Few reproductive rights stories caught the public’s imagination in 2008 like the conflict over the Bush administration’s attempt to rewrite HHS regulations to expand the powers of anyone working in the health industry to interfere with a woman seeking reproductive health care by claiming religious disagreement. By niftily claiming that health care workers can "believe" that hormonal birth control is abortion—which has the same scientific basis as believing unicorns are real—a wide range of health care workers can interfere with a woman’s access to birth control, as well as abortion. The proposed rule change caught the public’s imagination in part because of the petty, vindictive nature of it. Here is the Bush administration, openly encouraging health care workers to sit in judgment of female patients on a case-by-case basis and, should some women not suit their tastes, interfere with their health care on an individual level that would surely come across as nasty and vindictive in person. As, I would argue, it’s meant to do.
This rule change is nothing short of overriding the wishes and expectations of the larger population to cater to a fanatical religious right. The rule change not only reflects the values of the religious right, but also their tactics. Unable to enact large-scale bans of contraception and abortion, anti-choicers have declared a form of trench warfare against the women of America for possession of the uteruses of America. In real trench warfare, you "win" a "battle" by gaining a few feet of territory. In the trench warfare of reproductive rights, anti-choicers consider a few women inconvenienced, humiliated, or even forced to become pregnant or give birth against their will a victory worth savoring.
But for most Americans, government regulation of health care is about, well, regulation. We want regulations to standardize health care so that we’ll get the same quality of service every time we go to the doctor or pharmacy. "Regulations" that turn health care into a lottery — will I get good service this time, or an anti-choice vigilante interfering with me? — doesn’t even make sense to most citizens.
Despite the opposition to the rule change and the fact that it’s almost surely going to be reversed after a pro-choice President and pro-choice Congress are sworn in, the Bush administration seems perversely determined to push this through, giving themselves an extra 30 days to sneak the new rules under the door (The rule is in the final stages of review). It forces one to wonder what they hope to accomplish by pulling this stunt.
I theorize that it’s an attempt to galvanize the religious right after a set of demoralizing losses in 2008. Nothing gets the right worked up like convincing themselves that they are an oppressed minority because they’re not permitted to push their religious beliefs on others using government power. We all know the litany of battlegrounds: creationism in the science classroom, "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, teacher-led prayer in school, mandatory "Merry Christmas" instead of the more inclusive "Happy Holidays". And some of these battles are losing their power to motivate the religious right. They need something new and fresh so they can continue to distract the nation from important issues like the economy, and so they can become an obstacle between the new administration and genuine progress.
These rules are tailor-made to create such an uproar. Given a new right to hijack health care in order to harass women, the right will feel the pinch when it’s taken away, even if they only have this right for a few days. Email lists and fliers claiming that the Obama administration has written "new" rules oppressing fundamentalist Christians will proliferate.
Marilyn Keefe, the Director of Reproductive Health Programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families, explained two ways that the new HHS rules could be returned to their prior state if the Bush administration does pass them. Obama could suspend the rule when he enters office, and, after a period of public notice and comment, rescind the rule completely. Alternatively, Congress could repeal the rule by either introducing a bill to do it, or putting the repeal in another bill.
Both strategies have drawbacks. The congressional strategy requires building a coalition on what will be reported as an abortion bill, which is usually a bad bet. But if the right is gearing up to play the "poor oppressed fundamentalists" card, then there’s a specific danger in Obama’s administration repealing the rule, which will encourage the religious right, already rife with conspiracy theories about Obama being everything from a secret Muslim to the Anti-Christ, to focus their attention 100% on crippling the Obama presidency. At least with the congressional pathway, the responsibility and therefore the right wing attention is diffused.
That said, using this as a new strategy to work people into a frenzy over the poor, oppressed Christians could very likely backfire. Successful campaigns are those that court the sympathies of Christian-identified Americans who may not be devout or fundamentalist. You need issues that nod to a general Christian dominance without having any consequences that will disturb the everyday life of more moderate Christians. Prayer in schools and "Merry Christmas" includes them. Many fail to empathize with those who are hurt by a ban on same-sex marriage. But if you interfere with their ability to access contraception, they will resist you. Without these moderates on hand, the religious right will find their ability to generate outrage to be sorely limited.
Don’t forget to join Marilyn Keefe, mentioned in the article, and others on RH Reality Check, for a live discussion on the future of reproductive health and rights. Join us and ask your questions!