Mark Wilson/Getty ImagesPresident Barack Obama is joined by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius while making a statement in the briefing room at the White House on February 10, 2012 in Washington, DC.
It’s a law of politics that when you’re losing the debate, you change it. So with the economy improving and President Obama rising in polls against his likely general election opponent, Mitt Romney, it’s not surprising that the Republicans went looking for an inflammatory social issue. They came up with contraception, which apparently is really controversial even though 99 percent of women rely on it at some point in their lives.
I’m referring, of course, to the ridiculous brouhaha over the new health care rule mandating that businesses provide insurance coverage for birth control. The original version exempted religious institutions, like Catholic churches, but not religiously affiliated ones, like Catholic universities, that cater to the general public.
That concession wasn’t good enough for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Along with such opportunists as House Speaker John Boehner and Rick Santorum, they claimed the president was disregarding the First Amendment and assaulting religious freedom. The idea was to paint Mr. Obama as irreligious, and to chip away at the health care reform law in the process. I guess they were unaware of the 1990 Supreme Court decisionEmployment Division v. Smith, which established that religious liberty doesn’t trump an otherwise neutral law. As Justice Antonin Scalia, that notorious atheist, wrote: “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
The latest development is that, under intense pressure, the president today announced an accommodation, of sorts. He said that his administration was standing by the core principle of the rule, which was great news, since I’d observed the tell-tale signs of another Obama administration cave-in. “Women will still have access to free preventive care that includes contraceptive services – no matter where they work,” he said.
But, he said, “if a woman’s employer is a charity or a hospital that has a religious objection to providing contraceptive services as part of their health plan, the insurance company – not the hospital, not the charity – will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge, without co-pays and without hassles.” (I feel obliged to point out that the concept of hassle-free insurance coverage is pretty hilarious, and that I don’t see why women should have to jump through hoops because of their employers’ religious views. Let’s move on.)
Mr. Obama continued: “The result will be that religious organizations won’t have to pay for these services, and no religious institution will have to provide these services directly. Let me repeat: These employers will not have to pay for, or provide, contraceptive services. But women who work at these institutions will have access to free contraceptive services, just like other women, and they’ll no longer have to pay hundreds of dollars a year that could go towards paying the rent or buying groceries.”
The Catholic Hospital Association, Catholics United and Planned Parenthood have already released statements in support of this needle-threading. But I’m still sort of confused about how this payment scheme will work.
Sarah Kiff pointed out on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog today that “byone report’s measure, it costs about $21.40 to add birth control, IUDs and other contraceptives to an insurance plan. Those costs may be offset by a reduction in pregnancies. But unless drug manufacturers decide to start handing out free contraceptives, the money to buy them will have to come from somewhere.”
The White House’s argument is that universal access to birth control will lower pregnancy rates (and costs) so much that it will all balance out, within a year. The idea, I guess, is that insurance companies won’t charge more for packages that cover birth control.
I’m skeptical. That puts a lot of faith in the willingness of insurance companies to pass their savings along to their customers.
I’m also uncomfortable with the spectacle of the president and the rest of the government having to tie itself in knots to make the law of the land conform with a particular religious doctrine. What will they do if Jewish- or Muslim- or Protestant-affiliated organizations start asking for specially tailored loopholes?
And how is it that these big ideological brawls keep taking the White House by surprise? Laurie Goodstein reported in the Times today that the U.S.Conference of Catholic Bishops has been planning this battle for months.The administration seemed utterly unprepared for the “death panel” attack on the health care reform law, the debt limit debacle, Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts, and now this.