If you are interested in how the political culture wars became focused on contraception in the last year, a must-read is Neera Tandem’s latest column for The New Republic:

In January 1998, in the run-up to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton held a meeting in the Map Room of the White House with leaders of women’s groups ranging from Planned Parenthood to the National Women’s Law Center. The meeting took place in the aftermath of the painful and polarizing debate on late-term abortion—a debate in which conservatives capitalized on a seemingly extreme abortion position in order to bludgeon progressive leaders. In that meeting (I was there, as a staffer for the First Lady), Clinton pushed the groups to develop a proactive agenda around women’s health, one that would shift the debate away from a rarely used procedure and back toward the reproductive health needs of women. And if that debate took place in a way that demonstrated the extremes of the anti-choice position—so be it. Over the course of the discussion, Clinton and the leaders in the room hit on the issue of contraception: specifically, promoting contraceptive coverage in health care plans.

Such a strategy made perfect sense for pro-choice advocates who understood that most serious right-to-lifers were weeping crocodile tears over “infanticide” as supposedly practiced in late-term abortions, and actually considered them no more objectionable than the use of an IUD (an “abortifacient” in the RTL view) or even estrogen pills that might interfere with implantation of a zygote–in their view, a human being morally and metaphysically indistinguishable from you and me–in the uterine wall. With public opinion favoring the pro-choice position when not focused on late-term abortions, and with contraception enjoying almost universal use and support, why not focus on that for a while, particularly since access to contraception really was a problem for many women?

And lo and behold, the anti-choicers have in many parts of the country taken the bait, moving from the safe ground of agitation against “partial-birth abortion” and under-the-radar-screen harrassment of abortion providers to ever-more-frontal attacks on reproductive rights, ranging from the “fetal pain” bills sweeping the country to “personhood initiatives” that reveal the ultimate values and goals of life-begins-at-conception believers. In many respects, it appears the anti-choice movement has been tempted onto this dangerous ground by its now-complete conquest of the Republican Party, and in turn, the powerful position of that party in state governments around the country after the 2010 elections. Another factor, of course, has been the frustration of abortion-as-holocaust advocates at the gradualism associated with a grand strategy that ultimately depends on a revolution-from-above from a Supreme Court slowly transformed by Republican presidents (who have betrayed The Movement so many times before with High Court appointees like David Souter and Sandra Day O’Conner).

But if anti-choicers appear to have walked into a political trap, another turn of events has limited the political damage while raising the stakes: the alignment of major religious institutions like the Catholic Bishops with a more radical and aggressive strategy, along with the convergence of agitation on abortion-and-contraception with the conservative struggle against universal health coverage. As Tanden notes, this is all quite new. Initial efforts at the state level to boost access to contraception, including insurance coverage mandates, did not elicit any major pushback from conservative religious groups:

[S]tate affiliates of women’s organizations started pushing contraceptive coverage in state legislatures—and in many places, they passed. One such organization was NARAL-NY, which advocated for the Women’s Health and Wellness Act in New York in 1999 and 2000. The legislation—like the original Obama policy—only allowed an exemption for houses of worship, not religiously affiliated hospitals or colleges, perhaps because its authors recognized that the vast majority of employees at these institutions are not Catholic. But the Catholic Church did not actively resist, or try to prevent the bill’s passing. At the time, the Church said that, in its affiliated hospitals, it would “continue for the immediate future providing the contraception coverage under formal protest.” This was far from the cries of “religious coercion” that we see today.

And, in some states, religious groups were silent altogether. In 1999, New Hampshire passed a law requiring contraceptive coverage in all prescription drug plans. (The law was passed by a Republican legislature and signed by a Democratic governor.) Both lawmakers and religious groups never raised the issue of religious liberty during the legislative debate; in fact, there was not a single discussion on that issue according to the legislative history.

So what we are seeing today is not only a out-of-the-closet radicalization of formal anti-choice groups, but a mobilization of their institutional allies in conservative religion circles and in the GOP. Moreover, the heavy investment of conservatives in demonizing ObamaCare is now being placed at the service of the anti-choice cause, until recently a highly subordinate faction in the anti-ACA coalition.

All these developments are potentially very significant in binding together ever-more-tightly various strands of conservative activism. The palpable fear of some Republicans that they have outsmarted themselves by seizing on the contraception coverage mandate, along with the possibility that important institutions like the Catholic bishops could conclude they have overreached (as E.J. Dionne urges them to understand in his latest column), could lead to a tactical retreat. But more likely, the die is cast, and the 2012 elections really will represent the day of reckoning over reproductive rights that activists on both sides of the barricades have long anticipated with hope and fear.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.