I have to say, I’ve rather enjoyed watching the Republicans bury themselves in the contraception debate that has come to dominate the race for the party’s presidential nomination. First for raising it, and trying to make political hay out of Barack Obama’s generous compromise to the religious right over contraception coverage in insurance policies, and then for trying to back away from the issue and insist that it was the media that wants to obsess over the contraception question when all they want to talk about the economy and jobs.
It got a bit less funny, however, this week, when conservative talk show blowhard Rush Limbaugh devoted half the week to verbally abusing a young woman who had sought to testify in defence of contraceptive cover for women. What began as a Republican talking point about the president has turned deeply embarrassing for the candidates, exposed a seam of dangerous, repressive fanatacism in the GOP frontrunners, and succeeded in shifting the debate considerably.
I blame Rick Perry for this. Why Rick Perry? Because Rick Perry, who dropped out very soon after the first primaries began in January, was the first candidate, as far as I’m aware anyway, to use the term “Obama’s war on religion.” Its first appearance was in the homophobic “gays can serve openly in the military” ad, which as we all know was a resounding success for Rick Perry and didn’t at all make him look like a terrible bigot and a Sarah Palin-esque joke.
After a while the media started to call them out on this fairly insane, jingoistic, not-at-all-true but oddly compelling (to the religious right) bit of hyperbole, and I guess the candidates needed to come up with something that wasn’t just nebulous and vague to substantiate that ridiculous charge. Whatever random bit of driftwood floating out of the White House’s communications department with even the flimsiest suggestion of an assault on religious freedom would do, and it just happened to be contraception.
President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act included the requirement for all employers to provide access to contraception in their employer health insurance plans, and that meant organisations affiliated with religious groups like charities, schools and hospitals had to also comply. Republicans never really had a problem with this before, but because it’s President Obama they are obligated to oppose everything he says and does automatically because Obama is the worst president ever and if Hitler were the US president then Obama would still be the worst president ever because that’s how bad Obama is. And because of President Obama’s war on religion, of course.
Eager to mollify the idiot Republicans and prevent them from turning access to contraception into a political football, President Obama came up with a very sensible caveat which would mean insurance companies and not religiously affiliated employers would have the responsibility to provide contraception in their health care plans. Recognising that 99% of women in America use birth control of some sort, and that 58% of women who use birth control use it to also regulate other symptoms unrelated to contraception itself (controlling menstrual pain, polycystic ovary syndrome, even acne), President Obama’s compromise was entirely fair and respected religious freedoms, without giving religious employers overreaching powers over women’s health.
Did they accept this compromise in the spirit in which it was offered? No, they doubled down on the crazy and floated a proposal that was even further to the right, threatened people’s liberty in even more creative and sinister ways, and this week thankfully met a narrow death in the Senate. The Blunt/Rubio amendment sought to give employers the right to pick and choose what they wanted insurance companies to provide in their employees’ health care policies, and all they had to do was prove a religious or moral basis for denying anything they wanted. Literally anything they wanted. Contraceptives, treatment for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, everything.
It’s all because the Republicans believe in small government, you see.
Before it was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 51-48, 30 year old Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke got the chance to address a small gathering of political leaders, including the former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, to defend the president’s plan to cover contraception in women’s health insurance plans. She was barred by the Republicans from speaking at a House hearing; they decided that a panel consisting entirely of men was the best way to address women’s health policy, and why not, I say. Only a whingeing feminazi would expect women to have some role in making decisions about their own bodies.
She outlined the serious consequences of the Republicans’ move to encroach on women’s rights and made a persuasive case for the president’s Affordable Care Act.
“How can Congress consider the Fortenberry, Rubio and Blunt legislation to allow even more employers and institutions to refuse contraception coverage and then respond that the non-profit clinics should step up to take care of the resulting medical crisis, particularly when so many legislators are attempting to de-fund those very same clinics?”
In her testimony she related a powerful story about a young women who had been refused access to hormonal birth control in her insurance plan to treat polycystic ovarian syndrome. The insurance company denied her on the basis that birth control is used to stop babies being made, and thus they wouldn’t be funding her sexually promiscuous, consequence-free lifestyle.
Not even the fact that this woman is a lesbian, and therefore unintended pregnancy was fairly low on her list of concerns, dissuaded from this conclusion. The result? The woman was unable to afford treatment, went without, and the following is what happened to her.
“I got a message from her that in the middle of the night in her final exam period she’d been in the emergency room. She’d been there all night in just terrible, excruciating pain. She wrote to me, ‘It was so painful I’d woke up thinking I’ve been shot. Without her taking the birth control, a massive cyst the size of a tennis ball had grown on her ovary. She had to have surgery to remove her entire ovary as a result.”
Influential right wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh heard about Ms Fluke’s testimony and brought the whole insane Republican posturing about contraception to its logical conclusion: by calling her a slut and a prostitute.
“What does it say about the college coed … who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.”
He carried this on for three days until finally, today, he issued the standard non-apology apology, but only after several advertisers had pulled their sponsorship of his programme. (What were they expecting when they advertised with this particularly loathsome, drug-addicted model of misogyny?)
President Obama personally called Ms Fluke, while she was waiting for an interview for MSNBC, to make sure she was okay and to say that her parents ought to be proud of her. It’s quite probable that the president was motivated partly by the obvious political advantage that was to be gained by reversing the “war on religion” meme into what it always was in the first place – a politically expedient attack on women’s rights. But she was very grateful for his support and even appeared to choke up when recounting the phone call.
The Republicans, meanwhile, have been alternately trying to score points on this fading “war on religion” meme and desperately trying to change the subject. Rick Santorum criticised Mitt Romney for an interview in which he appeared to flip-flop on his support for the Blunt Rubio amendment, Romney made the situation much, much worse for himself when he appeared to agree with the sentiment expressed by Rush Limbaugh.
“It’s not the language I would have used. But I’m focusing on the issues that I think are significant in the country today and that’s why I’m here talking about jobs in Ohio.”
To be fair though, none of the Republicans particularly covered themselves in glory. Rick Santorum said the comments were “absurd, but that’s you know, an entertainer can be absurd” and Ron Paul was even more tepid in his reaction, saying that Limbaugh’s offensive days-long women-hating rant was “a little crude.”
I don’t know whether Mitt Romney, the likely nominee for the Republican presidential race in 2012, will be able to shrug off the mess that this contraception debate has turned his campaign into. It’s possible that once he wins the nomination his campaign will wake up and realise how far to the right the bruising primary season has taken him, and attempt to recast him as an electable, not-crazy alternative to the incumbent Democratic president.
What really is apparent to many observers is that some dreadful kind of rot has settled into the Republican establishment. Maybe they’ll need another four years to think about it and try to sort out whatever it is that’s making them all so uniquely crazy.