Put aside opinion polls and the Komen and Virginia wins. The right's strategy is long-term and based in the courts
There’s been a troubling trend among some liberals to do a premature victory dance over the contraception insurance benefit debate. Look at the polling data, the reasoning goes, and you’ll find even Catholics support both Obama’s policy and his reelection. Who doesn’t use birth control, except for few outlier zealots? This is a political winner for Obama and the Democrats, the victory dancers contend. Game, set, match.
It’s far too shortsighted, and worse, dangerously complacent, to measure victory election cycle by election cycle. (Even gaming the outcome of this year’s election is a risky proposition at best.) The opponents of birth control insurance coverage don’t use an election as a metric. Sure, they’d love to win, but even a loss inspires them to redouble their efforts, not to pack up and go home after learning they are on the minority side of public opinion.
They are evangelists. If public opinion isn’t on their side, they’ll strive to change public opinion. They are dogged, well-financed and unrelenting. Their claims about the proper role of religion in governing and policymaking — which Democrats fail to contest forcefully enough — are eroding the separation of church and state, and taking down gains made in access to reproductive healthcare along with it.
Democrats have attempted to defuse the Republican framing of the issue as one of “religious freedom” by arguing that the real issue is women’s health. In making that argument, they regrettably glide over a crucial step in the logic. Yes, it’s undeniable that what is at stake here is reproductive healthcare. But in claiming that their religious beliefs entitle them to an exemption from a regulation requiring insurance coverage for birth control, clerics and their Republican allies are attempting to relitigate and overrule established Supreme Court jurisprudence in the court of public opinion — without pushback from Democrats.
As Scott Lemieux writes at Lawyers, Guns and Money, “a constitutional challenge to the contraception provision wouldn’t even rise to the level of being frivolous” under existing constitutional jurisprudence. Contrary to conservative claims, the Supreme Court has not interpreted the Free Exercise Clause as requiring such expansive religious exemptions. But in our current political climate, which causes Democrats to crouch in fear of being labeled anti-religion, such exemptions are nonetheless tucked away in legislation at the behest of the burgeoning religious lobbying industry, becoming law even if not required to protect free exercise rights.
Case in point: an exemption in the Affordable Care Act for members of healthcare sharing ministries, who reject insurance and pay for their fellow “professing Christians’” medical costs. The lobbyists approached a Democrat, former Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello, who did their bidding for them.
Indeed, the Affordable Care Act in its final form was cobbled from capitulations to religious demands. Conservatives — including Democrats like former congressman Bart Stupak — threatened to prevent passage over their false claim that the bill would require federal funding of abortions. Even a superfluous reiteration of the Hyde Amendment’s abortion funding ban, offered by Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., failed to satisfy Obama allies like Jim Wallis. He pressed, in the name of “the faith community,” for even greater restrictions on insurance coverage for abortion, even though no taxpayer funds were going to be used for it in the first place.
Existing standards for covering birth control at the state level, which have been upheld in court and laid the groundwork for the Obama policy, are now “in danger because the right, which has now been unmasked as opposing contraception as well as abortion … stayed in the ring and flamed up an issue,” says Gloria Feldt, a former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and author of “No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power.”
Few people believed Feldt when she predicted in 2004 that opposition to birth control was more than just a fringe movement that needed to be taken seriously, she says. But if the right is “successful in pulling that thread,” she adds, “the entire fabric of contraceptive coverage will be unraveled.” The pro-choice movement, Feldt contends, must “set the terms of engagement or lose the battle.”
The opponents of legal abortion and readily, widely available contraception have already made extraordinary gains — enormous setbacks for women — at the state level. This week’s developments in Virginia, where pro-choice opposition prompted Gov. Bob McDonnell to back off his pledge to sign into law a bill that would mandate transvaginal ultrasound before abortion, demonstrate how robust, unabashed activism can expose the right’s extremism on these issues. But it also showed how the long game has paid off for the right, as the ultrasound bill may nonetheless become law, just without the vaginal intrusion. “Pregnancy care centers,” some affiliated with evangelical and Catholic churches, teach that birth control is harmful and doesn’t even work. The Catholic Church — which is claiming that the federal government is infringing on its rights — disseminates false information that contraceptives do not prevent unintended pregnancy and harm women. In the ever-shifting goal post of sin, the emergency contraceptives Ella and Plan B are now falsely depicted by Obama foes as “abortifacients,” opening the door for opponents to claim the contraceptive coverage requirement compels them to cover abortion, too.
While the Catholic bishops complain that the government is infringing on their religious liberty, the government is funding religious ideology. In Texas, for example, while the Legislature cut funds to family planning, it took a federal block grant under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and created the Alternatives to Abortion program. The contractors who receive state funds under this program not only refuse to offer abortions or referrals for abortion, they do not offer information about birth control, or even referrals for it.
The opponents of birth control coverage are playing a long game. As they ransack family planning funding and prop up religious organizations, they are transforming the way information — and misinformation — about abortion and birth control is passed on to the public. Their efforts are enabled by narratives about religious persecution, demanding, in effect, to create a religious alternative to public health policy based in medicine and science. The Constitution doesn’t require or even envision that. Democrats and their pro-choice allies need to stake out their own long game.
Sarah Posner is the senior editor of Religion Dispatches, where she writes about politics. She is also the author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters" (PoliPoint Press, 2008). More Sarah Posner.
More Related Stories
- UK emergency committee convenes after attack
- Brave scout leader tried to reason with London attackers
- If Alex Pareene was a cable news executive...
- El Salvador court delays ruling on abortion case while woman's life hangs in the balance
- UK officials: Radical Islam behind London attack
- Pa. governor "can't find" any Latinos to work in his administration
- London machete attack could be linked to terrorism
- Conservative group blames military sexual assault on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal
- Lois Lerner, IRS disaster
- Donald Rumsfeld worried that marriage equality will lead to polygamy
- Experts: Fox News spying scandal a game-changer
- San Francisco Giant Jeremy Affeldt apologizes for homophobic past
- 9-year-old slams Rahm over Chicago schools
- Stockholm riots rage for third day
- Wall Street firm's "Golden Pitchbook" is totally sexist, full of lies
- Must-see morning clip: Toronto's eccentric and allegedly crack-smoking mayor
- Federal court strikes down Arizona abortion ban
- Jodi Arias: I deserve a second chance
- Oklahoma residents return home to pick up the pieces
- Florida man with connection to Tsarnaev killed by FBI
- FBI identifies 5 Benghazi suspects
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11