurance plans currently include such coverage. Further, H.R. 3 would eliminate privately funded insurance coverage for abortion in the state-based exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act…. NARAL … estimates that 13.5 million women who receive health coverage through Medicaid and other government-sponsored programs would permanently lose access to abortion coverage….

Tanya Somander wrote in Think Progress, “Reps. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) are … pushing their … anti-abortion bills…. Duncan’s bill would “require abortion providers to obtain written certification from a woman seeking an abortion, then to wait 24 hours after that certification before performing the abortion.” Jordan’s bill would “require women seeking an abortion to be given the chance to view an ultrasound of their unborn child before obtaining the abortion.”

In addition, Clarence Paige of the Chicago Tribune reminded us that all of the GOP candidates for president

would chip away at women’s access [to reproductive health care], especially if it receives federal funding. They would deny funding to family-planning initiatives and organizations. They would legislate away health insurance coverage of birth control. They would block federal Food and Drug Administration approval for almost any new contraceptive, especially if it suggests to anti-abortion activists the remotest possibility that it would stop a fertilized egg from developing.

The GOP presidential candidates have all signed on to the “personhood amendment” pledge, which would ban all abortion and some forms of contraception.

The decision of the Susan G. Komen Foundation to rescind most of their contracts with Planned Parenthood that covered breast cancer screenings for poor women turned out – not surprisingly – to be a ruse to dissociate the foundation with Planned Parenthood because Planned Parenthood also is an abortion provider. The Komen Foundation has since rescinded its decision because of a public outcry, though its future relationship with Planned Parenthood remains in question.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee all voted last week against a bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. According to the New York Times Editorial board today,

Senator Charles Grassley, the committee’s ranking Republican, offered a substitute bill that not only cut out those improvements but called for a huge reduction in authorized financing, and elimination of the Justice Department office devoted to administering the law and coordinating the nation’s response to domestic violence and sexual assaults. His measure was defeated along party lines.

Now this. As Gail Collins wrote in yesterday’s New York Times,

… the Catholic bishops are in an uproar over an Obama administration rule that would require Catholic universities and hospitals to cover contraceptives in their health care plans. The Republican presidential candidates are roaring right behind. Mitt Romney claimed the White House was trying to ‘impose a secular vision on Americans who believe that they should not have their religious freedom taken away.’

The Romney rant was comparatively mild. His rival Newt Gingrich claimed that the administration’s decision was “a war against religion” and “the most outrageous assault on religious freedom in American history.” Rick Santorum, not to be outdone by the lunacy of Newt, declared that all of ObamaCare was the first step to a “tyranny” in which “the government” would soon be leading religious Americans to the guillotine. Speaker John Boehner, who can actually do something besides bloviate, said, “This attack on religious freedom cannot — and will not — stand.” Both Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated they would draw the discussion out as long as possible for maximum effect and both likely will introduce legislation to counter the administrative ruling when people get sick of hearing them.

The Roman Catholic bishops are milking this controversy of their own creation, too. Gail Collins writes that “Church leaders told The National Catholic Register that they regarded any deal that would allow them to avoid paying for contraceptives while directing their employees to other places where they could find the coverage as a nonstarter.” Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times suggests the American Church hierarchy was almost itching for a fight: “… the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops were fully prepared for battle” even before the Obama administration reached its decision:

Hours after President Obama phoned to share his decision with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the bishops’ headquarters in Washington posted on its Web site a video of Archbishop Dolan, which had been recorded the day before.

Wait. Earlier news reports had it that Obama blindsided Dolan with the decision. How is it then that Dolan sat for a propaganda video before he heard from the President? Maybe the angel of the lord who told Joseph about the virgin birth also gave Dolan the heads-up about the impending Obama decision: “Go out among thy flock, Soon-to-be-Cardinal Tim, and tell thy people that ‘contraception is … not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.’” Actually, Archbishop Dolan characterized the issue as a violation of the Constitution. Goodstein writes that “On the day of the decision, bishops across the country posted similarly dire statements on their Web sites.” Busy angel. Maybe he has e-mail, too. And a fondness for the sacred U.S. Constitution – the one that doesn’t mention God. The one slapped together by Deists who didn’t exactly buy the virgin birth story.

Let’s get something straight. As Nick Baumann explains in Mother Jones, most of President Obama’s ‘controversial’ birth-control rule has been the law for more than a decade:

In December 2000, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that companies that provided prescription drugs to their employees but didn’t provide birth control were in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination on the basis of sex. That opinion, which the George W. Bush administration did nothing to alter or withdraw when it took office the next month, is still in effect today – and … it applies to all employers with 15 or more employees….

Not even religious employers were exempt from the impact of the EEOC decision…. DePaul University, the largest Roman Catholic university in America, added birth control coverage to its plans after receiving an EEOC complaint several years ago.

That’s right. This whole “controversy” is a farce. The soldiers in the coalition “waging war on behalf of religion” are religious and political opportunists. Roman Catholic institutions that serve the general public have been providing contraceptive insurance to their female employees for years. And they have done so, despite their conscientious objections, because they understood they had a duty to obey the law. The battle they are waging today is a new attack on women in general and on the Obama administration in particular. Any principles involved are more matters of convenience than of conscience.

If Santorum is stretching his neck out for the guillotine, Gail Collins sees a dire consequence if the bishops’ prevail – one that is more likely to rise than the scaffold:

We are arguing about whether women who do not agree with the church position, or who are often not even Catholic, should be denied health care coverage that everyone else gets because their employer has a religious objection to it. If so, what happens if an employer belongs to a religion that forbids certain types of blood transfusions?

The usual suspects at the New York Times – David Brooks and Ross Douthat – carry on in their objections to the administration’s advocacy for women. In his “Conversation” with Collins, Brooks reiterates his earlier argument “that the people who promulgated this rule are so buried in the technocratic arcana that they have no real awareness of what motivates people to spend their lives in service and how important it is to have a society filled with institutions with distinct missions and creeds.” And Douthat doubles down on his Sunday Sermon, insisting that government is competing with, and will ultimately crowd out religious and other “private-sphere” do-gooders.

There are two fundamental “counter-factuals” here. Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic raises one of them:

… a key issue is the nature of health insurance — in particular, whether it belongs to the employer or the employee…. The checks to your insurance plan may have the name of a religious institution on them. But, as a matter of economics and of principle, the money is (or should be) yours. The only reason employers are in the middle of health insurance is that companies started offering coverage in the 1930s and, somewhat inadvertently, became the primary source of coverage for working Americans…. The whole point of health care reform is to establish a minimum level of health insurance for every American. Basically, we’re turning health insurance into a right rather than a privilege.”

That is, the church may pay for the insurance policies, but the policy benefits belong to the insured. It is up to her to decide whether or not to take advantage of the benefits. She can visit the doctor if she’s feeling poorly or she can tough it out. She can get her annual physical or hope for the best. And she can obtain a prescription for contraceptives or not. Her employer has no direct say in how she uses her benefits under the group policy, and her employer is only the “accidental” policyholder. If you’re looking for yet another argument for single-payer insurance, this is a good one. Individuals should not have their employers meddling in their health care. You might, in fact, argue that there’s a Constitutional right to privacy. Renowned law professor Lawrence Tribe (who taught both President Obama and Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts) told Stephen Colbert this week that the Ninth Amendment was his favorite part of the Constitution. We don’t talk about the Ninth Amendment much. Maybe now is a good time to dust it off.

Linda Greenhouse raises an even more fundamental “counter-factual” in her New York Times post yesterday: “Whose conscience is it? … It’s important to be clear that the conscientious objection to the regulation comes from an institution rather than from those whose consciences it purports to represent.” Greenhouse notes that American women do not hold conscientious objections to contraception. She also emphasizes the centrality of Roman Catholic hospitals to our healthcare system:

Permitting Catholic hospitals to withhold contraception coverage from their 765,000 employees would blow a gaping hole in the regulation. The 629-hospital Catholic health care system is a major and respected health care provider, serving one in every six hospital patients and employing nearly 14 percent of all hospital staff in the country. Of the top 10 revenue-producing hospital systems in 2010, four were Catholic. The San Francisco-based Catholic Healthcare West, the fifth biggest hospital system in the country, had $11 billion in revenue last year and treated 6.2 million patients.

Greenhouse adds,

These institutions, as well as Catholic universities – not seminaries, but colleges and universities whose doors are open to all – are full participants in the public square, receiving a steady stream of federal dollars. They assert – indeed, have earned – the right to the same benefits that flow to their secular peers. What they now claim is a right to special treatment: to conscience that trumps law. But in fact, that is not a principle that our legal system embraces.

In a 1990 case, Employment Division v. Smith, Greenhouse writes, the U.S. Supreme Court held that members of the Native American Church did not have a Constitutional right to smoke peyote in a religious ceremony. None other than Justice Scalia wrote the opinion. Believe it or not, the right – with support from progressives – fought back and Congress passed a law “restoring religious freedom.” The Supreme Court invalidated the law.

Back in mid-January, Clarence Paige wrote,

One of the cornerstones of the Affordable Care Act … is its expansion of access to insurance coverage for everyone who needs it. Every expansion of exceptions to health care providers would allow private religious beliefs to trump otherwise evidence-based practices in public health.

The birth-control debate is about rights, quite obviously, but it also concerns the ability of any civilization, country or community to fight poverty and advance itself. Around the world and throughout the centuries we have ample evidence that statistics of education, health and optimism are tied to the empowerment of women. That’s why sensible conservatives, as opposed to the radical right, understand that ‘freedom’ is something more than a slogan to be limited to guys only.

Similarly, if less eloquently, Gail Collins argues in her “conversation” with Friend-of-the-Church David Brooks that “to exempt hospitals and universities is ridiculous and totally unjust to the women who work in these places as doctors, nurses, faculty, administrators, secretaries, security guards.” This is a weak argument, one that is not persuasive to evangelicals, the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Republican politicians. Trampling on the rights of girls and women is what these groups do. They see “barefoot and pregnant” as a laudable “family value.” So, happy 20th anniversary, powerful ladies of the Senate. There are more of you now, and that may be the problem. A coalition of powerful women is clearly a threat to the religious and secular patriarchal establishment.

The Roman Catholic Church, smarting from getting caught with its pants down – or its skirts up – in the pervasive, decade-long child sexual abuse scandal, feels backed into a corner and has decided a battle against women’s reproductive rights would be a convenient distraction. The Republican party, which has lost public support because of its indefatigable advocacy for the rich at the expense of the rest of us, thinks it has found an apt and familiar change of subject. Once again, ordinary American women are set to be the collateral damage in an old boys’ power play. 

Update: the Associated Press reported late this morning, “Senior administration officials tell The Associated Press that President Barack Obama on Friday will announce that religious employers will not have to cover birth control for their employees after all. He will demand instead that insurance companies will be the ones ultimately responsible for providing free contraception.” The President will speak at 12:15 pm ET, according to the updated White House schedule.

Marie Burns blogs at  

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