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Birth-Control Blues

Why contraception is the latest wedge issue dividing Republicans and Democrats.


Mass appeal: Birth-control pills on the assembly line.(AP Photo/Mike Derer)

The nature of the culture war is to obliterate compromise, and often even common sense. On issues that involve moral values, both political parties find it almost impossible to operate with a scalpel. More commonly, they resort to the chainsaw.

Washington’s roiling contretemps over contraception is the latest example. Since the Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of the pill in 1960, and the Supreme Court struck down state laws banning the use of contraception in its 1965 Griswold decision, birth control had mostly avoided the firestorms surrounding issues like abortion, school prayer, and gay rights.


Some 99 percent of American women use contraception at some point, and up until recently, access to contraception hadn’t stirred much political debate. The federal legislation (Title X) that provides birth control and family planning through local clinics was cosponsored by then-Rep. George H.W. Bush and signed by Richard Nixon. Over the years, 28 states—including such Republican-leaning places as Georgia and Arizona—have required that any employer who provides prescription-drug benefits to workers must include contraception (most states exempt religious institutions). Under Bill Clinton, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission likewise ruled that federal antidiscrimination laws also impose that requirement; although some courts disagreed, George W. Bush’s administration upheld that policy.

But this truce was collapsing even before President Obama ignited a fierce backlash in January with his rule to require religious organizations (though not churches) to cover contraception at no cost in their insurance plans.

Obama produced a policy that exposed him politically.

Long before Obama’s proposal, Republicans were pushing hard in the opposite direction. In 2011, House Republicans voted to eliminate funding for Title X family planning (a position Mitt Romney has also embraced); to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a leading source of birth control; and, as part of their plan to convert Medicaid into a block grant, to eliminate the existing requirement that the program cover contraception for its low-income beneficiaries. This January, Rick Santorum reaffirmed his belief that Griswold was wrongly decided and that states should be allowed to pass laws banning contraception (though he said he would oppose such a law himself). Nothing like “the fighting on contraception now has happened since the 1960s,” says Judy Waxman, vice president at the National Women’s Law Center.

Obama’s initial proposal on contraception coverage brought this simmering conflict to a boil. Backlash not only from Catholic bishops usually aligned with conservative social causes but liberal Catholic groups forced the administration last week to unveil a fallback position that required insurers, not the religious-affiliated employers themselves, to fund contraception. Critics understandably find that a wispy distinction, but Democrats are confident it has fortified Obama’s political position; surveys showed the country closely divided on Obama’s first try, but a CBS/New York Times poll this week found two-thirds support for his revised approach. Obama ended with a policy that more closely represents an evolution of the existing state and EEOC requirements.

Yet the administration’s ability to formulate a more widely acceptable alternative so quickly begs the question of why it didn’t choose Version 2.0 to start, especially since key officials such as Vice President Joe Biden (a Catholic himself) raised alarms. Part of the answer, insiders say, is that the administration didn’t want to disappoint women’s groups pressing for undiluted support. “The outside groups were being absolutist; I don’t think the choice was presented in the nuanced way it should have been,” said one senior official. It didn’t help, the official noted, that the doubters tended to be older white men like Biden and then-Chief of Staff William Daley.

The internal victory of socially liberal women over culturally moderate men reflects a fundamental power reality: Democrats (starting with Obama) now rely much more on the votes of the former than the latter. Yet by tilting so far toward the demands of those core constituents, Obama produced a policy that exposed him politically and polarized the issue far more than he needed to.


The reverse is now happening with congressional Republicans. Their multifront offensive against contraception reflects the dominance in their coalition of socially conservative evangelicals and Catholics. House and Senate Republicans are advancing legislation that would allow not only religious-based but any employer providing insurance to refuse to cover not only contraception but any medical service mandated under health care reform that offends their “religious beliefs or moral convictions.” Even some Republican operatives worry that Democratic pollster Geoff Garin is right when he says that the GOP has moved into “an untenable position,” especially with women, by seeming to not only defend religious liberty but also oppose contraception.

In its predictable polarization, the birthcontrol standoff shows why consensus is so elusive on social issues. Each side’s electoral coalition is now bound together far more by shared cultural values than by common economic interests. In both parties, that creates enormous centrifugal pressure toward absolutist positions that compound rather than cushion the collisions of values inevitable in a nation as diverse as ours. Holding together such a kaleidoscopic society demands a spirit of accommodation ominously absent in the contraception crack-up.

This article appears in the February 18, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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