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Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum stops for a phone picture with Erica Marple, of Marietta,Ga., while campaigning at Peachtree DeKalb Airport, Thursday, March 1 , 2012. (John Amis/AP/John Amis/AP)
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum stops for a phone picture with Erica Marple, of Marietta,Ga., while campaigning at Peachtree DeKalb Airport, Thursday, March 1 , 2012. (John Amis/AP/John Amis/AP)

Konrad Yakabuski

GOP's contraception attack alienates women Add to ...

The pill has been part of everyday life for American women since June Cleaver was around. By the 1970s, even the wholesome and unwed Mary Richards was on it.

So, it is hard to see the current Republican war on contraception as anything but the death wish of a party stuck in a Leave It to Beaver world.

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The kerfuffle that broke out this week over the GOP’s so-called Blunt amendment, which would have allowed employers to exclude contraceptive coverage from their employee health plans, showed how the party continues to cater to the whims of its shrinking, evangelical base by putting religion above women’s rights.

The measure sponsored by Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt sought to enable employers to exclude from employee health plans “specific items or services” that violated their “religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

The amendment aimed to repeal President Barack Obama’s so-called contraception mandate and it failed. But its memory will long haunt the GOP. The same day the Blunt amendment went down to defeat in the Senate, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 63 per cent of Americans, including 55 per cent of Catholics, supported Mr. Obama’s mandate.

The memory will linger, and not in a good way, for another reason. GOP kingmaker Rush Limbaugh likened a Georgetown University law student who expressed support for the Obama mandate to a “slut” who “wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

The Republican presidential candidates did not go quite that far. But they did fall over themselves to express solidarity with their anti-contraception brethren (they are almost all men, after all) in Congress.

This was no surprise, considering the Republican field is populated by one candidate, Rick Santorum, who thinks contraception has been “harmful to women.” Another, Mitt Romney, nearly kiboshed his candidacy by first suggesting the Blunt amendment was a bad idea. (A contrite Mr. Romney was soon back toeing the party line.)

“Over the last several election cycles, there really has been no move on the part of Republicans to energize women voters,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington. “In 2008, they initially thought Sarah Palin might have that effect. But all she did was motivate the base.”

In 2008, Mr. Obama won 56 per cent of women’s votes, so, any Republican nominee would have likely started out the 2012 race facing a deficit of female support. Indeed, an Associated Press poll released this week showed Mr. Obama leading Mr. Romney among women by 13 percentage points and topping Mr. Santorum by 16 points. The President was virtually tied with both Republicans among men.

Yet, curiously, none of the GOP presidential candidates has seriously attempted to address this gender gap. Mr. Santorum took a baby step toward reconciliation this week when he spoke of his nonagenarian mother, who was the first woman in her family to attend college and have a career. But the ex-Pennsylvania senator did not seek forgiveness for any of the anti-feminist tirades that have become his stock in trade.

For his part, Mr. Romney had a golden opportunity this week to elevate himself with women – and he almost took it.

“The idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and woman, husband and wife, I’m not going there,” Mr. Romney told an Ohio television station when asked about the Blunt amendment.

Within minutes, however, he had reversed course, telling a Boston radio show that he had misunderstood the question in Ohio.

“Of course, I support the Blunt amendment,” he said.

It spoke volumes about a GOP contender’s room to manoeuvre in the 2012 primary race.

Ironically, Mr. Obama had been vulnerable on this issue. His initial contraception mandate would have forced Catholic institutions to pay for free birth-control coverage for their employees. Even many Democrats felt that went too far.

Mr. Obama quickly changed tack, however, exempting Catholic institutions from paying for the coverage for their employees. Instead, he required their health-insurance companies to swallow the cost of such coverage, since their bottom line stood to benefit from fewer unwanted pregnancies.

It was a reasonable, if imperfect, compromise and Republicans could have left it at that. Instead, repeating their recent pattern, they overreached. The Blunt amendment would have essentially let employers deny coverage for virtually any procedure they disliked.

It could be that Republican politicians think the grassroots will reward them for standing up for religious freedom by turning out in force this fall. Or they could be afraid of primary challenges from ideologically purer candidates than them.

Either way, they have given their rivals plenty of fodder for the fall election.

“Every time an issue like this is raised, Democrats are thrilled,” Ms. Lawless explained. “They can now run ads showing Republican candidates saying completely ridiculous things we would not have expected a Republican to say in 2012.”

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