Catholic bishops had a mixed reaction to President Obama’s new plan for birth control access, which preserves universal cost-free access and uses a Hawaii-type compromise to leave the religiously affiliated institutions out of the exchange of services between an insurance company and the employee.
Catholic officials say President Obama called New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, to explain the revised policy, which exempts religiously affiliated universities and hospitals for paying for no cost contraception for their employees but requires insurers to offer such coverage for for free to women who work at such institutions.
It’s unclear how Dolan has responded to the White House plan, but some other bishops have been critical. “I think he’s punting, just kicking the can down the road,” Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenkis told CNN. “He’s hasn’t really addressed our concerns. I think the only thing to do is… to take back the whole thing.”
After hanging up with Obama Friday morning, Dolan quickly organized a conference call with other bishops nationwide, according to a source briefed on the calls. It’s yet to be seen how the Catholic Church will greet the revised White House policy, but some conservative religious voices say they’re not satisfied.
Wenkis said the Miami Archdiocese pays an insurance company to cover its 5,000 employees and argued that if the insurance company is paying for and providing contraceptives, as the new compromise lays out, the church would still be paying for it.
The fact that the nun running the Catholic Hospital Association supports the new policy really puts the bishops on an island. And women’s groups’ support so far suggests that they don’t believe this puts an onerous burden on the employee to search out contraception coverage. Presumably it would be the normal part of services offered in the open enrollment process, just through this kind of Rube Goldberg mechanism. Of course, insurance companies can use this as a pretext to raise premiums, but when don’t they use something to do that? The fungability of money argument is basically how these compromises always go, be it abortion services or, now, birth control. I believe the key is if the employee isn’t overly burdened, and that doesn’t appear to be the case here.
Keep in mind that the Catholic bishops have planned this fight for seven months. They wanted to turn back the clock to before 1965, when birth control was banned in many parts of this country.
Bizarrely enough, I had the chance to talk about this policy last night with Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts Governor and presidential candidate. It turned out that he authored the legislation in the Massachusetts state legislature in the 1960s that threw out the ban on birth control – not all that long ago. He said that at that time, the Catholic bishop in Boston came to him and said that women use this, often as a medical need, and that he would not stand in the way regardless of his religious beliefs. He would not seek to impose them on other constituents. (And Dukakis didn’t think this would hurt the President among Catholics, either, considering that 98% of all women have practiced birth control at some point in their lives.)
How far we’ve come. The bishops clearly have that as their modus operandi here. And however clumsily, the Administration drew that out. I’m not sure they wanted a big fight. But it did allow them to show the lines of distinction here, between full universal access to birth control as a preventive medicine, and the bishops who want control over women’s bodies.
…And now I see via Twitter that Dolan calls the new policy “a first step in the right direction.” So they’re declaring victory and going home. Smart move… The full statement:
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 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
‘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.”