The Obama administration’s birth control cave-in: bad policy, bad politics

Yesterday brought news that the White House had once again “compromised” on a woman’s right to reproductive health care. The newly announced compromise would allow employees at large not-for-profit organizations with religious affiliations, such as universities and hospitals, to receive contraceptive coverage, while at the same time enabling their employers to weasel out of paying for it. The employees’ insurers would automatically enroll them, at no cost, in a separate insurance policy in addition to the regular one, which would provide the contraceptive coverage. That way the money that pays for anything to do with those awful icky lady parts would never have to pass through the no doubt morally unimpeachable hands of their ever so pious employers.

This compromise, btw, is essentially the same one that was already in place, only now the definition as to what counts as a religious employer has been widened. As Sarah Posner reports, the wonderful organization Catholics for Choice strongly opposes the new rule, explaining that

the new definition of religious employer expands exempt employers from just houses of worship to organizations that are operated or financed by houses of worship, including Catholic parishes or dioceses. As a result, said Hutchinson, many Catholic elementary, middle, and high schools, in addition to some Catholic charities and social service organizations, would be exempt from providing the coverage.

Posner does point out that pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America support the new rule, while the usual panoply of anti-choice groups oppose it. It’s also true that so long as the rule works out the way it’s supposed to, no one will be denied birth control who would otherwise have received it. The Administration has merely tacked on an awkward and completely unnecessary bureaucratic mechanism, in an attempt to ease the bigoted and irrational fears of the religious far right.

I have to ask, to what end? Violating women’s rights to appease religious bigots sets a dangerous precedent. What’s to stop a Republican president from issuing rules and executive orders that go even further in the direction of catering to religious zealots who oppose fundamental reproductive rights? What quarter does the Obama administration think they’re gaining with these kinds of shenanigans, anyway? All they do is insult the women who are the Democratic Party’s base — especially unmarried women, who are now the largest single group of reliably Democratic voters (in 2012, they were 23% of the electorate, and 67% of them voted for Obama).

As for the misogynist, anti-sex authoritarians who are clearly desperately pining for women to go back to the barefoot-and-pregnant days . . . well, I agree with Adele Stan — there’s no pleasing those bastards. The Obama administration may have hoped to deflect the avalanche of lawsuits that have been filed by religious organizations over mandated contraception coverage, but those legal actions aren’t going anywhere. Observers say that the issue will almost certainly eventually make its way to the Supreme Court.

I have one more general point to make about this issue, and it’s this: your health insurance is part of your total compensation package, and as such there’s no discernible difference between it and the rest of your paycheck. It’s all money, and money is fungible. And just as your employer has no right to tell you how to spend your paycheck, for damn sure he has no right to dictate how you choose to use your health insurance. Empower him with that right, and you empower tyranny. Worse, you empower tyranny in one of its most noxious forms, both because it is so intimate and personal (your health and reproductive decisions are nobody’s business but your own), and also because it tends to be intractable (because your economic survival depends on maintaining your employment).

Bush supporters used to remind us, ad infinitum, that elections have consequences. Interestingly, they would even say this when the only election in question was the one they stole! But President Obama has now won two elections handily. A major subject of contention in the most recent one was the War on Women, and Republican attempts to turn back the clock on women’s reproductive freedom. Look: we won, big. Those issues are settled. It would be nice if the Obama administration acted like it.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee