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Blunt Amendment: Schumer’s over-the-top rhetoric

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This whole debate [over the Blunt Amendment] is an anachronism. Our country progressed beyond the issue of whether or not to allow birth control a long time ago. Yet here we are in 2012, and the Republican Party suddenly wants to turn back the clock and take away contraception from women. Make no mistake: that’s what this debate is about.”
Mr. President, if this amendment passes, it would ban contraception coverage for any woman in America whose boss has a personal objection to it. This measure would force women to surrender control of their own health decisions to their bosses.”
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, some 20 million American women could be cut off from health services by this proposal. — Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaking on the Senate floor about the Blunt Amendment, Feb. 29, 2012

Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York made these remarks while speaking against the Blunt Amendment, a Senate proposal that would have undermined President Obama’s controversial mandate requiring employers or their insurance companies to cover the cost of contraceptives, as well as other preventive health services. Lawmakers effectively killed the Blunt measure on Thursday by a vote of 51-48.

Republicans have argued that the contraception-coverage rule violates the religious liberty of faith-based organizations that oppose birth control. Democrats contend that the real issue is women’s health. Both sides are trying to seize control of the debate and convince voters that their rights are in jeopardy.

We realize this is a controversial issue, with emotions running high on both sides, and we take no stand on it. But we were curious if Schumer stretched the truth with his remarks. Did the Senate just save women from a return to the 19th century? Would the measure truly ban contraception coverage when employers object to it?

The Facts

The mandate in question comes from the 2010 health care reform law, which required employers to provide coverage of certain preventive health services without charging the insured. Churches have been exempt from the provision, but some religious leaders still object to it on grounds that church-affiliated institutions — such as Catholic hospitals — will have to pay for health services that violated their principles.

The Obama administration last month promised to amend the policy. As the rule stands, it still requires contraceptive coverage, but allows women to obtain it directly from their insurance companies — which still wouldn’t be allowed to charge for it. The change essentially added a degree of separation between faith-based organizations and birth control.

The Blunt Amendment would have allowed exemptions to the mandate for any employer that felt a moral or conscientious objection to it. As such, the measure could have opened the door for virtually all employers — faith-based or not — to avoid the requirement, which covers other preventive services besides birth control, such as colonoscopy screenings, mammograms, flu shots and regular pediatric visits.

Schumer’s remarks allude to the birth-control issue, so we’ll stick to that topic. Let’s look at the claims one at a time, starting with the senator’s assertion that Republicans are turning back the clock on women’s issues — specifically to the 19th century.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1965 in the case of Griswold vs. Connecticut that any law prohibiting the use of contraceptives violated the “right to marital privacy.” That supports Schumer’s assertion that the nation “progressed beyond the issue of whether or not to allow birth control a long time ago.”

But the Blunt Amendment said nothing about banning or criminalizing birth control.

Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon pointed out that the senator issued his remarks in the context of the larger debate over “personhood,” which deals with the issue of when life begins. State lawmakers in Mississippi and Virginia have tackled that issue in recent months, ultimately rejecting legislation that would have given unborn children the same legal rights as citizens.

The “personhood” bills were primarily aimed at prohibiting abortion, but those who opposed them said they could have outlawed birth control as well. Fallon claims the Blunt Amendment represented a slippery slope leaning in that direction. “The goal behind this measure was to re-litigate contraception and women’s access to it,” he said.

Fallon argues that the Blunt Amendment effectively would have allowed employers to ban contraception coverage, since they could choose whether or not to provide it.

“Ban” is a strong word in this regard. Again, the Blunt Amendment said nothing about prohibiting birth control, so women could purchase it in the future on their own or with the help of supplemental insurance, as they often do to this day. Schumer’s argument thus is a bit too legalistic.

In terms of turning back the clock, we’re actually talking about present times, since the contraceptive-related mandate doesn’t take effect until Aug. 1. Schumer is technically arguing that the national policy on contraception coverage is anachronistic to this day. This makes his 19th century reference seem hyperbolic, since women had almost no rights during that time.

Schumer isn’t alone in his sentiments. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) issued similar remarks while speaking on the Senate floor before the Blunt Amendment vote Thursday. “The Republicans want to take us forward to the Dark Ages again. . .when women were property that you could easily control, even trade if you wanted to,” he said. “It’s appalling we are even having this debate in the 21st century.”

Lautenberg’s comments are particularly exaggerative in this regard. He makes a massive stretch by comparing the implications of the Blunt Amendment with the trading of women as property.

Fallon suggested we’re taking Schumer’s comments too literally. He said the senator “is saying anti-women attitudes — including the notion that a boss should have a say over a woman’s health decisions — belong to an earlier era.”

But if that’s the case, then this particular anti-women attitude persisted right up until today, since rule in question has not taken effect.

Beyond the talk about returning to bygone eras, Republicans argue that the mandate debate is really about whether employers should be forced to pay for women’s health decisions, not so much whether bosses should have a say in those choices.

As for Schumer’s claim that the Blunt Amendment would cut off 20 million women from health services, he makes a flimsy argument. The Department of Health and Human Services actually said that “20 million American women in private health insurance plans have already gained access to at least one free preventive service because of the health care law.” (See the chart on page 3 of this study; note that it does not include contraceptive services because that provision has not yet taken effect.)

The operative phrase there is “at least one.” That doesn’t mean they all used contraceptives. And even if they did, it’s unlikely that all of those women are working for employers who would have used the Blunt Amendment to be exempt from the mandate.

The Pinocchio Test

Schumer’s comments ooze hyperbole and alarmist language. Beyond that, he has to rely on legalistic interpretations to defend them.

As for the senator’s slippery slope argument, we find that accepting such reasoning is a bit of a slippery slope itself. It’s a favorite of politicians who want to draw loose connections rather than debate the merits of a proposal as it stands.

Overall, Schumer earns three Pinocchios for his comments about the Blunt Amendment.

UPDATE: In response to a reader question, we want to further explain why Schumer's remarks deserve three Pinocchios rather than two.  It's a close call on whether his statements represent “significant factual error and/or contradictions” (3) or just “significant omissions and/or exaggerations” (2), but we think they lean in the direction of factual error.  Why? Because an exemption is not a ban, plain and simple.  If a company takes advantage of a tax exemption, we don't say the business banned itself from taxes. That's a misuse of the word. 

One could nitpick about whether individual statements—such as the reference to 20 million—are a series of two-Pinocchio comments. But the overall tenor of Schumer’s remarks, made in a carefully crafted speech on the floor of the Senate, tipped the scales toward three Ps in our judgment.     

 

Three Pinocchios

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