Monday, February 13, 2012

The Republican war on contraception

First, we saw the Republican war on science. Then, the Republican war on voting. Now, it's the Republican war on contraception. What's next? How crazy can they get?

From Steve Benen:
As far as the White House is concerned, Friday's compromise on contraception coverage effectively ends the matter. Religiously affiliated institutions won't be required to pay for birth control, but women who work for these employers will still have access to the same preventive care as everyone else. As Tricia noted earlier, the West Wing doesn't see anything else to talk about.

Congressional Republicans strongly disagree. Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) raised quite a few eyebrows yesterday when he endorsed a controversial proposal to allow all American employers to deny women contraception coverage altogether. [my emphasis]
"You know if we end up having to try to overcome the President's opposition by legislation, of course, I'd be happy to support it and intend to support it. It would be difficult as long as the President is rigid in his view that he gets to decide what somebody else's religion is. I assume he would veto it. But yeah, we will be voting on that in the Senate. And you can anticipate that that would happen as soon as possible."

Even McConnell couldn't believe the president wants to "decide what somebody else's religion is." It's such a strikingly dumb comment, chances are, the senator just got carried away in the moment.

But the larger concern has nothing to do with rhetoric, and everything to do with the GOP's increasingly-aggressive war on contraception. McConnell told CBS's Bob Schieffer, "The fact that the White House thinks this is about contraception is the whole problem. This is about freedom of religion."

At this point in the debate, that's just absurd.

Absurd, indeed.

First of all, there was nothing at all wrong with the original policy. From Religion Dispatches magazine:
Obama wasn’t being hostile or insensitive to religion. The rule as the Obama administration announced it on January 20 was constitutionally sound. Not only was it legally supportable, it was politically supported by a majority of Americans. Nonetheless, the objectors to the contraception coverage requirement claimed that even though it exempted houses of worship [my emphasis], the regulation should also exempt religious institutions whose hierarchies believe contraception is a sin. ...

Religious institutions already comply with very similar laws to the announced January 20 rule in 28 states. Catholic Charities challenged substantially similar laws to the new federal regulation in two states, California and New York, and the highest courts in both states held that there was no violation of the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. That’s because the law doesn’t “substantially burden” anyone’s religious practice and is one of general applicability that was not targeted at infringing a particular religious practice.

To permit religious beliefs to “excuse compliance with otherwise valid laws regulating matters the state is free to regulate,” would, the California Supreme Court wrote in its 2004 decision, quoting from a U.S. Supreme Court case, “‘make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.’”

Unfortunately, the Obama administration did not defend this perfectly normal, perfectly mainstream, perfectly constitutional decision. Yeah, that's become a real pattern for Democrats, hasn't it? It's really frustrating when they won't even defend winning positions. I've begun to cringe whenever I hear the word "compromise."

But - my second point - they did announce a compromise, and - I was pleasantly surprised - this one didn't just give away the store. In fact, it was quite workable, mostly since insurance companies wanted to offer contraception coverage for free, since it actually saves them money. Contraception, after all, costs them little compared to abortions and very little compared to pregnancy, childbirth, and infant care.

The Catholic Health Association quickly jumped on board, too. It looked like a win/win. Even though the original policy was perfectly fine as it was, this was a simple change to make everyone happy...

...Except, of course, for the President's right-wing political opponents, who happen to include Catholic bishops - celibate old men who think that they're experts in all matters concerning sex and family planning.

And there's a third reason why this is absurd. As Jesse Singal notes:
Earlier I said I was curious to hear more about Rick Santorum’s clearly impassioned stance on voting rights after he accused Mitt Romney of abusing the CPAC straw-poll process. Now I’m equally curious to get McConnell’s thoughts on the observant Muslim taxi drivers who refused to transport customers carrying alcohol back in 2007. How could he not support them? He is very concerned about freedom of religion.

The point is that you can't just give special benefits to your own religion. So what are these Republicans actually proposing? As it turns out, it's even crazier than I expected.

Back to Steve Benen:
As of Friday, Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) were pushing measures to allow all private-sector employers, including those completely unaffiliated with any religious institution, to start denying health services that businesses might find morally objectionable. [my emphasis]

The proposals are aimed at blocking access to contraception, but as Igor Volsky noted, they're so expansive, "an insurer or an employer would be able to claim a moral or religious objection to covering HIV/AIDS screenings, Type 2 Diabetes treatments, cancer tests or anything else they deem inappropriate or the result of an 'unhealthy' or 'immoral' lifestyle. Similarly, a health plan could refuse to cover mental health care on the grounds that the plan believes that psychiatric problems should be treated with prayer."

The Obama administration's underlying goal is entirely straightforward: the law already makes preventive care free for all Americans, and officials believe access to contraception must be included as part of this coverage. If faith-based employers don't want to pay for this directly, the White House has already changed the policy to ensure they won't have to. [again, my emphasis]

The Republicans' underlying goal, at least of yesterday, is equally clear: no American employer should have to cover contraception, ever.

As Jonathan Cohn explained, this is simply untenable.
The Bishops' position, which the Republicans have now adopted as their own, is that religious leaders have the right to override that decision, even though it will affect employees who have no moral or religious qualms about birth control. Writing in Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan captured the Bishops' thinking perfectly: "Catholic doctrine should, according to the bishops' spokesman, also apply to non-Catholics." [...]

[T]he principle seems pretty clear to me. The Bishops want a veto over public policy. And the Republicans want to give it to them.

The "it's about religious liberty" talking point effectively died on Friday. The longer the GOP keeps up this fight, the more obvious the party's war on contraception will be. Given the support contraception access enjoys with the American mainstream, it's a fight Republicans are very likely to lose.

We can only hope Republicans lose on this, and lose big. Even Catholics, by a two to one margin, support the president on this. They want contraception covered in their insurance policies, because they disagree with their church on this (but have no control, themselves, over church matters, since the Catholic Church isn't a democracy).

The Catholic Health Association supports this, too, but despite representing more than 600 hospitals and 1,400 other health care facilities in the United States, Sister Carol Keehan and the other nuns have no authority in the church. They're just women, you see.

And the really, really crazy thing about this is that Republicans want to let employers stop providing health care, not just for contraception, but for anything they want. This should be a slam-dunk for President Obama. Unfortunately, the Republicans have Fox "News" and the increasingly right-wing Catholic hierarchy pushing lies for them. So, who knows?

Earlier today, I noted how liberal Christians want to take back their religion from the right-wing. (I say "take back," even though I doubt they ever had it in the first place.) As I said, that's all well and good, but I'd much prefer turning to evidence-based thinking, instead.

After all, if you believe by faith, how can you criticize someone else when his faith tells him to kill abortion doctors or fly passenger planes into buildings? After all, he's believing for the exact same reason you are, because he has faith.

Well, that Religion Dispatches column points out that liberal believers actually enabled the Catholic Bishops in this controversy:
President Barack Obama’s accommodation on the birth control coverage requirement was not legally or politically required. But by reacting to Democratic pundits’ amplification of the complaints of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other conservative Catholics, Obama’s actions may have the effect of strengthening the hand of Democrats who insist that the party needs to be more religious.  ...

Neither Obama nor his surrogates ever publicly defended his administration’s rule on these grounds [the grounds I mentioned above]. And because the ensuing media firestorm over the rule was not just driven by the usual conservative suspects, but by a handful of Democratic and liberal pundits, it took on a different hue. What made it a man-bites-dog story, and subject to the more scintillating horserace coverage the media adores, was that “even progressive Catholics” like E.J. Dionne and Michael Sean Winters were up in arms about it.

As I noted, this wasn't about freedom of religion. It was entirely a political attack from Barack Obama's political enemies. But all too many liberal believers were willing to go along with it. This is the problem when you've got your faith you're trying to defend, even when it conflicts with reason, evidence, and common sense.

When it comes down to a conflict, which do you choose to support - rational, evidence-based thinking or your faith? Do you stand for the separation of church and state when it really counts, or not? Oh, you'll always have a good excuse, no doubt, but it's easy to believe what you want to believe, isn't it? Especially if you're faith-based to begin with.
Burns Strider, the political strategist who, as an aide to Nancy Pelosi, launched the House Faith Working Group and later advised Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, complained to Politico, “There could have been a more inclusive conversation that included more members of the faith community” over the contraception coverage. He warned, “Electorally speaking, you can’t deny that we’re a nation of faith. In the public sphere, you ignore that at your own peril.” Another, anonymous strategist said, “They [the White House] don’t seem to have their finger on the pulse of the modern religious, Democratic-leaning voters, which is problematic.”

I would love to see the polling data which shows “modern religious Democratic-leaning voters” who planned to abandon Obama over this, like Winters pledged he would, or even opposed to the Obama policy. Where’s the evidence? It may be that Strider and his allies are grasping at straws; after all, two years ago they were miffed that the party didn’t contract with them to advise on congressional races. Later, Strider’s business partner, Eric Sapp, baselessly argued that it was the lack of religious outreach that caused the party’s losses in the 2010 midterms.

Nonetheless, the Young Democrats of America are relying on Sapp and Strider, along with the anti-choice, anti-gay marriage DNC faith outreach director the Rev. Derrick Harkins, to serve as “leading experts in Democratic religious outreach” for its 2012 Leadership Summit in March. [my emphasis, but for chrissake, isn't one faith-based political party enough?]

Time contributing editor Amy Sullivan has been critical of Obama for being “tone deaf” on the contraception issue and castigated liberals for their lack of “gratitude” for the Catholic Health Association’s role in passing health care reform. The CHA’s supposed heroism in the legislative battle would not have been necessary, however, had Democrats like Bart Stupak not insisted on holding up the legislation at the behest of the Bishops in the first place, based on false claims that it required taxpayer funding of abortion coverage. ...

After Obama announced the accommodation Friday, Sullivan tweeted that her book, The Party Faithful, would be helpful for “political institutions in recent firestorms.” In her book, Sullivan argued that Democrats needed to pay more attention to religious and anti-choice voters to win elections, charging that Democratic elites ignored this advice at their peril. One supposedly cautionary tale she related was how damaging it was that then-Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe didn’t recognize megachurch pastor Rick Warren when introduced to him at a social gathering.

After Obama won the election, though, he asked Warren to deliver the invocation at his inaugural, a gesture that somehow has eluded his critics who claim he is waging a “war on religion.” This week, at the height of the frenzy over the contraception rule, Warren demonstrated his “gratitude” to Obama when he tweeted, “I’d go to jail rather than cave in to a govement [sic] mandate that violates what God commands us to do.”

Sorry about the wall of text, but I couldn't cut it down any more. (I suppose you're used to that here, anyway, aren't you?)

But just think about that. Some believers aren't happy with just one explicitly Christian political party in America. They want two.

I'm not saying that Democrats need to be anti-religious, of course not. I'm saying that we need one political party which will stand up firmly for the separation of church and state. Appeasing believers isn't going to do any good if they're too dumb to understand how the separation of church and state benefits them, too!

Well, this just confirms my longstanding point that we need to encourage reason and evidence-based thinking. Your religion is your own business, and I don't have to agree with you about that in order to work with you where we do agree.

But on the other hand, I'm not going to support pandering to believers, either, even if they are liberal believers. I'm trying to work for a good world for all of us. If that's not enough for you, that's just too bad. Maybe you belong with the right-wing after all.


Jeff said...

It's times like these, and there are a lot of them, that reminds that Dr. Zaius had our species pegged perfectly in the original 1968 "Planet Of The Apes:"

"I have always known about man. From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself."

Anonymous said...

Once again, old white men, both political and religious, are telling the world and Women that they know what is best for their health and well being, taking the choice away from them.
I applaud your thoughts and efforts for reason and evidence-based thinking, but I don't see that happening in my lifetime. I wish.....

WCG said...

Jeff, Anonymous, if you look back 50 years, you can see what enormous strides we've taken.

These days, even the right-wing supports racial equality, even though they may not like it. Women in leadership positions is a given. Gay rights has advanced enormously, and right-wing opposition to that is pretty much a lost cause. Atheism is everywhere.

My point is that there's reason for optimism. We are dragging the right-wing with us, faster and faster. In fact, that's a lot of the reason for their hysteria these days. They are changing, whether they like it or not (they don't).

Keep in mind that government-sponsored racial segregation wasn't outlawed until 1964, 48 years ago. Loving v. Virginia, which made interracial marriage legal everywhere in America, was decided in 1967, only 45 years ago. At the time, from what I've read, most Americans disagreed with that decision. There have been vast changes in America in the past 50 years.

These things are always slower than they should be, and there's always the chance of slipping backwards, so we can't just take progress for granted. But we do progress.

And you know, for all our problems, the world has never been as peaceful as it is today. Human beings worldwide have more opportunities and more freedom than they've ever had before. And information is more widely and cheaply available than ever in our history.

The last thing we need is pessimism. The last thing we need is to think that there's no use, that we can't succeed. We are succeeding. And more than anything else, it's the increasing hysteria of the right-wing that should show us that. They're losing, and they know it.

We're winning.