Decoding Romney on Contraception

In last night’s debate, Barack Obama threw Mitt Romney off track after he framed access to contraception as an economic issue, something that has long been missing from a discussion that has been driven by conservative claims of infringement of religious freedom:

In my health care bill, I said insurance companies need to provide contraceptive coverage to everybody who is insured. Because this is not just a—a health issue, it’s an economic issue for women. It makes a difference. This is money out of that family’s pocket. Governor Romney not only opposed it, he suggested that in fact employers should be able to make the decision as to whether or not a woman gets contraception through her insurance coverage.

That’s not the kind of advocacy that women need. When Governor Romney says that we should eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, there are millions of women all across the country who rely on Planned Parenthood for, not just contraceptive care, they rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings. That’s a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country. And it makes a difference in terms of how well and effectively women are able to work. When we talk about child care, and the credits that we’re providing. That makes a difference in whether they can go out there and—and earn a living for their family.

These are not just women’s issues. These are family issues. These are economic issues.

In response, Romney made a muddle of his own talking points on contraception:

I’d just note that I don’t believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not. And I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care of not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives. And—and the—and the president’s statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong.

The first sentence is somewhat—what’s the right word? Hilarious? Because of course no one has said that “bureaucrats” should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not. If he’s trying to speak to his own base—which is likely, given his use of the word “bureaucrat”—he’s got their fears all wrong. Conservatives aren’t saying they’re worried about “bureaucrats” taking their contraceptives away, conservatives are saying they’re worried that “bureaucrats” will force God-fearing religious folks to provide insurance coverage for sinful behavior. 

It’s classic Romney-speak: (1) straw man (“bureaucrats”) + (2) straw issue (“telling someone whether they can use contraceptives or not”)=changing the conversation into an incoherent jumble to avoid discussing the real issues (in this case, his support for defunding Planned Parenthood and for a broad exemption for religious employers from providing insurance coverage for contraception). Through his Romney-speak, and in the moment, it’s hard to tell: Is he speaking to anti-government Republicans? Is he trying to speak to women? In any case, later he can proudly proclaim that he has never—never!—been for birth panels rationing your contraceptives.

But then Romney pivots to a different talking point which probably reflects his actual thinking but is in direct conflict with how he has been trying to play the religious freedom card. He says, “I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care of [sic] not.” First of all, that’s exactly what the religious objectors to the contraceptive benefit requirement are saying—basically, if you want contraceptives but can’t afford them, tough luck, we’re not going to cover them. Last night, Romney contradicted his previous pledge of support for Republican-sponsored legislation, the (failed) Blunt-Rubio amendment, which would permit any employer, not just religious nonprofits, to refuse to provide any medical or prescription coverage on any religious grounds. Perhaps in last night’s clumsy effort to be winsome to women he thought he could draw a rational distinction between an employer “tell[ing] someone whether they could have contraceptive care” and an employer refusing to provide insurance coverage for what it claims to be a grave sin. But I’m guessing that there are binders full of women who don’t see much of a difference at all. 

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