By Mary Kate Cary
All eyes in Washington were on this week's oral arguments before the Supreme Court on the individual mandate in the president's healthcare reform legislation. One of the first mandates stemming from the law's 2,700 pages has been a very controversial one: the ruling by the Department of Health and Human Services that forces all insurance plans to offer free morning-after drugs, sterilization, and contraception with only a very narrow exemption for religious organizations. The conventional wisdom is that the fight over the contraception coverage badly hurt Republicans, who Democrats have delighted in saying are running a "war on women," who face a "health crisis" due to lack of access to contraception.
The conventional wisdom is wrong. Contrary to what you might read in the press, it's actually the Democrats who are being hurt and Republicans who have been handed a defining issue for the fall election, especially among women.
Just look at the most recent CBS/New York Times poll, taken in early March, after the administration had announced its "accommodation" that did nothing to widen the exemption. Here's the question that got very little attention: "Do you think health insurance plans for all employers should have to cover the full cost of birth control for their female employees, or should employers be allowed to opt out ... based on religious or moral objections?" Women agreed with opting out by 46 to 44 percent. When the question concerned "religiously affiliated employers, such as a hospital or university," women agreed by a 15-point margin, 53-38. Among men, those favoring opting out led by 20 points, 57-37, and religiously affiliated employers opting out ran a 27-point lead. Overall, substantial majorities favored opting out, up to a 21-point margin, 57-36, for religiously affiliated employers.
Notice that the polling question only mentioned birth control, the least controversial of the "preventive services" mandated. Imagine what the margins would have been if free abortion-inducing drugs and sterilizations were included.
That HHS ruling brought home what everyone already suspected about the president's healthcare law: that it is confusing, unnecessary, massive in scope, full of coercive mandates, and will increase costs. And as the implementation stage of the law unfolds, this mandate will be only the tip of the iceberg. More are on their way, from prenatal care to end-of-life issues. And while Catholics have been on the front edge of fighting the ruling, leaders of other faiths fear that they might be next on the chopping block. No wonder so many other denominations have jumped on board with the cause, including, according to the National Catholic Register, a group of 65 Orthodox Christian bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Chuck Colson, founder of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, has garnered over half a million signatures on a petition that encourages voters to contact their elected representatives on the issue; he's promoting it on over 700 radio stations.
What the White House doesn't seem to realize-and what the mainstream media aren't covering-is that the Catholic bishops are keeping this issue alive, sending out press releases and producing videos regularly, and continuing to read letters at Mass on Sunday. They are reminding parishioners that the Catholic Church is the world's largest provider of healthcare to women and children, and that it has been fighting for universal healthcare for decades. To them, this isn't about access to healthcare for women. It's about the separation of church and state.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently remarked on the latest negotiations with the White House. "You can't compromise on principle," he said. "The goal posts haven't moved and I don't think there's a 50-yard-line compromise here." Bishop after bishop keeps using the same words: "We will not, we cannot comply."
Most Catholics, if forced to choose between complying with a government order they consider immoral and helping the poor, will choose helping the poor every time. I doubt they will roll over on this one, either by pre-emptively closing their doors or ending all healthcare coverage for their employees. There's a good chance that many of the hospitals, universities, and social service agencies in question will continue to operate as they always have, serving people of many faiths and offering reasonable healthcare coverage to their employees that doesn't include abortion-inducing drugs-in effect, daring their own government to fine them millions.
This controversy is uniting Catholics and non-Catholics, Christians and Jews across the board, and it has the potential to unify fiscal and social conservatives within the Republican Party. It's safe to say that most Republicans-and many independents-can agree that providing free abortion-inducing drugs to all women is not a legitimate function of the federal government. Rather than proving the conventional wisdom that the Catholic Church and Republicans hate women and will do anything to make contraception illegal, the administration's position reminds voters of what they know to be true. They know that an ever-expanding government is a threat to our economic and religious freedom. They fear that as the expansion continues unchecked, it threatens our children's futures, our constitutional rights, and, in the end, our democracy. That's why the conventional wisdom is wrong, and why this issue matters to women.
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