The Republicans’ Conscience Clause and the Policing of Choice

Republicans claim that they stand for freedom: free markets, freedom to protect ourselves, freedom as a value.  And I’m starting to think that we need to talk about freedom and what it actually means-~-and whose freedom they want to protect.  I have to wonder what kind of conscience led them to include their controversial conscience clause to the budget bill-~-or what kind of conscience says that women should not be able to make decisions about their bodies.

Let’s first talk about the budget for a second.  This may sound overly strong, but it’s downright irresponsible and absurd to attach contentious clauses to things as important as the budget.  If this budget does not pass by tomorrow it will send us into shutdown-~-that means a loss of services, thousands or even millions of federal workers not being able to go to work.  In other words, the rest of the country can’t do their jobs because Congress just doesn’t want to do theirs.

This isn’t even the only shenanigans the Republicans have pulled.  First they included language that would have overturned the Affordable Care Act, knowing that Obama has said he would veto any legislation that removed the ACA.  That was a risky move, and the Senate passed a version of the funding bill that didn’t include this language, sending the bill back to the House with the clock ticking.  That’s scary enough, and pretty indicative of the fact that the Republican party has let its more extreme members overrun its agenda.  I say this because many Republicans weren’t on board with that move, and it backfired.

But now that we’re within 24 hours of deadline, I want to talk about this conscience clause.  The goal is to allow certain employers to not have to fund contraception under certain objections.  The argument underlying this is the idea that people opt into those institutions and their norms against contraception, and that while people may have a right to work they don’t have a right to a specific job.  That’s actually not the most unsound argument I’ve ever heard, but here’s the problem: objections don’t just come from religious or other conservative institutions but from religious or conservative managers of institutions.  For example, if a religious family owns a company and objects to birth control, measures like this would say that they do not have to cover it.  While working for the Catholic Church might imply a consent into particular religious norms, working for a private company should not.  Women should be able to work for these organizations without fearing that needed medication is not going to be covered by their health insurance.  The Obama administration has ALREADY granted exception to religious nonprofit institutions, and that’s about as far as the exceptions should go.

But Republicans don’t seem to think so.  Their conscience clause would allow ANY employer or group health plan to opt out of contraceptive coverage for the next year-~-which coincides with the delay until the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.  The problems are multiple: first, this has the potential to restrict women’s abilities to control their own bodies for no reason other than the whims of their employers, and second, this restricts general medical decisions.  I think this is probably a good time to remind people that approximately 9 million women in the United States use birth control for non-contraceptive reasons-~-for example, the medication is used to regulate menstruation and to treat uterine ulcers.  Women need to be able to make these decisions with their doctors and their doctors alone, rather than having to contend with the arbitrary preferences of their employers.

On top of that, clauses like these are blatantly skewed towards harming women and shaming women for engaging in sex.  The argument that companies shouldn’t have to “pay for women to have sex” is narrow-minded and slut-shaming, and inherently misogynistic.  There is no mechanism to restrict men’s ability to have sex, because condoms are over-the-counter and easy to acquire, while birth control has greater access barriers.  In addition, these sorts of measures don’t prevent insurance from covering medications such as Viagra, which definitely has no other medical purpose, but do prevent employers from having to cover birth control, which has a range of functions.  This conscience clause is hypocritical at best and directly attacks women’s rights at worst, and quite frankly, the freedom of millions of women to access their right to healthcare should outweigh the so-called “right” of their employers to object to certain medications their employees choose to take.

But there’s another part of this worth mentioning: the ability to control reproductive processes has been a major factor in increasing women’s ability to pursue higher education and take part on the labor force.  When women lose the ability to make these choices for themselves, they are less able to access these opportunities.  This means that women are more likely to experience unintended pregnancies, which create greater moral conundrums than the simple use of contraception entails, and are more likely to see their careers interrupted as a result.  This potentially gives companies a greater excuse not to invest in women because they see them as more likely to leave-~-an assumption that already contributes to things like the pay gap and hiring differences.  This also disproportionately harms women economically, and while I’m of course all fired up about the fact that women’s rights are being infringed upon, I am also frustrated by the potential interference with women’s economic opportunities.

The reality is that clauses like this don’t come from conscience.  They come from a desire to police women’s choices.  If they DID come from conscience, then they would seek to maximize access to health and stability so that women could make the right choices for themselves.  They would seek to make workplaces as equitable as possible.  They would not create circumstances where women have to choose between access to medication and access  to a job, a trade-off that has all kinds of inherent problems.  This isn’t a conscience clause so much as a nicely worded manifestation of modern misogyny, and I’m ashamed that a country that claims it stands for freedom and equality is rapidly becoming known for stunts that interfere with both of those principles-~-and do so in a way that gambles with our government.



~ by Randi Saunders on September 30, 2013.

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