Commentary Contraception

The Birth Control Benefit and The Bad Faith Religious Liberty Gambit

Amanda Marcotte

As the example of Wheaton College shows, the sudden interest many employers and schools are taking in not offering contraception coverage is all about political opportunism, not deeply-held religious beliefs.

Make no mistake: All the squalling about how “religious liberty” means employers and schools should be able to withhold earned and/or paid for benefits from women is about the right wing making its move on contraception. The anti-choice movement has internally opposed contraception for a long time now, but hasn’t really had an opportunity to make a big public move towards restricting access. That’s because the right rarely argues for their positions straightforwardly, but instead tries to find an angle: abortion becomes about “life,” racism becomes “states rights,” homophobia becomes “traditional marriage.” Now, the hope is that opposing contraception can be “religious liberty.” But it’s utterly transparent.

That became doubly obvious when Wheaton College, a Christian university, decided to grandstand about how much they opposed contraception insurance coverage, only to find that they won’t be getting the religious institution extension on non-coverage because their insurance plan was already covering contraception. Apparently, their deep moral convictions against providing this benefit only kicked in when the opportunity to politically grandstand about the evils of contraception came up. Which in turn suggests that this has nothing to do with religion, but that’s just the cover story for what is really a cynical exploitation triggered by the phrase “free contraception,” which the right knows is the sort of thing that whips up their base into a frenzy of imagining hot young sluts sleeping around (with everyone but the conservative men engaging these fantasies) on the public dime. But since they can’t win that argument on the merits, “religious liberty” was ushered in to confuse the issue.

Of course, as Jodi Jacobson pointed out last week, “free” contraception isn’t free; women are paying for their insurance by earning it through labor, paying for it with premiums, or a combination of both. The entire reason for the HHS regulation requiring insurance companies to cover it without a copay is that it’s part of a larger set of regulations geared towards getting Americans to utilize more preventive care, which controls costs by preventing more expensive conditions down the road, and, more importantly, saves people unnecessary suffering. The regulation will help control costs in a couple of other valuable ways. First, insurance companies have the right to set parameters on what brands they’ll cover under this regulation, which will encourage more use of generics and lower-cost brands, which in turn will lower the upfront cost of preventing the high costs of unintended pregnancy. There’s also an expectation that this will encourage more women to turn to long-term solutions like IUDs, which are incredibly inexpensive in the long run, but prior to the HHS regulations had prohibitively expensive upfront costs for many women.

All of which means that while feminists are supportive of these regulations both because we believe controlling fertility is a right and because we’re supportive generally of women’s health care, the regulations themselves aren’t rooted in feminist ideology. These regulations are simply in service of what should be non-controversial goals of improving public health and lowering health care costs. The people demanding “religious” exemptions are really demanding the right to be free riders that get all the lowered costs of better overall preventive medicine while still retaining the sadistic satisfaction of judging their employees’ sexual choices from afar.

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Of course, that’s in the short term. This is ultimately about the right seizing an opportunity to reintroduce the notion in the public discourse that contraception, especially female-controlled contraception, is “controversial.” The way that they’re clearly going to go about this is create this nonsense narrative about Christians vs. dirty girls, even though 99 percent of sexually active women–including Christians–have used contraception. The very people nodding along to a priest’s anti-contraception rant on Sunday morning are going home and having contraception-aided sex on Sunday night.

Once that narrative is established, all sorts of mischief could happen. Anti-choicers chip away at abortion access by coming up with all sorts of regulations the public at large mistakenly believes are a good compromise position that gives the right and left something they want. (Of course, all these restrictions do is put pointless obstacles between women and abortions they already know they want.) If contraception is perceived as similarly controversial, that old and irritating urge to let “both sides” have something will kick in, and a lot of restrictions on contraception that would have been hard to sell before will be easier now. We’ve already started to see this happen, with Plan B emergency contraception, which has become pointlessly controversial because of right wing preening, and therefore can’t be sold to someone who can’t produce an ID showing they’re 17 or older. Should this gambit to make it seem like there’s some kind of deep conflict between insurance coverage of contraception and religion work, these kinds of “compromises” that make it harder for women, especially the most vulnerable women, to get contraception will likely become more common.

But while all this can be very terrifying to contemplate, this is also a political opportunity for pro-choicers. After all, the biggest uphill battle we’ve faced for years is getting the voting public to see that right-wing opposition to abortion isn’t, as they claim, about “life,” but about punishing and controlling female sexuality. Now anti-choicers are running around comparing contraception to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. Their hope is that by flinging the phrase “religious liberty” around enough, they can deflect attention from the fact that this is a massive push to put contraception into the “controversial” territory where it can be more easily restricted. What we can do, however, is continue drawing attention to the fact that they consistent thread between opposition to contraception and abortion isn’t “life,” but fear and loathing of female sexuality. And that is not a winning position for the right. 

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