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As Contraceptives Rule Enters GOP Race, Will Reproductive Rights Affect 2012 Election?

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Rick Santorum’s three-state victory comes after a week of heavy Republican campaigning against a new Obama administration rule requiring health insurance plans, including those provided by Catholic-affiliated hospitals and universities, to offer free birth control methods. Reproductive rights groups have hailed the measure, which was fueled by research showing birth control is necessary for women’s health and well-being. The row over contraceptives comes as a top official at the breast cancer charity Komen has resigned after a controversial decision to defund Planned Parenthood backfires. We look at how reproductive rights could become major issues in the 2012 race with three guests: Michael Brendan Dougherty of Business Insider and The American Conservative, Loretta Ross of the SisterSong Reproductive Justice Collective, and Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryNov 27, 2013Religious Rights for Corporations? Supreme Court Takes Up Challenge to Contraception Coverage
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we talk about the whole issue of contraceptives, healthcare and the Obama administration. Although Santorum trounced his opponents in three primaries and caucuses last night, most of them—certainly Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Santorum himself—took aim at President Obama. I want to turn to a clip of Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate—said on Monday that President Obama is trampling religious freedom by requiring some religious employers to cover birth control in employee health plans.

MITT ROMNEY: Just this last week, this same administration said that churches, in the institutions they run, such as schools and, let’s say, adoption agencies, hospitals, that they have to provide for their employees, free of charge, contraceptives, morning-after pills—in other words, abortive pills—and the like, at no cost. Think what that does to people in faiths that do not share those views. This is a violation of conscience. We must have a president who is willing to protect America’s first right, our right to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.

AMY GOODMAN: Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice, respond to what Mitt Romney says.

JON O’BRIEN: Ninety-eight percent of Catholic women in the United States have used a method of birth control that the bishops don’t approve of. When the bishops talk, they talk on behalf of the 350 U.S. bishops. They don’t speak for 68 million Catholics. It’s very clear Catholics support the use of contraception. Catholics even support, at a higher level than most Americans, the idea that contraceptives would be covered as part of health insurance.

It’s clear to me that what’s going on here really is that the bishops are looking to have their cake and eat it. They actually want to run hospitals and schools, very often taking taxpayer dollars to do that, but they want to be exempted from the same rules as everybody else. The idea that an employer could actually determine what you do in your personal life, if you use birth control or not, by virtue of blocking your access to insurance coverage is really outrageous and very un-American.

This is, in no way—and I think the Republicans may be making a big mistake, because what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to politicize an issue around healthcare. The Institute of Medicine determined that contraception was preventative healthcare. It’s important for women’s health. The idea that the Republicans now are trying to use this as a wedge issue to criticize President Obama is really striking a very low chord, and I think it does not resonate with women. Women know that birth control is very important for their healthcare. Birth control can be very expensive. It can cost $500 or $600 a year. In the United States at the moment, when many people are suffering from the economic downturn, the idea that you could get coverage for your birth control is something that I think most American women and most American voters will actually appreciate.

It’s really, you know, a—it’s Orwellian for the bishops to suggest that their religious freedom has been trampled on. What they actually want to do is they want to impose their view on contraception, which is very much a minority view within the Catholic Church, on Catholics and non-Catholics who actually work in hospitals and schools. Catholics and non-Catholic workers in hospitals and schools should have the freedom of conscience, of their conscience, to follow their religious or non-religious beliefs to use contraception. The idea that an employer, that a bishop, can get between you and your birth control, there’s something that’s very un-American and wrong about that. Freedom of conscience is an essential part of actually being a Catholic. So, at the end of the day, it really is for individuals to make this decision, and the bishops, as an employer, should butt out of it.

And the Affordable Care Act, which the Obama administration created and included birth control in, I think that most Americans and most American voters, and certainly most Catholics, are supportive of the idea of birth control being covered. It’s a good thing, as well. It prevents unplanned pregnancy. And we would have—I would have thought that the Republicans, who talk so much about abortion, would have been interested in achieving that end goal.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michael Dougherty, your response?

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY: I mean, there’s a lot to respond to there. I mean, 98 percent of Catholics use contraception or have used it in their life, that’s a very impressive stat, but that doesn’t justify forcing monks or bishops or Catholic institutions to pay for it. I mean, I’m sure even more Catholics have told lies, have coveted things. That’s not a reason to abrogate the Ten Commandments.

AMY GOODMAN: But you’re not comparing telling lies to using birth control.

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY: Well, in this case, from the conscience angle, yes, I am. And this law actually—I mean, currently, the bishops aren’t blocking women from using birth control. What this law does is it invites the bishops and monks that are running these institutions into the bedroom. It says you have to come down to the store and pay for these contraceptives. You have to pay us to do this. I mean, I understand that people are arguing we have a right to healthcare, but we don’t tell, say, Jewish leaders that, well, people have a right to food and nutrition, and so you have to buy me pork or you have to serve it in your cafeterias. I mean, I understand that many people want this kind of coverage, and they are free to get it, and the fact that 98 percent of Catholics do use contraception is pretty good proof that the bishops have not been successful in imposing anything on their flock.

AMY GOODMAN: I guess the question is, who pays for it? I’d like to bring Loretta Ross in from SisterSong Reproductive Justice Collective in Atlanta. Your comments on this controversy that, well, seems to be forcing the Obama administration to cave somewhat, or, as the New York Times put it today, “Obama tries to ease ire on contraception rule”? But who gets their birth control paid for, and who doesn’t, Loretta?

LORETTA ROSS: Well, really, we need to talk about the fact that this rule really allows low-income women, women who are dependent on their healthcare, to access birth control—women of color, in particular. And we need to also point out that freedom of religion also encompasses freedom from religion. And if you don’t want to use birth control, don’t buy it, don’t use it. But don’t block others who do want to use it, who cannot afford it, from accessing it. And so, it’s really unfair that they are punishing women in this political fight over who wins the Republican nomination, and they’re unfairly putting pressure on the Obama administration for upholding scientific evidence that birth control is preventive care, that that is something very important to women. And while they talk about values and conscience, let’s not lose sight that there are women being damaged by this political football men are making of our lives.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michael, I’d like you to respond to that. But I also—a 2009 Pew study, just to respond to what you said earlier, found that almost 50 percent of American Catholics say abortion should be legal in most cases. And this is quite apart from the 98 percent figure of contraception use among American Catholics.

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY: Right. I mean, I’m not saying that Catholics are perfectly good at following everything that their church teaches, but we don’t—we don’t tell anyone, any religious leaders, that if your flock doesn’t follow you perfectly every single day, that you have no right to define your mission as you wanted to, or that we are going to—you know, what this rule does is it suppresses pluralism in America. I mean, these Catholic hospitals were built up by the Church, and schools, as well, to pursue a certain mission. And the Obama administration, with this rule, is telling them, “No, we define your mission. We tell you when you’re being religious and when you’re just being a social worker subject to the state in all your particulars.”

AMY GOODMAN: Michael, you were in church when you heard your priest read out a letter.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened and how unusual this is.

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY: This is one thing that I don’t think has been noticed by the media, is that there’s no precedent for this in American history, where all the church leaders get together and call out a sitting president by name. It was stunning. And even though many people in their lives do not live up to these teachings or even don’t agree with them, they do feel connected to their church. That’s why they’re there. That’s why they call themselves Catholic in polls. And so, many of them, while they may not live up to this, they do not want the government telling their church with they can and can’t do, what their mission can and can’t be, when they are being religious or when they’re not being religious.

AMY GOODMAN: So how are the bishops mobilizing? Explain what happened.

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY: There is talk—I mean, what happened was, after the rule came out, very quickly, it seemed, Archbishop Dolan and others worked together. They distributed this letter. Local bishops maybe added a flourish or two of their own to a standard letter. Priests were asked, in many diocese, to read it after mass.

AMY GOODMAN: Across the country.

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY: Across the country. I mean, this is something that happened in thousands of churches over the past two weekends.

AMY GOODMAN: To read Bishop Dolan’s letter.

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY: To read, yes, a variation of it, which said—and the letter said, very explicitly, we cannot and will not obey this unjust law. I mean, this is an enormous church in this country promising civil disobedience, if this law is not—if this regulation isn’t altered.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you know, Michael, how many, if any, of these Catholic institutions, universities and hospitals already offer birth control as part of their health insurance policies?

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY: Many of them do. I mean, Catholic University of America, I believe, uses Aetna, which provides these services. And there are laws in many states that already mandate things like this—New York, for instance. But many Catholic institutions comply with the law on the books, but, in spirit, seek ways around it. For instance, a lot of Catholic universities won’t prescribe birth control. They might just refer someone to another doctor outside to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Does the health insurance cover Viagra?

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY: I don’t know, in particular, each plan that’s used. Some do. I mean, one thing to note, though, is that the Catholic Church doesn’t consider sex itself sinful. It just considers sex to belong to marriage and to be connected to child rearing and sort of unifying those three things—I mean, marriage, love and procreation.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, many couples want to use birth control, many married couples.

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY: Right. And that’s illicit, according to the Church’s rules. I mean, many, many people want to do all sorts of things that are against the Church’s rules.

AMY GOODMAN: Jon O’Brien, your response?

JON O’BRIEN: Well, I think we have to define “church.” It’s a big mistake to say that the Catholic Church are against birth control. The Catholic Church comprises of the bishops—sure, 350 of them in the United States who don’t use birth control—and 68 million Catholics, many of whom, the majority of whom, actually do. So, this idea—I was in church, too, when the letter was read out. And I have to say that people, you know, look at their shoes during such sermons. Certainly, Catholic voters, I don’t believe, are going to get behind the idea that the bishops are asking government to discriminate against workers in their institutions against their ability to be able to get free contraceptive coverage, something that the majority of people who are sitting in the pews actually use themselves. So, I think this idea that, in some way, religious freedom is being impinged is bogus. It really is not the case. The Catholic hierarchy still have the right to preach against contraception, which they do rather unsuccessfully. And they have a right not to supply contraception. But I think the idea—from a health perspective, the idea that Catholics and non-Catholics should be able to access contraception, I believe, is very important.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jon O’Brien, you said in an interview with Church & State, quote, “The well-funded bishops’ lobby is backed up by industrial behemoths like the Catholic health care industry, looking after the bishops’ special interests.” Can you elaborate on that?

JON O’BRIEN: Yeah. I think that it’s very important to recognize that row, which the bishops have created in their war against contraception, is really the tip of the iceberg. The bishops have set up a committee. The committee, this special committee, which they’ve staffed with lawyers and communications people, is really part of a bigger plan to push this bogus idea of religious freedom. What the bishops want to be able to do is to be able to take taxpayer dollars, your money, and actually use that in the social services that they provide. Many wonderful social services are provided by the Catholic Church, and they run hospitals, they run schools. But if they are taking taxpayer dollars, I think they have to play by the same rules as other folks who take taxpayer dollars.

The bishops recently had a contract. That contract was to provide services for folks who have been victims of sexual trafficking. People who have been sexually trafficked or refugees very often find themselves in need of reproductive health services. They need things like emergency contraception when they’ve been raped. The idea that the bishops want to be able to take government money to provide services, but then say to, for example, a victim of trafficking, “No, we’re not going to give you emergency contraception when you’ve been raped,” there’s something wrong with that. And I think that that’s what the bishops really are trying to carve out here. They’re trying to carve out an exception for themselves as employers, because they have a particular religious view that’s not shared by the majority of people in the Catholic Church and not shared by the majority of Americans. They’re trying to take—have their cake and eat it. They’re trying to take taxpayer money but not be held accountable to the same rules as everybody else. That’s really what’s behind this.

And that’s the reason why, I think, that it’s so important that the Obama administration ensure that people who work at Catholic institutions can get access to contraception. Whatever type of Houdini contortions the administration needs to do with the Catholic bishops or with anybody else, that’s up to them. But the bottom line here has to be, workers at Catholic institutions should not be discriminated against, and the state shouldn’t be part of that discrimination. The bishops have obviously failed to convince Catholics not to use birth control. The state shouldn’t be party to the Catholic bishops trying to get their own way on this.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking something—I think it’s like a million people who work at Catholic hospitals, and then their families, two million people who work at Catholic universities around the country, and their families. That’s what this issue is about around health insurance and whether birth control will be covered and free. On Monday, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League said, “This is going to be fought out with lawsuits, with court decisions, and, dare I say it, maybe even in the streets.”

I wanted to bring Loretta Ross back into this conversation and broaden it, as well, because this controversy comes right at the same time that the Komen controversy is boiling over. And it’s clearly not over. The $2 billion breast cancer charity saying it was going to defund Planned Parenthood, though not in those words, had such an enormous backlash that they have now reversed their decision. And one of the top officials of Komen, someone from your state, from Georgia, the former secretary of state, Karen Handel, has resigned, who ran on an anti-Planned Parenthood platform when she ran for governor. Loretta Ross, can you talk about what this means in general, the whole issue that reproductive rights is now taking center stage in the 2012 race and in the national conversation in a way we haven’t seen for quite some time?

LORETTA ROSS: Well, we actually do see it recycle itself over and over again. Any time an extremist Republican needs to mobilize their base, they do so on these social issues, whether it’s gay marriage, whether it’s abortion, whether it’s immigration. They do so as a way to mobilize their base, as they move to the right to get the nomination, and then they try to move back to the center to actually win the office. This is a familiar strategy.

But what I want to point out is that, first of all, America stood up for Planned Parenthood. It wasn’t just the Planned Parenthood people who were supporting that, but it really outraged all of us that they would sit up here and claim to care for women’s health—that’s the Komen Foundation—and then, at the same time, defund access for breast cancer screenings for low-income women. We would not allow that hypocrisy to stand uncontested. We all stood up and said, “We’re tired of this war on women. We’re tired of you attacking birth control, contraception, abortion, as if women don’t matter, as if women don’t vote.” Women do vote. Women do care about these issues.

And these men, and particularly those Republicans—and we’re very familiar with Karen Handel here in the state of Georgia—y’all just need to back off. Back off our bedrooms. Back out of this whole conversation that thinks that you can just mask your war on women with all this rhetoric about religious freedom and care for not only the pre-born, but now, with the attack on contraception, you’re attacking the preconceived. I mean, this is crazy, what we’re seeing. But we’re not going to take it lying down. And as the fight with the Komen Foundation proved, we are a force to be reckoned with. And we’re actually going to work to strengthen President Obama’s stand in supporting contraceptive access.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Dougherty?

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY: I want to correct a few things that have been said. Jon O’Brien implied that this had something to do with the government giving money. But let’s be clear: this regulation does not apply because the government gives Catholic hospitals money. If the Catholic Church gave up all that money and gave up its tax-exempt status, this rule would still apply to them. It would also shrivel up the largest part of the nonprofit sector of the healthcare system in this country. We’re talking about over 600 hospitals that serve some of the neediest people in this country. So, this has nothing to do with the government giving them money and so the government calls the tune. This applies to everyone, no matter whether they take government money, no matter whether they serve Catholics or serve the broad public. This applies to every employer, except parishes, narrowly defined.

And, you know, the other thing is, the Obama administration is the aggressor in this case. This wasn’t an issue until the Obama administration issued this regulation. And there weren’t people out in the streets saying that, “Oh, I cannot get my contraception because I work at a Catholic hospital.” This wasn’t an issue until the Obama administration made it into an issue. And to suggest that the bishops are actually getting in the way, we know from the percentages that they are not effective at getting in the way of people obtaining contraception. People are managing to do it without dragooning their priests and monks—

AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t the issue—

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY: —to the store with them to buy it for them.

AMY GOODMAN: —who pays? Who can afford to pay for it, and who can’t afford? So, women who are better off can afford to get it outside, even if their health insurance doesn’t pay, but poorer women will just not have access to birth control.

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY: Right. But we have this already in our employer system with other parts of healthcare. Many employers don’t even offer dental coverage or eye coverage, and yet we’re not dragging them, you know, before the trial of the American public and saying that they are committing a war on people with bad vision. I mean, this is such hyperbole. And most of the people who want to enforce this rule would prefer a single-payer system of healthcare anyway, where you’re not actually forcing employers to violate their conscience in buying this.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying a single-payer system would solve the problem.

MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY: Well, I’m saying it would solve this particular problem of conscience, as it has in Europe. The bishops don’t—they do not like that the government subsidizes abortion or contraception, but they are not in full mode of fury, because they are not being asked to formally cooperate with things they view as sinful. And the Church will not cooperate with this and will resort to civil disobedience to avoid it.

AMY GOODMAN: Loretta Ross, final comment on the issue of why birth control over dental care, eye care? Those stuff is optional.

LORETTA ROSS: Well, first of all, I do agree with Michael that we should have had a single-payer system. But at the same time, we have to live with the system that we have, and we have to make sure that those with the least access have greater access under the Affordable Care Act. And I’m sorry that the people who think that their conscience keeps them from supporting the right of low-income women to access birth control, but I don’t see any reason for low-income women to stop fighting for their right not to be discriminated against, even if they happen to work at a religious institution.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, and I thank you all for being with us, Michael Dougherty of Business Insider and American Conservative, Jon O’Brien with Catholics for Choice, and Loretta Ross with SisterSong Reproductive Justice Collective in Atlanta, Georgia.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we look at the New York police shooting of an 18-year-old unarmed teenager in his home. Stay with us.

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