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Knocked Up: Republican Presidential Candidates' Plan for American Women

Birth control is under attack by all of the candidates competing for the Republican presidential nomination.

Back in the good old days, a kinder, gentler Republican Party, seeking to punish women who dared to have sex for the pleasure of it, targeted only those who accidentally got pregnant -- by forcing them to bring their fetuses to term. Today, it seems, that scheme doesn't punish enough women for the perceived sexual sins committed by so many. In the GOP of the 21st century, the standard bearers aim to make sure you pay for your pleasure with a pregnancy and childbirth.

Everywhere you look, birth control is under attack, most notably by all of the candidates competing for the Republican presidential nomination. To advance the cause, the candidates are allied with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has cleverly framed its war against women as an issue of religious freedom -- a talking point that the candidates, especially frontrunner Mitt Romney and the second-place Newt Gingrich, have jumped on.

For the Republican base, with its antipathy to what it calls "Obamacare," the controversy over birth control is quite perfect. That base, as it exists today, is largely composed of the religious right, which stands in opposition to women's equality, and the Tea Party movement, which was organized by political operators in opposition to the healthcare reform legislation that became law in 2009 as the Affordable Care Act.

At a deeper level, though, the appropriation of the bishops' position by the Republican candidates is the full-flower expression of what might be called the Romanizing of the Protestant right -- a cross-pollination of convenience between historically opposed factions of Christendom, a phenomenon that has unfolded with little fanfare over the course of the last three decades.

The Bishops' Crusade and the Republican Right

At issue is a provision of the law that requires employers -- those that provide health insurance benefits to their employees -- to include contraception as part of their health-benefits package, and to provide it without demanding a co-payment. Churches are exempt from the requirement, but institutions that serve the general public, such as hospitals and universities, are not. And the Roman Catholic Church is deeply entrenched in both the health and higher-education sectors. In many areas of the country, the only accessible hospital is a Catholic hospital, thanks in part to an aggressive program of mergers with secular hospitals undertaken by the church in the late 20th century.

For Romney, the controversy is a two-fold gift in his quest for the Republican nomination, allowing him to attack President Barack Obama over the healthcare law, a major bugaboo of the right, while deflecting attention from Romney's own role in creating a similar healthcare scheme for Massachusetts during his term as its governor. (Never mind that, in 2005, Romney required Catholic hospitals in that state to offer emergency contraception to rape victims.) And with the focus on birth control, Romney gets to allay, somewhat, evangelicals' suspicions of his Mormon faith, shining a light on what unites them as he trots out the members of his large family on the campaign stage.

But the Republican field's opposition hardly begins and ends with the bishops' crusade against the women employees of their more than 600 hospitals and more than 200 colleges and universities. (Catholics for Choice offers a thorough 2005 fact sheet, in PDF form, on its Web site.)

Both Romney and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum told George Stephanopolous in a January ABC News debate, that Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court case that legalized the sale of contraception in all 50 states, was wrongly decided. But this was before the bishops' crusade against the new healthcare regulations became a cause celebre, and Romney, with an eye toward the general election, then doubled back, punting the question to Rep. Ron Paul. "You can ask your constitutionalist here," Romney said. "...I don't know whether a state has a right to ban contraception."

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