Why the birth control ruling might just deliver for the Democrats

With a crucial midterm looming, the Supreme Court's decision could energise liberals


There is some good news in the otherwise depressing decision by the US Supreme Court this week exempting owners of some corporations from the requirement under Obamacare to offer birth control to their female employers if doing so conflicts somehow with their religious beliefs. Possibly.

Democrats, already in the minority in the House of Representatives, are fearful of losing control of the Senate as well in the midterm elections in November. They just might avoid it if they can mobilise two groups to turn out and vote for their candidates: women and the young. Monday’s ruling might help.

Republicans who have tried and failed to overturn the Affordable Care Act pushed through by President Barack Obama four years ago can barely contain their glee. Anything that has the effect at least of undermining that law is a cause for jubilation. “This is a clear and decisive defeat against Obamacare and a victory for the rights of all Americans,” said the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus.

Is that so? Certainly it is thrilling for religious conservatives who can’t stand the fact that Mr Obama champions progressive social policies. (Actually, they just can’t tolerate his being President at all.)

On gay marriage they are taking a beating. But they are doing much better using the Lord’s name elsewhere, notably to restrict the ability of women to avoid unwanted pregnancies and seek abortions when they can’t. For some time, Democrats have tried to make the case that Republicans are engaged in a war on women.

The argument was crystallised before the 2012 elections by Todd Akin, a Republican Congressman in Missouri, who blew his a Senate race by averring that women who were victims of “legitimate rape”, whatever that is, rarely conceived and became pregnant.

Plenty of women were offended then and should be now. In its five-to-four decision the court sided with the evangelical Christian owners of Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts-and-crafts shops mostly in the South and the Midwest, who contended that abiding by the Obamacare provision requiring them to offer health insurance to all their employees – that includes coverage for some forms of birth control – violated laws protecting religious freedom.

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The ruling is limited only in the sense that it will apply to “closely held” corporations controlled by just a few people, often family members, only, not to large publicly held entities. In particular, Hobby Lobby said it objected the use of either intrauterine devices, IUDs, or two brands of morning-after pill because, in their view, what they did inside the woman’s body – essentially blocking eggs already fertilised by a sperm from successfully embedding in the womb – amounted to abortion. You might want to debate that.

While the US has matured at staggering speed on the question of who is entitled to love (and marry) whom, the debate on abortion gets only more polarised and poisonous. It is as if for some on the right, abortion and family planning are aberrations they can stamp out. What world are they living in? A study just out from the Guttmacher Institute points out that half of pregnancies in the US are unintended and four in 10 of those are terminated by abortion. Three in 10 American women will have had abortion by the age of 45.

Yet Republican-controlled legislatures in multiple states have used the last few years to do whatever they can to restrict access to abortion. According to the pro-choice lobby group NARAL, 87 per cent of all counties in the US are now without any kind of abortion clinic or service for women. Needless to say, any effort to make getting an abortion more difficult disproportionately affects poorer women.

The Republicans need to take care. Polls consistently show an overwhelming majority of women believe there is nothing morally wrong with birth control. Yet there was Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a Tea Party Republican, agreeing with a radio interviewer this week that women use birth control mostly so they can engage in “recreational behaviour”. He said, “Yeah, that’s right”. No it’s not. What about economic reasons for not wanting to be pregnant or medical ones?

Equally hazardous for the GOP is the drive that sputters on in several states to pass so-called “personhood amendments” that hold that the instant an egg has been fertilised during intercourse it should have the full rights of any human citizen. The passage of such amendments would make abortion illegal regardless of weeks or trimesters. IUDs and morning-after pills would automatically be barred too.

If you think the personhood debate is too “out there” to be serious, take a trip to Colorado where Democratic Senator Mark Udall is in a tight race with Republican Congressman Cory Gardner to keep his seat. Senator Udall’s best hope for clinging on – and perhaps blocking a Republican take-over of the Senate as a whole – is to remind voters that Mr Gardner has a long history supporting personhood. It hardly matters that Mr Gardner has recently reversed his position, presumably after seeing what it was doing to him electorally.

Sure Hobby Lobby was a rebuke to President Obama. But for his party it may be just what the doctor ordered – a call to women to stand up and fight before their reproductive rights vanish before their eyes.

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