Why Obama can't give in to the bishops

A "pro-choice" administration might expand a religious exemption on birth-control coverage. Here's what's at stake

Published November 21, 2011 10:59PM (EST)


Three years ago, a United States senator declared that he opposed a regulation by the Department of Health and Human Services that would make it easier for healthcare providers to opt out of providing services -- like filling prescriptions for contraceptives -- that they opposed for religious reasons. He said it raised "troubling issues about access to basic health care for women, particularly access to contraceptives. We need to restore integrity to our public health programs, not create backdoor efforts to weaken them. I am committed to ensuring that the health and reproductive rights of women are protected."

That senator, of course, was Barack Obama. He had already been elected president by the time the Bush administration regulations were tacked on, lame-duck-style. Obama did make good on modifying those regulations, but now he might capitulate to something far worse in terms of impact on "basic health care for women, particularly access to contraceptives." If the Catholic Church wins a broader exemption on new regulations mandating insurers to provide no-cost contraception, literally millions of employees and students at Catholic-affiliated institutions and their dependents could be screwed. (The United States Council of Catholic Bishops has been lobbying the administration for an exemption that would make it easy for just about any institution to opt out of covering birth control in employee health insurance plans, whether the institution serves mostly Catholics or not.)

In the New York Times today, Democrats sounded frustrated that Obama was even considering an exemption. “This is a pro-choice president. It’s a surprise that we are even having this debate with the administration," said a "Senate Democrat" who participated in a call with the White House on the issue.

But the truly absurd part is that some of these people already have insurance coverage for contraception, either because the employers are in states that have mandated coverage or because they decided to offer it. For example, Georgetown University offers two separate plans, one of which not only provides contraceptive coverage, but also (gasp) abortion coverage, which is optional for providers.

Presumably, they won't be applying to get out of contraceptive coverage if the Obama administration does cave to the bishops, but what if the new exemptions go further than the existing ones in the states? That could mean some people would actually lose the coverage they have, though the question would probably end up being decided by a court. In other words, getting women and men better access to contraceptive services is supposed to be one of the key victories the Obama administration has declared on behalf of women and pro-choice supporters -- but if the bishops get their way, some women could end up being even worse off.



By Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at icarmon@salon.com.

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Birth Control Catholics Reproductive Rights