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Jane Ahlin, Published January 28 2012

Ahlin: Clear American priority muddied by the GOP right

The best part of family planning is that it works. That’s why the great majority of Americans are happy with the inclusion of contraception and general family planning services in health care reform law. No co-payment, no deductible: Birth control is covered.

Really nothing more than common sense, the ability of husbands and wives to use birth control methods to choose how many children they have and when they have them is fundamental to taking responsibility for the well-being of their families. Not that it is a new idea, either. Since the advent of the birth control pill 50 years ago, contraceptives have played an important role in the lives of Americans.

Anyone questioning how much women and their families value birth control need only look at statistics from a 2011 Guttmacher report “based on a nationally representative U.S. government survey” showing that 99 percent of sexually active American women use birth control during their reproductive years. (For American Catholic women, the figure is 98 percent.)

With those statistics, it’s hard to understand why proponents of contraceptive inclusion in the Affordable Care Act have had to struggle to keep it from being marginalized – as if contraception is an unusual choice rather than an important component of basic medical care.

Although the objections to coverage have come mostly from politically powerful religious leaders whose tenets do not allow for contraception, the ever-rightward religious march of the Republican Party also has turned words, such as family planning and birth control, into coded language for abortion politics, thus muddying a clear-cut American priority. The simple good sense that contraception prevents unwanted pregnancy and fewer unwanted pregnancies mean fewer abortions gets lost in political posturing.

However, as the Guttmacher report’s lead author put it, “In real-life America, contraceptive use and strong religious beliefs are highly compatible.”

The most recent decision from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regarding contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act concerns the scope of religious exemptions to that coverage.

Because freedom of religion is a right guaranteed by the Constitution, exemptions to contraceptive coverage based on religious tenets are provided to religious employers. What have not been as clear are the criteria that categorize an employer as a religious employer. Now that is spelled out.

To be a religious employer, an organization must have the correct IRS designation and:

Put another way, religiously affiliated businesses – such as hospitals, nursing homes and universities – which provide nonreligious services and employ and serve people of all faiths (or no faith), do not fit the criteria for exemption.

That distinction is important. Without it, the hundreds of thousands of Americans who work for religiously affiliated businesses would be affected – not only for beliefs they don’t share but also for beliefs unrelated to their jobs.

Writing for the New York Times on the loss of bipartisan support for family planning and its effect on population problems, particularly in Third World countries, columnist Nicholas Kristof finds a bright spot in “(a) group of evangelical Christians, led by Richard Cizik of The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good” who are “drafting a broad statement of support for family planning.”

In the words of the evangelical group’s draft, “Family planning is morally laudable in Christian terms because of its contribution to family well-being, women’s health, and the prevention of abortion.”

To that, most Americans join Kristof in saying, “Amen.”

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.