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The politics of birth control: who has the upper hand?

by Alan Markow, published

According to the media, President Obama’s actions on women’s contraceptives have been either:  (1) an exercise in amateurism, or (2) a brilliant strategy that has co-opted the issue for the President and his party.

In the early hours after the announcement that employers – including Catholic institutions – would have to pick up the co-pay for contraceptives such as birth control pills, criticism by church groups and Republicans seemed to roll over the administration like a tsunami.  But what looked like a flailing response to the reproach actually ended up as a thoughtful compromise that is hard to fault.  Insurance companies, not employers, will take care of the co-pay; hence, the Catholic Church will not have to compromise its principles while meeting the requirements of the law.

The Catholic Bishops may never be satisfied with any law that supports the use of contraceptives, but their voices have been muted by the compromise.  And some argue that Republicans come out of the brouhaha looking at best like lock-step partisans or, at worst, like the anti-woman party.  As liberal-leaning tells it:

“Obama just pulled a fast one on Republicans. He drew this out for two weeks, letting Republicans work themselves into a frenzy of anti-contraception rhetoric, all thinly disguised as concern for religious liberty, and then created a compromise that addressed their purported concerns but without actually reducing women's access to contraception, which is what this has always been about.”

But the right leaning Hot Air sees it differently:

“It’s already well known that Barack Obama didn’t take the advice of the two Catholics closest to him, VP Joe Biden and chief of staff Bill Daley, in promulgating his new mandate from HHS that would force religious organizations to pay for contraception and abortifacients, even if the use of such products violates their religious doctrine.”

And the far right Daily Caller reports:

“The proposed regulation ‘has caused an incredible amount of consternation and angst in the Hispanic community. … It is un-American to tell my pastor, my minister, my priest that they have to violate what they believe in,’ said Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. The breach with Rodriguez and other Hispanics clerics is a critical element of a widening split between the Democratic Party’s growing anti-religious progressive wing and the shrinking — but still important — ranks of Democrats who are friendly towards religion.”

Meanwhile, the Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan argues that Obama is on the right political side of this issue as far as most women are concerned:

“Birth control is for 98% of women the principal means of protecting a right central to their own liberty - the right to choose when to create a family. Chances are most women employed by Catholic universities and hospitals are part of the 98%. For these women, not having access to birth control renders a crucially important right meaningless.”

Statistics uphold Sullivan’s point with more than 50 percent of Americans – including Catholics – supporting the provision of birth control to women at low or no cost.

Yet, there remains a question of whether this issue is one of First Amendment rights (religious freedom) or an issue of women’s health.  These two sides are likely to be heard and seen throughout the campaign.  For example, on this week’s Meet the Press, Wall St. Journal columnist Peggy Noonan took the First Amendment position, while Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne argued for the women’s health side of the issue.

There seems little doubt that both Republicans and Democrats believe they have a powerful message to present to the public.  Whether or not the contraception issue will make a difference in the campaign, and if so, which side will predominate, remains to be seen.

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