In the contraception furor, the loud voices of a few threaten revolutionary gains of all U.S. women

The Obama administration may have wriggled out of a tight spot when it announced it would require insurers – and not some religiously based employers, as it previously indicated – to provide no-cost birth control to employees. But the furor hasn’t died down yet, and amid all the election-year politicking and claims of trampled religious freedoms, the revolutionary gains that contraception gives women have somehow been lost in the shuffle.

For American women, birth control is as noncontroversial as a trip to the mall. Ninety-nine percent of American women have relied upon some type of birth control during their lifetimes. Some conservatives have argued that the birth control pill ushered in an age of promiscuity, but most women thank God for the tools that allow them to conceive when they have the financial and emotional resources to do so, and not when they don’t.

Birth control is noncontroversially good for families and children. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, “a child born as the result of an unintended pregnancy is at greater risk of premature birth, low birth weight and abuse or neglect, and babies who are born early or too small have a greater chance of dying in their first year of life.” Planned children are more likely to benefit from good prenatal care and to be breast-fed.

Increased use of birth control correlates with fewer abortions — supposedly a goal of politicians on both sides of the aisle. Contraceptive services at publicly funded clinics in 2008 helped avert 973,000 unintended pregnancies, which would have resulted in 433,000 unplanned births and 403,000 abortions. It is worth remembering that Title X, which provides federal funds to family planning clinics used especially by low-income women, was signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon.

Birth-control is widely used even by Catholics: 98 percent of American Catholic women have used contraception in their lifetimes. And according to a poll released this week, nearly 60 percent of American Catholics believe that employer health insurance should cover contraceptives — in spite of their church’s theological opposition.

This culture battle is fueled in part by the changing shape of the abortion war. No longer solely focused on overturning Roe v. Wade, abortion opponents are fighting smaller skirmishes across a broader landscape, and they have launched a sustained assault on Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions, yes, but also contraceptives, gynecological exams, and breast-cancer screening.

By conflating abortion and contraception in their rhetoric, and putting both in their sights, the ideologues in this new war are rolling back decades of medical and social progress and reverting to an era when all gynecological and obstetrical matters were yucky and bad — what my grandfather used to call “female trouble.”  In a Washington Examiner editorial this week, Republican hopeful Rick Santorum used the words “abortion,” “contraceptive” and “sterilization” in the same sentence, as if they were interchangeable. After the Obama administration announced its accommodation, the anti-abortion group Concerned Women for America issued a press release, calling any rule that requires employers “affiliated with the Christian faith” to provide “free abortion-inducing drugs” nothing less than “tyranny.”

But abortion and contraception are not the same thing. “This policy that the administration has issued is not about abortion, it’s about contraception,” says Andrea Kane, senior director for policy at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “There’s been a lot of confusion about that. It’s helpful to remind people that the contraception that would be made available under this policy in fact helps prevent abortion.”

(It is also perhaps useful to remind people that while the Roman Catholic hierarchy has historically opposed the use of artificial birth control, conservative Protestants traditionally have not. As Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission told a Texas TV station last week, “I don’t believe prudent planning is rebellion against God’s will as long as couples accept God may cause them to have unplanned pregnancies anyway.”)

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is taking a wait-and-see approach, while other groups, such as Care Net, a Virginia-based network of anti-abortion pregnancy centers, insist that Obama’s compromise continues to infringe on their freedom of conscience.

But women in their child bearing years spend way more than men – 68 percent more – in out of pocket health-care costs, in part because they can get pregnant. To hold the consciences of a few loud voices over the private needs of families, to push this problem back onto individuals in an economy where women are already carrying an enormous load, is not just unfair. It is unconscionable.