How the right took over the debate

Elizabeth Schulte reports on the the Religious Right's war against birth control--and how the White House managed to concede ground to them once again.

Republican Sens. (left to right) Kelly Ayotte, Marco Rubio and Mitch McConnell speak at a press conferenceRepublican Sens. (left to right) Kelly Ayotte, Marco Rubio and Mitch McConnell speak at a press conference

IT WASN'T a surprise that Catholic Church leaders and the Religious Right went ballistic over new federal regulations that would require employers to offer birth control coverage with their employee health care plans.

The right wing is waging an all-out assault on women's reproductive rights, and everything is on the table--including something as basic as contraception, which 99 percent of all women who have been sexually active with men have used at some point during their lives, including 98 percent of Catholics among these women.

But rather than stand with the 99 or 98 percent, the Obama administration did what it always does when faced with the right's blustering outrage: It went searching for a compromise.

And in so doing, it let religious organizations take over a debate that shouldn't even be a debate.

On February 10, Obama announced the proposed compromise to the provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act concerning birth control coverage. Employers with religious affiliation, such as hospitals, schools and charities (religious institutions themselves were already exempt) won't be required to cover birth control. However, insurers will be required to provide contraception coverage to any women who work for these employers.

Requiring contraception coverage is a huge step for millions of women around the country, and the Obama administration insists its proposal guarantees this coverage, while religiously affiliated institutions can maintain their principles.

But questions remain as to whether the compromise will provide women with the coverage they need. Women who work for employers with religious affiliations will have to depend on insurance companies to meet their needs. What happens if the companies refuse--or claim they have religious objections themselves--is unclear.

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THE OBAMA compromise, which will go into effect in a year, looks similar to already existing laws in Hawaii and New York. As Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, told Religious Dispatches' Sarah Posner, the administration's rewritten regulation "puts the onus on employees to jump through hoops" to get the coverage they need. "It may seem reasonable on the surface," said O'Brien, "but it sends the wrong message, namely: that an employer's personal beliefs may interfere with an employee's conscience and therefore make it more difficult for him/her to access the health care coverage that he or she needs."

As Jodi Jacobson of the reproductive health website RH Reality Check pointed out, the compromise:

legitimizes a false argument about religious freedom that now will be used again and again to limit reproductive rights. It separates out a form of basic primary preventive care as though it were not basic primary preventive care, and it re-stigmatizes contraception...And it requires individual women to ensure accountability to vague laws and statutes, creating a nightmare for them. It gives more power to people who are spending their entire lives working to take reproductive health care away from women.

The new exception, cloaked in the rhetoric of "religious liberty," sets a bad precedent, because anyone who thinks the right wing will stop here is mistaken. This concession only opens the door for more attacks on access to birth control. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has already introduced a bill, called "Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012," that would allow any employer to refuse to cover birth control by claiming to have a religious objection. House Speaker John Boehner also supports this idea.

Obama may be seeking a compromise on this issue, but the other side isn't. Anthony Picarello, general counsel for U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Church's lobbyist, promised, "There has been a lot of talk in the last couple days about compromise, but it sounds to us like a way to turn down the heat, to placate people without doing anything in particular. We're not going to do anything until this is fixed."

That means removing the contraception provision from the health care law altogether, Picarello explained to USA Today--not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers.

For the right wing, the only "freedom" or "liberty" they're interested in is the freedom of the church and the state to dictate what women do with their bodies.

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OPPONENTS OF birth control represent a small, although vocal, minority of the population. Their ideas are completely out of touch with the real concerns--and opinions--of women who use contraception, including many Catholics.

According to a recent poll by Public Religion Research Institute, a majority (55 percent) of Americans agree that "employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost." Some six in 10 Catholics believe that employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception.

In fact, many Catholic universities and hospitals already cover contraception in their health insurance plans. As Think Progress reported:

Boston College, the six former Caritas Christi Catholic hospitals in Massachusetts, and other Catholic organizations that are located in one of the 28 states that already require employers to provide contraception benefits could have self-insured or stopped offering prescription drug coverage to avoid the mandate--but didn't do so. Instead, they--like many Catholic hospitals and health care insurers around the country--chose to meet the needs of the overwhelming majority of Catholic women and offer these much-needed services.

Actually, there were few complaints from the right when, just before George W. Bush took office, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in December 2000 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.

Over the next decade, the percentage of employer-based plans offering contraceptive coverage tripled to 90 percent. When the Obama administration policy goes into effect, coverage will be extended for workers at businesses with fewer than 15 employees, and insurers will be barred from requiring co-pays.

Despite these inroads, however, access to affordable contraception remains a real concern for millions of women around the country.

According to a survey conducted by Hart Research Associates commissioned by Planned Parenthood Action Fund, one in three women voters have struggled with the cost of prescription birth control at some point in their lives. For young adult women, who are most likely to experience an unintended pregnancy, 55 percent experienced a time when they could not afford to use birth control consistently.

Some 14 percent of birth control pill users--1.5 million women--rely on them not for contraception, but require them in association with treatment of such conditions as ovarian cancer, ovarian cysts, endometriosis and endometrial cancer. Thirty-three percent of teenagers used pills solely for these purposes.

Requiring health coverage for birth control is a step toward winning the affordable reproductive health care that women need. And it's something that has the support of millions of men and women. The Obama administration shouldn't have given up an inch of ground to the right, much less set a precedent in which women's health care takes a backseat to the aims of religious institutions. As O'Brien said:

As the election season heats up, we can only fear for what further compromises will be made for presumed political gain. And unfortunately, too many women will have to put their hope in insurance companies--hired by employers opposed to contraception--to get the health care that is not only basic, preventive and safe, but guaranteed to every other American employee who doesn't have to sneak around their boss to get it. The administration has left women relying on a wing and a prayer that they will be able to access the services they need in a timely manner.

During the debate over health care reform two years ago, the Obama administration argued that supporters of the right to choose needed to make a sacrifice on coverage of abortions in order for the legislation to get votes from anti-abortion Republicans and Democrats. The Stupak and later Nelson amendments were the result.

We shouldn't let the Obama administration use women's reproductive rights as a bargaining chip again. If we're going to get the health care we deserve, we have to demand it.