This, from Tuesday’s press briefing, is infuriating:
JAKE TAPPER (ABC): I’ve heard from a lot of Democrats in the last few weeks who are concerned about President Obama possibly granting an exemption to Catholic churches, hospitals and universities from the requirement that all insurance plans cover contraception. I’m wondering if you could shed any light on this decision. I know the President has not yet made a decision, but I think these Democrats, a lot of them in the abortion rights community, are concerned that this is even being discussed. Could you explain why the President is considering an exemption, and what’s going into his decision-making?
JAY CARNEY (WH Press Secretary): Well, part of the process, Jake, as you know, was seeking and receiving public input before the guidelines that were announced by the Secretary of Health and Human Services would go into effect. That process did result in public input, as well as resulted in numerous comments from various folks who have concerns about this issue.
The President has — this decision has not yet been made. You can be sure that we want to strike the right balance between expanding coverage of preventive services and respecting religious beliefs. And that’s the balance that will be sought as this decision is made.
If you didn’t know any of the background, Carney’s answer seems perfectly reasonable. He makes it sound just like any other open decision, and promises that President Obama will come down on the side of balance.
The problem is, the decision has already been made. In August, the administration announced new rules requiring all new insurance plans to cover birth control and emergency contraception by 2013. At an early October fundraiser in St. Louis, President Obama himself hailed the rule. And when President Obama appeared before the U.N. in September, the administration touted the contraception rule as an example of America’s commitment to women. So when Carney says “this decision has not yet been made,” he’s wrong. It has been made—and by reopening it, President Obama is succumbing to pressure from anti-choice groups.
Even worse, Carney says President Obama is trying to “strike the right balance between expanding coverage of preventive services and respecting religious beliefs” without acknowledging the fact that the rules announced in August already included an exemption for churches.
Even though that balance has already been achieved with the existing exemption, anti-choice groups are nonetheless claiming that the new rule violates their religious freedom. They say they want to expand the exemption beyond churches to include hospitals and other facilities with religious affiliation, regardless of the religious beliefs of the people who work at and are served by those institutions. Despite their rhetoric, such an expansion would have nothing to do with religious liberty—remember, churches themselves are already exempted—and in fact would allow anti-choice activists to impose their own religious and moral views on others. What they really want is to get rid of the rule altogether, and they’re more than happy to use any tactic at their disposal to begin chipping away at it.
In the face of such an obvious attack on the core of the rule, it’s disturbing to see the White House openly contemplate caving to the anti-choice movement. They must have known this attack was coming when they announced the rule, so why in the world are they getting weak knees now? The political implications here are obvious: caving to the anti-choice right would be a huge let down to everyone who cares about reproductive freedom and access to birth control. And given that 99 percent of women have used birth control, that’s a lot of people—a whole lot more than the small but noisy group of anti-choice activists who want to ban birth control altogether.
Moreover, there’s absolutely no upside to allowing opponents of the rule to chip away at it; it’s not like they are going to suddenly come out and endorse the rule. They still want it to be repealed.
The final thing that needs to be said is that if the White House and President Obama cave on this, they will have fallen back into the same old trap of projecting weakness when they are actually in a position of strength. The optics probably wouldn’t be the same if the administration hadn’t already announced the rule, but the fact is, they’ve announced it. Two-thirds of Americans support it. And now that the administration has put the rule in place, they should be proud of it—not contemplating walking it back. Instead of quietly considering weakening the rule, they should be shouting from the rooftops about how great it is. The fact is, that it was one of the most important accomplishments of the administration, and when it comes to women, it will certainly have a bigger impact than the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
They fought for women, and they delivered. It’s astonishing to see them consider taking a step back toward the way things were, especially when there is absolutely no good political or policy justification for doing so. Instead of getting bogged down with how to narrow the scope of the rule, they should be asking the women they fought for to help them win the next battle. It’s time to look ahead. Not behind.