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You have to wonder who had the genius idea on the conservative side of the aisle to launch a full-throttle attack on women's health under the banner of "religious freedom" right when Rick Santorum (R-Middle Ages) is peaking in the polls. Even if GOP consultants were on a Democratic payroll, the situation couldn't have played out any better in the polls. The GOP (as always) wanted to attack the president, and it thought firing up its religious base would create a controversy that would box the president into a corner. The law of unintended consequences dictated that those fired up folks wouldn't limit their passion strictly to the birth control debate. And so, we see that same GOP base lighting a fire under Santorum, who is gaining strength and promising a long, humiliating primary battle for Mitt Romney.  Talk about an ill-conceived strategy.

Onto the punditry...

Neil Steinberg at The Chicago Sun-Times runs down memory lane and examines a similar debate in the 1960s when Illinois debated whether to provide access to birth control to low-income women:

During testimony, one commissioner quoted Boston’s Richard Cardinal Cushing:

“I as a Catholic have absolutely no right in my thinking to foist through legislation or through other means, my doctrine of my church upon others,” the cardinal said, backing — incredibly — a similar policy in Boston, adding, “It is important to note that Catholics do not need the support of the civil law to be faithful to their religious convictions.”

Fifty years ago, both the faithful and church leaders were at least occasionally thinking about the rights of others. Now they are pressing institutional rights while disregarding the needs of people who work for them, opposing health care, one of the church’s historic strong suits. It seems to be working in the short term. The long term is a different story, and if you look at the arc of history, you know how this will end.

Nita Chaudhary and Shaunna Thomas of UltraViolet write about how the assault on women's health has mobilized women across the country:
If Republican leadership thinks this is a smart fight, by all means pick it. They will lose their own supporters, sane members of their own caucuses and expose themselves to the American public as hell bent on making the lives of women harder.

And they will grow the ranks of progressive institutions that fight for women and their health.

Take for example our experience organizing around this issue in the last two weeks: We have grown tremendously since this issue was introduced -- to more than a quarter million people nationwide. In the last few days alone, 73,000 people have signed a petition to Speaker Boehner telling him not to repeal Obama's rule. And yesterday over 10,000 people picked up the phone and called their members of Congress to deliver the same message.
Why is the response this tremendous? Because these are real people's lives they're messing with. And Americans fundamentally understand that.

With the blowback against the conservative assault against women's health growing, The New York Times reports that Catholic leaders are trying now to claim that some contraceptives are "abortion":
Adding to their passionate opposition to the rule that employees of religiously affiliated institutions must receive insurance coverage for birth control, Roman Catholic bishops and some evangelical groups have asserted that it also requires coverage of some forms of abortion.

They contend that methods of contraception including morning-after pills and IUDs can be considered “abortifacients” because, these advocates say, they can act to prevent pregnancy after a man’s sperm has fertilized a woman’s egg.

And TPM highlights this from yesterday's testimony at a congressional hearing on women's health "religious freedom":
During House Oversight's contentious hearing on the administration's contraception rule, witness Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, CT dedicated his entire opening remarks to an analogy comparing the idea that women at religious organizations have a right to contraceptive coverage to the right of someone to order a ham sandwich from a Jewish deli. [...]  Finally, Lori concluded his story:
This story has a happy ending.  The government recognized that it is absurd for someone to come into a kosher deli and demand a ham sandwich; that it is beyond absurd for that private demand to be backed with the coercive power of the state; that it is downright surreal to apply this coercive power when the customer can get the same sandwich cheaply, or even free, just a few doors down.
Contraceptives as ham sandwiches. This is what you get when your panel of witnesses looks like this.

ACLU of Massachusetts communications director Christopher Ott brings some reason to the table:

Senator Brown has cosponsored an extreme measure known as the Blunt Amendment, which would allow any employer to deny coverage for any health care service--not just contraception, but things like HIV testing, cervical cancer, fertility treatment, genetic testing, and more--by citing "religious beliefs or moral convictions." [...] Already in Massachusetts, religious-affiliated hospitals are not exempt from having to provide emergency contraception to rape victims at hospital emergency rooms, and have also been required to cover contraception in employee health plans if other prescriptions are covered.

Scott Brown, as a state lawmaker, voted for the final versions of the legislation that made that law. Why has he changed his views now?

[...] Practically speaking, [the compromise offered by the Obama administration] means that employees get coverage for birth control regardless of what their employers think--and that's exactly how it should be. Religious liberty is a personal thing, and it certainly doesn't mean what Senator Brown and others are essentially saying it should: the ability to impose religious convictions on others.

Rob Stein reports for NPR on "right of conscience" creep:
"I think you've seen sort of a metastases of conscience objections in some ways. You know, an ambulance driver saying: 'I don't want to transport this patient,' if they know that the patient is on the way to the hospital for an abortion," said Robin Wilson of Washington and Lee University. "We've had nurses, for example, saying, 'I don't want to participate in the circumcision of infants.' "

Some doctors have refused to do fertility treatments for single women or gay people. Others won't withdraw care at the end of life. Many will have nothing to do with lethal injection executions.

As President George W. Bush was leaving office, he ordered new protections for health care workers that were welcomed among advocates concerned about religious persecution.[...] When President Obama took office, one of the first things he did was rescind most of the Bush regulation. Then, the federal health overhaul law raised new questions about conscience protections. This time the question was whether institutions — not just individuals — have a "right of conscience."

Bill Press asks if Rick Santorum is running for president or pope:
Welcome to the emerging Republican Party platform for 2012: No birth control. No sex outside of marriage. And no sex inside of marriage, except for the purpose of procreation. Now, it's perfectly acceptable for Rick Santorum to hold and preach those beliefs about sexuality, no matter how medieval. But he's running for president of the United States, not for pope. Is that what the American people want to hear? And is that really what Republicans want to campaign on? [...] Everybody knows that women vote in higher numbers than men. So if Republicans want to nominate a candidate who alienates most women, be my guest. Barack Obama could carry all 50 states.

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