Monday, December 12, 2011

Now You See It, Now You Don't: The USCCB Lobby and the Contraception Shell Game

I'm confused.  When the tempest in a teapot about the proposed HHS guidelines requiring Catholic institutions to offer contraceptive coverage in their health care plans started, Michael Sean Winters began writing

And, to be clear, the issue is not contraception. There is no effort to force our views on contraception on the whole society, only an insistence that society’s views not be foisted on us. 

And he has continued writing in that vein, even after the media spokesperson for the U.S. Catholic bishops Sr. Mary Ann Walsh informed the public last July that the issue for the bishops is, indeed, contraception.  Some two months after Sr. Walsh told the public that the bishops oppose contraceptive use because "contraception deliberately deprives human sexual intimacy of an essential part of its depth and meaning," Winters kept right on writing,

To be clear, the issue facing the HHS is not really contraception. This issue is conscience.

But now, all of a sudden, when the Obama administration ditched plan B and is receiving fierce blowback from women's groups and much of the progressive base of the Democratic party as a result, Winters is telling us it really has been about contraception all along.  And to support his argument that the administration was correct in jettisoning plan B, which would have made the morning-after pill available to girls under 17 without parental consent, Winters is citing junk science which suggests that this contraceptive's safety hasn't been demonstrated.  Though the FDA has done extensive studies of the morning-after pill, finding it safe, and was supporting plan B . . . . 

In my view, the question of whether minors should be required to obtain parental consent before obtaining contraceptives definitely deserves serious consideration.  But it's a question entirely separate from the question of whether contraceptive use is morally permissible or even morally mandated, and whether good science supports the effectiveness of contraceptives.

I find something more than reprehensible about the refusal of the U.S. Catholic bishops and their mouthpieces to admit that contraception is at the forefront of their real concerns with the various HHS guidelines that have been under consideration in the past months.  I find it more than reprehensible that there's a refusal to engage honestly and transparently the views of large percentages of Catholics and of the public in general as the bishops and their supporters lobby to impose Catholic magisterial views about contraception on non-Catholics.  And I find it reprehensible that, in the absence of honest, open discussion of the real issues (which would admit the wide dissent of Catholics from the magisterial teaching about contraception), the bishops' mouthpieces want to resort to junk science and anti-scientific scare tactics to defend their indefensible positions.

The moral position does not need lies to make it stand up.  If it's the right position, it can stand on its own two feet.  And it can hold its own in open public debate, if it's a sound and compelling position.  

Winters argues that the White House needs to do polling about these matters, and that if it does so, it will find the opposition to its decisions about contraceptive availability is confined to a beltway elite.  On the face of it, this is a highly counterintuitive claim to make, when polls consistently show that even huge percentages of Republicans and those calling themselves pro-life voters support women's right to have access to contraceptives.

By dishonestly conflating the issues of abortion and contraception in the HHS debates (and by seeking to introduce abortion as a Trojan horse into the debates), by refusing to admit that opposition to contraception does drive the USCCB opposition to the proposed HHS guidelines, by resorting to junk science to support its position about contraception: the USCCB and its mouthpieces are playing right into the hands of political commentators such as Amanda Marcotte, who classifies the USCCB as an absolutist right-wing lobby group colluding with other right-wing absolutist lobbies to make contraception as unavailable as possible, in the name of promoting pro-life concerns.

Marcotte writes, 

The USCCB presents itself simply as a support structure for American Catholic churches, but a large wing of the organization is devoted to lobbying for extremist anti-choice policies that are often far beyond anything being asked by incrementalist anti-choice activists. Conservative media threw a fit when Nancy Pelosi described this group as “lobbyists”, but the term is utterly accurate. The USCBB does spend a great deal of time and  money lobbying for severe restrictions on abortion and contraception access.   
The USCBB lobbies for an overturn of Roe, but that’s only the tip of their anti-choice advocacy. They exploited the health care reform debate to try to push for Congress to prevent private insurance companies from covering abortion care. They have taken a strong anti-contraception stance that makes fallacious, unscientific claims about contraception, including claiming that contraception artificially induces an unhealthy state (something actual medical experts would strongly argue against) and making unscientific claims about how contraception works. Currently, they are demanding that religiously affiliated organizations that take taxpayer money, such as hospitals and universities, be allowed to deny contraception coverage to the female employees, many of whom aren’t even Catholic. They are also fighting the Obama administration’s choice to give groups who offer complete health care to trafficking victims grants instead of giving them to Catholic organizations that refuse contraception or abortion referrals for women who have been forced into prostitution, suggesting that their main concern isn’t getting women out of trafficking situations, but blocking them from having healthy and consensual sex lives after escaping forced prostitution.  

Two things drive what the USCCB lobby and its mouthpieces are doing with the HHS guidelines, in my view.  In the first place, they're fighting a rear-guard action in a battle they've long since lost, against the shifting sexual mores of a society in which contraceptive use is now widespread, and in which teens--who have always been sexually active and always will be--will increasingly have access to contraceptives, beyond parental controls.  The morning-after pill represents the ultimate threat because the ease with which it can be used represents the final defeat, in the mind of those who see the preceding societal developments as signs of moral decay.

But there's another layer to the USCCB opposition to the HHS guidelines and the wider availability of contraceptives--a specifically political layer.  Marcotte is absolutely right to see the bishops (and I'd add their mouthpieces to this analysis) giving aid and comfort to the political and religious right through their attack on the Obama administration over the issue of contraceptive use.  At a point in American history in which overwhelming percentages of Americans of all political stripes endorse the use of contraceptives and in which one highly credible scientific group after another recommends their wider availability--in part, to prevent abortions that occur due to unplanned pregnancies . . . . 

The political game that the bishops have long played, and in which their centrist mouthpieces collude, is to play the Republican party as God's chosen party against the "godless" Democratic party, so that, even when the Democrats have control of the White House and Congress, they are forced to do the bidding of a minority of Americans using disreputable faith-based arguments about matters such as the availability of contraception and its coverage by health care plans.  This is a quintessential beltway elitist game, because it's entirely divorced from any concerns about where the thinking of most Americans about these issues actually comes down.

Or, to be honest, from any perceptible concerns about the anguishing moral challenges that face real-life families in real places, when teenaged children begin to be sexually active, and when an unexpected pregnancy results . . . . Because (have I said this already?) teens always have been sexually active and they always will be sexually active.

And forcing a girl to bear a child she is not prepared to bear as punishment for her "loose" ways when contraceptives could have prevented the pregnancy does not, in my view, serve the values of life in any reputable or obvious way--though I am open to discussion about the role of parental control and consent as contraception is made available to teens, and I believe that question can be discussed in isolation from questions about the moral permissibility of contraception.

(And the game of playing a minority against the majority will continue to work, vis-a-vis these issues, as long as the Democrats remain spineless once they have power in their hands, and as long as they cave in to the right and centrists providing cover to the right, vis-a-vis those matters.)

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