Senate Republicans' efforts to allow any employer or health insurance company to deny coverage for any health care service on the basis of religious or moral objections would have shredded the concept of comprehensive health care standards. Initiated in league with Catholic bishops' assault on women's health care and contraception, it ballooned past reason. Regardless, the slender margin by which Senate Democrats defeated it, 51-48, shows how far afield Washington's Republicans have drifted in the looney presidential campaign season.
The far-fetched bill Republicans' sought marks a weird turn in a debate that began last month about the Catholic church's right to deny women contraceptive care in its non-religious hospitals and universities. The Obama administration stepped forward with a reasonable accommodation policy. It required health insurers to provide women preventive care free of charge and independent of a religiously affiliated employer.
The cost issue the GOP attached to that is purely a canard. It's cheaper for health insurers to provide free preventive contraceptive care -- and other preventive services for women, like mammograms, pap smears and cervical cancer screenings -- than it is to allow undetected issues to become full-blown medical crises.
That, alas, was not enough for the group of bishops who had collaborated for most of the past year to make the issue of religious freedom a political fight. They still claimed, without reasonable grounds, that the accommodation somehow intruded on their religious liberty, though it clearly does no such thing.
Republicans searching for another "values" issue zealously sought to inflate the issue with their latest shotgun proposal: An exemption that would have allowed any employer to deny health care coverage in any selected area on any claim of religious objections or "moral" objections.
Such a broad exemption would be grossly unfair to all Americans, not just women. It would be broadly absurd for the general populace. Under such a mile-wide canopy, employers could deny insurance coverage for, say, liver disease possibly induced by alcohol or drug use, on the grounds of "moral" objection to drinking or drugs. Such an extreme proposal is not just another way to promote a political wedge issue. And it ignores the point that people are required to pay taxes for a lot of things they oppose -- war, for example.
In any case, America's families and individual women clearly need comprehensive care, and women in particular need contraceptive care -- including the estimated 98 percent of Catholic women that practice contraception. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, in the interest of general health benefits, firmly opposed denial of contraceptive care. Its executive director says such care "improves and saves babies lives, improves maternal health and can be life-saving for women with serious medical problems."
Though the Catholic Church teaches sexual abstinence over contraception, however, many Catholic hospitals also deny general obstetric and gynecological care. Chattanooga's Memorial Hospital, for example, formally ended its ob-gyn care and delivery of babies in 1982.
The irony of the church's policies cannot be ignored. America's Catholic bishops want their congregants to avoid contraception and have babies, but they won't help women, Catholic or not, deliver these babies. Neither will they support women's right to freely engage contraceptive care from their health insurers on their own.
Bishops already can keep contraception out of their insurance policies for church staff, but neither they, nor Republicans, should have the right to dictate such contradictory policies -- or grossly wide exclusions -- for the general American public.