Compromise between Obama, religious groups possible on birth control

The Obama administration this week signaled it might compromise with religious groups that are currently up in arms over a federal decision requiring health insurers to cover contraception as a preventive service.

The White House announced last month that it was standing by its decision to require that insurance providers — with the exception of religious employers — cover birth control without co-payments. Instead of giving in to requests that all objectors be able to opt out, the feds gave groups a one-year extension to meet the mandate. Since the announcement, the Obama administration has received a barrage of criticism from religious (mostly Catholic) leaders who consider such a mandate an affront to religious freedom.

While Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has publicly stood by the decision and said that such accusations are false, the White House does not sound as resolute.

According to the New York Times:

David Axelrod, who serves as a top adviser to Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program that the president would “look for a way” to address the vocal opposition from Catholic groups who say the rule forces them to violate their religious beliefs against contraception.

“We certainly don’t want to abridge anyone’s religious freedoms, so we’re going to look for a way to move forward that both provides women with the preventative care that they need and respects the prerogatives of religious institutions,” Mr. Axelrod said.

Religious Americans, overall, are supportive of the federal decision. Polling released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that a majority of Catholics think employers should be required to provide health care plans that cover birth control at no cost.

According to the survey:

  • A majority (55%) of Americans agree that “employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost.” Four-in-ten (40%) disagree with this requirement.
  • There are major religious, generational and political divisions:
    • Roughly 6-in-10 Catholics (58%) believe that employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception.
    • Among Catholic voters, support for this requirement is slightly lower at 52%.
    • Only half (50%) of white Catholics support this requirement, compared to 47% who oppose it.
  • Among other religious Americans, 61% of religiously unaffiliated Americans believe that employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception, compared to only half (50%) of white mainline Protestants and less than 4-in-10 (38%) white evangelical Protestants.
  • Nearly three-quarters (73%) of Democrats, a slim majority (51%) of political Independents and less than 4-in-10 (36%) of Republicans agree that employer health care coverage should include contraception at no cost.
  • Younger Americans are much more supportive of the requirement. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Millennials (age 18-29) agree that employer health care coverage should include contraception at no cost, compared to 4-in-10 (40%) seniors (age 65+).
  • Women are significantly more likely than men to agree that employers should be required to provide health care plans that cover contraception (62% vs. 47% respectively).

An effort by some religious groups to frame this controversy as a religious freedom issue has been effective, so far. A week ago, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced a bill that would roll back the federal decision. The bill is called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Twenty-two co-sponsors have already signed onto Rubio’s measure.

Catholics for Choice, a Catholic group that supports reproductive rights, says that the bishops and Catholic leaders fighting the decision are not speaking for all Catholics.

“Too often, religious voices are written off when it comes to support for reproductive rights issues,” Jon O’Brien, the group’s president, wrote in a recent letter. “Some of the strongest supporters for family planning are in the religious community. We know that the vast majority of all American women use and support access to family planning, including 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women. The loudest voices in the Catholic community are those of the priests and bishops who know that they are being ignored when it comes to their teachings on family planning. They may be the loudest, but we know they also represent a tiny minority of Catholics.”

According to research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, about “98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used contraceptive methods banned by the church.”

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Ashley Lopez

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