I was astonished when Rick Santorum highlighted his opposition to contraception in one of the Republican debates. It turns out, however, that he was just ahead of his time, even if that time is not this century. The somewhat predictable outcry over the Obama Administration’s original policy to require that contraceptive services be part of an employer’s health insurance package was motivated by efforts to secure political advantage, not concerns over religious freedom. The Republican presidential candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, have locked on to the ridiculous theme that Obama is embarked on a war against religion. Then there is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — noticeably silent during years of spreading evidence of child sexual abuse by priests — who latched on to the issue even though the overwhelming majority of Catholics practice birth control. As Gail Collins noted in yesterday’s Times, the bishops are hoping to get the federal government to enforce a religious doctrine, the morality of which they have not been able to convince their parishioners.
It did not take long for the smokescreen of “religious freedom” to disappear for the true reason behind the Catholic and Republican positions to come to the front. After the Administration announced a compromise position on Friday — supported by Sister Carol Keehan, the head of a consortium of Catholic hospitals — the bishops revealed their true objections. It is not just religious institutions that should be exempt from the requirement, but also “secular for-profit employers,” “secular non-profit employers” and “individuals.” In other words, it is not about religion, it’s about sex.
As one would expect, the Republican Party would not be far behind. According to Talking Points Memo, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell supports a Republican effort to allow all health plans to deny coverage for contraceptive services, whether based on religious views or not. Just as I did not understand Santorum’s position, I do not see how Republican leaders think it is to their political advantage to stake out a position not in concert with the majority of Americans. Perhaps it’s just a warm-up for Paul Ryan’s repeat effort to eviscerate the Medicare program.