Commentary: If our government can do this, what can they not do?

The Kansas City StarMarch 17, 2012 

It’s always fascinating when people on either side of a partisan divide give each other gifts.

Case in point: President Obama’s approval of a rule ordering Catholic institutions to offer insurance policies covering birth control, sterilization procedures and the morning after pill — all contrary to church teachings.

No one has fully explained why Obama took this step. It was always assumed that under the conscience protections enacted after Roe vs. Wade, church-run facilities would not be forced to provide such services.

After all, Obama signed an executive order following passage of the health care act stating that the “longstanding federal laws to protect conscience” remained intact. And yet we woke up one day to read that the government was ordering Catholic institutions — hospitals, charities and schools — to provide coverage for birth control and the rest. Churches themselves remained exempt.

For Republicans, it was an unexpected gift. Voters already hate Obamacare’s personal mandate. Here was a subspecies of the same authoritarianism: We don’t care about your beliefs. Comply or face millions in fines. Most Catholics use birth control, but they weren’t likely to welcome the government telling the church which doctrines it can observe and which it can’t.

Before long, it dawned on the White House that perhaps a teensy misjudgment had been made. So last month the president announced what he pretended was an “accommodation.” Church institutions wouldn’t have to pay for birth control, sterilization and abortifacients. Insurance companies would do it. For free.

As Harvard economist Greg Mankiw dryly noted, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two approaches. Insurance costs are passed on to the purchaser.

Attempts to “work out the wrinkles” in the policy with Catholic bishops only emphasized the administration’s high-handedness. In a recent letter to his fellow bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan recounted how staffers from the Catholic Conference of Bishops were told there weren’t any “wrinkles.” Nothing proved negotiable. The rule had been published in the Federal Register. And by the way, why don’t you bishops listen to more “enlightened” voices in the church? In other words, the government was saying, as Dolan put it, “that we bishops simply do not know or understand Catholic teaching.”

Truly amazing. But never mind. The Catholic left cried hosanna and the media played the “accommodation” as something real.

Then along came Sandra Fluke of Georgetown Law and it was the other side’s turn to give.

Fluke told a preposterous tale about the $3,000 it cost for birth control during three years of law school, apparently unaware that a Target outlet near the university sells generic birth control pills for around nine bucks a month.

Listening to all this, Rush Limbaugh made the point that it sounded as if Fluke wanted to be paid to have sex, then he recklessly followed this thread until he careened into disaster. Why, she must be a “slut” and a “prostitute,” he declared — and on hearing this, the left and its Democratic allies were overjoyed.

Now there could be no question — thank you, El Rushbo! — that the GOP is waging a war on women and this is all about women’s health. Heaven knows no one wants to talk about the government giving orders to the church. No, it’s about Republicans wiping out birth control pills — or as New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg put it, how the GOP wants to take the country back to “when women were property.”

Lautenberg’s histrionics may stand as the climactic aria in the comic opera phase of all this. But Obama’s gift will prove the more lasting. The White House has needlessly bought itself a great deal of trouble and a likely Supreme Court case. As with so much that this administration has done, the latest debate again prompts the question: If they can do this, what can they not do?

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