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In what was called an “accommodation” Obama made it clear in a February 10 press conference that all women would have access to free contraceptives but offered through their insurance companies and not through the institutions that employ them which may be affiliated with the Catholic Church that opposes contraception. It would be a shame if this explanation is interpreted as Obama on the defensive, having stepped back from “making a mistake.” 

Defensiveness in this case is entirely inappropriate. It is no shame to work to expand the availability of contraception. On the contrary it’s a goal to be proud of. An Institute of Medicine report recommended a major expansion of birth control services to women. Women with unintended pregnancies account for almost half of pregnancies in the U.S., and those women are more likely to smoke, consume alcohol, be depressed and experience domestic violence. The IOM also said that expanding birth control services to women will cut down on the number of abortions and make women healthier. To be for contraception is to be pro life. 

There was an outcry from the Catholic hierarchy against Obama’s plan to make cost-free contraception available to all.  If contraception is good for women and children there ought to be an outcry from the other side, those who want to attack global poverty, decrease infant and maternal mortality, and strengthen families and women’s self determination.  

Jill Warren, executive director, Methodist Federation for Social Action said it best, when interviewed on the PBS Newshour February 9: “Contraception, controlling whether you can plan your family, whether you can space your children, whether you want to have children, is a basic health issue. It’s a biological fact that women can be impregnated, and against our will, I might add. So it absolutely is a health issue…for me, the policy is just good public policy for the common good.” Warren also said “barriers to education, barriers to the work force all center around whether you can control your own reproductive health.”  In other words working against the availability of contraception is also an issue of discrimination.

The original Obama plan was not a violation of religious liberty.   No one was being urged, let alone compelled, to violate their beliefs and purchase contraceptives.  On the contrary, it is the (heavily government subsidized) private sector religious institutions that seek to impose their will. When the Catholic hierarchy talks about the suppression of religious liberty it is talking about institutions, not individuals, claiming that their religious freedom is being violated (is this like the personhood of corporations as funders?). 

These institutions are powerful. The fifth national survey of American Catholics appeared in National Catholic Reporter on October 28, 2011; a major finding was that Catholics of all generations, and both sexes, have consistently said in five surveys during the past 25 years that they do not see the bishops as the proper locus of moral authority on the matter of the use of contraception.  Rather they believe that their conscience should be the proper locus.  Only 11% look to the bishops.  One Catholic theologian Daniel Mcguire cautions however not to underestimate that 11%: “the bishops have a terrific amount of scare power for politicians.” They have found an issue for their battle in Obama’s birth control decision. Non-Catholics are being told to stay away from the issue. Michael Sean Winters, also in National Catholic Reporter (NYT, 2/10/12), said, “no matter what people think about contraception, that’s an internal Catholic debate. Catholics do not like interlopers.”

To say that non-Catholics should leave the issue alone is not an acceptable position. The Catholic Church cannot arrogate to itself the right to decide this issue “internally” while in the meantime urging on politicians to come down hard on the anti-contraception side. The community as a whole (America) should not facilitate a particular hierarchy imposing its views, even on its own members, especially when those views offend the moral convictions of large numbers of other Americans.

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“American Spring”

Some demonstrators camping out in Wall Street and in other US cities protesting corporate power say they are taking inspiration from the “Arab Spring”. Except for the sleeping bags and volunteer caterers, it doesn’t seem obvious that the comparison holds. In Egypt the protest movement was bringing down a long standing political dictatorship risking death, prison and torture. At it’s most trivial, the Wall Street demonstrators when asked what they intended to do could say, “hand out chalk to write grafitti on walls”. But that is not the end of the story. Both the American and Arab springs want to have a system where the real power holders are held accountable.

Hosni Mubarak was Egypt’s supreme power. He is now in the dock. Egypt had the skeleton of democratic institutions. It held rigged elections. It looks like there will be flesh on upcoming elections, where the voters’ ballots will count.

In the US, protestors are not after the military or executive branch dictators. They are after corporate power for using its resources to subvert democratic accountability. In Egypt, political institutions were not responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people. This might seem to be analogous to protestors’ view of the situation in the US, where money trumps the express preferences of the people. After all, poll after poll shows the American public in favor of increasing taxes on the wealthiest. Why aren’t their taxes increased?

To answer that question, it isn’t enough to say that corporate money is responsible. Polls reflect the general public’s preferences. However, only 41.6% of the eligible voters voted in the 2010 elections (a record for mid term elections). If election day was a day off from work in the US, as it is in a number of European countries, perhaps elections would play their role in holding power accountable, as more citizens exercise their rights.

Protestors should look to solutions that are right under their noses. For example, at the same time they work to expose corporate misuse of power, they should work to stop efforts in a growing number of states to suppress voter turnout in the 2012 elections. We don’t have to rebuild democratic institutions from scratch, just repair them.
— Elizabeth Spiro Clark

Whatever else one might say about WikiLeaks Americans reading cables written by their emissaries in embassies around the world back to their Secretary of State, might  start to have a clue about what Obama and his team do for a living. It’s hard work. On November 30 Andrea Mitchell on CNN struggled to come up with exactly why Hillary Clinton was in Kazakhstan, other than to be embarrassed by Wikileaks in front of  “other world leaders”.  Admittedly, even Mitchell might stumble over “Astana” as the capital of Kazakhstan, but shouldn’t she try to say it was a summit meeting of an organization of which the US is a (of course leading) member, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe?  I am told by a NYT stringer that even the Times tells its writers not to get into any acronym specifics (maybe “UN”, maybe “NATO”). State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley played along with this taboo with Mitchell, talking about how, despite WikiLeaks, the leaders at “the meeting” would pursue “security and cooperation”.  Post Cold War, the OSCE is a very important vehicle for US and global security interests, but apparently no one but those who work for the big, bad federal government need know anything about it.

And speaking of those federal government employees, in this case American diplomats. what do they do for a living? They find out, for example, what the Pakistan government is doing about keeping its nuclear bombs out of terrorist hands (not nearly enough), or how much money the Iranians are pouring into Iraq (too much), so that our government can take effective counter actions. And when those diplomats make a mistake, it matters too.  In 2008 US-Russian relations suffered an unnecessary crisis because then President Bush wanted, at all costs, to back Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili  against  Russia over a breakaway region in Georgia, Abkhazia, including backing the Georgian claim the Russians attached Georgia and not visa versa. Turns out, as WikiLeaks reveals, the Embassy did lousy reporting and accepted anything the Georgian officials said to it, even while the OSCE’s (OSCE! see above) independent military observer team backed the Russian/Abkhaz claims that the Georgians started the war.

Far right members of the incoming Congress don’t care.  The rest of the world is to be handled mano a mano, no talk, just military action; no win-win situations, just the US wins, everybody else loses. What do we need cables for?