Mitt Romney is running ads explaining that he does not object to birth control. But no one questions his stance that women should have, as the ads say, "access" to contraception. They already do. They also have access to Coach handbags and flights to Acapulco. And that's where the Romney smokescreen, intended to close a gender gap favoring Democrats, needs clearing.
Most women of childbearing age would consider birth control an essential part of their health care. But of the medical services employers must provide under the new health care law, Romney singles out birth control as one thing that should be optional.
Sure, most women can afford birth control. Women who lead disciplined lives would move heaven and earth to manage their fertility. From a practical standpoint, these women can be counted on to take care of business. To them, this exclusion in coverage is merely insulting.
But they are not the concern. The concern is women scraping by. Some live paycheck to paycheck, or don't have one. Some are high school kids with no income stream. Some are strangers to the larger world of responsibility or lack the mental capacity to make sound decisions about unprotected sex.
These are the women who may not dig into their empty or messy pockets for the $120 to $1,000 a year needed to buy contraception. Also, to obtain the pill, one must first visit a doctor and get a prescription. Organized women do what they must. Disorganized women don't get around to it.
Consider the low-income 24-year-old wanting to have sex with her boyfriend and not wanting to get pregnant. She knows where she can find birth control pills, but rather than spend a week's pay to get there, she rationalizes: "This the 'safe' part of my monthly cycle. I probably won't get pregnant, and so I'll take the risk."
Next thing you know, she's pregnant. She'll either have an abortion or join the growing armies of unmarried women who have babies out of wedlock.
The first scenario, an abortion, is anathema to social conservatives. The second scenario, another potentially dysfunctional family headed by a single parent, worries thinking Americans of most political persuasions. Not providing this mainstream pharmaceutical - free! - to the women who need it most is crazy social policy.
We know the politics. We know that the Catholic Church, being theologically opposed to birth control, has pushed for this exclusion. We know that the health care reforms make an exception for churches, but not for the hospitals, schools and other entities they run. But that should be exception enough.
Romney wants to ban abortion except in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. I think early abortions should be easy to get but that abortion is a complex issue with strong views on all sides. Arguing over whether birth control should be basic of health care coverage is something else entirely and hard to fathom. The vast majority of American Catholics use birth control without apology.
The Gates Foundation runs a program providing contraceptives in impoverished countries. Melinda Gates, a practicing Catholic, staunchly defends it. By being able to control their fertility, she argues, women can begin a "virtuous economic cycle."
Rich America has a poor country expanding within its borders. We, too, must help women in the poor America start a "virtuous economic cycle."
Yes, all women have "access" to birth control. But with effective contraception costing hundreds a year, otherwise responsible low-income women might take their chances and have sex without it. We can't afford not to ensure that those who want birth control, get it.