The Obama administration announced a “common sense accommodation,” seeking to end a public dispute with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over new requirements for contraception services in health care plans. Under revised guidelines offered today, a religious exemption from those new requirements for services will still apply to church entities such as parishes and dioceses, but non-profit religious employers, universities, hospitals, social service providers, will no longer be required to offer contraception, pay for it via insurance premiums or refer employees to contraception benefits outside their plans. A senior White House official said the administration believes the changes reflect "a health care policy that accommodates religious liberty while protecting women."
“Whether you’re a teacher, or a small businesswoman, or a nurse, or a janitor,” President Barack Obama said, announcing the policy reversal at the White House, “no woman’s health should depend on who she is or where she works or how much money she makes. Every woman should be in control of the decisions that affect her own health. Period.
“As we move to implement this rule, however, we’ve been mindful that there’s another principle at stake here—and that’s the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution. As a citizen and as a Christian, I cherish this right.” The president said his staff had originally intended to resolve differences over the new policy over the coming year, but accelerated the decision-making after the issue had become a political football.
Under the new plan, 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.”
President Obama personally called U.S.C.C.B. President N.Y. Archbishop Timothy Dolan in Rome to brief him on the White House decision. With this latest revision of H.H.S. guidelines, the Obama administration is trying to tamp down a controversy that was promising to cost them moderate and liberal Catholic votes in November, while still placating their Democratic base. Representatives from Planned Parenthood expressed satisfaction with the policy shift.
The president said it was personally important to him to find a resolution because “my first job in Chicago was working with Catholic parishes in poor neighborhoods…. And I saw that local churches often did more good for a community than a government program ever could, so I know how important the work that faith-based organizations do and how much impact they can have in their communities.”
"In the face of a misleading and outrageous assault on women's health, the Obama administration has reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring all women will have access to birth control coverage, with no costly co-pays, no additional hurdles, and no matter where they work," Planned Parenthood's Richards said.
"We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits," Richards added.
Senior White House officials said insurance providers will in the future directly reach out to employees of Catholic and other faith-based not-for-profits organizations which object on religious grounds to contraception. Insurers will provide contraceptive services free of charge to employees which request it. The White House argues that contraception services are cost-neutral, in fact save insurers money, so no additional premium is required to pay for them. That aspect of the plan may still raise eyebrows at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops worried over comingling of funding. But a source at the U.S.C.C.B., worried that “there could be some [bishops] who still want to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory,” said, “They’ve framed this as a fight over religious liberty; they can’t pivot over to contraception.”
“Let’s not do that,” he said, calling the weeks of sometimes acrimonious public dispute over H.H.S. guidelines a “painful but important” discussion about religion and society. “This is a significant moment in the life of the nation, that we have had this discussion and raised public consciousness about the role of religion in society.”
The White House quickly circulated a news release from Sister Carol Keehan, the president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, supporting the new position, which also drew support from Planned Parenthood officials. “The Catholic Health Association is very pleased with the White House announcement that a resolution has been reached that protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions,” said Sister Keehan. “The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed. We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished. The unity of Catholic organizations in addressing this concern was a sign of its importance. This difference has at times been uncomfortable but it has helped our country sort through an issue that has been important throughout the history of our great democracy.”
The new exemption language was praised by John Gehring, the Catholic outreach coordinator for Faith in Public Life. "This decision," Gehring said, "shows the White House respects the Catholic community and concerns of diverse religious leaders. 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."
The president acknowledged that this policy adjustment may still not satisfy all critics of the H.H.S. guidelines. In fact Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski quickly denounced the proposed compromise as "too little, too late."
The president said, “We live in a pluralistic society where we're not going to agree on every single issue, or share every belief. That doesn’t mean that we have to choose between individual liberty and basic fairness for all Americans. We are unique among nations for having been founded upon both these principles, and our obligation as citizens is to carry them forward. I have complete faith that we can do that.”