The XX Factor

Republicans’ Not Smart War on Birth Control

Senator Marco Rubio speaks during an address to the 39th Conservative Political Action Committee February 9, 2012.

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Do Republicans really want to make contraception their big front in the war over national healthcare? That’s the thrust of new bills from Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. I wonder if it’s a good strategy. Contraception isn’t abortion: It prevents unwanted pregnancies rather than ending them. And everyone uses it—after last week’s flap with the bishops, the stat about 98 percent of Catholic women using birth control at some point should be tattooed on our foreheads. Will the GOP really get people to rally around the idea that providing free access to birth control is a plot by the federal government to take over our lives?

Rubio and Blount’s bills are pitched to employers. Rubio’s would allow employers to deny coverage of birth control for a religious or moral reason, and Blunt would let employers out of paying for any kind of health care that runs counter to their beliefs. We’re not talking about Catholic-run Georgetown University any more—we’re talking about Domino’s Pizza. And under Blunt’s bill, could a Christian Scientist employer who doesn’t believe in modern medicine deny any kind of coverage at all?

What’s at stake here is what it means to have national, near-universal health care. If any employer can opt out of covering birth control or any other not even controversial care, then we’ll never have an agreed-upon menu of basic services that everyone receives. It’s a way to cut big holes into the Affordable Care Act, without repealing the law or convincing the Supreme Court to strike it down. Rubio and Blunt seem to think the flurry of protest over the Obama administration’s earlier plan to make Catholic hospitals and universities pay for contraception directly will translate to this far broader Tea Party-friendly stance.

But the polls were with Obama even on the make-them-pay-for-my-IUD plan, and now that the administration has (wisely) backed down from that unnecessarily confrontational position, it can claim the reasonable moderate middle ground. (The Maine ladies, Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, are on board—always a good middle-ground sign.) Rubio and Blunt, on the other hand, are in danger of seriously overreaching. For the sake of taking a scissors to national health care, they’re acting as if religious liberty trumps every other value. The upshot would be to deny free contraception to millions of women. Who, presumably, vote.