The War On Birth Control


Abortion has always figured large on the American political landscape. This year’s Republican primaries have seen the debate about abortion and reproductive rights only intensify. As candidates have battled to establish their pro-life credentials, the announcement that Barack Obama’s health reforms would require all employee insurance plans to cover contraception has galvanised the pro-life movement with the support of Catholic bishops and the Republican presidential candidates.

This article by Jill Lepore about the campaign on Planned Parenthood health centres published in the New Yorker last year provides an excellent context to the debate:

"The fury over Planned Parenthood is two political passions — opposition to abortion and opposition to government programs for the poor — acting as one. So far, it has nearly led to the shutdown of the federal government, required Republican Presidential nominees to swear their fealty to the pro-life lobby, tied up legislatures and courts in more than half a dozen states, launched a congressional investigation, and helped cripple the Democratic Party. What’s next?"

Lepore’s article was published in November 2011 and it’s only got louder since then. Under pressure from the pro-life movement, the breast cancer charity the Komen Foundation threatened to withdraw funding from Planned Parenthood, which also conducts breast cancer screening. The Komen Foundation has since reverse its decision but the attacks on women’s reproductive rights aren’t cooling.

The pro-life movement has been lobbying Republican candidates to sign the "Personhood Pledge" in support of an "inalienable right to life". The document that the candidates have been asked to sign off on includes the following passage.

"I believe that in order to properly protect the right to life of the vulnerable among us, every human being at every stage of development must be recognised as a person possessing the right to life in federal and state laws without exception and without compromise. I recognize that in cases where a mother’s life is at risk, every effort should be made to save the baby’s life as well; leaving the death of an innocent child as an unintended tragedy rather than an intentional killing."

In practical terms this also means opposition to federal funding for abortion in the case of rape or incest. It means no federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Mitt Romney is the only Republican candidate still standing who has not signed the pledge. Romney was once pro-choice, but has since changed his position. He supports abortion only in the event of rape or incest, or to save the life of the mother. As the LA Times reports, his opponents have been making hay questioning the authenticity of his mid-career switch to a pro-life position.

This is not new. The war on contraception is, however. "Contraception is under attack in a way it really wasn’t in the past few years." That’s what Judy Waxman, the vice president for health and reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center, told Mother Jones.

Obama’s hard-fought health reforms, the Affordable Care Act, include a provision that requires all employee insurance plans to cover contraception — without any religious exemption. In practical terms, this means that the employees of religious-affiliated institutions such as universities and hospitals (but not churches themselves) will have access to birth control as part of their health insurance. Twenty eight states had similar provisions before this announcement and the stated goal is to provide more affordable birth control.

A bill introduced by Republican up-and-comer Mario Rubio attempts to counter the lifting of the religious amendment. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act would allow not only religious-affiliated institutions to opt out of employee health plans which cover contraception, but also those provided by individual employers whose religious beliefs are at odds with contraception.

The attacks on mandatory cover of contraception in employee health plans has been robust. Catholic bishops have been joined by Republicans and won the support of this year’s presidential candidates.

Catholic bishops declared the legislation an assault on individual conscience and religious freedom, vowing to fight the reforms. Cardinal-designate TImonthy Nolan said Obama had drawn "an unprecedented line in the sand". A press release from the US Conference of Bishops states, "At issue, the US bishops and other religious leaders insist, is the survival of a cornerstone constitutionally protected freedom that ensures respect for the conscience of Catholics and all other Americans."

By contrast, Ms Magazine reports polling that indicates that the majority of the Catholic laity supports all employee insurance plans providing birth control — even if the bishops don’t.

Rick Santorum, who thinks all birth control is immoral, has characterised Obama’s bill as an egregious and unconstituional blow to religious freedom. Ana Marie Cox writes in response, "believing that employer-subsidized birth control is ‘a new low in oppressing religious freedom’ requires perverting the meaning of ‘religious freedom’ such that it actually means ‘only my religion’, a singleness of vision that Americans just don’t share."

Even Romney, arguably the least zealous of the candidates, said that Obama’s law "doesn’t belong in the America I believe in".

Opponents of the bill have also argued that birth control isn’t expensive and that women should be able to pay for the pill themselves. Not true, says Mother Jones, who created a birth control calculator that allows women to add up the expenses of birth control over a lifetime.  MoJo cites research which indicates that contraception is one of the reasons that "women of reproductive age spend 68 per cent more on out-of-pocket health care expenses than their male counterparts do".

A hearing to consider the religious exemption was called by the House Committee which examines new legislation. Chaired by Republican Darrell Issa, supporters of the bill were not allowed to summon one witness to speak in favour of the religious exemption. Not one of the witnesses who addressed the hearing on contraception was a women. Not one. The ranking Democrat on the committee, Elijah Cummings, ceded his time to his colleage Carolyn Maloney, who began her address pretty directly: "What I want to know is, where are the women?".

In Australia, the issue of abortion is a perennial one — and women’s health advocates still have their work cut out for them arguing in favour of safe, legal, publicly funded abortion. As the debate over RU486 showed, local politicians are still ready to horsetrade political influence at the cost of women’s health. Still, we’re not fighting for the right to contraception — yet.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.