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Our One Hundredth: Belittle Women…

Sen. Brown (WMassP&I)
There are a number of reasons any given Republican may support the Blunt Amendment, a version of the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act.  You may actually believe that birth control is evil.  You may believe the government should not force an employer to cover anything.  You may want to simply gut the Affordable Care Act under the guise of “religious liberty” at all costs.  Or you may simply be a fool.  Any of these could describe Senator Scott Brown.  As he has yet to articulate his reasons beyond “religious liberty,” a term that is not defined or quantified or even used in the Blunt Amendment, we cannot be sure which do apply to him.

Support for this amendment, named for Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, and the fight that spurred it are simply bad politics for Brown on a number of levels.  The impetus for this whole debacle was the issuance of a rule from the US Department of Health & Human Services that would require religiously affiliated institutions to provide contraceptives to female employees for free under health care plans.  This is an important detail as coverage for contraceptives has already been required under an Equal Employment ruling that mandated that a women’s health issue not be treated differently than men’s.  This rule only applies to the classification of contraceptives as preventative health and therefore, under the Affordable Care Act, free.

Catholic bishops in the United States, including Massachusetts’s four bishops whose flock have been subject to essentially this same law for ten years under state law, rebelled after months of planning a careful counterattack.  The response put President Barack Obama’s White House on the defensive, especially as more and more Democrats began to complain.  The White House, turning a fumble into a touchdown (not an original thought) however, announced a change that would shift the burden of covering birth control to the insurance company and thereby allowing religious affiliated institutions to avoid any expense on contraceptives.

The result was not good enough for Republicans and the bishops, but Catholic health groups were placated and, while hedging, Maine’s two Republican Senators seem willing to live with the White House’s rule.  That most other Republicans would remain perturbed is unsurprisingly.  As documented by many in the media, Republicans across the country have waged a fight against contraception and the access to it.

St. Michael’s Cathedral, Springfield
For Brown to join this fight represents a grave risk with little, if any reward.  The public of Massachusetts, which was the epicenter of the Roman Catholic Sex Abuse scandal, is unlikely to show much sympathy for the church, which has been the epicenter of the scandal.  Moreover, while Brown is not himself a Catholic, backing a church position now is incongruous to innumerable other votes Brown has taken contrary to the church’s position on social and economic justice.  However, that is not why this is a dangerous move for Brown.  Rather this bill and Brown’s support for it highlights Brown’s continuing woman problem.

Brown would likely dispute he has a  woman problem, but apart from his wife and daughters and the women who seem to go all a twitter when his name is mentioned, the senator has developed a lengthy track record that could make other women shudder.  More importantly, the women Brown should be worried about are the suburban women who will likely decide this election.

Justice Elena Kagan (wikipedia)
Brown’s woman problem has its roots in his first year when he voted against Elena Kagan.   Brown’s reasons for voting against Kagan’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, however flaky, were probably not a mask for misogyny, but they did raise eyebrows after he himself introduced Kagan to the Judiciary Committee.  However, Brown’s indifference to the obvious and startling accusations leveled against one-time Congressional candidate Jeff Perry definitely turned heads.  Perry, while a police sergeant, allegedly did nothing as a subordinate officer sexual assaulted a female minor.  Brown continued to support Perry well after this was made public and offered no public condemnation to our knowledge.  Brown’s cavalier attitude toward women’s issues surfaced again when he waited 10 days after a vote to de-fund Planned Parenthood to issue a press release clarifying his “support” for the reproductive health organization.

However, if the implied indifference to Perry’s misdeeds and the tone deaf approach to Planned Parenthood were not enough, it would be the few direct public comments on his likely Democratic rival, Elizabeth Warren that would take the cake.  Warren had said during a debate in response to a question from a Republican panelist, that she “kept her clothes on” to pay for college.  Brown’s response, on a radio show the following day? “Thank God!”  The comment spurred an angry reaction among women’s groups for the implication that it was better Warren stay clothed read: she’s ugly.  Of course, Brown’s supporters tried to say Warren’s comment mocked Brown’s hard life, but as observers have noted, Brown did not pose nude out of desperate financial need, but rather on a lark.

For Brown to come down on the side against greater access to contraceptives, whatever religious fig leaf the senator claims, invites at least more questions about whether or not he cares about women’s issues.  Already women are energized to vote for Warren in a way they never were for Martha Coakley and they will be turning out in a way they did not during a bizarre January election.  Why would Brown alienate them further?

Elizabeth Warren in W. Springfield
Not making the situation any better is Warren’s response to Brown’s position and his subsequent retort to it.  Warren took Brown’s support for the Blunt Amendment and broadened the discussion beyond contraceptives alone.  The Blunt Amendment is not just about contraceptives.  It is about allowing an employer to not cover ANY medical care that they have a moral objection to.  According to the Congressional Research Service, Congress’s nonpartisan research arm, the Blunt Amendment would “permit a health plan to decline coverage of specific items and services that are contrary to the religious beliefs of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan or the purchaser or beneficiary (in the case of individual coverage) without penalty.”  There is no provision for a test of religious beliefs in the amendment and any such test would be impossible to measure.
Warren highlights the risk that families in need of ANY medical care could be on the hook if their employer-paid insurance is riddled with holes.  Warren’s statement said, in part, “The Blunt-Brown bill is different from previous proposals, taking an extremely broad approach that allows any employer or insurance company to claim any objection and use it to deny any health insurance coverage to anyone, for any health service. The company needs to claim only that it has a “moral conviction,” an expansive term that is not defined in the proposed legislation.”  Suddenly anything could be a preexisting condition if an employer or insurance company can conjure up a moral objection.  With such vague language, this effort to defend religious liberty would shred any minimum requirements insurance policies would have to cover.

Brown’s response was a predictable shriek of “Elitist!”  That does nothing to help his woman problem as it only underscores his disconnect further.  Women who worry (or are offended) their employer could deny them critical medical care over nothing short of their own caprice will not be swayed by the religious liberty argument, at least not in this state.  Not to mention, as the risks of the Blunt Amendment pile up, including extreme, if unlikely examples like Jehovah’s Witness denying coverage for blood transfusions, women will become even less impressed.

Sen. Blunt of the Blunt Amdt (wikipedia)

In fairness to Brown, he has supported the actual bill (as opposed to amendment) version of the Blunt Amendment since August, which was approximately when the contraceptive rule was first proposed.  However, the president gave him an escape hatch when the revised contraception rule came out last Friday.  Brown demurred and stuck to the zanier position.  Brown may think he’s cannily gathering votes, but the voters he’s reaching with this are probably the blue collar white men who were already going to vote for him.  The only other fathomable reasons why Brown would do this is a sincere belief in the issue (which is not one that people say “We disagree, but I like him”) or his advisers are playing generic national Republican games.  

In either case, for Brown to put himself into the same camp as Sarah Palin on an issue demands that he get his head examined.  He may want to get that mental health check before its too late as, in all seriousness, a future employer of his could view mainstream mental health treatment as evil.  No, really.