Michelle Obama, in her speech to the Democratic National Convention, explained that her husband “believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care.” If you’re anything like me, as a general rule you would like to believe the first lady of the United States. “Just say no to drugs.” “Read.” “Exercise.” These are good messages that have come from first ladies, including the incumbent. But in this case, Mrs. Obama was putting a FLOTUS spin on a redefinition of religious liberty that has occurred under her husband’s administration.
Two years ago, in the final days of debate on the Obamacare bill, then–Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told us that Congress would “have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it.” Given how much was left to be defined by bureaucrats, that was, in fact, the case. And, under the direction of the White House — with Planned Parenthood along for the policymaking ride — Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued the HHS mandate under her “preventive services” regulatory powers. The University of Notre Dame, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, and the evangelical Wheaton College, among many others, are currently suing the federal government over this. The Obama administration’s position is not so much that “women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care” as it is that the price of women’s freedom is the curtailment of religious liberty, because women’s freedom is contingent upon treating fertility as a disease.
Currently, Barack Obama’s Justice Department is arguing in federal courts that business owners do not enjoy religious-liberty rights. Women’s “freedom” under the Obama administration requires Americans with conscience objections to some of Secretary Sebelius’s “preventive services” to make a choice between integrity and compliance. Faith-based institutions that simply can’t comply will face crippling fines — after the election, conveniently, so that we don’t see the results out in the open during our moment of choosing.
In this practical understanding, “freedom” is a secular ideology that drives the religious to the margins, rendering belief more a matter of ceremony than the “indispensable support” our first president considered it. In this understanding, free practice of religion is merely to be accommodated when possible. Ultimately, the HHS mandate represents an institutionalization of the sexual revolution by government diktat that makes clear that despite all the talk of “choice,” the “freedom” the Obama administration talks about isn’t freedom as we have understood it.
Not everyone impressed into spinning the policies and philosophy of the administration came off sounding as reasonable as Mrs. Obama at the Charlotte convention. An opening video was frank: “Government is the only thing we all belong to.” And the speakers included an army of abortion-rights activists, including the presidents of NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, as well as the pro-choice women of the House and Senate. In a transparent effort to win back single women who voted Republican in the 2010 midterm elections, President Obama’s convention put Sandra Fluke, a “reproductive rights” celebrity, on in prime time to scare voters. She insisted that should the Republican presidential ticket be elected, we would have “a vice president who co-sponsored a bill that would allow pregnant women to die preventable deaths in our emergency rooms.”
I can imagine this might sound believable to a voter who doesn’t have the time to investigate the claim, which has become a persistent, and appalling, mischaracterization of the Protect Life Act, which the House voted on almost a year ago. One of the first to tell this lie was, again, Nancy Pelosi, who announced at the time: “Under this bill, when the Republicans vote for this bill today, they will be voting to say that women can die on the floor and health care providers do not have to intervene if this bill is passed. It’s just appalling.” Democrats and abortion-activist groups have been fundraising off it, dubbing it the “Let Women Die Act.”
In truth, the legislation was simply an attempt to undo some of the rupture in the bipartisan consensus on conscience protection caused by the president’s health-care legislation. Despite the images Democrats continue to paint of hypothetical women dying on hospital floors, and of heartless pro-life doctors and hospital workers letting them die, the act sought to prevent health-care providers who are opposed to abortion on religious or moral grounds from being forced to participate in one. It also sought to prevent federal funds from being used to pay for abortion coverage. However, the law specifically exempts from that ban an abortion “in the case where a pregnant female suffers from a physical disorder, physical injury, or physical illness that would, as certified by a physician, place the female in danger of death unless an abortion is performed, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself.”
The shrillness of the “Let Women Die” claim — along with terrible convention optics that included a floor debate over whether God could get a namedrop in the party’s platform (He ultimately was included and appeared to be booed) — betrays the extremism of the president and his party. The content of the Democratic convention and the policies of this administration give all Americans the opportunity to insist on more during the coming weeks — a probing, an education. Some questions to ask include: What, Mr. President, do you mean by freedom? When you talk about women’s health, you mean abortion, don’t you? What does that really mean for a religious believer with objections? What does religious freedom mean to you anyway?
The Obama campaign opened up to us in Charlotte. These next weeks are for a more careful look, without the stage and the props. Now is the time to cast aside the pomp and circumstance and insist on a robust accounting of ideas and consequences. Elections are about stewardship, and our politics will ever be only as responsible as our voters are about the rigor with which we make our electoral choices.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.