Commitment on Conscience
The Department of Health and Human Services has issued guidelines that will require private health insurers to offer, without co-pay, contraception, sterilization and reproductive counseling as part of a package of preventive care for women. The Catholic Health Association and the U.S. bishops agree that the religious exemption built into those guidelines is too narrow. It may force Catholic health, education and other institutions either to pay for health plans that violate their beliefs or to cease operations to avoid a clash of conscience. Before selecting that drastic option, however, there appears to be time to make reasonable adjustments. H.H.S. specifically invited comment on the definitions it is using in its “interim” religious exemption during a 60-day public comment period.
At some personal cost, Carol Keehan, D.C., the C.H.A. president and chief executive officer, played a pivotal role in the passage of the Obama administration’s health reform package in March 2010. It would be a significant betrayal of Sister Keehan’s effort if a continuing dialogue does not produce revisions of the guidelines more amenable to Catholic moral concerns.
The Obama administration is already in something of a no-win situation. If it commits itself to rewriting the exemption language to the satisfaction of Catholic leaders, it can anticipate a scorching from Planned Parenthood and women’s organizations. And since it is unlikely to reverse the F.D.A. classification of Plan B and ella as contraceptives, pro-life groups will remain skeptical of the administration’s intentions on health care reform going forward, whatever it decides. But the administration should stand by its previous commitments on conscience protection. Liberty of conscience in the American tradition has survived historical lapses and proved its worth as a cultural underwriter of social harmony.
The Famine This Time
On Monday Aug. 4, morning news commentators spoke glumly about two big stories that had hit over the weekend. First, in the ongoing financial crisis, Standard and Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating. Second, in the unending slaughter in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters shot down a U.S. helicopter, resulting in the loss of 38 lives, 30 of them U.S. military personnel. These big issues cost Americans blood and treasure. They rightly demand air time.
Almost lost in the day’s news was an item that crawled across the screen while the commentators talked of other things. A U.S. official in Kenya reported that 29,000 Somali children under the age of 5 had died of famine in the last 90 days. This was only the latest statistic in a land already devastated by a lack of food and water. It is estimated that 3.2 million Somalis, almost half of the country’s population, are in need of emergency aid. Almost half of them live in areas controlled by militants associated with Al Qaeda, who have hampered international efforts to help.
The crisis in Somalia dates back at least 20 years, when an earlier famine destabilized the government; the country has never recovered. For 20 years the people have been hungry, and children have starved to death. Food that now reaches Somalia as aid often does not go to those who need it most. Much is stolen and then sold in markets. Still, despite setbacks, assistance agencies are doing what they can to bring relief to those most in need. Perhaps the leaders of the world’s prosperous nations, even while suffering economic setbacks, could likewise give some creative thought and energy to saving the people of Somalia.
In recent weeks President Obama has taken some left hooks from former supporters. Some say he is intellectually shallow. Others object that he naïvely imagines he can bargain with enemies whose main goal is to destroy him in 2012. Still others complain that he populated his staff with the same money people who caused the 2008 financial crisis. But the loudest complaint warns that his opponents, who represent the tiny group who controls the wealth, are determined to undo the New Deal, the reforms from the 1930s that prevented the crisis from worsening.
These sometime supporters advise that the president should borrow a page from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership style: focus on one key issue—jobs—and fight back. Indeed, it might help, too, at a cabinet meeting, to play a recording of Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, in which he challenged the climate of fear, as well as his Arsenal of Democracy speech, in which he woke up a sleeping public to the threat of Nazism.
How did Roosevelt motivate Americans and mobilize the country? He stressed the seriousness of the crisis. He attacked by name the false leaders opposing hard decisions. He reminded the people that they had elected him to lead them through this time of struggle. Then he enumerated exactly what he proposed to do and called upon them to make sacrifices so those goals could be accomplished.
After reflecting on the tapes, Mr. Obama should frame one line from Roosevelt’s inaugural address and hang it above his desk: “Without vision, the people perish” (Prv 29:18).