President Obama’s decision on Friday that gives all women free access to contraceptive services under his health care reform law may only be a sideshow in this year’s presidential campaign. The economy isn’t out of the woods yet.
But there are two conclusions one can draw from the huge uproar that forced access to contraception services to the center of the race. First, it’s been a great couple of weeks for Planned Parenthood. Second, in the two weeks since the last jobs report, the 2012 presidential campaign has morphed from “it’s the economy, stupid” into the next episode of culture wars.
The latest firefight between the long-running war between the pro-choice/pro-abortion and pro-life/anti-abortion (pick your own words) factions began last month when the Obama administration published a proposed final rule fulfilling the health care reform law’s mandate that insurance companies cover all high-value preventive services without co-pays. Contraception meets the high-value test. The Institute of Medicine, which represents the semi-official voice of the nation’s medical establishment, says it prevents unwanted and dangerous pregnancies, can be used to prevent cervical and other cancers, and allows families to space out and time their children, which saves both them and the health care system money.
While churches and religious bodies were exempted from the rule, it kicked down the road for a year the decision on whether it would apply to women who worked for religious-affiliated organizations, a charity or non-profit hospital, for instance, whose parent church said it violated its religious beliefs. The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, whose affiliates operate a vast network of non-profit hospitals and Catholic Charities, organized a grass roots campaign opposing the rule. Evangelicals associated with the religious right and most conservatives lashed out at the president for violating the first amendment’s freedom of religion protections.
The president sought to mollify those critics with a final rule that required insurance companies to pay for the coverage, not the church or an affiliated non-profit. The administration also promised to police insurance companies to make sure they didn’t pass along the costs in the form of higher premiums – a comingling of funds that would force churches and other conscientious objectors to the policy to fund contraception through the back door.
“Religious organizations won’t have to pay for these services, and no religious institution will have to provide these services directly,” the president said. “But women who work at these institutions will have access to free contraceptive services, just like other women, and they’ll no longer have to pay hundreds of dollars a year that could go towards paying rent or buying groceries.”
The effort at compromise, which exists in most of the 28 states that have similar rules, didn’t work – at least not politically. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the final rule “a first step in the right direction” and promised to give it a closer look. But the Republican candidates who spoke before the Conservative Political Action Committee on Friday used language that suggested the issue is far from dead. “I will end every Obama regulation that attacks religious freedom,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told the assembled conservatives to loud applause.
The dust-up has clearly given a powerful weapon to Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s campaign. He has made his own deeply-held religious views on issues like abortion and contraception a centerpiece of his campaign, and working class Republican voters, often Catholic, have flocked to his banner. The Obama decision could give him a boost as he heads toward Super Tuesday’s primaries in early March.
It can’t be of much use to Romney, since it pushes him even further to the right in his efforts to keep up with the conservative electorate that has dominated the Republican primaries. Thus far, primary voters have been more intent on ideological purity – especially on culture war issues – than in crafting a message geared to the centrist voters who usually determine the outcome of presidential elections.
On the other hand, it has allowed President Obama to shore up his standing with pro-choice voters and many women, who had wondered where he really stood after the January announcement. “This is a great statement,” Cecile Richards, the president Planned Parenthood said. Last week, the organization received a huge infusion of donations after the anti-cancer Susan B. Komen Foundation cut off its grants before backtracking in the wake of the ensuing uproar.
“They (the administration) have done this in the face of a lot of bullying,” Richards said. “Congress is trying to strip women of birth control in this country, so this is a very important statement by the president.”
Administration supporters repeatedly pointed out last week that nearly every American woman at some time in her life uses birth control – including virtually every Catholic and religious conservative. Yet about half the women in the prime child-bearing years of 18 to 34 report difficulty in affording contraceptives. As Planned Parenthood’s Richards said, most of those women now know for the first time that health care reform when it goes into effect will make their birth control pills and other contraceptive devices free.
And if that’s what the election is about in November – and not what is likely to be a still stubbornly high unemployment rate – the polls suggest that will work in the president’s favor.