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Even Lena Dunham Can No Longer Defend Obama’s Contraception Mandate


Lena Dunham’s New York Times op-ed on the Trump administration’s newly proposed contraception mandate should encourage champions of life, limited government, and authentic femininity. No, Dunham hasn’t taken up the pro-life mantle. Yes, she still finds reasons to force the Little Sisters of the Poor (or any conscientious objector) to pay for employees’ contraception and abortion-inducing pills.

But, significantly, she doesn’t argue that commitment-free sex and abortion are more foundational to self-government than the right of Catholic nuns to serve others according to their faith. At least in this column, Dunham departs from most brands of abortion-minded feminism. She refrains from trumpeting a freedom tantamount to the right to do whatever suits the individual and escape consequence-free—a dangerous concept that’s 20-minutes old to the American experiment. In other words, Dunham gives up the main argument used to support the Obama administration’s contraception mandate in the first place.

We’ve Learned a Lot in 50 Years, True

There are many reasons Dunham may have chosen to back off the case that commitment-free sex, made possible by contraception and abortion, is essential to ensuring women’s health and equality. Perhaps the last 50 years of collected science calling that premise seriously into doubt is finally gaining purchase.

Perhaps it’s the fact that, even though the purportedly “necessary” and “essential” contraception mandate has been in place for five years, the rate of use among sexually active women has not changed. Or it could be that cost is not even on the list of reasons the 11 percent of sexually active women who do not use contraception frequently cite. Or maybe the Supreme Court has rejected the argument so often that the Lena Dunhams of the world now know it’s a loser.

Whatever the reason, those working to advance an authentic notion of freedom and human dignity should consider it a small victory when a leading mouthpiece for the contraception-and-abortion pipeline sees a serious weakness in her cause’s primary strategy.

Lena Dunham Switches Her Justification

Instead of relying on the flawed traditional rationale, Dunham wants the government to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for employees’ hormonal contraception because the pill alleviates symptoms of some conditions, such as endometriosis. Allowing employers to “deny coverage of birth control at any time and for any reason,” as Dunham oh-so-wrongly claims the new mandate would do, would be “unfair” to financially stable women and “disastrous” for women living near or below the poverty line.

Good news all around for Dunham. Unfortunately for fans of limited government, the new mandate mainly keeps the old mandate intact. Only if an employer has a sincerely held religious or moral objection (a tried and true legal standard that courts apply every day)—like the Little Sisters of the Poor—can the employer now be included among those exempt, a list that, under the Obama rule, boasts vast swathes of the nation’s largest employers for reasons of finance and convenience. As Becket Fund attorney Mark Rienzi explains, the potential pool of employers with conscience objections represents a mere three-tenths of 1 percent of the 55 million employees currently covered.

Dunham’s retreat to The New York Times editorial page also seems a bit dramatic considering that all of the women even potentially subject to the revised regulation are, by definition, gainfully employed to the point of receiving health benefits. Women not receiving health benefits through an employer, including most “at or below the poverty line,” aren’t within the scope of the regulation to begin with, and therefore won’t be affected by changes to it. Still, employed or not, poor women almost always have access to contraception other people pay for, most often through Title X and Medicaid, which the new regulation likewise won’t affect.

Endometriosis Doesn’t Justify the Mandate Either

Finally, some hope for women like Dunham who suffer from a debilitating condition of the reproductive system. Modern medicine has come a long way since the pill was introduced to the public in the early 1960s. On the down side, we know now that hormonal contraceptives can come with a host of significant negative physical and psychological side effects and increased risks of contracting or developing certain other diseases. In addition, in most or all cases, hormonal contraception does not cure medical conditions, but rather merely masks symptoms.

On the other hand, promising new fertility-based research and technologies often help women identify underlying medical conditions quickly—including endometriosis—and pinpoint cures. In addition, many of these technologies are extremely cost-effective, often cheaper than paying for monthly oral contraceptives. Perhaps best of all, they don’t come along with the negative physical and psychological side effects and risks associated with hormonal contraception.

Mounting evidence suggests there may be a shrinking list of “medically necessary reasons” for women to turn to hormonal contraception, particularly in light of effective, affordable alternatives. Nevertheless, most employers who won’t be complicit in delivering contraception based on moral grounds have no objection to covering contraceptives when they are prescribed to treat medical conditions such as endometriosis. That includes Catholic employers.

Dunham’s op-ed indeed touches a truly miniscule population—one that, arguably, wouldn’t be affected at all by the revamped regulation, and can always or almost always afford these prescriptions through other avenues. Under these conditions, principles of limited government caution against allowing the hypothetical convenience interests of a tiny number of people to undermine the constitutionally grounded concerns of those claiming serious moral objections to the mandate. The pre-mandate status-quo hardly revealed a crisis in the first place.

The Left’s demand for universal access to the pill is integral to its sale of snake-oil-style “women’s freedom,” and for that reason it’s not likely to vanish in the night. Still, perhaps Dunham’s decision to abandon the core cause, if even for a moment, is encouraging.