The Common Good

US Catholic Bishops Reject Obama Contraception Compromise

Despite early indications that a compromise in the Health and Human Services mandate on insurance coverage for contraception announced Friday by the Obama Administration on might have their support, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has reiterated its staunch opposition to the measure.

In a statement released late Friday by the USCCB, bishops condemned the Obama compromise (which had been announced earlier Friday), saying in part, “[The] proposal continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions.”

According to Catholic moral theology (laid out explicitly in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae), any form of artificial contraception — from abortion and sterilization to condoms and coitus interruptus and anything in between that interferes with procreation — is immoral.

At issue is a mandate announced by the HHS on Jan. 20 — part of Obama's 2009 health-care overhaul — that required employers to provide free birth-control coverage. Many religious groups fiercely objected and the USCCB and other Catholic groups were among the most vocal opponents, saying the federal government should not force institutions to violate the tenets of their faith. Meanwhile, reproductive rights groups and many women’s advocates argued that employees should have access to birth control regardless of where they work.

The Obama Administration’s "accommodation" shifted the onus for providing contraception coverage — and information about contraception coverage — away from religious institutions, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, to the health insurance companies themselves. Houses of worship remain exempt. And the new marching orders effectively removed all faith-based organizations from involvement in providing contraceptive coverage or even telling employees how to find such coverage, while maintaining Obama's pledge to ensure that almost all women with health insurance will not have to pay for it.

When the president’s new compromise was announced Friday morning, it seemed, initially at least, that it might be received well by the Catholic bishops when New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan — president of the USCCB who traveled to Vatican City on Sunday in advance of his elevation to the College of Cardinals on Feb. 18 — expressed a certain cautious optimism, saying the “accommodation” was a “step in the right direction,” but that the bishops were reserving their judgment until they could study the changes more closely.

In their statement released Friday night, whatever cautious optimism the bishops might have had for the contraception “accommodation” clearly was replaced by steadfast opposition.

Their statement continued (emphasis in bold is theirs):

These changes require careful moral analysis, and moreover, appear subject to some measure of change. But we note at the outset that the lack of clear protection for key stakeholders—for self-insured religious employers; for religious and secular for-profit employers; for secular non-profit employers; for religious insurers; and for individuals—is unacceptable and must be corrected. And in the case where the employee and insurer agree to add the objectionable coverage, that coverage is still provided as a part of the objecting employer's plan, financed in the same way as the rest of the coverage offered by the objecting employer. This, too, raises serious moral concerns. …

The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services. We will therefore continue—with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency—our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government. For example, we renew our call on Congress to pass, and the Administration to sign, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. And we renew our call to the Catholic faithful, and to all our fellow Americans, to join together in this effort to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all.

Watch Dolan discuss the contraception controversy in an appearance on the EWTN (Catholic) cable program Sunday Night Prime, taped Friday:

See video
House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew made the rounds of Sunday morning political television programs, defending the Obama compromise — which he characterized as more a “clarification” of the mandate’s original intent than a corrective — and indicating that the administration was not likely to make further changes.

“We didn’t expect that there would be universal support, but we do think this is the right way to go, and it’s a plan that we’re going to pursue,” Lew said on ABC’s This Week.

In an interview with CBS’s Face the Nation, Lew said: “The solution that the president announced on Friday is one that puts no institution that claims religious objection because it’s related to the church, whether it’s a Catholic hospital or a Catholic university, in a position where they either have to pay for it or provide benefits that they find objectionable, but women will have the right to get them — reconciling two very important principles.”

Last week, Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt introduced legislation last week that would exempt any organization with moral objections from providing birth control. As a guest Sunday on ABC’s This Week, House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan said there were enough votes in the GOP-controlled House to pass similar legislation.

Poll results released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute found that a majority of Americans (55 percent) agreed that “employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost,” and that 6-in-10 (or 58 percent) of Catholics “believe that employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception.”

Contributing: RNS

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