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'Mad Men' vs. Angry Women? 'Culture war' reruns in contraception debate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 22, 2012 - WASHINGTON — Is it “Mad Men” versus Angry Women? Religious liberty versus secular freedom? Or “rights of conscience” versus rights of contraception? 

No matter how you view the hot debate over the Obama administration’s new rule on contraceptives coverage — and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt’s “Rights of Conscience” amendment that would block it — many hear echoes of the “culture wars” of previous decades over issues like birth control. 

Today the Missouri House approved by a vote of 114-45 its own resolution opposing the new contraception rule; it was denounced by women in the Democratic minority as affecting access to contraceptives. In Clayton, about 150 protesters demonstrated outside the office of Blunt, R-Mo., complaining that his amendment represented an “attack on women’s health” — a charge that the senator vehemently denies. And in Washington, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., planned a Capitol event Thursday featuring a woman “left out” of last week’s all-male panel at a House hearing on religious liberty and the contraceptives rule. 

A photo of that panel of religious leaders opposed to the administration’s mandate — including the Rev. Matthew Harrison, president of the St. Louis-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod — went viral last week among liberal women’s organization, such as EMILY’s List, which argued that “women's health-care decisions should be left up to women!” The photo also was used as a poster-sized prop for statements on the Senate floor by some female senators who oppose Blunt’s amendment. 

“I feel like I'm waking up on a set of the ‘Mad Men’” — the TV series featuring 1960s-era ad executives — quipped Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., complaining about the all-male panel, the contraceptives debate, the “extreme” Blunt amendment and comments by a GOP donor who joked about the “aspirin between the knees” approach to birth control. 

As the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Murray is using the issue — framed in terms of contraception rights, rather than religious liberty — to raise money. That includes a DSCC “Stand against the Blunt amendment” petition that has helped identify potential donors. Dozens of other organizations, including Planned Parenthood and NARAL, are also using the issue.

There’s also plenty of action on the opposite side. This week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — saying “we urgently need legislation to correct the mandate’s threats to religious liberty and conscience rights” —- sent out a new statement to be inserted in Catholic church bulletins urging parishioners to contact Congress to support Blunt’s bill.

Dozens of religious and conservative organizations have also joined in opposing the administration’s contraceptives mandate and, in many cases, backing Blunt’s amendment, which aims to block health-care mandates that he says interfere with constitutional “rights of conscience,” including religious beliefs. Those include the Missouri Baptist Convention, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, and more than 2,500 evangelical pastors and leaders.

Meanwhile, seven lawsuits challenging the Obama mandate have been filed on behalf of Christian colleges and other religions institutions by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. And the conservative Heritage Foundation released a new video asserting that religious liberty is “Obama’s first casualty.”

With both sides digging in for a divisive debate, Jim Towey — who led the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives under former President George W. Bush — predicted to reporters that the “religious freedom” issue won’t go away and will likely become a factor in the presidential campaigns and other elections this year.

Blunt stays low-key; amendment’s fate is unclear

With his issue in the national spotlight — Newsweek declaring that “the culture wars [are] roaring back,” church groups demanding action and conservatives like Sarah Palin weighing in from the right — Blunt has remained typically low key in appearances across Missouri during the Senate’s recess this week.

While many observers expect a Senate vote on Blunt’s measure as an amendment to a major transportation bill next week, that is not yet a done deal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who had at first blocked Blunt’s amendment and later said he would allow a vote, gave mixed signals late Friday, complaining that senators were proposing hundreds of amendments to the transportation bill and seeking to limit those. 

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the second-ranking Senate Democrat, has said opponents have the votes to defeat Blunt’s amendment, which would need 60 votes to pass. Blunt can likely count on at least 37 votes for his measure, given that it mirrors a bill with that many cosponsors that he and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., introduced last summer. He told reporters last week that he expects “another Democrat or two” to back the amendment.

That won’t include Missouri’s senior senator, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who told reporters last week that Blunt’s amendment goes “too far.” She said she is “very concerned about the war on contraception” now being waged by some conservatives. “If we want to now decide that whether or not a woman can get birth control depends on who she works for, I just think that is a giant step backward for our country. And I think the women of this country are going to be beyond upset about that notion.”

Blunt’s amendment has picked up support from a wide range of GOP senators, including centrist Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass. The issue of contraception and religious freedom has become a major issue in his campaign against his chief Democratic rival, consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, whom Brown accused of seeking to “dictate to religious people about what they should believe.”

And there seemed some doubt on exactly when a vote will occur on Blunt’s measure. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a vocal opponent of Blunt’s amendment who chairs the main Senate committee with jurisdiction over transportation, complained on Friday: “We shouldn’t be bringing controversial, unrelated amendments to the highway bill, because 2.8 million jobs are hanging in the balance.”

Whenever his measure comes to debate, Blunt says he expects “a big fight” on the amendment. He told Springfield television station KOZL on Monday that “I think we, ultimately, will win that fight.  Whether it's in Congress this year or in some election in the future, the American people will ultimately will stand by the First Amendment.”

In Missouri, Blunt has encountered plenty of support as well as opposition to his controversial measure. Harrison of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synodtold the U.S. House Committee on Government and Oversight last week that “we are deeply concerned” about the Obama mandate, and “we stand with our friends in the Catholic Church” and other religions in agreement that “religious people determine what violates their consciences, not the federal government.”

Harrison told lawmakers that the LCMS — which includes 6,200 congregations, 1,000 schools, 1,300 early-childhood centers and 10 colleges and universities — “self-insure(s) 50,000 people” and would be affected by the mandate because the LCMS opposes “abortion-causing drugs,” which they believe may include some contraceptives. 

Protestors criticize amendment

At Wednesday’s demonstration in Clayton outside the building that houses Blunt’s office, representatives of several groups contended that his amendment could deprive some women of no-cost birth-control coverage, which would be assured under the Obama mandate. 

“This proposal could render health insurance almost meaningless by giving corporations and health-insurance companies carte blanche over what kind of health coverage Americans get,” said Pamela Sumners, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, in a statement.

The event’s organizer, Julie Terbrock of the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, said protestors think that Blunt “should protect guaranteed access to preventive health care, including birth control, for his constituents instead of leading the charge to give insurance companies and employers power to interfere in decisions that should stay between a woman and her physician.”

Blunt was not at his Clayton office during the demonstration, but he has said repeatedly that some opponents of his amendment are distorting its impact and intention. In comments to reporters last week, as well as a “fact check” document issued by his Senate office, Blunt said his measure “simply restores conscience protections that existed before President Obama's flawed health-care law.” He argued that “federal courts are well equipped to identify spurious claims" by employers who falsely claim “conscience rights” to deny coverage.

Blunt, a Baptist, told reporters last week that his measure “has nothing to do, in my mind, with any specific health-care procedure,” such as contraception, but simply aims “to protect religious liberty as it relates to health care.” He added: “Catholics and Christian Scientists are treated alike, Methodists and Muslims are treated alike.”

Asked if he was concerned that the issue might end up benefiting Democrats, Blunt said: “I actually think it doesn’t matter whether it is a ‘winning issue’ or not. It’s a constitutional principle that needs to be upheld.”

Blunt continued: “Others can figure out how to take that debate, and make it something it’s not, and raise money with it, and get political advantage. There’s really not a whole lot I can do about that.”