Bishops shift ground

February 15, 2012

In
a response to complaints from Catholic leaders, last week the Obama
administration revised its rule requiring some religious institutions to
include birth control in health insurance. The new stance was welcomed by some
Catholic organizations, including the
Catholic Health Association
but was firmly
rejected by the Catholic bishops
--who in doing so shifted the ground
of their own argument.

The Century editors had endorsed the bishops' original
concern. While rejecting the bishops' opposition to birth control, the editors
agreed that religious institutions that object to contraceptives on religious
grounds should not be forced to pay for them. A broader exemption was called
for to allow Catholic hospitals and universities to remain true to their
beliefs.

The
administration's revised position is that employees who work for religious
institutions that object to contraceptive coverage will have to contract with
insurance companies directly if they want to add contraceptives to their health
plan.

The
bishops and other critics call this solution a mere fig leaf and say that
religious institutions would still be paying for contraceptives, if indirectly.

A
key but rarely acknowledged fact in this debate is that the cost of covering
contraceptives is negligible. Insurance companies are generally willing to
cover contraceptives, since it's cheaper to pay for contraceptives than to pay
for pregnancies. The Guttmacher Institute lays out those facts here (pdf).

With their rejection of the
Obama administration's revised position, however, the bishops confirm the
suspicion of many that their concern is not with religious liberty but with
enforcing their views on contraception. They just don't want birth control to
be a part of health insurance, regardless of whether they pay for it or not.

The bishops are
obviously entitled to press their views on contraception, but their argument is
now about the direction of public policy, not about a protected arena of
religious exercise. The government will not be forcing Catholics to prescribe
or use contraceptives, nor will it be forcing Catholic institutions to pay for
them.