A new federal rule that would require employers to cover
preventative care, including birth control for women enrolled in workplace
health insurance plans, has sparked a political firestorm. Catholic bishops and
conservatives claim it violates religious freedoms and is unconstitutional. The
initial proposal exempted churches and other houses of worship, but required hospitals
and universities affiliated with a religion to cover birth control costs
through their insurance plans. The debate has continued despite a compromise President
Obama announced that would the shift the cost of contraception directly to
insurance companies and away from religiously affiliated organizations. An amendment
that would have allowed employers to deny insurance coverage for contraception based
on religious or moral convictions was defeated in the Senate. Cynthia Daniels, chair of the Political Science Department at Rutgers,
who has written about gender equality and reproductive rights, says the controversy
speaks to the political climate in the country.
The debate over the birth control mandate has been framed by opponents as a
battle over religious freedom, while supporters argue it’s an issue of women’s
rights. What do you think the fight is about?
Daniels: In my opinion it’s not an issue about religious freedom, but about women’s rights and
the state of our political climate that makes an issue out of contraception in
the 21st century. I think
President Obama has been assaulted by the developing strength of the right wing
and their move not just to restrict access to contraception but also to push
the right-to-life movement forward. It’s part of that bigger political game and
part of a larger struggle over women’s rights to reproductive autonomy.
Rutgers Today: Why
do you think this continues to be an issue after the president announced a
compromise that would shift the cost of contraception coverage away from religiously
affiliated institutions to insurance companies?
Daniels: I think President
Obama could be commended for trying to engage in the politics of compromise
when we seem to have a national climate that is bent on polarization. But the
fact that we even have to be having this conversation is a sign of how
regressive American politics and the American political culture have become. We
are talking about access to contraception - we are not even talking about
access to abortion.
I think sometimes the right wing movement ‘forgets’ that Griswold v.
Connecticut in 1965 legalized contraception. It’s very ironic that the same
people who are anti-abortion are also anti-contraception. Clearly what they are
trying to do is back us into a certain view of sexual morality that they want
to impose on the rest of the population. I think that is the bigger political
agenda, because if you are not for pregnancy prevention and you are not for
pregnancy termination, than really what you are talking about is trying to
enforce a conservative sexual morality on a majority of Americans.
What do you think are the political consequences of having a debate over access
to contraception and who do you think stands to benefit?
Daniels: In the
end its going to help Obama look like he is more reasonable, the more middle of
the road mainstream political actor who is willing to compromise in the face of
great polarization. I think it will probably work to his advantage long term. And
who is it going to hurt him with? The more conservative wing of the American
society is not going to vote for him no matter what he says or does.
What do you think about the amendment introduced by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that
would have allowed employers to deny insurance coverage for services such as
contraception that are contrary to its “religious beliefs or moral
Daniels: If we
are going to be selective about what drugs are covered or not, based on
politics, than we are going to pretty quickly enter into a system that is chaotic
and not based on the real health care needs of the American public. After all, we use public funds to pay for viagra and I for one might
question that, given that federal funds are blocked for essential
women's health needs.
Media Contact: Andrea Alexander
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