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Birth Control Blasphemy: Contraceptive Hysteria Grips Congress and the Religio-Patriarchy

Jodi Jacobson

The United States Congress is in the grip of contraceptive hysteria, and there are no signs of early recovery. Far right members of the House and Senate have decided that there is Nothing. More. Important. than making sure women in this country can not get access to birth control.

See all our coverage of the 2012 Contraceptive Mandate here.

The United States Congress is in the grip of contraceptive hysteria, and there are no signs of early recovery.

Far right members of the House and Senate have decided that there is Nothing. More. Important. than making sure women in this country can not get access to birth control. Given that contraceptive use is effectively universal and that most employer-purchased group health plans already cover contraception, it is a pretty far stretch to assume any support for this outside the Rayburn Building, but that never stops a fanatic.

Let’s recap some basics here. Ninety-eight percent of sexually-active women in the United States use contraception at some point in their lives (including, yes, 98 percent of Catholic women), and most do so for the majority of their reproductive years. This is so we gals can do such radical things as plan whether, when, and with whom to have a child; how many children to have; decide what educational, social and economic goals we want to attain for ourselves and maximize those opportunities we can give our children; and, just basically decide how to live our lives. You know… that whole freedom thing.

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To have a total family size of two or three children, the average woman will spend five years pregnant or trying to get pregnant, and nearly three decades trying to avoid pregnancy. (Yes, Cardinal Dolan, we know about abstinence, but thirty years is a long dry spell and we like sex.) Many women also require contraception as a medical intervention to treat problems like poly-cystic fibrosis and dysmenorrhea, among other conditions. Some need to avoid risky pregnancies. And… the vast majority of women using contraception are protecting themselves and their partners from unintended pregnancy. In other words, folks, the gals are using the contraception, but the guys are involved here, too. The whole it takes two to tango thing, you know. I am not getting into the whys and wherefores of women shouldering most of the responsibility for preventing unwanted pregnancies here. But the fact is women are not just protecting themselves, but their partners and frequently their families writ large from the burdens of unintended pregnancy. This is also part of the equation that kinda, you know, gets left out. Including for those Congressmen whose wives and partners clearly have been using some on the side.

Most insurance plans already cover contraception because it makes economic sense. Roughly 86 percent of all group health insurance plans purchased by employers for their employees–or almost nine in ten plans–now cover a full range of prescription contraceptives. In states with contraceptive-equity laws, contraceptive coverage has expanded dramatically and insurance plans in these states are more likely to provide a full range of contraceptive methods. According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, state contraceptive-equity laws have a positive influence everywhere because nationally-determined insurance plans, in use both in states with and without contraceptive-equity laws, typically provide contraceptive coverage in all states in accordance with the mandates.

Still, in 2006, according to NARAL, 36 million U.S. women were without insurance coverage for contraception. Of that number, approximately 23 million were non-Hispanic white, five million were non-Hispanic black and six million were Hispanic. Inadequate access to contraception carries substantial health risks for all these women. The recurrent cost of contraception is the single most important barrier to access cited by women at risk of unintended and unwanted pregnancy.

But anti-choicers in Congress and among the religious right have repeatedly shown three things:

  • One, they could not care less about women’s health and rights.
  • Two, they have absolutely no idea how women struggle with the costs, risks, and responsibilities of reproduction nor what it means to do so.
  • Three, they don’t like to let reality or facts get in the way of ideology.

The real issue is that, as with the created controversy over health reform and abortion, the birth control mandate has provided all of these actors with an opening to do something they have been itching to do since the sixties: Limit women’s access to birth control. And they see this whole hoopla as the single most effective way to dramatically curtail the share of women who now have insurance coverage for contraception. In other words, as with insurance coverage of abortion care, they want to take away coverage women now have.

It’s not about religious freedom. That is a red herring if ever there was one, as this piece by a former Quiverfull member so elegantly states. In fact, the hypocrisy of all of this is underscored by the fact that even Catholic institutions have been providing coverage of birth control in many states for years, and 28 states have contraceptive equity laws that require coverage either by everyone or under scenarios on which the Obama Administration based last week’s “accommodation” to the bishops.

No… it’s about putting women back in their place. Its about a deep-seated anger among male patriarchal figures that women have moved out into the world, can control their ferility and make their own decisions. It is about “biblical” beliefs that men should have dominion over women and children and that women should “sacrifice” themselves at all costs. It is also about unspoken but deeply-rooted racial and ethnic prejudices that rest on fears that on one hand, one or another religious or racial group will outpace another in population size, and on the other hand, that there aren’t enough babies being produced to keep wages down in the long run.

And as with the abortion debate in health care reform, the arguments being made about the birth control mandate bear no resemblance to reality. To shore up its arguments, for example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has taken it upon itself to redefine as abortifacients virtually every form of medically-accepted modern contraception on the market. (It’s the Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Make Up Your Own Facts When Necessary to Preserve the Patriarchy.) The USCCB has also moved from its previous and highly transparent “religious freedom” tantrum, during which it claimed it wanted to exempt from the birth control mandate any religiously-affiliated institutions that ostensibly provide medical care, education, and social services, to its current demand that any employer, anywhere, be able to deny women contraceptive coverage, for basically any reason.

And so we have the latest attacks on contraception in the House and Senate.

First, there is the Blunt Amendment.

Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), has proposed an amendment to the Senate Surface Transportation bill and given it a name which would make George Orwell proud, The Respect the Rights of Conscience Act of 2011. This amendment, which may be voted on as early as Wednesday, February 15th (today, perhaps, as you read this), would, according to experts, give employers and health insurance companies carte blanche over peoples’ access to basic health care. If passed, the Blunt amendment would represent the single most expansive refusal provision in federal law, and it would dismantle hard-won protections in the Affordable Care Act.  It would allow any employer or insurance plan, with or without religious affiliation, to refuse to cover any essential health service required under the new health care law based on undefined religious or moral objections. Supporters of the amendment have made clear the intent of the amendment is to ensure that any employer or corporation is able to deny its employees birth control coverage.

This means, according to Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), that “employers and insurance companies can not only deny access to birth control, they can deny access to any health care service, including HIV/AIDS treatment, mammograms, cancer screenings, or maternity care.”

The Blunt proposal is not limited to religiously-affiliated entities. Any employer or health plan issuer can claim an exemption based on this vague and harmful standard. For instance, an owner of a business franchise could refuse to provide coverage for birth control or any other essential or preventive health care service to which they claim an objection.

If passed, it would create a giant loophole undermining the whole notion of health insurance. “Health insurance coverage is rooted in the principle of shared risk and shared protection,” says PPFA. “The Blunt proposal dismantles the very concept of health insurance by allowing health insurance companies and employers to take coverage away from people, even for the most basic health care.”

“The purpose of the Affordable Care Act is to give women and families, not insurance companies, more control over their own health care decisions while ensuring that all health plans are playing by the same rules and providing a baseline of coverage for the American people.”

But “the Blunt proposal is designed to undermine this core principle and would represent an enormous step backwards for millions of American families.” The Coalition to Protect Women’s Health is collecting signatures from women and men throughout the country in opposition to this amendment, and is working with more than 80 groups, ranging from reproductive health and justice organizations to HIV prevention and treatment to labor organizations and medical academies such as the American Public Health Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, to defeat it.

Guess who is in favor of this proposal? The USCCB, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the National Right to Life Committee and the entire “Who’s Who” of religious right and fundamentalist notables. Never mind all those other Catholic teachings, birth control is the end of the world as we know it.

Or… the end of the world as they want it.

On top of the Blunt Amendment come hearings in the House of Representatives set for this Thursday, February 16th. Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) has announced that the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will hold a hearing entitled “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” In keeping with the barely veiled male-dominated discussion of male control over women’s lives, the witness list includes eight men and only one woman. And none of the witnesses has expertise on public health, medicine, or reproductive health.  Because like I said, why let things like medical conditions, public health, or the lives of women get in the way of a good election-year ideological battle?

Add to this the fact that Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) took to the floor of the House of Representatives last week to announce that he would do everything in his power to overturn the contraceptive mandate–not to offer job creation strategies, not to deal with poverty, hunger, access to education, not to address climate change or the housing mortgage crisis but to deny women access to birth control; that Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul all are in a contest to become the “most misogynistic presidential candidate ever;” and that every male media anchor on cable and regular television news channels is in a frenzy about the birth control mandate but doesn’t stop to consider they know nothing about contraception (that’s your department, dear) or public health and not one of them seems to care, and you have what is clearly a frenzy of the fearful patriarchy.

And they call women hysterical?


Visit the Coalition to Protect Women’s Health to take action.

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