About a month ago, people who thought religious institutions shouldn't be forced to pay for things they morally oppose were unremarkable, boring even. Now, they are waging a heinous War on Women.
Through the twisted logic of statism run amok, opposition to a new Health and Human Services mandate forcing employers to buy insurance covering contraceptives becomes opposition to access to contraceptives altogether. White House spokesman Jay Carney calls a Senate bill to allow employers to forgo buying coverage for services they oppose — as they have throughout the nation's entire history up to this point — "dangerous and wrong."
Three Democratic women senators, Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Barbara Boxer (California) and Patty Murray (Washington), wrote in The Wall Street Journal that critics of the mandate "are trying to force their politics on women's personal health-care decisions." How are they proposing to do that exactly? The Catholic bishops are merely fighting to keep institutions affiliated with their church from getting coerced into participating in what they consider a moral wrong. They are the agents of a status quo that the day before yesterday wasn't considered objectionable, let alone an assault on women's health.
Supporters of the mandate like the three senators cite the statistic from the Guttmacher Institute that 99 percent of women who have been sexually active in the U.S. have used birth control. This doesn't sound like a country facing a crisis of contraception. But prescription contraceptives are expensive, the senators argue, costing as much as $600 a year. (Or, looked at another way, less than $60 a month.)
Never mind that a vast government apparatus exists to provide poor women access to contraceptives, from Medicaid and community health centers to Title X. There are roughly 4,500 Title X-funded clinics around the country. They are required to provide free birth control to the poor and subsidized birth control to people with incomes between 100 percent and 250 percent of poverty. They serve about 5 million people a year.
By any reasonable standard, we are one of the most lavishly contracepted societies in the history of the planet. Whoever wrote the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus circa 1800 B.C., with its references to crude contraceptives, would be shocked and awed at the bright, cheery display of condoms at the average drugstore. At drugstore.com, a pedestrian pack of 12 goes for about $10, with no stigma attached.
A Centers for Disease Control report this year found that among teen mothers who had unintended pregnancies, only 13 percent said they had trouble getting access to birth control. Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation, an expert on out-of-wedlock births, says the category of unplanned pregnancies is more ambiguous than it sounds. It includes women who weren't planning a pregnancy right away but were still thinking about getting pregnant so weren't zealous in their use of contraception.
Of all the causes of the explosion in illegitimate births, limited access to contraception can't be high on the list. At the same time that we have seen a profusion of contraceptives that are dazzling in their variety, impressive in their efficacy and democratic in their widespread accessibility, out-of-wedlock births have gone from 10 percent in 1970 to 42 percent today (largely among poor women with access to government-provided contraceptives).
In its extension to religious institutions, the HHS mandate can only reach a very narrow slice of the population. Women who aren't poor enough to get government assistance, yet aren't well off enough to afford their own contraception, can't get any other help, and have no alternative but to work for an objecting religious institution. On behalf of this vanishingly small number of women, the Obama administration is willing to risk a political backlash and a rebuke in the courts.
If the mandate were only about extending contraception coverage, exempting religious institutions would be obvious. But it's more than that. It is about bringing institutions thought to be retrograde to heel, and discrediting their morality. It is kulturkampf disguised as public health.
Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.