The Zombie Issue

Anyone with a thorough understanding of the zeitgeist, and the trends in pop-culture, realizes we are moving from the age of moody sexy vampires to the age of flesh-eating mindless zombies. Here in Hollywood there are the giant billboards everywhere for the latest movies and television shows, and for some time there have been fewer having to do with vampires, as the Twilight thing seems to have run its course. Now it’s all zombies everywhere. That Walking Dead series starts up again this month, and vampires just aren’t cool anymore. Either way, the images floating high above Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards are all about death, or the undead, or both. It’s hard to keep those distinctions straight, and a little unsettling overall – but there are fewer vampires, and more zombies. Maybe that means something.

Of course those of us from Pittsburgh know where this all started – with the 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead – a low-budget hoot filmed in glorious black-and-white on location, just up the road in Butler County, and yes, the blood was actually Bosco Chocolate Syrup. But it worked. The film is now a classic, of sorts. And thus Pittsburgh introduced America to zombies. You can thank us later. And zombies are the rage now, again, probably because they fit right in with the current zeitgeist – the spirit (ghost) of the times. Things are awful – economically, politically, socially – and it’s easy to feel as if the world is filled with the mindless undead, stumbling about, desperately and inexorably trying to eat your brains. And most of them are politicians, Republican politicians, muttering about long-settled and long-forgotten issues, now back from the dead too. And these guys are scaring the hell out of everyone. That’s what they do. Be afraid, be very afraid – and vote for them. Resistance is futile.

But you must hold onto your brain. Don’t let anyone eat your brain – you cannot let the living-dead take over the world. And you cannot let issues that should have died long ago rise again from the grave. And in Politico, Joanne Kenen explains the current zombie issue:

The two sides in the raging debate on birth control and religion are so far apart that it can look like someone drew a Venn diagram but forgot to have the circles overlap.

One side is talking about expanding, and making more affordable, basic access to reproductive health – access that by and large stopped being controversial a couple of decades ago.

The other side – which includes some liberal Catholics who themselves use birth control – couches the argument in the language of faith.

How did this issue rise again from the grave? Kenen explains – it’s the never-ending crusade against the 2010 health care reform law. The law passed, but the zombies stumble forward, desperately and inexorably:

For the women’s health advocates, it’s simple. Birth control is part of reproductive health, and in their view, President Barack Obama’s administration was right to define reproductive health as part of preventive health – available in all health plans, at no cost to the woman.

To the advocates, all women – no matter what their employer believes – should have access to it, and be able to afford it. And if the right wants to stop abortions, hampering family planning isn’t the way to do it.

So California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer said this on MSNBC on Thursday morning – “This is a medical issue. The Institute of Medicine said it’s important that women have access to birth control.” So the case should be closed, but the other side decided that this has nothing to do with health at all, preventive or otherwise, as it’s really about conscience, not contraception. So the issue rose from the dead.

But it’s complicated:

Catholic women in the United States overwhelmingly ignore Church teachings on contraception and use birth control. But not all of them think the federal government should force a Catholic school or hospital to pay for it – although many Catholic employers already do, and more than half the states have rules the same, or stricter, than the new administration policy.

So here the issue is the reach, or the overreach, of government power. All women should have access to this, maybe by law, but there shouldn’t be a law about it – or something. And yes, none of this would have happened without the health care law. The contraception policy is part of the regulatory framework. This is about preventive health of course. Things should shift to providing, among other things, preventative reproductive health benefits. What’s the problem?

But now we have a mess:

Certainly the last thing the administration wanted or expected – amid rising approval ratings for the president and falling unemployment – was a fight about The Pill. But right now, that’s what’s drowning out the message of an improving economy.

Some form of retrenchment appears likely. Maybe that will mean lengthening or broadening the one-year grace period that HHS has already granted religious employers. Maybe it will be a delay of the whole regulation – the final version of which, unusually, hasn’t been published. Or maybe the White House will figure out some way of adapting the Hawaii compromise – letting employers omit contraceptive coverage, but giving women a break on premiums so they can purchase birth control elsewhere – so it can work on a national level.

But that means the Obama administration will have to get the women’s groups – who are angry at seeing their priorities shouted down again – to accept that a little give may be in their own best political interest in the long-term. And then they probably need to get ready for the next reproductive rights and abortion battle, whatever that might be.

Yes, of course many women may see this as the Republican issue-zombies once again doing all they can to harm women as much as they can, but of course Rick Santorum doesn’t see it that way:

They are taking faith and crushing it. Why? Why? When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left is the government that gives you right, what’s left are no unalienable rights, what’s left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you’ll do and when you’ll do it. What’s left, in France, became the guillotine. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re a long way from that, but if we do and follow the path of President Obama and his overt hostility to faith in America, then we are headed down that road.

Obama is eventually going to behead all Christians, you see. You’ve been warned. And this man is now the Republican frontrunner.

Steve Benen comments:

It’s hard to know how to respond to such nonsense, but I’ll just say this: if Rick Santorum seriously believes the president is hostile towards religion, and genuinely believes we’re headed towards public guillotines along the lines of 18th-century France, then maybe Mitt Romney isn’t this guy’s biggest problem.

But then Rick Santorum has argued this:

One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country. … Many of the Christian faith have said, “Well, that’s okay, contraception is okay.” It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.

His general position is that sex is to be endured, not enjoyed – it’s just something God requires of married folks, to create kids. God never ever meant it for anything else. So any woman who uses any form of contraception is a total slut, or a sinner going straight to hell.

Is that unfair? What else could he mean? And as a Catholic, like Mel Gibson, he has the Church behind him all the way:

The White House is “all talk, no action” on moving toward compromise, said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “There has been a lot of talk in the last couple days about compromise, but it sounds to us like a way to turn down the heat, to placate people without doing anything in particular,” Picarello said. “We’re not going to do anything until this is fixed.”

That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for “good Catholic business people who can’t in good conscience cooperate with this.”

“If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate,” Picarello said.

And Jamelle Bouie explains that this way – “In other words, if a Catholic so much as opens a business – even if it’s secular – they should be allowed to discriminate and deny birth-control coverage to their female employees, in effect, charging them a fine for having two XX chromosomes.”

Yes, the Conference of Catholic Bishops isn’t just demanding a broader religious exemption from the new contraception coverage rule – they want contraception coverage removed from the Affordable Care Act altogether. And Marie Diamond comments:

In short, Catholic bishops are saying that federal laws shouldn’t apply to anyone who claims to have a religious objection to them. Houses of worship and other religious nonprofits are already completely exempt from the rule. It is only when religious institutions choose to go into business as hospitals and serve the general public that they are bound by the same laws as everyone else. Yet the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has promised a legal challenge.

But the organization does not speak for a majority of American Catholics, 52 percent of whom support requiring health plans to cover contraception. Several major Catholic universities and hospitals already offer contraception coverage.

And David Link again points out that the vast majority of Catholics use birth control:

Here, there is nothing at stake but the power of the bishops to demand in the civil world a rule they cannot enforce in their own domain.

And Amanda Marcotte in this item notes that many Catholic institutions are indistinguishable from secular ones:

The notion that the culture of Catholic-affiliated universities and hospitals is substantively different than secular or Protestant ones, and thus deserves some kind of special dispensation from having to obey the law, is something that direct experience with these institutions should immediately disprove. I personally went to a Catholic-affiliated university, and the reason that it was a fine fit for my atheist self was that “Catholic-affiliated” is basically meaningless when it comes to the daily business of a university. Culturally, there was no real difference between my school and a secular school.

And Eleanor Clift wonders here whether the Obama administration provoked this whole controversy intentionally:

The election won’t turn on these kinds of cultural issues, but they can generate emotion and passion. Obama’s job approval is just above 50 percent among younger voters, a group that gave him 66 percent of their vote in 2008. “They’ve got to get young people jazzed up, and there are very few issues that get young women more jazzed up than contraception,” says Cook. Indeed, the Obama campaign website highlights the issue of contraception, along with the fact that it will be free once the Affordable Care Act is implemented.

That’s possible, and a new array of zombie movies might help too, but Zack Beauchamp offers this:

We usually think of religious liberty as an individual believer’s right to worship and practice freely. That’s of course not at issue here – the feds aren’t marching into Catholic bedrooms and making everyone take Plan B on Sunday morning or requiring Catholic hospital administrators to pass out free birth control in the lobby. The regulations instead require they indirectly subsidize birth control use, which several faiths believe means being forced to participate in evil. But opponents worry about a much broader problem than religious freedom.

Yep, there’s Ross Douthat:

Critics of the administration’s policy are framing this as a religious liberty issue, and rightly so. But what’s at stake here is bigger even than religious freedom. The Obama White House’s decision is a threat to any kind of voluntary community that doesn’t share the moral sensibilities of whichever party controls the health care bureaucracy.

Beauchamp:

Ross is arguing that government regulations “crowd out” private associations that perform valuable societal functions. Forcing members of those associations to adhere to legal rules they find repugnant puts them in a devil’s choice: do something they believe fundamentally wrong or, more likely, get out of providing public services entirely. Government thus guts the ability of private, voluntary organizations to do good…

But here’s the problem: these “voluntary communities” aren’t the Rotary Club – they’re employers that wield a significant amount of financial clout. The market, though we refer to it as the “private sector,” is in a certain sense very public: we all have to participate in it. Because in capitalist economies no one has much of a choice about getting a job, all but the most extreme libertarians accept that the government has to set some standards about how employers treat the employed. Allowing “conscience” exemptions whenever an employer doesn’t feel morally clean when complying with regulations in principle neuters all regulation. The argument for allowing Catholic hospitals a pass on covering birth control has to rest or fall on the specifics of the case rather than a general commitment to protecting “voluntary communities.”

This is where the case against the Administration’s ruling is at its weakest. Birth control is for 98% of women the principal means of protecting a right central to their own liberty – the right to choose when to create a family. Chances are most women employed by Catholic universities and hospitals are part of the 98%. For these women, not having access to birth control renders a crucially important right meaningless.

Full insurance coverage is a critical part of the picture. Birth control is an expensive product – $81 a month is considered a steal with no contribution from your insurance, but that number still prices out many women. Even insurance plans that have co-pays can be prohibitively pricey. Cheaper alternatives like condoms have significant failure rates. Insurance – overwhelmingly provided by employers in the American system – that covers birth control with no co-pays is a woman’s best bet.

The Administration’s critics are saying that, in the currently existing health care system, protecting that right would create a grave threat to equally important rights of free association.

But that’s nuts:

It is incumbent on critics to explain why this particular rule is a dangerous expansion of state power over market actors as compared to, say, forcing a Randian executive to follow minimum wage laws. If they can’t, then it seems like the coverage requirement protects women’s rights without appreciably increasing the state’s threat to private associations. Critics would have to fall back on the pure religious liberty argument….

But this issue won’t die:

Legislation introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) to reverse the Obama administration’s birth control rule would effectively permit any employer to deny contraception coverage in their employee health plans, critics note.

The Rubio bill, The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, comes in response to a Catholic firestorm that the administration’s exemption on its birth control rule does not include religious hospitals and universities along with churches. But this bill appears to go far beyond that, permitting any employer to claim the religious exemption without any criteria.

And David Frum just sees Republicans fighting a losing battle:

As Republicans go to war over including contraception in health plans, they are repeating to themselves a reassuring mantra: “This is not a contraception issue. This is not a social issue. This is a constitutional issue.”

The idea is that they are not against contraception. They are only against requiring any employer or plan to provide contraception if that employer or plan conscientiously objects to contraception. So they say, so they may sincerely believe.

But politics is not only about what you say. It is also about what your intended audience will hear.

And there’s the problem:

If the audience is paying attention, for example, it will notice that Republicans are not proposing to allow employers and plans to refuse to cover blood transfusions if they conscientiously object to them (although there are religious groups that do). Or vaccinations (although there are individuals who conscientiously object to those as well). Or medicines derived from animal experimentation. (Ditto.)

No, Marco Rubio’s Religious Freedom Restoration bill provides for one conscientious exemption only: contraception and sterilization. Which means it will be very hard if not impossible to persuade the target audience that this debate is not in fact about contraception. Everybody quite sure that’s a wise debate to have?

And the New York Times’ Linda Greenhouse has a few observations:

The rhetoric in which this claim is put forward grows more inflammatory by the day. “The Obama administration has just told the Catholics of the United States, ‘To Hell with you!'” – according to Bishop David A. Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nondenominational organization that litigates on behalf of religious interests, is circulating a petition under the heading: “The Obama Administration is giving you one year to stop believing” (a reference to the one-year delay the regulation offers to religious employers). Mitt Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, joined the chorus this week, calling the regulation “a violation of conscience.”

But she’s not convinced, noting that the policy grounds here are persuasive – the ability to prevent or space pregnancy being an essential part of women’s health care, and shouldn’t be withheld simply because a woman’s employer is church-affiliated. And she thinks that argument holds up:

An obvious starting point is with the 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women who, just like other American women, have exercised their own consciences and availed themselves of birth control at some point during their reproductive lives. So it’s important to be clear that the conscientious objection to the regulation comes from an institution rather than from those whose consciences it purports to represent. (Catholic women actually have a higher rate of abortion than other American women, but I’ll stick to birth control for now.) While most Catholics dissent in the privacy of their bedrooms from the church’s position, some are pushing back in public. The organization Catholics for Choice, whose magazine is pointedly entitled Conscience, is calling on its supporters to “tell our local media that the bishops are out of touch with the lived reality of the Catholic people” and “do not speak for us on this decision.”

But suppose the counterfactual – that only half, or one-quarter, or five percent of Catholic women use birth control. The question would remain: Whose conscience is it? The regulation doesn’t require anyone to use birth control. It exempts any religious employer that primarily hires and serves its own faithful, the same exclusion offered by New York and California from the contraception mandate in state insurance laws.

And there are the facts of the matter:

Of the top 10 revenue-producing hospital systems in 2010, four were Catholic. The San Francisco-based Catholic Healthcare West, the fifth biggest hospital system in the country, had $11 billion in revenue last year and treated 6.2 million patients. [Just Above Sunset Disclaimer: For a number of years I was a senior systems manager for Catholic Healthcare West.] These institutions, as well as Catholic universities – not seminaries, but colleges and universities whose doors are open to all – are full participants in the public square, receiving a steady stream of federal dollars. They assert – indeed, have earned – the right to the same benefits that flow to their secular peers. What they now claim is a right to special treatment: to conscience that trumps law. But in fact, that is not a principle that our legal system embraces.

Well, we’ll see about that, when this matter gets to the Supreme Court, with the majority of the Justices, thanks to Bush and Bush, arch-conservative practicing Catholics. That should be interesting, but Greenhouse offers this:

The question would be whether a church that has failed to persuade its own flock of the rightness of its position could persuade at least five justices.

It’s possible, but the real problem is that we have a healthcare system where the main provider of healthcare – funding it – is employers, who buy group policies from brokers, brokers who represent giant for-profit insurance conglomerates. We are the only nation in the whole world that does this – the only nation in the world where employers are the ones who pay for healthcare, and are forced to add the deadweight of that to the price of their products. And it is an entirely private system still – as Obama’s healthcare legislation does little more than subsidize the purchase of this private insurance from the four or five major let’s-make-a-ton-of-money major insurance companies, with a few minor rules they have to follow for the opportunity to add tens of millions of new customers, customers they can exploit for massive profit. It’s an odd way to run things.

And enter the Catholic Bishops. They don’t want to follow those rules. They are a private employer and want to offer their employees what makes sense to them – no coverage for any kind of birth control. It’s their money they are spending, to offer an array of benefits to those that work for them – and the details of those benefits are their business, not the government’s – or something like that. The questions here really aren’t theological. It’s Obama messing with who really pays for healthcare in America. What standing does he have to do that?

None of this would have happened if we had gone to single-payer – Medicare for all – and relieved all employers of the cost and burden of being the nation’s healthcare providers – so they could do what they do without worrying about any of that stuff. The Catholic folks could run their hospitals and universities, or car rental agencies or whatever. The whole matter would have been moot.

But we didn’t. That would have destroyed the insurance industry. And what we got was zombies. And they want to eat your brains.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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