USA: Battling Over Birth Control
In August, Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, announced new rules that included contraceptives for women in the package of preventive health care services that all insurers must cover without a deductible or co-payment beginning next year.
The policy follows the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine. It will help drive down the rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion by making birth control more accessible.
It was distressing but came as no surprise that the new rules prompted protests from Roman Catholic bishops and other church leaders. What is surprising, and even more distressing, is that the White House is considering caving to their call for an expansive exemption that would cover employees of hospitals, universities, charitable organizations and other entities that are associated with religious organizations but serve the general public and benefit from public money.
President Obama should stand firm against the church’s overreaching. Allowing a broad exemption for health plans sponsored by employers that object to contraceptives coverage would amount to imposing church doctrine on millions of women who may differ with the church’s stand on birth control and who may not be Catholic. It would deny them coverage for a critical need.
The new rules already contain an exemption for churches and other houses of worship, similar to provisions upheld by the highest courts in California and New York. Moreover, nothing in the rules requires religious objectors to use contraceptives or stands in the way of advocating against their use. By now, some 28 states require employer-provided insurance plans to cover contraception, so the federal policy is hardly a radical departure.
Several lawmakers who have spoken to the White House about the issue believe the president is leaning toward broadening the exemption, Robert Pear of The Times reported last week. And many Democrats in Congress who fought to secure coverage of birth control under the new health care law are understandably furious at Mr. Obama’s apparent wobbling.
“Americans of all religious faiths overwhelmingly support broad access to birth control,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat of New Hampshire.
The contraceptives mandate is one of the administration’s proud achievements. Weakening it should not even be on President Obama’s radar screen.