Obama’s contraception proposal is a sensible compromise

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Last Friday, as a concession to mounting Catholic opposition, President Obama rescinded his proposal requiring all religiously affiliated institutions to provide contraceptive services to their employees. In a statement, the White House said, “Contraception coverage will be offered to women by their employers’ insurance companies directly, with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception.” While many Catholic leaders are still opposed to the revision, we deem Obama’s compromise more than fair, and his commitment to increasing access to birth control for women is commendable. But we also think further improvements could be made.

In the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, as well as in some other dioceses in the U.S., the diocese does not partner with a separate insurance company. Rather, it acts as a self-insured group — implying that Obama’s amendments would not change anything. In essence, these dioceses would continue to pay for contraceptive services, which they oppose on moral and religious grounds.

At the same time, most Catholic institutions are neither self-insured nor opposed to Obama’s revisions. In a practical sense, if employees in these institutions wish to obtain contraception, they have every right to do so through their insurance companies. In addition, a recent study concluded that 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception, and the very public debate around this topic has revealed that many Catholics do not share the exact sentiments of the higher clergy on issues such as homosexuality, divorce and pre-marital sex. We conclude that if most Catholic institutions are not required to pay for a service they oppose, Obama’s compromise seems like an egalitarian approach to respecting not only religious freedom, but also the right of women to access crucial health care.

That said, there are philosophical issues that have not been addressed. The principal reason why many bishops are still unhappy is not simply because they oppose contraception, but because through this process the administration has defined what constitutes a religious institution. For instance, religious officials are not sure if “Catholic schools” such as the University of Notre Dame — also home to many non-Catholic students and faculty — would be considered religiously exempt and thus free from being compelled to directly provide contraception. Since the “separation of church and state” has been so heavily emphasized in the Cranston prayer banner case, it seems hypocritical that the same argument is not marshalled in this case. We believe that, on a fundamental level, the Obama administration has no right to decide whether certain institutions are religiously affiliated or not.

Holistically, the revisions make sense. While they are imperfect, we believe that they satisfy the needs of not only those who need access to contraceptives, but also those who do not wish to compromise their principles in order to provide these services. We are satisfied with Obama’s changes and applaud his intentions, though we certainly believe there is room for improvement.



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