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An appeal to women voters [Editorial]

It should come as no surprise that Democrats are looking to women voters for help this fall and plan to use the Hobby Lobby decision — and an assault of women's reproductive rights generally — as part of their rallying cry. In a meeting Friday with The Sun's editorial board, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made it clear that she expects access to contraception and family planning to be a major issue in Congressional races.

Equal pay, paid sick leave, raising the minimum wage and affordable child care are also part of the "When women succeed, America succeeds" mantra — as will job creation, affordable education and rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, Ms. Pelosi acknowledged. But she sees the Hobby Lobby case as part of that central economic message, a threat to women in the workplace — and, by extension, to the nation's prosperity.

Last week, efforts in the U.S. Senate to overturn the Supreme Court's ruling in the Hobby Lobby case and restore the right of women to contraception coverage through their employers' health plans failed on a procedural vote, 56-43 with most Democrats supporting the measure along with three Republicans, Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. The proposal would have prevented companies like Hobby Lobby from using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to exempt themselves from covering Plan B, IUDs and certain other forms of contraception.

Recording a vote — whether on the merits or to overcome a Republican filibuster of the unsubtly-titled, Not My Boss's Business Act — was, of course, the point of the exercise since it never would have had a chance in the GOP-controlled House. Some Republican senators even offered their own legislation — one that would ban employers from preventing access to contraception altogether — which is the height of silliness as employers can't go around effectively grabbing women's IUDs from the purses of their workers now.

What is serious is the desire to attract women voters or, conversely, keep them from the polls in November. Democrats desperately need the support of women in the mid-term election if the party is to keep control of the U.S. Senate. Ms. Pelosi says she's serious about recapturing the House as well, although polls show that to be highly unlikely. On the other hand, Republicans would be pleased if women and minorities just stayed home and white male voters carried the day.

But that doesn't make the Hobby Lobby case unworthy of rectifying. Despite the latest spin offered by social conservatives — that a woman's right to contraception is left intact and all that was at stake in the case were the religious beliefs of those with an ownership stake in the corporation — the ruling clearly diminishes access to contraception. When people have to pay for health care products or services out of pocket they are less able to afford them which is why the Affordable Care Act included the contraception mandate in the first place.

The broader public interest — lowering the incidence of unwanted pregnancy that is so costly not only to women but to society in general — should not be held subservient to the religious beliefs of a relative few corporate owners. The ACA never mandated contraceptive purchase or use by anyone. What was vital was that such products not only be available but affordable — to limit insurance coverage is an assault on the rights of millions of American women.

The Democrats may distill that idea to a loss of access to contraception but the underlying point is true: In the Hobby Lobby case, the nation's highest court has made it more difficult for women to prevent pregnancy. Now, what is Congress going to do about it?

This is, of course, part of a broader movement of efforts to restrict women to reproductive health services. On the state level, Republicans have had some success in concocting various laws and regulations making it increasingly difficult for women to terminate a pregnancy — forcing abortion clinics to operate on par with ambulatory surgical centers, for instance, or mandating ultrasound tests or waiting periods.

In that light, and with the increasing likelihood of turnover on the Supreme Court with nominees facing Senate confirmation, those who favor keeping government — and bosses — out of women's reproductive health decisions ought to be concerned about the mid-term elections. Conventional wisdom is that such concerns don't drive elections but as Ms. Pelosi acknowledged, this is not shaping up to be a conventional year.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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