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The Unlikely Upshot Of Two Women's Health Fights

The Komen Foundation's decision to cave quickly on its decision to defund Planned Parenthood has made me puzzle even more over the contrasting course of this week's two different battles regarding women's reproductive health.

First, we had the dispute over the Obama administration's decision to require large Catholic institutions -- hospitals and universities, mostly -- to comply with the new requirement that large employer health insurance plans cover contraception. The administration gave a faith exemption to the health plans of actual churches, but decided that large Catholic employers -- who have many non-Catholics in their health plans -- needed to abide by the new rules which, the administration argued, would among other things reduce abortions by expanding access to birth control. The decision has sparked virulent opposition from Catholic leaders and criticism even from some liberal Catholics, who view it as a needless affront to Catholic sensitivities and worry that it could cost the Democrats crucial votes in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. This despite the fact, of course, that Catholic doctrine on the matter of birth control is flouted by the vast majority of Catholics.

Then we have the Komen Foundation, which caught hell for having defunded Planned Parenthood, a decision that, despite various assertions to the contrary, clearly had to do with Planned Parenthood's role in performing abortions. Now, while it's true that abortions make up only a sliver of the services offered by Planned Parenthood, it's also true that abortion rights remain far more polarizing and far less accepted in this country than birth control access. Yet Komen, taking a stand against abortion, badly lost its p.r. battle, while the Obama administration, taking a stand on behalf of the far more popular matter of birth control, is at risk of losing major political points in its fight.

What explains this? The best theory I can come up with is that the public instinctively sides against the aggressor. In the case of the birth control ruling, the administration loses points for offending Catholic sensitivities, even if public opinion is wholly on the side of expanding birth control access. In the case of the Planned Parenthood dispute, Komen lost points for lashing out at Planned Parenthood, even if the public is very much split on the abortion issue that lay behind Komen's move. But that's just my best guess. I'd be curious if others had their own theories on all this.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis