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* March 5, 2012
The Fluke Distraction
The left hasn't won its war against religious liberty.
By JAMES TARANTO
There seems to be wide agreement that the Sandra Fluke kerfuffle handed the left a major political victory. We respectfully dissent.
"Conservatives and those who care about religious liberty should be dismayed by the way the left has been allowed to shield an ominous attempt to expand government power and subvert religious freedom behind a faux defense of women's rights," writes Commentary's Jonathan Tobin, reflecting the despair on the right. A Christian Science Monitor subheadline sums up the triumphalist mood on the left: "Before Rush Limbaugh spoke up, the Republicans thought they had a winning issue on contraception in health-care plans. Now, everyone is on the same side: against Rush Limbaugh."
The kerfuffle was no fluke but a left-liberal set piece. It started 2½ weeks ago, when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held hearings on the ObamaCare contraception mandate and its implications for religious liberty. The Washington Examiner's Byron York reports that Democrats originally chose Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State over Fluke to testify for the anti-religious-liberty side.
[botwt0305] Associated Press
Fluke testifies at the mock hearing.
Then they sandbagged the Republicans. They asked, too late, for Fluke to be subbed in for Lynn, then told Lynn not to bother showing up. When the hearing took place, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (this columnist's congressman, but don't blame us) demanded: "Where are the women?" Although it was the Dems who chose Lynn over Fluke and the second panel of witnesses included two female members, liberal media dutifully propagated the "Republican sexism" charge. A week later, House Democrats held a mock hearing where Fluke testified.
Like Cindy Sheehan, Fluke was a left-wing activist cast in the role of everywoman (or as much of an "everywoman" as a student at an elite law school can be). "Fluke has a long history of feminist advocacy," reports the Daily Caller: "While [an undergraduate] at Cornell, Fluke's organized activities centered on the far-left feminist and gender equity movements. Fluke participated in rallies supporting abortion, protests against war in Iraq and efforts to recruit other womens' [sic] rights activists to campus." She even got a bachelor's degree in something called "Feminist, Gender, & Sexuality Studies."
"Without insurance coverage, contraception, as you know, can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school," Fluke said in her testimony. But last Tuesday The Weekly Standard's John McCormack debunked the claim:
Fluke's testimony was very misleading. Birth control pills can be purchased for as low as $9 per month at a pharmacy near Georgetown's campus. According to an employee at the pharmacy in Washington, D.C.'s Target store, the pharmacy sells birth control pills--the generic versions of Ortho Tri-Cyclen and Ortho-Cyclen--for $9 per month. "That's the price without insurance," the Target employee said.
Nine dollars a month amounts to $324 over three years of law school.
Thus this dishonest distraction was already well under way by Wednesday, when Rush Limbaugh famously joked: "What does it say about . . . Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception."
On Saturday, Limbuagh acknowledged his mistake: "My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices." No doubt it's satisfying to the left to have brought Limbaugh to heel, something that isn't easy to do. And it's true that Limbaugh's ill-chosen words magnified the Fluke distraction.
But whereas distractions are evanescent, the religious-liberty issue hasn't gone away. In fact, on Thursday the Democrat-controlled Senate passed up an opportunity to blunt the issue, rejecting by a 51-48 procedural vote, with only four senators crossing party lines, an amendment that would have allowed conscience exemptions to the ObamaCare contraception mandate. At least four vulnerable Democratic senators seeking re-election--Bill Nelson of Florida, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio--are now on record against religious liberty.
The triumphalist liberal view is that this is a losing issue for Republicans anyway, because Americans love contraception. In a Forbes.com column, Democratic pollster Doug Schoen asserts that "the issue of access to contraception will only further help the Democrats with moderate and independent women in swing states":
Most Americans do not see the issue of whether or not women should be able to get free access to contraceptive care not [sic] in the context of protecting the constitutional right to religious freedom, but rather as an assault on women's rights by a Republican Party that is seeking to deny women fundamental access to health care.
Indeed, poll after poll shows that virtually every American woman uses contraception, and close to 60% of Catholic women support having affiliated institutions like Catholic hospitals, provide contraception.
We're pretty sure that third "not" in the first sentence is a mistake, because the sentence makes sense only without it. Asked for data to back his assertions, Schoen referred us to results of a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which suggest, unsurprisingly, that Americans generally approve of contraception.
James Taranto on the Fluke distraction.
But none of the numbers Schoen cited spoke directly to the religious-liberty question. It turns out the results there are ambiguous: Asked whether they see the ObamaCare mandate as "more an issue of religious freedom" or "more an issue of women's rights," the Kaiser survey participants broke almost exactly evenly: 23% religious freedom, 24% women's rights, 26% both. Similar results obtained for Catholics (25%, 26%, 27%) and independents (22%, 23%, 28%). Those all-important independent women broke down 22%, 23% and 32%, which means they are actually slightly more likely than voters overall to view it as at least partly a matter of religious freedom.
The Wall Street Journal reports on another new survey--taken between Feb. 29 and March 3, and thus coinciding with the Fluke distraction--with similarly ambiguous findings:
The poll gave a mixed picture of [President] Obama's efforts to require most employers to cover contraception in their health-care plans. It found wide support for the U.S. government requiring employers to offer free birth control coverage, with 53% supporting the policy and 33% opposed. But support dropped sharply, to 38%, when people were asked about the requirement applying to religiously affiliated hospitals and colleges, and having the insurer pay for the cost.
Another telling result is not mentioned in the Journal news story. Each of the questions was asked two ways: with and without mention that the mandate includes "the morning after pill" (the pollsters did not use the word "abortifacient"). The 53% to 33% figure is for the version of the question without the morning-after pill; with it, support drops to 43%, with 43% opposed. Likewise, when the morning-after pill was mentioned in the question about applying the mandate to Catholic and other religious institutions, support for the mandate dropped further, to 34% from 38%.
In other words, the less you know about the ObamaCare mandate, the more likely you are to support it. Being informed of two salient facts--that it includes the morning-after pill and that it is imposed on religious institutions--is enough to sway just under 1 in 5 voters from support to opposition.
Catholics who attend church every week made up 12% of the electorate in 2008, according to exit polls. Those are the voters who are likely to be the best informed on this issue, and probably for whom it is most likely to change their vote. Peggy Noonan noted last month that in 2008 Barack Obama won the votes of 49% of churchgoing Catholics. Obama thus risks alienating a segment of the electorate he can neither take for granted nor afford to write off. You can see why the left would find it more pleasant to talk about Sandra Fluke's hurt feelings.