HHS Cowardice and USCCB Overreach


Kathleen Sebelius caves to anti-choicers on emergency contraception, and the USCCB looks to further restrict women’s access to contraception. Jean Baker describes the long and wild career of Margaret Sanger.

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Jon O’Brien testfies against expanding religious exemptions

Catholic universities and hospitals already cover contraception

The naturalistic fallacy stripped to its very silly bare bones

Sebelius nixes FDA ruling on Plan B

On this episode of Reality Cast, I’ll be interviewing Jean Baker about her new biography of Margaret Sanger. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops throws a fit over contraception coverage, and the HHS overrules the FDA for the first time ever on Plan B.

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As a thank you for your donation, more funny from Funny or Die purporting to be Herman Cain’s sexual harassment training video from his time with Godfather Pizza.

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Under the Affordable Health Care Act, contraception is now going to be considered preventive care to be made available to women without a co-pay under new insurance regulations. Already, an exemption has been carved out for churches, but surprise! The United Conference of Catholic Bishops doesn’t think that’s good enough. As long as women out there are having sex for pleasure and not procreation, they will never rest. So they’re pressuring the Obama administration to expand the religious exemption to exclude contraception coverage for women who get their insurance through Catholic schools, hospitals and other, more public employers. Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice testified in front of  the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health against expanding the exemption.

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The argument that this is about conscience makes no sense, of course. What the Bishops are trying to do with this is deprive individual women of the right to their own conscience. O’Brien makes this point beautifully.

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It’s important to remember that the Bishops are trying to carve out an exemption for institutions that taxpayer money, such as universities and hospitals. Which means that we’d be giving money to organizations that formally discriminate against women’s right to basic health care. But it’s even weirder and more upsetting than that. The Bishops would have you believe that the Affordable Care Act would be requiring institutions like hospitals and universities to do something unprecedented in covering contraception. But that’s not true at all, as NPR reports.

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Say what? You better believe it.

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That would mean that the lobbyists trying to get an exemption aren’t being completely honest, and in fact this has nothing to do with conscience at all, but about simply trying to make contraception more expensive as a sort of slut tax. Let’s be clear about this: they are not, repeat, not responding to some new legal requirement to cover contraception. What they are objecting to is covering all of the it instead of merely some of it. This is about nickel and diming women with contraception. It’s also a numbers game, an attempt to force some women who struggle to afford contraception into going off it and getting pregnant. This isn’t a bold stand on principle, or else they would be taking the stand on everyone and with everything. This is about maximizing the number of unintended pregnancies in a year, by specifically targeting people who work for Catholic institutions. Not all of whom are Catholic, by the way.

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Just as importantly, the vast majority of Catholics also clearly disagree with church teachings in their behavior, and a solid majority disagree with church teachings directly with their values. All these people have a basic right to religious freedom. In the conflict between institutional religious freedom and individual religious freedom, I feel that the law should be and usually is on the side of the individual. Because you are brought up Catholic doesn’t mean that you have to follow their teachings. You have a basic right to dissent, and that’s baked into the Constitution. And that’s what this is about. If we grant broad religious exemptions to institutions, that’s basically a free pass to discriminate. After all, using this same logic, they could make the next step and start saying they have a right not to hire Protestants or Jews or even disobedient Catholics. Religious freedom only makes legal sense as an individual right;  it really can’t be considered an institutional right.

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insert interview

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Wednesday morning, reproductive justice advocates woke up with a bounce in their step and a smile on their faces. We had every reason to believe that after more than a decade of fighting political taboos around teen sexuality, the FDA was going to finally shove aside political nonsense and approve emergency contraception to be sold over the counter without age restrictions. There was no science demonstrating that it was dangerous to do so, and plenty demonstrating that it was safe. We have a pro-choice administration. The FDA had sent signals to pro-choicers that our long fight over this was about to be over. And then, suddenly, out of the blue, this happened.

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This was a huge shock, since Sebelius has always been pro-choice as far as we’ve ever known her. In fact, she was the pro-choice governor of Kansas during a very hectic time as anti-choicers really escalated their abuse of Dr. George Tiller in the years leading up to his eventual assassination, which occurred after Sebelius left Kansas to head up the HHS. One of the reasons that the pro-choice community had high hopes for Obama in the early days was his appointment of Sebelius to this role. We sincerely believed that Sebelius was going to move various health and human services departments away from the politicized mess that the Bush administration had made of many of them. And by and large she has, such as when she included contraception as a preventive service under the new health care regulations. Which is why her disingenuous excuse for this decision was so upsetting.

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I don’t believe that story for a second, for a number of reasons. First of all, that’s exactly the same excuse that was used by Bush administration officials when they blocked the selling of Plan B over the counter without age restrictions, and their reasoning was so nakedly political and anti-science that the GAO wrote a report specifically denouncing their process. Second of all, the evidence reviewed by the FDA included two studies showing girls as young as 11 and  12 can read and understand the packaging without a doctor’s help. If you actually look at Plan B, you can see why. It’s basically idiot-proof, a single pill you take once. Aspirin is harder to work. Tampons are harder to work and arguably more dangerous, and we let minors use them. Additionally, few girls 11 and 12 are sexually active, no matter what the nightly news says, and of those who are, I hardly think the pill is more dangerous than pregnancy. Making Plan B available over the counter is mostly about making sure that 15 and 16 year olds get it, and that women older than that don’t have to go through a pharmacist to do so, which can be an obstacle. Right now, if the pharmacy is closed or the pharmacist is busy or even if you’re afraid to say out loud you’ve used it, that’s an obstacle.

No, I believe Sebelius wasn’t worried about the science at all. I think this explains her decision better.

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Which is to say, their concerns were either addressed or not scientific. Really, there was only one concern, this belief that the pill supposedly “encourages sexual activity”, which is like arguing that that air bags encourage driving. This is repeated over and over, and not only have opponents of emergency contraception never produced any evidence to suggest that emergency contraception encourages sexual activity, they haven’t really made the case that 15 and 16 years olds engaging in consensual sex with each other is intrinsically so wrong that we need to deliberately force pregnancy on unwilling girls as punishment. I personally think that there’s a range of ages where kids can be mature and ready for sex, but even if you don’t think that, I really think forced pregnancy is a harsh punishment for girls who flout your expectations. Why not ground them for a month instead? You’d still be wrong, but you wouldn’t be crossing the line into sadistic or evil.

For those who still have doubts that Sebelius did this in a moment of naked pandering to Americans’ worst instincts about teen sexuality, well, Obama erased all doubt by supporting her.

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The reason that science was invented was that some times what we think is “common sense” is just plain wrong. For instance, common sense would tell us that the Earth is flat, but science has shown that it’s round. A lot of what we call common sense is prejudice and bad understanding based on limited information. That’s why we have science. So that when our common sense is failing us, as it is when it comes to teens and sex, we can look beyond it to better solutions.

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And now for the Wisdom of Winguts, the naturalistic fallacy on steroids edition. This is David Barton, misinformation spreader and Christian theocrat extraordinaire, explaining “nature” to us.

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David Barton is trying to tell us that because abortion isn’t something animals do, then people shouldn’t do it. He tells us this while holding a book, wearing clothes, and speaking into a video camera. If he gives up clothes, literacy, language, transportation, and all technology, he can revisit this stupid argument, but since he won’t be able to use language to make it, I don’t imagine many people will understand him. By the way, he’s also wrong on the facts. As PZ Myers explains in show links, a lot of animals spontaneously abort in the face of stress. In fact, nature favors the mother over her offspring, because if the mother dies, so will her offspring, but if she lives, she can always have more babies. A little math could help if you’re struggling to understand how that works. 


Follow Amanda Marcotte on twitter: @amandamarcotte