Reactions vary on Obama’s contraception compromise

February 13, 2012

Facing growing furor from religious groups, President Obama 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 February 10 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 January 20. Religious groups, particularly
Catholics, vehemently 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
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bish­ops, which led the charge against the
contraception mandate, remained critical after Obama's address. "The
only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS to
rescind the mandate of these objectionable services," said the
statement. The government's guarantee of women's access to
contraceptives "remains a grave moral concern," said the bishops, adding
that they would continue their efforts "to correct this problem"
through the legislative and judicial branches.  

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,
commented February 10 that 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 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 the revision. "We believe the compliance mechanism does not
compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control
benefits," Richards said.

The furor over the contraception mandate
had 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 Catholic women. 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 and their evangelical allies 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 . . . nothing
to change the fundamentally antireligious, anticonscience and antilife
contraceptive mandate."

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 health-care 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."  —RNS