You may have noticed, over the past couple of weeks, a debate over birth control has become one of the most talked-about issues in the news. Aspects of the “birth control in the news” trend are as follows:
- As part of the Affordable Care Act, employers were to be required to provide contraceptives to employees.
- After protests from religious groups, the White House announced a compromise wherein insurers provide contraception, rather than employers.
- Opponents of presidential candidate Rick Santorum have, after noticing Santorum’s surge in key polls, made sure to call the public’s (and the news media’s) attention to interviews where Senator Santorum voiced his personal opposition to contraception.
- Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) introduced an amendment to the Affordable Care Act, which would allow employers to refuse to cover certain types of medical care (ostensibly birth control) for “religious” or “moral” reasons.
- The House Oversight and Government Reform committee held a hearing on the birth control rule, without any women allowed to testify.
- The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill which would define the word “person” as beginning at “the moment of conception”. According to the Women’s Health Law Center, “under this law, any kinds of birth control that stop implementation would then be murder.”
The office of Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, claimed that a woman witness brought to testify by the minority members of the committee was not an “appropriate witness,” saying “the hearing is not about reproductive rights but instead about the administration’s actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience…”
While that line of reasoning may seem sound to some, others argue that it makes no sense whatsoever. The “birth control mandate” if that is what it is being called, is what is known as a “generally applicable and neutral law,” which means that is broadly applied, instead of something targeting religious groups (which would, of course, be unconstitutional under the First Amendment). Zach Carter at the Huffington Post makes the point that we already have laws that apply broadly to people in all walks of life that some religious groups are opposed to. Pacifists are required to pay taxes that pay for wars, for example. Other laws that have been objected to on religious grounds include payment of Social Security, payment of unemployment taxes, and paying employees a minimum wage. As Lyle Denniston, who has covered the U.S. Supreme Court for over half a century writes, “laws that apply generally and do not single out religious groups may be upheld even if they intrude on religious practices”.
This issue will, most likely, stay in the headlines for the foreseeable future, as both the subject matter and the debate serve to drive television ratings and rile up both the Democratic and Republican bases. That said, however, it is somewhat difficult to believe that we are watching this conversation on televisions tuned to 2012 news coverage, and that we did not accidentally switch to a Mad Men rerun by mistake.
A fun little addition:
Little over a month ago the question of banning contraception was raised at a Republican debate held in New Hampshire, moderated by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. When asked whether or not a state should be able to ban contraception former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, in a fit of short-sightedness replied:
“George… I don’t know whether a state has the right to ban contraception. No state wants to. I mean the idea of you putting forward things that states might want to do that no state wants to do, and asking me whether they can do it or not is kind of a silly thing.”