Catholics pressure Obama on contraception coverage

President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One (Pic by The White House, via Flickr)

With the final decision on whether the Obama administration will keep its original policy requiring health insurers to cover contraception without co-payments looming, women’s health advocates fear the president will capitulate to the demands of one of the biggest opponents to the policy: Catholic bishops.

The Catholic bishops’ demands have ranged from asking the policy be stricken “in its entirety” to asking that the decision allow a broad exemption for religious objectors. Catholic leaders have said the existing exemption is “too limited.”

While federal officials such as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have supported the decision, women’s health advocates fear the president might be open to compromising with the politically powerful bishops.

Sarah Lipton-Lubet, policy counsel for the ACLU ‘s Washington Legislative Office, wrote on RH Reality Check today that signs are pointing to a possible cave from the president.

Lipton-Lubet writes:

If you read the paper, and you’re among the 99 percent of sexually active women who have used contraception, you might start to worry. According to the Washington Post, “Obama [i]s ‘very sensitive’ to the bishops’ concerns” over the birth control guidelines. The New York Times reported that after his private meeting with the president, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the bishops’ conference, felt “a bit more at peace about this issue than when [he] entered.” Connecting the dots, RH Reality Check‘s Jodi Jacobson and Salon’s Irin Carmon asks whether the administration is going to “cave” to the bishops’ parochial demands.

We know that the bishops, as political actors, have outsized influence; politicians seem to listen to them on reproductive health even though most Catholics don’t. We know that the bishops are savvy with messaging, crying victim whenever someone disagrees with them over public policy (the rest of us call it democracy). And we know that the bishops are leaving no stone unturned.

But we also know that there’s simply no legitimate reason for the White House to create new loopholes that deny countless women birth control. Doing so would let institutions like hospitals, social service agencies, and universities use religion as a license to discriminate against nurses, social workers, teachers – the list goes on. As a nation, we protect religious beliefs, but we concluded some time ago that one person’s religion should not be used to trump another’s civil rights protections.

The bishops recently lost millions of federal dollars for their relief program for victims of human trafficking, because they refused to refer victims for contraceptive services or abortion services.

And a Catholic political action committee recently released an attack ad asking Obama to “meet with Catholic leaders to discuss compromise” on religious conscience laws. The ad accused the president of not seeking “common ground” with religious groups like he promised he would.

Colorado U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette is has joined with dozens of other pro-choice members of Congress to urge Obama to stick to his guns on this issue.

DeGette, co-Chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, is leading 65 Members of the House in urging Obama to secure free preventive care for women in the Affordable Care Act, including contraceptive methods and counseling. DeGette and the Members sent the President a letter opposing any efforts to exempt employers from following the law, given increased pressure by Catholic bishops and others to exempt faith-based universities, hospitals, and institutions. Doing so would deny critical coverage to 800,000 people working at Catholic hospitals; 300,000 employed at religious schools; and 1.7 million students attending 900 religiously affiliated colleges, her office said.

The text of the letter is below:

November 18, 2011

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Obama,

We write to express our continued support for free preventive care including contraceptive methods and counseling under the Affordable Care Act. A woman’s decision on how and when to build her family is a matter of her own conscience. The “conscience” of an employer or an insurance company should not impede a woman’s access to birth control without cost-sharing under any circumstances. We oppose any efforts to further exempt employers from following the law.

Free preventive care is required under section 2713 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In July, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended which women’s preventive services should be covered by new health plans without cost-sharing. Among the list of recommended women’s preventive services is the full range of FDA-approved contraceptive methods and counseling. On August 1, HHS issued guidelines to adopt these recommendations. We fully support increasing and protecting women’s access to birth control. We oppose any efforts to circumvent a woman’s conscience. American women won’t stand for it.

Thank you for your consideration.


DeGette, Diana

Slaughter, Louise McIntosh

Ackerman, Gary L.

Andrews, Robert E.

Baldwin, Tammy

Bass, Karen

Berkley, Shelley

Braley, Bruce L.

Brown, Corrine

Butterfield, G.K.

Capps, Lois

Castor, Kathy

Chu, Judy

Clarke, Yvette D.

Cohen, Steve

Davis, Danny K.

Davis, Susan A.

Doggett, Lloyd

Edwards, Donna F.

Ellison, Keith

Engel, Eliot L.

Farr, Sam

Filner, Bob

Fudge, Marcia L.

Gonzalez, Charles A.

Green, Gene

Grijalva, Raúl M.

Gutierrez, Luis V.

Hinchey, Maurice D.

Holt, Rush D.

Jackson Lee, Sheila

Inslee, Jay

Israel, Steve

Lee, Barbara

Lewis, John

Lofgren, Zoe

Lowey, Nita M.

Maloney, Carolyn B.

Matsui, Doris O.

McDermott, Jim

McGovern, James P.

Miller, George

McNerney, Jerry

Moore, Gwen

Murphy, Christopher S.

Nadler, Jerrold

Pastor, Ed

Pingree, Chellie

Polis, Jared

Quigley, Mike

Richardson, Laura

Rothman, Steven R.

Sánchez, Linda T.

Sanchez, Loretta

Schakowsky, Janice D.

Schwartz, Allyson Y.

Serrano, José E.

Speier, Jackie

Towns, Edolphus

Tsongas, Niki

Wasserman Schultz, Debbie

Waters, Maxine

Welch, Peter

Woolsey, Lynn C.

Yarmuth, John A.

Scot Kersgaard contributed to this article.

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