Tag Archives: contraception

White House proposal gives religious groups more say in birth control mandate

By David Gibson
Religion News Service

President Barack Obama talks with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose department is charged with implementing new rules that mandate employers to provide contraception coverage to employees. RNS photo courtesy Pete Souza / The White House.

The Obama administration is offering to expand the number of faith-based groups that can be exempt from the controversial contraception mandate, and proposing that third-party companies administer coverage for self-insured faith-based groups at no cost.

At its heart, the newest offering from the White House would allow religious groups — dioceses, denominations and others — to decide which affiliated institutions are “religious” and therefore exempt from the new requirement that employers offer free contraception coverage as part of employee insurance plans.
The proposals are an effort by the administration to blunt criticisms of the controversial regulation, especially by the nation’s Catholic bishops, who have been at loggerheads with the White House since President Obama announced the contraception mandate in January.

Obama was sharply criticized by faith groups for not providing a sufficiently broad exemption for religious groups. On Feb. 10 he outlined an “accommodation” that tried to circumvent most of the problems by having insurance companies — rather than religious employers — provide the birth control coverage through a separate rider and at no cost to the employer.

While that move appeased some concerns, Catholic bishops and others argued that the religious exemption was still too narrow and could set a dangerous precedent by appearing to allow the government to determine what groups within a faith should be considered religious.

Others object that many religious groups self-insure in order to save money, and so having the insurer pay for contraception coverage rather than the employer made no difference because insurer and employer are one and the same.

The 32-page proposal, published late Friday (March 16) in the Federal Register, goes out of its way to state that “this religious exemption is intended solely for purposes of the contraceptive coverage requirement” and does not “set a precedent for any other purpose.”

“Whether an employer is designated as ‘religious’ for these purposes is not intended as a judgment about the mission, sincerity, or commitment of the employer, and the use of such designation is limited to defining the class that qualifies for this specific exemption,” states the proposed rule.

The other main innovation in the new proposal is to have a “third-party administrator of the group health plan or some other independent entity” assume responsibility for the contraception coverage for self-insured organizations, with various proposals for ensuring that self-insured groups with religious objections would not directly or indirectly pay for the birth control policy.

Whether any of these ideas will satisfy the die-hard critics of the contraception mandate is unclear, and perhaps unlikely.

“At the end of the day, no accounting gimmick changes the fact that the mandate forces religious organizations to pay health insurance companies for coverage to their employees with drugs and services that simply violates their religious convictions,” said Jeanne Monahan, director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops’ conference, told National Catholic Reporter she was “surprised that such important information would be announced late Friday of St. Patrick’s Day weekend and as we prepare for the fourth Sunday of Lent.”

Others involved in the negotiations said it would take time to review the proposals properly.

Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Health Association, which represents hundreds of Catholic hospitals, said she and her members “will have to give it a careful review” before responding.

Some critics charge that the latest proposals are an effort to “kick the can down the road” so that the administration does not have to issue a final determination until after the November election. Yet the delay in finalizing the regulations could also serve to prolong the debate.

Others believe that the 90-day open comment period on the proposals, known as an “Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” or ANPR, could actually function as a kind of cooling-off mechanism for this issue, which has exploded into an election-year debate that poses risks and rewards for all sides.

The ANPR at several points sets out a variety of possible solutions to religious objections, and invites “input on these options, particularly how to enable religious organizations to avoid such objectionable cooperation when it comes to the funding of contraceptive coverage, as well as new ideas to inform the next stage of the rulemaking process.”

By providing new details and extending the opportunity for dialogue, the Obama administration can now begin to shift discussions to the nuts and bolts of addressing the religious freedom concerns and away from rhetorical broadsides that the White House is launching a “war on religion” and can’t be trusted.

Staff members from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops were involved in initial discussions to work out a deal, but those ground to a halt when bishops accused the White House of negotiating in bad faith, a charge the administration strongly rejects.

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Obama exempts religious groups from contraception mandate

By David Gibson
Religion News Service

Facing growing furor from religious groups, President Obama on Friday unveiled an “accommodation” in which health insurance companies, rather than religious institutions, will provide employees with contraception coverage.

The revised approach effectively removes all faith-based organizations — not just houses of worship but also hospitals and universities — from covering employees’ contraception costs.

“Every woman should be in control of the decisions that affect her own health,” Obama said in a midday address at the White House.

“Now, as we move to implement this rule, however, we’ve been mindful that there’s another principle at stake here — and that’s the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution,” Obama said. “As a citizen and as a Christian, I cherish this right.”

At issue was a mandate, part of Obama’s 2009 health care overhaul, that employers provide free birth control coverage. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the mandate Jan. 20.

Religious groups, particularly Catholics, fiercely objected, saying the federal government should not force institutions to violate the tenets of their faith. Women’s advocates argued that employees should have access to birth control regardless of where they work. The furor over the contraception mandate appeared to catch the White House off guard, as it struggled to keep the focus on access to contraception, which is broadly used by American women, even Catholics.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which led the charge against the contraception mandate, said on Friday that it would study the revised rule. “While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgment on the details until we have them,” said New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of USCCB.

“We hope to work with the administration to guarantee that Americans’ consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations.”

Obama was under fierce pressure to forge a compromise. Conservatives labeled the mandate an abridgment of religious freedom, a rallying cry taken up by GOP presidential candidates, including front-runner Mitt Romney.

Under the new plan, a religiously affiliated institution would not be required to provide contraception coverage. Rather, the institution’s insurance company would offer the coverage for free and without raising premiums.

Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, an umbrella group for more than 600 Catholic hospitals, said Friday she was “very pleased” with Obama’s compromise, which she said “protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions.”

Keehan was a key supporter of the president’s health care reform law — against the wishes of the U.S. Catholic bishops — but she had voiced strong criticism of the initial contraception regulations.

Keehan was joined by a range of progressive Catholic groups and leaders in praising the new rules. Many of them had been upset with the administration’s initial decision on the mandate.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, also welcomed Friday’s decision: “We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman’s ability to access these critical birth control benefits,” Richards said.

The president’s plan still has some critics, however.

Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski told CNN he thought Obama is “just kicking the can down the road.”

“He’s hasn’t really addressed our concerns,” Wenski said. “I think the only thing to do is…to take back the whole thing.”

In recent days, as they sensed the political tide turning in their favor, several USCCB officials have indicated they wanted to go for more than just a broader exemption and wanted the entire contraception mandate eliminated.

That tack may have less appeal in light of the White House’s new plan. But that may not stop Catholic conservatives from keeping up the pressure on Obama.

William Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League, called the new policy a “ploy” and said Catholics “will only be impelled to revolt.”

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins likewise called the proposal “paperwork gimmicks.”

“This revised HHS mandate does nothing to change the fundamentally anti-religious, anti-conscience and anti-life contraceptive mandate,” he said.

On the other side, some abortion rights supporters were also unhappy.

“This administration has shown that it will not stand with women when it comes to supporting access to, and easing the availability of, reproductive healthcare services,” said Jon O’Brien, head of Catholics for Choice. “One wonders what has been gained by this ‘accommodation.’ It certainly isn’t the support of Catholics.”

Obama to exempt religious groups from contraception mandate

By David Gibson
Religion News Service

Facing growing backlash from religious groups over the administration’s birth control insurance plan, President Obama on Friday will unveil a new arrangement whereby insurers at religiously affiliated institutions — such as Catholic hospitals and universities — will not have to provide contraception coverage.

The new approach effectively removes faith-based organizations from any involvement in providing contraceptive coverage or even telling employees how to find such coverage. It also maintains Obama’s pledge to ensure that almost all women with health insurance will not have to pay for it.

“These religious institutions will not have to offer it [contraception coverage] to their employees and do not have to pay for it,” said a senior administration official about an hour before the president is to make the official announcement, which is expected at 12:30pm EST.

Friday’s Religion Roundup: Drive-thru edition

By Kevin Eckstrom
Religion News Service

All eyes are on the White House today, where ABC is reporting that POTUS will try to split the baby (so to speak) with religious groups over his mandate to offer contraception coverage to employees. VPOTUS Joe Biden(a Catholic, it’s worth mentioning) says he’s “determined to see that this gets worked out.”

Meanwhile, the NYT reports that U.S. Catholic bishops had anticipated their fight with Obama months before he rolled out the policy change: Hours after President Obama phoned to share his decision with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York … the bishops’ headquarters in Washington posted on its Web site a video of Archbishop Dolan, which had been recorded the day before.”

Mother Angelica‘s EWTN Catholic cable network has filed at least the third lawsuit by a religious group against the contraception mandate. Rick Santorum says the contraception mandate has “nothing to do with women’s rights” (and also thinks female “emotions” could get in the way of military combat). On Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants everyone to just “calm down” already.

Or, as Mother Jones points out, is this all really much ado about nothing? “The central mandate—that most employers have to cover preventative care for women—has been law for over a decade.”

Things are getting downright weird in Philly, where there are calls to make sure that retired Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua didn’t die of foul play just one day after he was deemed fit to appear as a witness in a major sex abuse trial.

Read full post here.

Five reasons why Obama is losing the contraception fight

David Gibson
Religion News Service

The White House has surprised observers and disappointed some liberal allies by signaling that it is willing to compromise and provide a broader religious exemption in its controversial regulations requiring all employers to provide free contraception coverage.

Given that birth control use is almost universal – even among Catholics – many wonder why the Obama administration could wind up retreating on its pledge.

Here are five reasons that may help explain the political dynamic the president is facing:

1. It’s about religious freedom, not birth control: U.S. Catholic bishops, who led the battle against the Health and Human Services Department mandate, know that they long ago lost their own flock on the contraception issue — 98 percent of Catholics use birth control, according to surveys. So they have carefully reframed the issue as a fight for religious freedom – an effort to keep the government from forcing the Catholic Church and other religious groups to subsidize something that goes against their teachings. That makes it a violation of conscience, a sacred principle that transcends any specific tenet of faith.

That argument also lends itself to the kind of heated rhetoric that plays well in today’s supercharged political atmosphere. For example, bishops and their allies are accusing the president of “anti-Catholicism” and worse: “The Obama administration has just told the Catholics of the United States, ‘To hell with you!’ ” Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said after the HHS regulations were announced.

The bishops don’t have as much credibility with the laity as they used to, thanks to the clergy sex abuse scandal, among other things. But Catholics are still a potent tribe, and if outsiders are seen as attacking the church, Catholics can get defensive – and they can get even.

2. Obama has lost even the support of his liberal Catholic allies: Case in point: the HHS mandate has been opposed by liberal and centrist Catholics who have supported the administration on a range of other issues — including the Catholic Health Association and the NETWORK social justice lobby — and even went to bat to help pass health care reform despite threats from the bishops.

The president “utterly botched” the religious exemptions issue, wrote Washington Post columnist and liberal Catholic E.J. Dionne, and “Obama threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus.”

“J’accuse!” Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the liberal National Catholic Reporter, wrote in a florid column that channeled Émile Zola’s famous 1898 letter accusing the French government of anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus affair. “The issue of conscience protections is so foundational, I do not see how I ever could, in good conscience, vote for this man again.”

3. It’s not just Catholics: Even though evangelicals and other conservative Protestants generally don’t have religious objections to contraception, they do have a big problem with “big government” and with perceived infringements on religious freedom. Evangelicals – both their leaders and their troops – have never been big Barack Obama supporters anyway, so they were happy to provide any electoral and rhetorical muscle the Catholic hierarchy could not muster.

“We do not exaggerate when we say that this is the greatest threat to religious freedom in our lifetime,” evangelical leaders Timothy George and Chuck Colson wrote in an open letter to their fellow believers on Wednesday (Feb. 8). George and Colson compared the administration mandates to policies enacted in Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler.

4. It gives Republicans a potent campaign wedge issue: Mitt Romney wasted no time in accusing Obama of launching an “assault on religion” by way of the contraception mandate, and he declared that his first act as president would be to overturn the HHS regulations. “Remarkably, under this president’s administration, there is an assault on religion, an assault on the conviction and the religious beliefs of members of our society,” Romney said.

Romney’s rivals, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, were not to be outdone, and ramped up their rhetoric against Obama – while also noting that Romney had accepted similar policies while he was governor of Massachusetts.

In short, this is a political fight that the White House neither wants nor needs in an already tough re-election campaign.

5. Obama needs the Catholic vote: In particular, he needs the support of white Catholics, which is the core of this large swing vote (nearly one-quarter of the electorate). They are concentrated in crucial battleground states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and while Obama won the overall Catholic vote 54 percent to 46 percent in 2008, he lost the white Catholic vote, 47 percent to 53 percent.

“To the extent Catholic voters think of this as a religious liberty issue, it does have the potential to pull Catholic voters toward Republicans or away from Democrats,” John Green, an expert on religious voting patterns and director of the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, told Bloomberg Businessweek.

A poll on the contraception mandate released Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute showed Catholics overall tended to support free contraceptive coverage, but white Catholics were evenly split on the issue. The Obama campaign can’t afford to sacrifice any of those votes, or risk watching the issue grow as a political liability when the election season heats up.