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GOP hasn't learned its lesson on birth control

Republicans made anti-birth control and anti-abortion rhetoric a centerpiece of their campaign platform in 2012. The result: they lost the White House--again--
Conscience Clause Health Care - Irin Carmon - 09/30/2013
A young participant holds a placard and a rosary during a pro-life demonstration in front of the White House in Washington on February 16, 2012.

Republicans made anti-birth control and anti-abortion rhetoric a centerpiece of their campaign platform in 2012.

The result: they lost the White House--again--and Democrats hung onto the Senate in a year it was theirs to lose.

And while Republicans seemed like they’d learned their lesson, even admitting in an after-action report that the party needs to rethink how it reaches women, this weekend raised a basic question: will they ever learn?

In the middle of the night Saturday, House Republicans slid a rule into a bill to fund the government that would allow employers to deny their employees insurance coverage of contraception on moral grounds.

The so-called "conscience clause,”  is the same proposal Republicans have trotted out again and again during the health care law debate, making various religious and individual-liberty arguments. It’s almost certain not to become law, but the symbolic attempt alone is a reminder of where the party still is on reproductive health.

And where they are is largely unpopular. The idea polls terribly nationally, since the vast majority of Americans – and Catholics – support coverage for contraceptives.  It’s even one of the few areas of the health care President Barack Obama routinely likes to cite in speeches.

Already Democrats are pouncing.

On Monday morning women Democrats in the Senate will hold a press conference accusing Republicans of threatening to shutdown the government, unless the government restricts women's access to health care.

"Once again House Republicans have found a way to mount an ideological attack on women's health as the clock ticks down on a crisis they created," said Senator Patty Murray in a statement. "This is part of the right wing playbook that's going nowhere in the Senate. The truly unconscionable thing is that Republicans would try to rob women of access to health care while holding our economy hostage."

Democrats will continue to have chances to flog this issue, since Republicans have challenged the specific contraception provision in court. It’s  on track to be settled by the Supreme Court.

The Affordable Care Act requires insurance coverage without co-pay for an array of designated "preventative health services," and after successful lobbying by public health advocates, FDA-approved contraceptives were added to the list of women's preventative health services. The hope was that this would ease access to more expensive but more effective long-acting reversible contraception, such as the IUD.

Institutions with specific religious purposes were exempted, but after an outcry around religiously-affiliated colleges, hospitals and charities, an accommodation was crafted to shift the burden to the insurer. That didn't satisfy opponents, including for-profit companies like the organic food company Eden Foods or the craft supply store chain Hobby Lobby. Following a ruling in Hobby Lobby's favor at the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Department of Justice has asked the Supreme Court to settle the question, and the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom has done the same on a case that ruled against another for-profit company, Conestoga Wood Specialities. Both companies claimed that offering contraception violated the employers' religious freedom.

Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp, whose spokesman told CNN that this has long been a pet cause for the congressman, called the move "a victory for our religious liberty as guaranteed by the First Amendment," and referred to the "mandate to provide abortion drugs, contraceptives and sterilization." The provisions do not cover abortion, but some social conservatives believe that taking emergency contraception to potentially prevent a days-old fertilized egg -- which may happen with the prescription drug Ella -- is tantamount to abortion.

The move was also swiftly condemned by women's health groups. “It is unconscionable that elected officials in the House will shut down the entire government in order to force women to seek permission from their bosses to get the contraception coverage benefit in Obamacare," said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

"Women's access to the health care that gives us tools we need to plan our families and our lives is not a bargaining chip, nor do we need to seek consent from our bosses or anyone else."  Dawn Laguens, Executive Vice President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America called it a "remarkably desperate, misguided, and extreme attack on women’s health that would take away health coverage for millions of women," and added, “Thanks to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act, millions of women have already begun to get birth control pills, IUDs, and implants for free, without any co-pay, and millions more women will get this benefit over the next several months. Birth control is basic, preventive health care for women.”