The Washington Post headlines a piece by Ann Gerhart with the question, “Birth control as an election issue?  Why?”  It’s the wrong question, but first let’s see how Gerhart sets this up:

Decades ago, near the end of the Age of Aquarius, a Republican congressman from Texas argued passionately that the federal government should pay for birth control for poor women.

“We need to take sensationalism out of this topic so that it can no longer be used by militants who have no real knowledge of the voluntary nature of the program but, rather, are using it as a political stepping stone,” said George H.W. Bush. “If family planning is anything, it is a public health matter.”

Title X, the law he sponsored that still funds family planning for the poor, passed the House by a vote of 298 to 32. It passed the Senate unanimously. A Republican president, Richard Nixon, enthusiastically signed it.

That was 1970.

This is now: The issue of birth control has suddenly become an obsession of the 2012 presidential campaign. To many observers, it seems that the clock has indeed been turned back.

This, however true historically, is a false equivalence to the issue today.  No one disputes the fact that government can spend tax money as Congress authorizes.  No one today is arguing to end Title X or to ban or restrict the use of contraception at the federal or state level.  In fact, the people who raised this issue want to maintain the status quo, not change it.

The real issue today is whether employers — any employers — should be forced by the federal government to supply contraception for free.  Under what authority does the federal government have that power, and for what purpose?  As I wrote earlier this month, this is a cure in search of a disease:

Employers still have to provide coverage — at no cost, not even copays — for contraception and abortifacients such as “ella” and Plan B, as well as IUDs. Here’s a question few are asking: Why? Obama and his administration insist that women need better access to contraception and abortifacients, but few women have problems accessing them. The CDC reported in 2009 that contraception use wasn’t exactly lacking: “Contraceptive use in the United States is virtually universal among women of reproductive age: 99 percent of all women who had ever had intercourse had used at least one contraceptive method in their lifetime.” Of all the reasons for non-use of contraception in cases of unwanted pregnancy, lack of access doesn’t even make the CDC’s list; almost half of women assumed they couldn’t get pregnant (44 percent), didn’t mind getting pregnant (23 percent), didn’t plan to have sex (14 percent), or worried about the side effects of birth control (16 percent). In fact, the word access appears only once in this study of contraceptive use, and only in the context of health insurance, not contraception.

So Title X has succeeded in its original policy goals.  Access to contraception is so irrelevant to unwanted pregnancies that the CDC doesn’t even mention it as an issue in a report specifically about contraception.   There is no reason for employers of any kind to be forced to supply contraception for free to their employees.  There is even less reason to force religious organizations to violate their own doctrines to facilitate access to and supply contraception to their employees.  The employees can get their own contraception, as they do now.

Finally, the federal government should not have the power to force employers to provide contraception or anything else for free.  Today it’s contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients.  What will it be tomorrow?  Abortions?  Sex-change operations?  Housing? Company stores?  Don’t believe for one moment that this arrogance ends at the string of an IUD.  That’s why this is a fight worth having, and why it is incumbent on us to rebuke the media for getting it very, very wrong at every turn.

Update: My libertarian friend Craig Westover has some good advice for conservatives:

Libertarians and conservatives are missing the point: Mandating “free” contraception is less about religious freedom and all about the secular issue of government intervention in the unalienable right to voluntary contract.

A fundamental principle of libertarian/conservative thought is that economic freedom and personal freedom cannot be separated. Economic freedom should not be treated with less scrutiny and reverence than personal freedom because a curtailment of economic freedom must necessarily manifest itself as a curtailment and loss of personal freedom. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a classic case in point. …

The role of government is protecting individual freedom to do the right thing – it is not the role of government to force any one of us to do what the administration du jour believes is the right thing.

I am not surprised the social conservative Santorum and “severely conservative” Romney characterize the mandatory provision of contraceptives as some insidious plot by President Obama to eradicate religion in America. It surprises me that the libertarian Sen. Paul takes that tack and so badly misses the teachable moment.

While curtailment of religious freedom stirs the soul, if for political expediency the contraceptive controversy is compromised away without a discussion of the coupling of economic and personal freedom, libertarians and conservatives will have lost a teachable moment.

It’s good advice — and Senator Santorum should heed it.