Obama Fails to Convince (Birth) Control Freaks

The Editorial Board

The recent controversy over federal health insurance law and contraception, with socially conservative institutions like the Catholic Church demanding the right to exclude contraceptive coverage from their employees’ insurance plans, gives us a number of promising editorial angles to pursue. We could highlight the fact that yet again, an Obama-approved policy endorsed a few short years ago by many moderate Republicans has been abruptly recast as a radical attack on American freedom. We could point out the absurdity of hearing lectures on victimless, consensual “sin” from an institution that has enabled and covered up mass-scale sexual abuse of children. We could simply dish out a righteous smackdown to the social-conservative notion that reproductive rights are somehow less important than religious ones.

But more than anything, the mounting crusade against birth control strikes us as a sign of the Republican Party’s increasing desperation in its total war on Barack Obama. Contraception is a terrible wedge issue for them to exploit: Surveys show that a majority of Americans side with the President’s sensible stance in favor of universal contraceptive coverage, and that vast majorities across all social and religious subgroups (including Catholics) have used or continue to use birth control. Indeed, since women are often prescribed birth control pills for reasons having nothing to do with preventing pregnancy, the moralistic stance against any birth control coverage whatsoever is, to say it generously, misguided.

While many radical, Oberlin-style progressives have serious issues with President Obama, the fact that Republicans have been forced to run with the contraception issue is a credit to his administration’s handling of the basic functions of government. Unlike previous presidential administrations we could name, Obama hasn’t unwittingly trapped us in any unnecessary decade-long wars, or bungled the response to any severe natural disasters through cronyism and incompetence. And if Republicans felt they could plausibly lay blame on Obama for an economic downturn that began before his inauguration and has dragged on chiefly due to Republican obstruction of reasonable economic policies, you can bet they wouldn’t be wasting their time trying to restrict access to the Pill.

With all of this information in the background, the subsequent chapter of this squabble should be a no-brainer. True to form, President Obama offered a compromise position — shifting the burden of paying for birth control coverage from religious institutions to insurance companies — designed to address Republicans’ stated objections while still preserving access to contraception. Equally true to form, Republicans and their religious allies decided this wasn’t enough. Legislation now under consideration (albeit entirely symbolically, given Obama’s veto pen) would allow employers to deny birth control coverage or other vital health services to their employees for essentially any “conscience-based” reasons they can think of, making it clear that the religious objection is a ploy to gut comprehensive health insurance altogether. Who could have predicted such a shocking development?

Maybe we’re being unfair about conservatives’ objections to universal contraceptive coverage. Maybe the opposition comes simply from a deep-seated discomfort with the fact that birth control has become integral to the structure of our society. Without it, young adults would not be able to plan their futures and become real adults, with real adult relationships. Women would not be able to attend college in anywhere near the numbers they currently do. We would be in the straits brought to our attention as we flip through the pages of Review issues from the late ‘60s, when men and women lived in separate facilities and students were fighting for more frequent visiting hours to each others’ dorms — when it was a controversial decision to allow women to live off-campus.

So let’s be honest — birth control is certainly about freedom. It is about women, even those who work for religious organizations, having the ability to choose how they will live their lives in our 21st-century America.