Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The air is still thick with outrage over President Barack Obama’s attempt to require all employers to provide insurance coverage for people who desire (or need) birth control.

Catholic bishops and their fellow travelers exploded in righteous indignation over a proposal that would have required religious institutions (but not churches) to offer employees the same contraception coverage required of other, secular institutions under the Obama health plan.

The administration backed off in the face of a firestorm of protest, retreating to a compromise that would provide the insurance without requiring religious organizations to pay for it.

Even so, Republicans are still denouncing the original plan as a violation of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution.

I don’t see it.

The original Obama mandate didn’t require Catholics or anyone else to use birth control. That’s a personal choice. What it did was keep institutions from denying their employees a right that’s guaranteed by law. That’s not a denial of freedom. It’s an expansion of it.

The Constitution is there to protect the rights of individuals, not the right of institutions to deny rights they find offensive.

I’ve always thought, in my cynical way, that the Catholic case against birth control was at best self-serving — a way of flooding the voting pool with Catholics — and at worst loopy.

If you really and truly believe abortion is the ultimate evil, how can you be against contraception, the great enemy of abortion?

Obama relied on the recommendation of the Institute of Medicine, an independent group of doctors and researchers, in crafting his proposal.

Birth control, the Institute stated, isn’t a mere accessory to a self-indulgent life, but a medical necessity to ensure the health and well-being of women. And it presented facts to prove this point.

About half of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, the Institute estimated, and nearly 40 percent of those end in abortion. Providing easy access to birth control could dramatically lower those numbers and save money besides.

Sounds reasonable, right?

From the reaction of the Catholic hierarchy and its friends on the reactionary right, you would have thought the White House had ordered a convent of nuns burned at the stake.

“This is a direct attack on religious liberty and will not stand in a Romney presidency,” Mitt Romney said. He has also promised to end federal programs that provide family-planning services to millions of women.

Rick Santorum would like to see birth control made illegal altogether. How’s that for keeping government out of your life?

Conservative Christian leaders and others try to make the case that religion is under siege in this country, and that liberals are attacking their rights.

Actually, it’s the other way round. Liberals aren’t trying to make anyone do anything. You want to use contraception? Fine. You don’t? That’s your right. You also have a right to an abortion if that’s what you want.

Same with gay rights. If you want to marry someone of the same sex, that’s OK with us. Nobody’s forcing you.

Despite proclamations to the contrary by conservative Christians, a majority of Americans aren’t ready to surrender their hard-won reproductive rights. The Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure found this out the hard way when it decided to stop its payments to Planned Parenthood.

The foundation was responding to pressure from anti-choice groups that oppose Planned Parenthood’s abortion services. Plans to disrupt its popular Races for the Cure and boycott sponsors were in the works. When Komen’s decision to cut off support for one of the nation’s biggest providers of breast cancer screenings for uninsured low-income women produced a swift, huge outcry and a gush of financial contributions to Planned Parenthood, the foundation reversed course.

Who’s besieging whom here?

The Constitution doesn’t merely guarantee freedom of religion. It also guarantees freedom from religion.