U.S. bishops: Obama birth control policy change ‘a first step in the right direction’

Elizabeth Tenety

Document Publication: The Washington Post Online

Publication Date: February 10, 2012

The leader of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the Obama administration’s announcement that it would shift the burden for covering birth control from religious institutions to insurance companies “a first step in the right direction.”

Other Catholic leaders expressed dissatisfaction on Friday with the policy change.

The full statement from the U.S. bishops expresses cautious optimism on the revision.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sees initial opportunities in preserving the principle of religious freedom after President Obama’s announcement today. But the conference continues to express concerns. “While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgment on the details until we have them,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of USCCB.

“The past three weeks have witnessed a remarkable unity of Americans from all religions or none at all worried about the erosion of religious freedom and governmental intrusion into issues of faith and morals,” he said.

“Today’s decision to revise how individuals obtain services that are morally objectionable to religious entities and people of faith is a first step in the right direction,” Cardinal-designate Dolan said. “We hope to work with the administration to guarantee that Americans’ consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations.”

Other Catholic leaders were less upbeat.

The Rev. Frank Pavone, president of the Catholic anti-abortion organization Priests for Life, said “A resolution to this issue cannot only cover ‘religious’ employers. Religious freedom, which includes freedom of conscience, does not belong only to religious entities but to every American. There are many non-religious reasons to object to the administration’s policy.”

(Take On Faith’s poll: Did the Obama administration strike the right balance between religious freedom and women’s rights?)

Writing at CatholicVote.org, Tom Crowe was not satisfied with the compromise: “If the religious institution is being required to pay for an insurance plan that subsidizes the insurance company’s efforts to proactively spread information about obtaining contraceptives, and then also pays for the contraceptives, that still means the church is being required to subsidize services and items it deems morally repugnant. The church’s money would still be used to support gravely immoral activity.”

Speaking on “Morning Joe” as news of a potential deal broke, Washington Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl said: “It’s the administration who has redefined health care. It is the presumption that pregnancy is some sort of health care anomoly that to have, to be pregnant is some sort of illness. [That approach says] we must prevent that illness and so we’ve redefined health care. . . A pregnancy becomes the problem.”

In a statement, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is not affiliated with any particular religious tradition, raised several objections to the new regulations:

“Hundreds if not thousands of religious organizations self insure, meaning that they will still be forced to pay for these services in violation of their religious beliefs. Second, it is unclear which religious organizations are permitted to claim the new exemption, and whether it will extend to for-profit organizations, individuals, or non-denominational organizations. Third, money is fungible, and many religious organizations may still object to being forced to pay money to an insurance company which will turn around and provide contraception to its employees for free.”

Other religious groups embraced the administration’s announcement.

Carole Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association said in a statement that the compromise “protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions.”

“This decision shows the White House respects the Catholic community and concerns of diverse religious leaders,” said John Gehring, the Catholic outreach coordinator at Faith in Public Life. “It’s clear that the president worked very hard to protect both religious liberty and women’s health. Those two values should not be in conflict. Republicans leaders and others who have unfairly bashed this administration for being hostile to religion should stop perpetuating that absurd narrative.”

A diverse group of Catholics, from Chris Matthews to the U.S.Catholic Bishops, as well as a host of evangelical and nonreligious leaders criticized the initial HHS regulations requiring birth control coverage, framing it as a matter of freedom of conscience over any right to birth control.

An official with the bishops said that the administration did not consult with their group before announcing the compromise. The White House said that Obama later contacted Dolan and Keehan, a key White House ally in Obama’s health-care overhaul, to explain the new rules.

The Catholic Church rejects what it calls ‘artificial' methods of contraception, instead advocating a method of pregnancy prevention inspired by their theology, called Natural Family Planning. The method measures a woman’s temperature and fertile signs and, if pregnancy is to be avoided, prescribes abstinence during fertile periods. One NFP advocate, Janet Smith, estimates that no more than 4 percent of Catholics use the method, a fact that, according to Politico, Obama administration officials took into consideration in their initial decision to require religious institutions to cover contraceptives.

Senior administration officials said in a conference call Friday that insurance comparies, rather than the religious insititions themselves, “will be required to reach out directly and offer [women] contraceptive care free of charge.”

The announcement marked a change from the administration’s initial requirement that religious institutions such as Catholic hospitals and universities provide insurance coverage of birth control, even those it finds immoral.

Officials also emphasized the financial benefit of birth control to insurance companies, calling contraceptive services ‘cost neutral’ for them and citing data indicating that preventing pregnancy saves insurance companies money.

Priests for Life
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