Contraception debate a particularly bitter pill amid election-year politics

By Eric Mink

I confess to a certain comic fascination with the clown-car, train-wreck, seltzer-in-the-pants-on-fire Republican presidential nominating process.

After the election, I suspect Ron Suskind, Jon Alter or Bob Woodward will write a book revealing that people in the Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, Perry, Paul and Bachmann campaigns were secretly being paid by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson and the Weekend Update crew at “SNL.”

Nowhere has the sideshow been more evident than in the uproar surrounding contraception. Let’s review:

It’s been seven weeks since the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a new rule requiring employer-provided health insurance plans to eliminate co-pays and deductibles from coverage of birth control devices and procedures.

Although the rule doesn’t apply to houses of worship or schools of religious instruction, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—astutely attuned to the right-wing dynamics of the Republican nominating race—declared that the Obama administration had declared war on religion because the official church holding is that artificial birth control is immoral. The candidates, predictably, began trying to outscore each other on the outrage meter, and media coverage—and satire—ensued.

The conference and some other religious denominations also complained that the rule would apply to religiously affiliated institutions like charities and thrift stores, hospitals and universities that employ and serve people regardless of religion. In response, President Barack Obama altered the rule so that those organizations would not have to subsidize the contraception coverage; insurance companies would absorb all costs. The bishops’ conference mocked the change as meaningless. Controversy—and satire—continued.

Now here it is March, and they’re still at it—and not only on the campaign trail. Senate Republicans, led in futility last week by Missouri’s own Roy Blunt, tried and failed to amend a bridge and highway bill, of all things, to block the health insurance rule.

Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh was on the radio last week attacking a responsible, civic-minded, third-year Georgetown University law student because she publicly supported the contraception rule. Limbaugh called her a slut and a prostitute and urged her to make sex videos and post them on the Internet. His show’s advertisers didn’t see this as a healthy selling environment for their goods and services, so on Saturday, Limbaugh sort of apologized for having said the kinds of things he always says.

Please don’t expect me to believe Comedy Central hasn’t had a hand in all this.

Let’s stipulate, first, that the fine Jewish Light editorial published here three weeks ago addressed the substance of this subject with appropriate seriousness and nuance.

Let’s stipulate further that if this were not an election year, there would have been little said and less heard about the contraception insurance rule issued on January 20, 2012. The U.S. Supreme Court settled the question of artificial birth control’s legality in 1965.

Since then, 28 states have enacted similar contraception coverage rules for employers’ health insurance plans with no noticeable impact on faith. In 2000, a Republican-majority legislature in New Hampshire mandated insurance coverage of contraception by employers, including faith institutions. There was no protest from the hardy New England churchgoers of the Live Free or Die state. Twelve years later, and all of a sudden they’re upset.

I’m betting if the federal rules had come out next November after Obama’s election to a second term, the move would have been shrugged off as just more health care satanism by the Muslim president from Kenya, and that would have been it.

But it’s 2012, the politics are crazy, the comedy is rich, and the issue lives on. Some not so funny observations:

• From the ferocity of the outcry, you’d have thought the rules require clergy to personally hand out birth control pills and devices to parishioners in church.

As noted, the rules do not apply to houses of worship and schools of religious instruction.

• The rules also exempt health care plans that were in effect when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act became law two years ago. Many existing employer health insurance plans are grandfathered in as is.

• The U.S. Bishops’ Conference has complained that the president’s decision to require insurance companies to pick up premium costs doesn’t address Catholic and Catholic-affiliated institutions that are self-insured and provide their own health insurance to employees.

All due respect, but it’s a stretch for the Bishops’ Conference to argue they’ve been called by God to run an insurance company.

• The Affordable Care Act actually makes it easy for people to exercise their religious freedom because no employer, large or small, is required to provide health insurance to employees. Any employer with moral or religious objections can heed the call of conscience simply by not offering a health insurance plan.

• The smartest, most challenging idea I’ve encountered in this dispute was in an opinion piece in the New York Times last month by Gary Gutting, a philosopher who received his Ph.D. from St. Louis University. Gutting—a Catholic—teacher at the University of Notre Dame—a Catholic school—where he holds the Notre Dame Endowed Chair in Philosophy.

Gutting’s article explores “the nature and basis of religious authority,” as he puts it, the concept at the heart of the Catholic hierarchy’s claim to the authority of God in declaring artificial birth control to be immoral.

But such claims necessarily depend, Gutting insists, on whether the people of a faith agree. “There is no alternative,” he says, “to accepting the members of a religious group as themselves the only legitimate source of the decision to accept their leaders as authorized by God.”

So it actually matters that 98 percent of Catholic women have used various artificial means of birth control sometime in their lives, and not because it supposedly reveals hypocrisy. In Gutting’s view, there is no hypocrisy because the actions of American Catholics have rendered the church’s position null and void. “The bishops’ claim to authority in this matter has been undermined because Catholics have decisively rejected it,” Gutting concludes. Therefore, “The immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church.”

Seen through this lens, then, the controversy reflects the failure of church leadership to get its own believers to accept the hierarchy’s opinion about birth control. In that sense, the bishops’ complaint about the insurance rule amounts to a plea for help from the federal government in enforcing a church rule that the people of their faith refuse to obey.

That is something, of course, that the U.S. government is not permitted to do for any religion.