Lessons of the Komen/Planned Parenthood Battle

The quick reversal today of the Komen Foundation’s decision to stop funding breast cancer screening services long provided by culture-war-target Planned Parenthood was an impressive testimonial to the power of rapid reaction. While there will undoubtedly be additional wrangling over this issue within Komen’s leadership, at the very least the charity has decisively avoided the precedent of rewarding anti-choicers who have sought to make Planned Parenthood an institutional leper by holding political show trials in Congress.

The quick push-back on Komen may provide an important lesson for reproductive rights advocates in the increasingly toxic fight against new Obama adminstration rules requiring access to contraceptives in federally subsidized employer-based health insurance plans, with a “conscience exception” for plans directly sponsored by religious organizations for their own members.

With the active support of the Republican Party, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has sought–and to some extent have already succeeded–in framing this dispute as “Obama versus Catholics,” instead of “the GOP and the Bishops versus preventive health care.” The dispute, meanwhile, is being hitched to the “War on Religion” wagon that the Christian Right and Republican opinion-leaders are laboriously hauling through the streets with lights flashing and horns honking.

If progressives respond to this campaign by mocking Catholic sensibilities or religious-based politics generally, it will play directly into the hands of those who are trying to use it to“wedge” Catholic voters into the GOP column, even though the vast majority of Catholic women do indeed depend on contraceptive services as a preventive health measure, and the vast majority of Catholics generally do not agree with the Bishops on contraception. And that’s aside from the fact that on issues other than birth control, abortion, and same-sex marriage, traditional Catholic teaching is hostile to the pro-corporate, anti-labor, pro-war, and anti-immigrant views of the GOP pols who are trying to exploit this manufactured dispute.

As in the Komen case, conservative overreaching may help expose the game. The self-appointed front man of the campaign to fight the administration’s preventive health rules is none other than the front-runner for the GOP vice-presidential nomination, Sen. Marco Rubio. His bill on the subject goes far beyond “overruling” the administration and creates a “conscience exception” for the preventive health care mandate that extends to any individual employer claiming a religious objection, not just to church-affiliated institutions.

This isn’t an effort to protect Catholics against a “war” on them by the president and his Catholic HHS Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius. It’s a cynical effort to undermine health care for Catholic and non-Catholic women alike, led by politicians who not only oppose reproductive rights, but oppose universal access to any kind of health coverage as a matter of fundamental principal.

If the fight is aggressively waged from this broader stance, and not from the defensive crouch of half-apologetic promises to pay more attention to the opinions of “Catholics” and “people of faith,” as though they are co-extensive with the opinions of conservatives–then it will perhaps turn as quickly as did the fight over the Komen Foundation’s policies.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.