Republicans seek to take the right of self-determination away from women

They're wielding religion against women's rights
March 4, 2012 12:00 am

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Three votes. That's how close the Senate came to passing an amendment that would have let any employer deny coverage for any health care service based on "moral" objection.

The measure was sponsored by Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri in retaliation for the Obama administration making contraception a must-cover in health insurance reform. Churches and the like will be exempt, but not hospitals and schools run by religious groups.

Republicans and some clergy, especially Catholic bishops who want no part of providing birth control for anyone, insist the requirement amounts to government intrusion into church matters. Democrats and women counter that an exemption amounts to religious intrusion into preventive care.

So President Barack Obama agreed to split the difference. Religious employers would not have to pay for the coverage, but insurers would still have to make it available. Naturally, his critics rejected the offer with a loud raspberry.

This may have scored Republican politicians some points in the narrow confines of their own right wing, but it's creating a problem with public opinion in the rest of the country. The vast majority of Americans, including most Catholics, approve of contraception, and nearly all women have used it at some point. Hardly anyone else wants to leave such a major component of pubic health in the hands of the country's most parochial interests.

How, then, could Republicans counter the perception that they've gone barking mad where women are concerned? Well, by broadening the exemption so far beyond contraception and women that it's no longer about either one.

The Blunt amendment (to a highway funding bill, by the way) said all insurance plans and employers -- not just religious ones -- could refuse to provide coverage of "specific items or services" if the coverage would be "contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer or other entity offering the plan."

Please note, Mr. Blunt said: "This amendment does not mention any procedure of any kind. The word 'contraception' is not in there because it's not about a specific procedure. It's about a faith principle that the First Amendment guarantees."

Right. This isn't about women and birth control. This is about EVERYONE following their own conscience based on, um, whatever. Maybe Mr. Blunt was thinking of snake handlers who believe God protects the righteous from serpent bites. If they object to covering anti-venom for sinners who get chomped by a rattler, who is Barack Obama to tell them different?

Childhood vaccinations? Perhaps your company's owners believe vaccines cause autism, so no way are they covering those shots. Pre-natal care? But you don't even have a husband, and your employer has a moral problem with procreation outside of marriage. No coverage for you. HIV testing? What are you, gay or something? This is a family-values company. Blood tranfusions? Not if your boss is a Jehova's Witness.

Unlikely scenarios, yet every one of them would have been enabled by this amendment, the very embodiment of overkill. Republicans couldn't zoom in on their real targets (women and contraception), so they must have hoped for more luck with cluster bombs. If they barge into health care for EVERYONE, women can't complain they're being singled out, wink wink.

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, returned the Senate's focus to the real issue. "The Obama administration believes that decisions about medical care should be made by a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss," she said.

The measure failed 51 to 48. Three Democrats, including Pennsylvania's Bob Casey, voted with the GOP. One Republican, Olympia Snowe of Maine, voted with Democrats.

Mr. Casey has been a big Obama supporter. He's also a Catholic who supports contraception and family planning, and he's running for a second term. In a statement, he said he voted yes because the administration's compromise didn't go far enough in protecting religious liberties. Ms. Snowe, one of the few remaining GOP moderates who believe in compromise and abortion rights, announced last week she would not run again. Friends said she's fed up with her party's radical right, much as Arlen Specter was in 2009.

These two are the exceptions that prove the rule. Religious exemptions on public health matters are primarily a Republican issue. It's already the case that health care workers, from ambulance drivers to physicians and pharmacists, receive broad immunity for refusing to give care based on their own conscience.

Doctors can refuse to prescribe birth control, pharmacists can refuse to dispense the Plan B morning-after pill. Insurance exemptions would be an even more sweeping measure, and the pattern is depressingly clear: Everyone else's agenda trumps a woman's right to self-determination.

For reasons of group psychology that are beyond my grasp, Republicans keep getting more pinch-faced and puritanical on health care policy related to women and sex. Politicians of both parties have their share of sexual transgressions, but it's largely Republicans who seem intent on playing the sanctimonious Rev. Dimmesdale, hectoring women as if they were all Hester Prynne.

The result is a growing list of insults. Pennsylvania lawmakers, under the guise of protecting women, passed costly and unnecessary rules designed to put many abortion clinics out of business, as if hospital-grade elevators have anything to do with safety.

Virginia tried to require invasive vaginal ultrasound scans prior to all abortions, then settled for making it "optional." Oklahoma requires pregnant women to view ultrasounds so they have "all the information" and shields doctors from lawsuits for refusing to tell patients about fetal defects.

For lawmakers who find abortion so appalling, they're awfully eager to put up roadblocks to the very contraception coverage that reduces unwanted pregnancy. Three votes was a shockingly slim margin to protect access to care, but it was enough -- this time.

First Published 2012-03-03 23:07:17

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