The White House later came up with a phony compromise -- one that allows church-affiliated employers to opt out of contraception but requires their health care providers to provide birth control to plan members. In the meantime, one act of raw power unleashed a cascade of stupid Republican tricks.
In February, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa questioned an all-male panel invited to discuss the administration's trampling of religious liberty. "Where are the women?" asked Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. Democrats unsuccessfully tried to add a woman, Sandra Fluke, a third-year student of the Jesuit Georgetown University's law school. Issa is a very smart man, and a second panel that day included two women, but that first panel was bad optics.
A top supporter of GOP hopeful Rick Santorum lamely recalled the days when birth control involved women putting an aspirin between their knees. The controversy enabled media to unearth old quotes from Santorum, such as his October admonition about "the dangers of contraception in this country." To Republican women who see family planning as a virtue, Santorum's views, though consistent with his religious beliefs, smack of the Dark Ages.
Enter an amendment proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., which not only promised to restore the conscience clause for church-based institutions but also expanded the exemption for any employer with moral objections -- and not just for reproductive issues but possibly even for treatments such as vaccinations. The Senate killed the amendment in a 51-48 vote Thursday.
Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine was the only Republican to vote against the measure. The vote came after Snowe announced she will not run for re-election because she is fed up with Washington's atmosphere of partisanship and polarization. To the casual observer, Snowe's "no" vote could be seen as support for President Barack Obama's move against church groups.
But it wasn't. Snowe told MSNBC that she disagrees with Obama and wants a "valid conscience clause," but she objected to the Blunt amendment because it was "broader" than necessary.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., dismissed the measure as "men telling women what their rights should be." The Democratic Party clearly plans to parlay this controversy into a bumper harvest of young female voters.
But for the right, this is an issue of the Obama administration's telling church-based groups that they must act against their deeply held beliefs. As House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy told me, the argument did not start with Congress. It was a response to Obama. "It wasn't about birth control. It's about religious freedom."
The tables have turned. Abortion used to be a matter of choice. Ditto birth control. But now that they have considerable political power, the erstwhile choice advocates want to take away the choice of dissenters to opt out.
Choice is gone. Tolerance is musty memory. "Access" is the new buzzword -- and access means free. Under Obamacare, employer-paid health plans can charge women copayments for necessary and vital medical services if they are seriously ill, but birth control is free.
Fluke did address Congress. She observed: "Conservative Catholic organizations have been asking (us) what did we expect when we enrolled at a Catholic school. We can only answer that we expected women to be treated equally, to not have our school create untenable burdens that impede our academic success."
I cannot imagine how a Georgetown law student could expect the Catholic Church to treat women equally. It doesn't let women be priests.
What is more, Fluke asserted that if students have to go out and get their own birth control -- because they chose to attend a Catholic institution -- that hurts their grades. Therefore, Washington must force religious institutions to go against their deeply held beliefs and hand out birth control, if indirectly.
Washington has accomplished a great leap, from a plea for choice to a roar of entitlement.
No doubt, this approach works well with intolerant liberals who want to impose their views on others. But it is enough to cause some of us social moderates, who worry about the encroachment on religious and personal liberty, to go into the loving arms of social conservatives.