Talking to Obama

Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald

A week ago, I could not have imagined a scenario wherein I would cheerfully surrender both my Social Security number and comfortable footwear. But when offered a face-to-face interview with President Barack Obama, I quickly coughed up the digits and traded flip-flops for spectators.

That our conversation was to center on women’s health issues made the opportunity all the more appealing, because that topic as it is being discussed in the presidential campaign and in the policy arena has staggeringly high stakes – for me personally as a woman and mother of a daughter, for each of us, male and female, and the individual rights we are assigned, and for society at large in terms of the values we espouse and embody in our laws.

So I went to Denver for a chat with the president and Denver Post columnist Dottie Lamm.

Before our interview with the president, he gave a speech to a crowd at the Auraria Event Center focusing on women’s health – through preventive care, cancer screenings, and access to FDA-approved contraception – as a keystone of the Affordable Care Act. During his talk, he emphasized that health-care choices should lie in the hands of the individuals seeking and receiving that care:

“I don’t think your boss should get to control the health care that you get. I don’t think insurance companies should control the care that you get. I don’t think politicians should control the care that you get. I think there’s one person to make decisions on health care and that is you,” Obama told the crowd, to much applause.

This statement is at the center of the argument around women’s health care: one in which individuals’ rights to all insurance coverage for forms of doctor-defined preventive care must be balanced against the religious beliefs of the companies through which insurance policies are offered.

From my perspective, this argument has a simple test: Your religious freedom ends where my skin begins. It is a bit more complex from the policy perspective, though, so I asked Obama what happens when the health care I need runs afoul of my boss’s moral or religious beliefs.

“Ninety-nine percent of women at some point in their lives are using contraception, and I think that when you’ve got basically every woman in America needing this and it’s costing them a lot of money, to allow individual employers to say, ‘Maybe I feel like it, maybe I don’t. Maybe I disagree for religious reasons, maybe I just have my own moral or ethical view or political opinion that says I don’t want to pay for it,’ To expect that we’d have to accommodate every single employer in that fashion, I think would make it very difficult to have any kind of laws across the country,” Obama said.

Incidentally, he is not the only one who thinks so. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia happens to agree, as he said in a 1990 opinion: “Any society adopting such a system would be courting anarchy, but that danger increases in direct proportion to the society’s diversity of religious beliefs, and its determination to coerce or suppress none of them. Precisely because ‘we are a cosmopolitan nation made up of people of almost every conceivable religious preference,’ (Braunfeld vs. Brown, 366 U.S., at 606), and precisely because we value and protect that religious divergence, we cannot afford the luxury of deeming presumptively invalid, as applied to the religious objector, every regulation of conduct that does not protect an interest of the highest order,” Scalia wrote.

That is ultimately the crux of an argument that aims to make women’s individual freedoms and rights – to access health care, which may in part be an expression of their own religious values – secondary to others’ religious values if those others happen to be employers. It is offensive to me, if not dangerous – both from a gender equality perspective and one of policy-making and adherence to federal law.

Two issues arise, both of which Obama spoke to during our conversation. The first is one of pragmatics about laws in general.

“In a pluralistic society, in which we have laws that all of us have to follow, we recognize that there are going to be times where we may not agree with every law but we still carry out our obligations and our duties because that’s part of being in a democracy and a civilized society and my expectation is that most employers – the overwhelming majority of employers – would recognize that,” Obama said.

And when those laws are made carefully and in full consideration of the costs, benefits and values they aim to embody, as was the case with the Affordable Care Act – whose preventive care provisions were thoroughly analyzed as being effective in terms of costs and outcomes – then society and all who comprise it ultimately benefits from them.

The second matter that the argument over individual rights to health care versus institutional religious values raises is a more fundamental one.

In fact, it challenges the heart of what we value as a nation: protecting all who live here, regardless of who we happen to be.

Obama illustrated this point by referencing the Blunt Amendment – a provision narrowly defeated in the Senate that would have allowed any employer with any moral objection to birth control coverage to opt out of providing that coverage insurance packages.

“If we were to follow the logic of that approach ... an employer deciding that somehow it was appropriate to his religion to treat women differently, that that would be OK, that kind of drives a pretty big loophole through things like the equal protection clause of our Constitution or Title 7 or Title 9 or just about every civil rights law that we have,” Obama said. “I can’t imagine that that winds up being the test of whether a law like (the Affordable Care Act) is permissible.”

I would hope not, but there are those who see things quite differently – namely Mitt Romney, who on Thursday released an ad asking: “When religious freedom is threatened, who do you want to stand with?”

For my part, it will be with those whose policies do not ask me to compromise my own religious and moral convictions – let alone my rights as a citizen and as a woman – so that someone else’s can be protected. I am, however, willing to make occasional exceptions to my position on footwear, if doing so contributes to the greater good.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at meg@durangoherald.com.

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