Administration officials are preparing the ground for some kind of rollback on universal access for birth control, after the US Conference of Catholic Bishops turned the issue into a major controversy. Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney hinted at changes to the regulations, which would mandate free contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans, including at religiously-affiliated institutions like Catholic hospitals and universities (though not churches). “We will continue to have discussions about ways that the implementation can be done that might address some of these [constitutional and religious] concerns,” Carney said yesterday. Today, advisers continued to look for compromise:
A key White House adviser on faith issues said Tuesday that several organizations with ties to the administration have approached President Obama’s aides about finding a resolution to fast-growing controversy over a new rule requiring many Catholic institutions to offer birth control and other contraception services as part of employees’ health care coverage.
“There are conversations right now to arrange a meeting to talk with folks about how this policy can be nuanced,” said Pastor Joel C. Hunter, a Florida megachurch pastor who has grown personally close to Obama and advised his White House on religious issues. “This is so fixable, and we just want to get into the conversation.”
Hunter’s comments followed a statement by David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama’s reelection campaign, who indicated on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Tuesday that the White House might be open to a compromise on the matter.
“We certainly don’t want to abridge anyone’s religious freedoms, so we’re going to look for a way to move forward that both provides women with the preventive care that they need and respects the prerogatives of religious institutions,” he said.
We don’t yet know what a compromise would look like. They could be some Rube Goldberg structure whereby women receive birth control coverage with the religious institution not involved in the process (a rider, in other words, that the employee gets directly from the insurer), or there could be a segregation of funds-type strategy. The worst-case scenario would be an exemption for all religious institutions.
The controversy is fairly ridiculous. Despite the vocal opposition to the rule from the Catholic bishops, many Catholic universities and hospitals already offer contraceptive coverage in their health insurance plans. Twenty-eight states require contraceptive coverage on plans that offer coverage of prescription drugs, and the Supreme Court has denied review of laws like this requiring contraceptive coverage. The conscience exemption in New York closely models what was put into the Administration’s regulation.
What’s more, a majority of Catholics support mandated contraception coverage of this type, though importantly, a narrow majority of voting Catholics oppose it for religiously affiliated hospitals and universities. And that’s what’s driving this, an attention to politics over women’s health. So you have the White House bowing to the sort of people who compare birth control to 1930s Germany.
The compromise may defend universal access and it may not; we don’t have that information yet. But I would imagine that women’s health groups, after getting stung but continued restrictions on the morning-after pill, would not be pleased with another sop to anti-choice forces, particularly when impinging on the wildly popular idea of universal access to birth control. It would really represent a new front in this ongoing battle.