Are they still talking about contraception?
Every once in a while a story that doesn’t involve a celebrity dominates the news media so much that I dread turning on the cable news channels. Lately it’s been the “debate” over contraception, an issue that is particularly irritating to me because, as a celibate kind of guy with a spinal injury, I surely don’t feel much of a connection to the topic. What irritates me even more, though, has been the way in the issue descended into an exercise in cynical politics by Republicans and Democrats alike.
The issue made headlines when the Obama administration decided to mandate that employer-provided healthcare cover medical contraception for women. In what was a strange and glaring oversight, the administration seemed to completely overlook the backlash that would result from employers associated with the Catholic Church being forced to do something against their religious beliefs. Admitting, as Joe Biden did, that “we screwed up” the administration went on to fix the first bill and provide an exemption for Catholic organizations, who would no longer be required to directly subsidize birth control.
The Republican reaction, as usual, was uncompromising. Some complained that as long as insurers were providing contraception to others, Catholic organizations would still be indirectly subsidizing it through higher premiums that the insurance companies would pass along to consumers. Republicans in Congress also tried to pass the Blunt Amendment that would have allowed any employer who claimed to find contraception morally objectionable to opt out of the mandate.
Democrats, rather than attempting to work in good faith with Republicans on the “moral objection” issue — and issue that had some merit because groups other than Catholics might indeed find forced funding of contraception morally objectionable — instead seized on the issue as an opportunity to portray the Republican party both “anti-woman” and largely out-of-touch with the 21st, or even late 20th century.
Republicans made themselves vulnerable, however, by failing to find common ground among themselves concerning what they were even objecting to. Some Republicans were clearly concerned about a threat to the division of church and state, a fair sentiment and one usually associated with Democrats. Other Republicans, however, were less interested in religious freedom than they were in using the controversy to attack all government mandates on health insurance. This is where they got into trouble.
It’s a gut feeling among most Republicans that the government is out to screw them personally, and the idea that they would have to have to pay indirectly for someone’s contraception pretty lined up with the same set of beliefs that sees food stamps as standard currency at liquor stores and welfare recipients as drug addled parasites. So, when Rush Limbaugh argued that a Georgetown law student was asking the American people to pay for her to have sex (even though her testimony was about her medical need for the pill), it would have made sense given the worldview of many of his listeners.
Fortunately, that’s not the worldview of most Americans. The majority of Americans support government-provided medical contraception for women because they understand that “the pill” represents, in essence, a sort of “tax” that younger women have to pay for, well, being women and not having opted for the nunnery track. As someone who pays thousands of dollars of year of associated expenses for the right to be handicapped (and no, I’m not calling a XX chromosome a handicap), I feel even more strongly that it is unjust for someone’s finances to be conditioned on personal attributes beyond his or her control.
What troubles me most, however, about many Republican views on the matter is that more readily available contraception would almost certainly reduce the number of abortions in this country — an issue about which most Republicans claim to care. The United States has the highest abortion rate in the Western, developed world in part because contraception is not made readily available to many.
Since it is unlikely that abortion will be banned anytime soon in this country, the only path to reducing the number of abortions is to promote more contraception. It may not fire the spirit of the Republican ideologue like a pro-life rally might, but government mandated contraception coverage is likely to bring us closer to the “rare” part of the “safe, legal, and rare” abortion stance championed by President Clinton and others since the nineties — a goal that most of us can agree, politics aside, is a desirable one.