Aspirin as Birth Control, Shazam! and the GOP’s Crusade Against Contraception

You’ve probably already heard about Rick Santorum-backer Foster Friess’s doozy that “back in my days, they’d use Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.”

Watch the video from MSNBC, replete with a moment of silence as anchor Andrea Mitchell picked her jaw up off the floor. As I heard about the latest installment of the 2012 Presidential Campaign Time Travels To Another Millenium, while I was across town in a Congressional hearing room, my first thought was that no one should tell the Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that aspirin could be used as birth control. First, they’d believe it, and second, they’d start a crusade to make sure managers of CVS could opt out of stocking it on their shelves. Religious conscience, you know.

If you think I’m making a mockery of serious arguments, let’s just say the arguments make a mockery of themselves. Committee Chair Darrell Issa and his fellow Republicans are up in arms about dire threats to the Constitution. To prove their point, they made sure the C-Span cameras  caught them with posters of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi behind them. Because, you know, they all would have wanted a lengthy hearing about whether covering contraception through insurance trampled on religion.

Issa’s committee elevated certain religious groups—meaning those who oppose the requirement that insurance cover birth control—to a status above everyone else’s religious beliefs, including people of different religions who praised the requirement. Those religious leaders who supported the Obama administration regulation have stated, “We do not believe that specific religious doctrine belongs in health care reform – as we value our nation’s commitment to church-state separation” and “We believe that women and men have the right to decide whether or not to apply the principles of their faith to family planning decisions, and to do so they must have access to services.” They, however, did not get an invitation to the hearing.

Instead, the hearing’s lead witness was the Most Rev. William E. Lori, Roman Catholic bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. Others included clergy and teachers and administrators at Catholic and other Christian universities.

The Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, President of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, revealed how the witness list reflected only one religious view of the matter when he said the contraception coverage requirement is “very dangerous to religious people with our kind of convictions.”

Virginia Democrat Gerald Connolly, a Catholic who last year said a related Issa hearing reminded him of a “latter-day Torquemada” conducting “an inquisition against the secular state,” called today’s hearing a “shameful exercise” and lamented that the clergy there allowed themselves to be “used.” 

Let’s have a moment of truth here: the whole purpose of this hearing was for the GOP to be seen by its anti-”activist judge” base relitigating settled constitutional law in the court of public opinion. Issa and his cohorts kept insisting the hearing wasn’t about contraception, but about religious liberty. Not only is their first claim transparently false, their position on the second claim is demonstrably upside-down. As I’ve written previously, the constitutional question of whether a generally applicable law like the contraception coverage regulation infringes on someone’s religious freedom because they do not approve of the use of birth control has been decided in court. It neither represents an infringement of anyone’s religious freedom, nor an imposition of a particular religious view by the government. Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which some of Issa’s witnesses said is violated here, the Bishops and their allies would have to demonstrate the regulation places a “substantial burden” on their religious practices. As the ACLU noted in a written statement submitted to the Committee, “the link between the contraceptive coverage requirement and the religiously prohibited behavior is too attenuated to amount to a substantial burden.”

Issa’s fellow Republicans think the separation of church and state means the government can’t make a generally applicable law apply to religious institutions. But in the process, they promote an actual violation of church-state separation, by demanding that laws be made to conform with particular religious beliefs.

The witnesses were not mollified by the Obama administration’s accommodation, which shifted the onus of paying for the coverage from the religious employers to the insurance carriers. (The Republicans would like to see the contraception coverage requirement eliminated completely, or at least an exemption made not only for religious institutions, but for any employer who objects on religious grounds.) John H. Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America, called the Obama accommodation the “Shazam Theory” because it “resolves the intrusion on religious liberty by making the compelled contributions magically disappear.” The religious institutions, Garvey insisted, will still have to pay for contraceptions (and, he added disingenuously, abortions) because somehow the insurance carriers would still pass on the cost to them.

Garvey thought perhaps he understood what was really at work in the administration. “A more likely explanation for the rule,” he proposed, “is that HHS is acting on a political agenda about how women should live their sex lives.” Now there’s a Shazam Theory, or at least a feeble attempt at making Catholic Church’s own political agenda magically disappear. Too bad for Garvey that Issa’s hearing already made it abundantly apparent to the entire country.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email