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No such thing as free contraception

At a meeting of a few dozen female writers and editors yesterday, we got talking about civil society and the corrosive nature of politics. An editor I respect a great deal tried to calm things down by reminding us that the political climate isn't necessarily more hostile than it was in the late 1960s (she told us that she saw targets for sale then wixth President Johnson's face on them). But, she added, she was appalled by what she called the "deliberate misrepresentation" by the media. She was referring, of course, to the coverage of the HHS mandate requiring religious employers to provide insurance plans that cover abortifacients, sterilization and contraception, even if it violates the doctrines of their church. This story has not been told. And the story that has been told, of a "war on women" has been filled with misrepresentations.

By way of introducing what I want to talk about, let's look at something I read on the Wall Street Journal's editorial page two days ago in "Bishop Dolan's Liberty Letter: The Catholic Cardinal describes a chilling visit to the White House":

The debate over the Obama Administration's birth control mandate has been ingloriously fact-free, even more than usual. So amid demonstrably false claims about a plot to relegate women to the era of "Mad Men," if not Salem, Massachusetts circa 1692, Cardinal Timothy Dolan's letter on religious freedom deserves more readers.

"We have made it clear in no uncertain terms to the government that we are not at peace with its invasive attempt to curtail the religious freedom we cherish as Catholics and Americans," the archbishop of New York wrote in a public epistle to Catholic bishops last Friday. It's an eloquent and powerful document, though not one that received much of any media notice. "We did not ask for this fight, but we will not run from it," he continues.

That this letter didn't receive media notice is certainly true, even though it is defiant and accuses the White House of nothing less than asserting raw political power to achieve its goals. I mean, it's juicy and salacious stuff, as far as these things go. But, you see, the media were too busy talking about really important things, like how to spin an unprecedented attack on religious liberty into something about Rush Limbaugh. Literally. And come on, what's more important, the Constitution or talk radio? What's more important, the way the White House treats religious liberty advocates or the way Rush Limbaugh treats abortion-rights activists? I think we all know the answer.

And so there was yet another media blackout of religious liberty activists. Today, I read a Religion News Service article headlined "White House insists contraception talks are on track." Remember, it's always about contraception, and never about abortifacients, sterilization, doctrine or religious liberty.

The story is a response, using an anonymous White House source, to Dolan's signed letter. I searched for the original RNS report on the letter. I couldn't find one. So how is it newsworthy to "reject" Dolan's letter when Dolan's letter itself wasn't considered newsworthy? After four paragraphs of some nasty anonymous comments from the White House that question the motivation and integrity of Catholic bishops, we get this:

The official was responding to statements made by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a March 2 letter to his fellow bishops and in a blog post he wrote about talks between the White House and the bishops.

Facing escalating criticism for the narrow religious exemption in regulations that require employers to offer free contraception coverage to employees, President Obama last month proposed an "accommodation" that would significantly broaden the exemption for faith-based institutions.

The piece paints only those who aren't giddy over the unwelcome intrusion by the federal government as culture warriors. Which is interesting, considering that, as Dolan said, this is not a fight they asked for. This was something that HHS did to Catholic and other religious institutions and groups.

In any case, I want to highlight the big glaring problem in the above copy: "free contraception coverage."

As Timothy Carney wrote at the Washington Examiner, again on the editorial pages:

What's the ObamaCare contraception mandate about? For much of the media and many politicians, it's about "free contraception."

Just a very quick sampling: "The rule requires employers to provide free contraception to women" [Washington Post]; "receive free contraception in their health plans" [New York Times]; "free contraception coverage" [< em>Washington Post/Religion News Service]; "cover free contraception" [Daily News], "free contraception coverage," [Daily News]; "health plans supply free contraceptives.." [Kaiser Health News].

Now, I studied economics in school, and not journalism, so sometimes I forget that really basic economic concepts aren't actually understood at all by journalists. Here's Tim's take:

Insurers are required to pay the cost of all birth-control pills, without copay. As the insurer's liability increases, the premium for the insurance plan increases. So employees pay higher premiums, as do employers. But because this plan applies to nearly all employers, the employers pass the cost onto employees in the form of lower pay.

So your pills are not "free." The cost isn't reduced to zero -- it's instead spread among all your employees, whether they be gay, infertile, male, observant Catholic, post-menopausal, chaste, pregnant, eager to have as many kids as possible, or Shakers.

But that's not all. If an insurance plan doesn't cover birth control pills, and an employee wants them, she can purchase generics for $9/month at Target. But what happens if cost is no issue for the user and if the demand has driven up? Avik Roy at The Atlantic writes that it will enrich drug companies at the expense of people who want access to basic contraception:

Under the new mandate, this price incentive disappears. Insurers will be required to pay for any and all oral contraceptives, without charging a co-pay, co-insurance, or a deductible. This "first dollar coverage" of oral contraception kills the incentive to shop based on price.

If history is any guide, this significant change will drive up the price of oral contraception. Today, Tri-Sprintec costs $9 a month. In 2020, don't be surprised if it costs $30. Drug companies will be able to market "branded" contraceptives at premium prices, knowing that women are free to choose the most expensive, designer product because it will cost them the same as the cheapest generic. Prepare yourself for multi-million-dollar Super Bowl ad campaigns from competing manufacturers...

If you were surprised that PhRMA, the pharmaceutical trade group, backed Obamacare, now you can see why: the HHS contraception mandate alone will be a multi-billion-dollar boondoggle for the pharma industry. If your health insurance plan allowed you to buy a television, of any price, without any cost-sharing on your part, would you buy a 13-inch CRT or a 60-inch flat screen?

This is just one example of how the media are distorting a very important issue surrounding religious liberty. And yes, the distortions and frenzies have been so significant that it's difficult to keep up with them.

But while the media are giving the appearance that there is one side to this issue and that it's about "free birth control" for all, I wanted to highlight something I found in a Boston Globe story about a campaign in Massachusetts for the Senate. Sen. Scott Brown, who took Ted Kennedy's seat a couple of years ago, has been on the other side from his opponents in the race and in the media in this great religious liberty battle. (I might mention that Ted Kennedy himself, a strong defender of conscience protections, might have been on the same side as Brown had he lived.) And even with the deluge of campaigning for this mandate by the media, check this out:

But, if several of the recent polls are correct, Brown may have benefited from his positions on social issues in the last few weeks, such as the one over whether Catholic institutions should be forced to provide contraception in their health care plans for workers.

Well how could that be? Maybe the media should start paying attention to those of us who keep claiming we're really concerned about this infringement on religious liberty.

Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure, we've had a few new entries for my call for any and all stories about religious liberty. They're not good, they're not long or substantive, and some are a hot mess, but here they are: Associated Press, New York Daily News, New York Times.

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