Contraception Debate Sparks Outrage

Somewhere between the time I snuck into a seat at the San Jose Center for Performing Arts last Thursday and the end of comedian Bill Maher’s set, when he announced a personal $1 million contribution to President Obama’s Super PAC, the topic of contraception came into his cross hairs.

After a year of conservative-coordinated assaults on Planned Parenthood and other attacks on oral contraceptives and protected sex,  we as a country have entered a bizarre moment. Not getting pregnant is the new abortion.

The Catholic Church’s fight to forbid insurance-provided birth control to employees of religious organizations—and the all-male panel on a House Oversight Committee hearing on contraception—officially codified the latest culture war.

“You would have thought from the right-wing reaction that Obama had ordered the Navy Seals to force nuns to put the rubber on your dick,” Maher quipped to wild applause. He stopped. “Don’t applaud for that!”

In the midst of all this, a few questions stand out; namely, how is it in a country where 99 percent of women have used birth control that we are fighting over whether people should have access to birth control? How did a position this freakishly extreme enter the mainstream political conversation?

“If you look at this argument with respect to the Catholic Church, they’re basically saying Obama is violating in his health plan the separation between church and state,” says Mary Jacobsen, a board-certified ob-gyn who teaches a course at Stanford University called Current Topics and Controversies in Women’s Health. “Well, what about the right of the women? Why does the institution take preference over her? And if we’re saying that the institution is right, what other kinds of healthcare could they end up limiting?”

Jacobson says she and other Stanford faculty recently fought and won their own birth-control battle this year when the university’s health insurance provider sought to omit Intrauterine Devices (IUDs), which prevent pregnancy at a better rate than The Pill, from coverage.

“That kind of raised a lot of eyebrows at Stanford,” Jacobson says. “Our family-planning division and ob-gyn department mobilized and contacted the Stanford rep responsible for that and overturned it.”

In her book How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, author Christina Page argues that right-wing attacks on abortion are merely cover for a far more radical social agenda.

The real target of organized anti-choicers, she says, is not abortion. Abortion is simply the divisive, emotional topic used to mobilize grassroots support. The real target of the organized anti-choice movement, she says, has always been birth control.

Page says she’s been recommending since 2008 that reporters ask all GOP candidates their position on contraception. “The media wasn’t willing,” she says, “because they thought asking made them look foolish.”

Fast-forward to the current day, and all current Republican presidential candidates—Romney, Santorum, Paul and Gingrich—have publicly opposed access to contraceptives.

It’s worth noting how very far from the mainstream the roots of the anti-contraception movement are. According to polling published in February by the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority—55 percent—of Americans agree that “employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost.”

An even higher ratio of Catholics, 58 percent, believe that employers should be required to provide their employees with health-care plans that cover contraception, the poll found.

“I think it’s quite scandalous as to how candidates are playing political games with people’s lives,” says Paul Blumenthal, a colleague of Jacobson’s and the director of Family Planning Services and Research at Stanford. “Contraception is acknowledged and a very well studied health intervention, that actually improves people’s health and improves the life of women and their families. Even from an employer’s standpoint, the ability to access contraception easily and inexpensively actually produces a healthier and more productive employee. From that standpoint, it’s incomprehensible to me.”

Kid Games

A long silent pause and heavy breath comes across the line as Monique Kane, the executive director of the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC), weighs whether or not to answer the question.

“We don’t usually get involved in political stuff because we’re a nonprofit,” she says.

This would make sense, but the question wasn’t leading or loaded. It was a general query about what services CHAC provides.

“What we do is work to help teens so they make good choices and lead healthy, successful lives,” Kane says. “We do some work in the schools on pregnancy prevention, in order to prevent kids from having children when they’re not ready. It shouldn’t be political, the health of our youth.”

But somehow the rhetoric against contraception and organizations like CHAC or Planned Parenthood has made it political, equating awareness to anathema. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation succumbed to the pressure earlier this year, announcing it was cutting $600,000 in annual financial support of Planned Parenthood—despite the fact that 97 percent of the clinics’ services have nothing to do with abortion, and the foundation’s money was put toward breast cancer screenings for poor people. The outcry was swift, and the foundation reversed its decision.

“I think that enlightened people know that we do a lot of breast screens of women and lot of preventative care,” says Lupe Rodriguez, Planned Parenthood’s director of public affairs for Silicon Valley.

But the rhetoric on health-care plans mandated to provide contraception continues. Adding a layer of hypocrisy to the debate, “these are the same health plans that pay for men to use Viagra,” says Jacobson. “For them not to provide contraception for women seems counterintuitive to me. The fact of the matter is, there’s a 50 percent unplanned pregnancy rate in this country, and these kinds of attitudes against prevention support that.”

“We’d be putting our heads in the sand if we didn’t acknowledge many teenage girls are getting pregnant and do not want to be pregnant,” says Liz Kniss, who sits on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and previously worked as a nurse. “It’s a war on women, it really is. And once again it’s an attempt to remove the right from women to make choices of any kind. That’s what I find is stunning.”

Ann Neumann, editor of The Revealer, a website dedicated to covering the relationship between religion and the media, says fiscal conservatives are systematically leveraging religion to carry out their objectives on eliminating what they see as entitlements.

“If you push a free-enterprise Republican on the cost savings of free contraception, their second line of defense will be the moral one,” Neumann says. “In other words, free-enterprise folks are necessary to this mix in that they cover for the social conservatives.”

This approach works for attacks on reproductive health care, Neumann notes, in a way that wouldn’t work for other medical issues, simply because of whom it affects.

“Contraception and any other reproductive care,” she says, “has been ghettoized as women’s.”

Sady Doyle contributed to this report.

Josh Koehn is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to josh@metronews.com or follow him on Twitter at @Josh_Koehn.

21 Comments

  1. Blah, blah.

    Nobody is putting armed guards at pharmacies.  The argument is simply whether people and institutions have to pay for procedures and medications they consider immoral.

    Very simple argument.  The First Amendment’s free exercise of religion versus what…?  A constituional right to condoms and the Pill?  Could even the Supreme Court stretch the venerable document to read that?  Good grief, read your Constitution people! 

    Constitutional rights trump an executive order issued by a Cabinet secretary.  Civics 101 for those who weren’t educated in East Side Union High School District.

    • “The argument is simply whether people and institutions have to pay for procedures and medications they consider immoral.”
      Obama proposed a compromise on February 10 that allows religious institutions to not have to pay for contraception. If an institution objects to paying for birth control, the insurer pays for it. The fact that republicans have not accepted this compromise shows that it is not about what religious institutions have to pay for, it’s about whether or not they can distinguish themselves from non-religious institutions by dictating what healthcare their employees have access to. Two republican senators have come out in favor of Obama’s compromise, and non-coincidentally, they’re both women. If there were 84 women in the Senate instead of 84 men, they wouldn’t even be talking about this.

    • People and Institutions don’t have to pay for it.  The people working at the institution pay for the insurance as part of their compensation package.  No one who doesn’t want contraception has to get it.  What you want is the right to deny any woman from getting insurance for contraception.  Why would a Baptist woman who works at a Catholic hospital have to give up her Baptist beliefs and adapt the Catholic’s Bishops line?  The Catholic Bishops can’t even make the Catholic women in the country adopt the no contraception rule that’s why they want the government to do it.  I also believe that women have constitutional rights.  Why should the women of America bow to the wishes of the Catholic church?

  2. “…how is it in a country where 99 percent of women have used birth control that we are fighting over whether people should have access to birth control?”

    Actually, that’s not the question at all.  The question is this:  Does the First Amendment protect the Roman Catholic Church’s lawful authority to continue, with respect to the passage of so-called “ObamaCare,” providing a form of health insurance for its employees that does not cover practices (such as contraception…as it has done for decades) that are in direct contravention of Roman Catholic theological doctrines?

    I believe the idea that the Federal government has the power to compel religious institutions to pay for things that are against the teachings of those very same religious institutions, to be quite absurd.  No one has ever suggested women should be prevented from having “access” to contraception, but yes, if those women are employed by the Roman Catholic Church, then those woman have had to pay for such things themselves, for many years now.  I hardly see why it would be such a problem if that status quo were simply allowed to continue.  Nothing has changed, except now the Federal government has asserted it has the right to compel the Roman Catholic Church to comply with its dictates.

    According to the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, NOR PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF.”  Requiring the Roman Catholic Church to pay for birth control pills is a textbook example of prohibiting the free exercise of the Roman Catholic faith, as I should think would be obvious to one & all.

    • Kevin,
      You WOULD think the meaning of the 1st Amendment “would be obvious to one and all”.
      But it’s astounding just how creative our liberal Constitutional “experts” can be when they put their clever, progressive minds to it.
      A meticulous hunt through the various amendments and clauses inevitably turns up something that is useful to their purposes. Then, once they’ve applied enough parsing of words, twisting of logic, and ignoring of original intent, voila!- the U.S. Constitution magically says exactly what they want it to say.

  3. Dakota and Mark Anderson:

    Contraceptives, sterilizations, and the Plan B medication have costs associated with them. Somebody has the pay the manufacturer, and that somebody in ObamaCare is the insurance agency, who in turn gets their money from somebody else, who is the employer.  The “compromise” is (1) just a short speech by the President, since what was placed in the Federal Register was the HHS Secretary’s orginal plan and (2) a cheap accounting trick, since the insurer gets its money for the policy from the employer, regardless whether the “compromise” is entered into the Federal Register or not.  What the “compromise” seems to do (since right now it is only some words by the President) is simply to allow the Catholic institution to pretend that the medical policy it is purchasing for its employees doesn’t provide for these morally objectional agents. 

    Pretending is not a legitimate pretext to avoid guilt in Catholicism, at least what I have learned in many years of catechism.  Perhaps this issue is an example of the “junk theology” Rick Santorum has been speaking about.

    Mark Anderson, this comment of yours is astounding for its lack of understanding of a basic economic principle:  “The people working at the institution pay for the insurance as part of their compensation package.”  Well your cash salary is part of your compensation package.  Am I to assume that you pay yourself your salary and that your employer should budget zero for your salary since you are paying yourself?

    Mr. Anderson, another comment from you deserves a response:  “What you want is the right to deny any woman from getting insurance for contraception.”  Hmm, this HHS decision has been spoken about at Mass several times over the past weeks.  I haven’t heard the priest say anything about this.  Are you saying that the Catholic bishops want to pass a law which would prevent Americans to buy individual policies to purchase contraception?  This is news to me and I have read extensively on the subject.  Seems to me to be inefficient anyway:  why not just purchase them without a medical insurance middleman?

    • Dear Barressa Chillin or whatever you go by instead of your real name.  The basic economic principle I’m going by is that insurance isn’t provided by the employer out of the goodness of their heart.  It’s earned by the employee as is their salary.  I would imagine that you earn a salary, is what you buy with that salary watched by your employer?  What is the difference with health insurance?  Nobody is required to buy contraception, it just has to be offered.  What that means is you can’t control what a woman will do, you can control what you do yourself.  Say hello to all the women at your next Mass, very nearly all of them disagree with you, in action anyway.

    • Covering contraception actually saves money for insurance agencies. Covering contraception offsets the coverage of unwanted pregnancies. Because of this, mandating contraception does not raise premiums.

      According to a report from the US Department of Health and Human Services:
      “In 1999, Congress required the health plans in the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program to cover the full range of FDA-approved contraceptive methods. The FEHB program is the largest employer-sponsored health benefits program in the United States, and at the time, it covered approximately 9 million Federal Employees, retirees and their family members and included approximately 300 health plans.  The premiums for 1999 had already been set when the legislation passed, so the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which administers the FEHB program, provided for a reconciliation process.  However, there was no need to adjust premium levels because there was no cost increase as a result of providing coverage of contraceptive services.”

      The National Business Group on Health estimates that failing to provide contraceptive care actually costs an insurance company 15% than they pay by not providing it.

      • Well, duh!

        When the government dishes out gobs of social services and runs mammoth deficits, each citizen costs the government money.

        Reducing the population of citizens reduces the costs to government.

        This is EXACTLY what the population control crowd has been working toward for decades.

        (In case you don’t know who the “population control crowd” is, start with Paul Erlich, George Soros, Warren Buffett, Margaret Sanger, the Sierra Club, etc. etc.)

        They NOW have a “FISCAL” argument for reducing the earth’s population, and justifying contraceptives, abortion, morning after pills, euthanasia, death panels,  ethnic cleansing, holocausts, genocides, and Irish Potato Famines.

        Just being fiscally responsible and saving the planet, you know.

    • If you honestly think Warren Buffett and George Soros are members of a “population control” club that is promoting genocide and ethnic cleansing, then you’re not adhering to rational discourse. Making up some ridiculous conspiracy theory that doesn’t even relate to contraception is not arguing, it’s sensationalizing an issue. After the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, Obama asked that everyone “turn down the rhetoric.” People who raise wild, unfounded attacks are dividing this country. That includes liberals who compare Republicans to nazis and conservatives who compare contraception to genocide.

      • > If you honestly think Warren Buffett and George Soros are members of a “population control” club that is promoting genocide and ethnic cleansing, then you’re not adhering to rational discourse.

        Yup.  I honestly think Warren Buffett and George Soros are members of a “population control” club.

        I guess you didn’t get the memo.

        http://www.meehanreports.com/billionaire.html

        Oh, and by the way, the UN thinks it’s genocide:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genocide_Convention

        “… any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:


        (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;”

        > Obama asked that everyone “turn down the rhetoric.”

        Really? Obama was the guy who called me a “troglodyte” and a “flat earther”.

        Maybe he should turn down his own rhetoric.

        • So this “Mandy Meehan” woman said in 2001 that Warren Buffett and George Soros are in a “population control” club? Then I suppose it must be true.

          It’s a very biased, radical article, but it boils down to the argument that supporting increased access to abortion is the equivalent of genocide. That’s a very extreme argument to make, and Mrs. Meehan doesn’t make it very well. So why don’t you explain why you believe it.

          As for the wikipedia article, I really can’t see how that relates to Warren Buffett or contraception.

          Obama comparing a denial of global warming to a denial of the Earth’s roundness isn’t a very egregious example of rhetoric. It’s nothing like the dangerous comparison between contraception and genocide.

        • > It’s a very biased, radical article, but it boils down to the argument that supporting increased access to abortion is the equivalent of genocide. That’s a very extreme argument to make, and Mrs. Meehan doesn’t make it very well. So why don’t you explain why you believe it.

          So, where are the counter facts?  There aren’t any.

          Pretty pathetic.

          I would say you lost the argument.

        • What facts are you asking me to counter? The article argues that Buffett supports access to abortion and contraception, but leaps from this fact to state that increased access to abortion is the equivalent of genocide and eugenics. If you think there’s some damning fact in that article somewhere, please point it out, but linking an obscure, biased article and then asking why I didn’t disprove it is not “arguing”. I don’t have the burden of proving that abortion and contraception are not genocide. If you’re going to say something like that, YOU have to prove why it is.

    • Considering Warren Buffett and George Soros are two of our time’s greatest philanthropists, with Buffett having promised to donate ninety-nine percent of his fortune to the Gates Foundation and Soros having taken an active role in helping post-war Eastern European countries transition to capitalism, they seem like rather odd targets for your baseless attacks.

  4. > Soros having taken an active role in helping post-war Eastern European countries transition to capitalism….

    Just fell off the turnip truck, did you?

    Soros is not helping “countries transition to capitalism.”  He’s engineering the destruction of capitalism from within.

    • “Just fell off the turnip truck, did you?”
      How can you say that after linking that last article? And how can you immediately go on to immediately make a statement such as “he’s engineering the destruction of capitalism from within”?

      I’m going to take the easy way out and link an article that discusses some of Soros’ involvement in Eastern Europe. It’s from the Atlantic, which is a much more reliable source than the article you previously linked:
      http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1993/07/finance-the-unifying-theme/5148/

      If you want to argue about Soros’ history as a philanthropist, I’ll accept that challenge, because it’s an easy argument to win. But your earlier comparisons between contraception and genocide deserve some explanation.