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HETRICK: How we can avoid a 'Handmaid's Tale' in the making

March 10, 2012

“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

—Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale”



For the past few weeks, Washington has been buzzing about contraceptives. It’s to be expected from a dramatic comedy dripping with sex, religion, government and health insurance.

It all started when the Department of Health and Human Services said that, under Affordable Care Act rules, health plans would have to cover contraceptives.

Given studies showing that “contraceptive use is virtually universal in the U.S.” and that “98 percent of women of reproductive age have used one or more methods,” and that oral contraceptives are often prescribed for irregular or absent menstrual periods, menstrual cramps, acne, PMS, endometriosis and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, it seemed commonsensical to cover “the pill.”

But it’s not that simple. Because some faith-based organizations find contraceptives counter to their convictions, they don’t want to pay for them as part of the employee health plans at their hospitals, schools and charities.

As a compromise, the Obama administration said that, when faith-based employers can’t pay for contraceptives on moral grounds, the cost is to be absorbed by insurers so employees who so choose still have access.

But, alas, that wasn’t good enough for some church officials. They argued that insurers would simply spread the cost of contraceptive coverage among all employers (including faith-based payors). They also said that some faith-based employers self-insure and wouldn’t want to include contraceptives at all.

At this point, Congress entered stage right. First, there was a House hearing with an all-male panel.

Typical of divided Washington, members of Congress couldn’t even agree as to what they were talking about. Democrats claimed the hearing was about contraceptives and women’s right to choose. Republicans said it was about religious freedom and the churches’ right to choose.

When Republicans refused to hear pro-contraceptive testimony from Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student, Democrats staged their own hearing where Fluke spoke about a friend who needed oral contraceptives for polycystic ovary syndrome.

Fluke was later lambasted by radio commentator Rush Limbaugh for being a “slut” and “prostitute” who wanted to be “paid to have sex.” He said that, in return, she should show videos of herself having sex on YouTube.

After losing many advertisers, Limbaugh apologized for his “word choices.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., proposed legislation that would have allowed any employer to refuse coverage for any kind of health care by citing “moral reasons.”

My firm, I suppose, could have refused to cover lung disease, cancer and heart disease for smokers because I morally object to underwriting slow-motion suicide and homicide by tobacco.

But there’s a bigger question here: Who decides? Government? The Church? Employers? You?

Many people on the right are weary of what they see as holier-than-thou government telling them what to do.

“It is a top down … government-knows-best attitude,” said presidential candidate Rick Santorum on “Meet the Press,” “and it’s reaching more and more places in people’s lives.”

Others see the issue as a top-down, church-knows-best attitude that aspires to affect believers and non-believers alike.

“When Catholic institutions deny employees coverage for contraception that is available to everyone else, they impose religious values on a secular transaction and therefore deny First Amendment rights to those who don’t ascribe to their employer’s values,” wrote Kenyon College student Jon Green.

As for the Blunt amendment, it would have let business owners decide.

“If this amendment passes,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., “it would ban contraception coverage for any woman in America whose boss has a personal objection to it. This measure would force women to surrender control of their own health decisions to their bosses.”

The Blunt amendment was voted down.

In her dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Canadian author Margaret Atwood writes of a future America (called Gilead) in which the Constitution is kaput, a totalitarian theocracy is in control, and many women are relegated to child-bearing and servitude.

Some women regret their lost freedom.

“We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying of too much choice,” says one character.

So when it comes to “Who decides?,” perhaps the answer should be, “You do.”

In that ideal world, government—as promoter and protector of the constitutionally promised “general welfare”—can ensure that we have choices available and that those choices don’t endanger us or others around us.

In that ideal world, churches can provide moral guidance to believers, without asking government to impose those beliefs on everyone.

In that ideal world, businesses can recruit and retain workers by helping to fund their health care, but owners can’t exclude benefits based on their own whims.

That kind of individuals-in-charge “American Tale” beats the institutional oppression of “The Handmaid’s Tale” hands down.•

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Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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