Women Don't See GOP’s War on Contraceptives as About Religion

The Republican attack on reproductive health services is alienating women who otherwise might be attracted to the party's fiscal message.

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Some Republicans thought the fight over birth control coverage would cost President Obama the election. Instead, it may have unleashed a second coming of the Anita Hill controversy, alienating women who otherwise might be attracted to a fiscally conservative, small government message.

The Obama administration looked weak at first when the Catholic Church balked at regulations requiring religious-affiliated institutions such as universities and hospitals to cover birth control under their employees' health insurance. The White House had not lined up women to defend birth control as a critical part of preventive healthcare, so the chaste church elders dominated the dialogue, presenting it as an issue of religious liberty. The idea that women had the liberty, as well, to decline the rules offered by the church—particularly in cases where the female employees did not practice Catholicism—took longer to emerge.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

But now, lawmakers at the state and federal level (along with presidential candidates) are continuing to hammer away at the issue, and it's a dangerous game. The Senate today voted down a bill that would allow any employer to deny healthcare coverage of anything if it violates his or her moral principles, a standard so broad it invalidates any federal health insurance standards (which may well be the point). Even if the law were limited to religious teachings only, what would prevent a business owner who is a Jehovah's Witness from denying coverage of transfusions? Or a Christian Scientist from denying coverage of any kind of medicine at all?

As if on script, supporters of the bill say, "It's not about contraception, and it is this repeated comment that stands to get them into the most trouble with female voters. If you're not of the gender that can get pregnant, you have the luxury of seeing the issue as theological. If you stand to lose control over your life and future because you can't prevent yourself from becoming pregnant, it is indeed all about contraception. The lecture sounds particularly annoying to a woman when it is being made by men, as has largely been the case on the moral exception bill. It's the same as when male lawmakers were so utterly baffled and skeptical when Anita Hill told a story of sexual harassment that has been shared by so many, many other women.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Will the Culture Wars Benefit the GOP in the 2012 Election?]

Virginia state lawmakers took it even further, considering a bill that would have required women to have ultrasound exams before getting an abortion. Many women found the whole basis of the bill to be fairly insulting, since it suggested that women really have no idea what goes on in their bodies and need to be schooled about it before having an abortion. That could be the only reason a woman would seek an abortion, the thinking went—she simply was too simple or ignorant to know what she was doing. But the mostly male lawmakers knew.

Except that they didn't. Remarkably, in seeking to teach women about their own bodies, they hadn't done much learning on their own. They did not know that the jelly-on-the-belly sonogram that makes for such touching scenes in movies is not done in the first trimester of pregnancy (when the vast majority of abortions are performed) because the pregnancy hasn't developed enough at that point to see anything. Women at that stage of pregnancy must undergo a "transvaginal probe, an invasive procedure. The phrase itself made some lawmakers so uncomfortable that they didn't want it uttered aloud during debate, so as not to offend the young pages. The bill was watered down somewhat, so that women would not have to endure a procedure critics described as state-sponsored rape. But the guts of the bill passed the state Senate and are making their way to the governor, who will sign it.

The contraception legislation may well do what it was intended to do—shore up the social conservative base of the Republican party and convince some people that Obama or Democrats are antireligion and pro big government. But proponents also risk energizing a group of women who long ago earned the right to control the size and timing of their families. For those women, it is, indeed, all about contraception.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.
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