And Again: Political Strategy Trumps Female Well-Being

The more the economy improves, the more upset the Republican right seems to be about contraception.

Republicans love a good moral issue the way Democrats love a good class issue -- especially this election, when voter anger does not seem to be breaking the GOP's way.

With mounting signs that the economy is starting to get some traction, boiling populist rage is dialing down to a grumbling simmer, raising the possibility of the GOP nightmare scenario: voters going into the election in a reasonably upbeat mood.

To make matters worse, the old reliable -- gay marriage -- seems to have lost its power to rally the cause. For the first time, Gallup reports, a majority of Americans support it. Six states and another on the way have approved gay marriage, and yet the American way of life appears to have survived. Contrary to the religious right's warning that gay marriage is a slippery slope to bestiality, there have been no confirmed reports of anyone applying for a license to marry their dog.

Stem cells? Creationism? Sex education? Even as the far religious right clings to those issues with evangelical fervor, they must see a world that is moving on.

So: what is a right-dominated party in search of a red meat issue to do? When in doubt, look to the classics: control over the decisions women make about their lives and bodies.

While the abortion debate has raged for decades, contraception has stayed quietly in the confines of personal decision. The sexual revolution is long over (sex won). Even a practicing moralist like Rick Santorum allows that he doesn't like birth control ("... it's a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be"), but he'll live with it.

That changed abruptly when the administration whacked the wasp nest with a mandate that religious organizations must offer contraception in their insurance plans.

Where some see a blunder that handed the opposition an issue, others see smart election-year strategy.

Shoved from the right, Republicans barreled into the issue, and found themselves against something that 98 percent of heterosexually active women use, clear majorities support, and the medical community says saves lives and families.

Sixty five percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 -- prime time for reproduction -- believe coverage by employers should be available at no cost.

The Democrats couldn't have written a better script for the House oversight committee hearings on the issue: five Republican witnesses proposing rules affecting female reproduction -- five males. There has been nothing like it since the bullying interrogation of Anita Hill.

There is also the possibility -- even in an election year -- that the mandates are simply the right thing to do.

More than 800,000 people, for example, receive benefits from Catholic hospitals. Some two million students attend religious affiliated schools. Many poor women struggle to pay for contraception. The mandate could be an honest attempt to assure access by millions of people to an important health benefit.

One other possibility: this is an early skirmish in an upcoming fight over Title X funding, which disperses some $300 million to clinics for contraceptive supplies and information, breast and pelvic exams, and other health services. A national network of clinics sees some 5 million patients a year -- 70 percent below the Federal poverty line; two-thirds with no health insurance.

Title X has wide recognition -- even anti-abortion groups haven't targeted it -- for the work it does, often providing poor women services they can get nowhere else. But not all are fans.

Title X money also goes to Planned Parenthood, which provides abortion services. Fresh from the Susan G. Komen Foundation's cynical ploy to cut off Planned Parenthood funding, there is at least cause for concern that clinic funding could suffer collateral damage from those itching for another run at Planned Parenthood.

Two Republican budget proposals would have zeroed out the funding. Mitt Romney, in the name of budget cutting, promises to end funding. Santorum promises to "repeal Clinton-era Title X family planning regulations..." Newt Gingrich, who cast 74 votes on reproductive rights -- all but two of them anti-women's health -- also promises Title X's demise.

With an issue so personal and so important to so many, attention will move on once the political advantage is gone. The lesson, once again, is how the pursuit of that advantage can have such easy disregard for the health and rights of the women it impacts.