US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Mitt Romney: "Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives"

By Meghan Murphy-Gill | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

While Mitt Romney’s “Binders full of women” comment in the debate last night ignited the Internet almost immediately after the words left his lips, what caught my attention was the Republican nominee’s response to Obama’s assertion that Romney believes it should be up to a woman’s employer whether or not she has access to contraception.

Obama: "A major difference in this campaign is that Gov. Romney feels comfortable having politicians in Washington decide the health care choices that women are making. I think that's a mistake. In my health care bill, I said insurance companies need to provide contraceptive coverage to everybody who is insured. ... Gov. 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."

Romney: "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 can have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives, and the president's statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong."

Given Romney’s statement that he is committed to “ending the attack on religion and conscience in this country” the U.S. Catholic bishops began accusing Obama of in response to the Health and Human Services directive, last night’s comments should come as a surprise. While Romney doesn’t include his stance on contraception (or abortion) in a list of issues on his campaign website, until the debate, he has been telling a different, albeit vague, story sidestepping the question of access to birth control with rhetoric about religious freedom and government taxes. For example, after the Senate killed an amendment that would allow employers to opt out of providing contraception coverage, Romney said, "I applaud the Senators who took a stand today and voted to defend religious freedom. The Obama Administration has directly attacked the First Amendment of our Constitution and individual liberty,” a direct reference to the directive that seeks to ensure universal access to birth control.

Last night Romney did not specifically say that he thinks access to contraception means that it should be free. In the spring, he responded to a Bradley University student who told him point blank that she thought birth control should be free, “If you’re looking for free stuff you don’t have to pay for? Vote for the other guy, that’s what he’s all about, okay? That’s not, that’s not what I’m about.” But women experiencing poverty do not have access to contraception if they don’t have the funds for it. There may be designer clothing offered mere blocks from my office, but my income precludes my access to it.

Romney says he doesn’t want to force employers to pay for contraception coverage when it violates their religious beliefs. But neither does Obama, hence the White House’s compromise that the bill goes to insurance companies, not employers in these cases. But if Romney becomes president and overturns ACA as he’s promised, how will he ensure that women whose employers don’t provide health insurance get the access to contraception that he has now endorsed? In that same appearance with the Bradley student, Romney told another student who’d asked where women should go for access, “Well they can go wherever they’d like to go. This is a free society. But here’s what I’d say, which is the federal government should not tax these people to pay for Planned Parenthood … The idea of the federal government funding Planned Parenthood I’m going to say no, we’re going to stop that.”

In many states and areas, Planned Parenthood is the only place where free contraception is available. Both the bishops and the Republicans would like to see the organization defunded, but the bishops aren’t saying that women should have access to it, and Romney now is, meaning he may not be as in line with the bishops on this issue as they had hoped.

Whatever your stance on the use of contraception, how universal access to it is funded is of interest, because the genie is out of the bottle and there is no going back on the medical technology. It’s a complicated, many-sided, ethical issue, both in terms of access and human dignity.