Nick Baumann

Nick Baumann

Senior Editor

Nick is based in our DC bureau, where he covers national politics and civil liberties issues. Nick has also written for The Economist, The Atlantic, The Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Facebook.

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Details of the White House "Accommodation" on Birth Control Rule

| Fri Feb. 10, 2012 12:25 PM EST

The White House will change its policy requiring employers to offer health insurance coverage to their employees that covers birth control at no cost. Previously, religiously affiliated employers other than churches—such as Catholic universities and hospitals—would have been required to offer the insurance to their employees. Now, according to senior White House officials, if a religious employer has a religious objection to providing birth control coverage, insurance companies will be required to offer the insurance featuring free birth control directly to the employees.

Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, the two most important reproductive rights organizations in the US, both support the White House's compromise, which ensures that women who work for religious organizations other than churches will have access to birth control without a copay. Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Health Association, the main Catholic hospitals group, also supports the deal. Keehan and the CHA were key supporters of Obama's health care reform legislation, which the US Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed as written. 

Obama's plan is unlikely to win the support of the bishops. In September 2010, when the policy was first being developed, the USCCB wrote a letter opposing requiring any employer—not just religious ones—to offer birth control coverage. Anthony Picarello, the USCCB general counsel who signed the letter, told USA Today on Wednesday that the bishops still oppose the entire policy.

Picarello told USA Today the bishops are worried about the problems the law creates for "good Catholic business people who can't in good conscience cooperate with this," and noted that if he opened a Taco Bell, he'd be forced to offer birth control to his employees. Only something like Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) "Religious Freedom Restoration Act"—which would allow any employer, not just religious ones, to cite a religious objection and thereby avoid covering birth control—is likely to satisfy the bishops on this front.

Here's the full text of the White House's fact sheet on its decision:

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Catholic Bishops Want Entire Birth Control Rule Repealed, Not Just the Religious Exemption

| Thu Feb. 9, 2012 12:11 PM EST
"Now close your eyes and think of Rome."

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the national political lobby for the Catholic Church in America, has been waging war on President Barack Obama's new rule requiring health insurers to cover birth control at no cost to women. The religious exemption in the Obama rule allows churches an exemption to birth control coverage, but still requires religiously affiliated schools and hospitals to provide insurance to their employees that includes contraception without a co-payment.

The bishops claim that exemption is too narrow. But they don't just want the religious exemption widened. They want the whole policy repealed. (Never mind that most employers have been required to cover birth control for years.) This USA Today story sort of buries this fact, but at least it acknowledges it:  

The White House is "all talk, no action" on moving toward compromise, said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "There has been a lot of talk in the last couple days about compromise, but it sounds to us like a way to turn down the heat, to placate people without doing anything in particular," Picarello said. "We're not going to do anything until this is fixed."

That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for "good Catholic business people who can't in good conscience cooperate with this."

"If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I'd be covered by the mandate," Picarello said.

So in short, the bishops want your Catholic boss to be able to decide whether or not you have to pay full freight for your birth control. Not coincidentally, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has a bill that would do just that.

The problem with this argument is that if taken to its logical extreme, your boss could claim religious exemptions for all sorts of health care issues, whether you worked at Catholic Charities, Taco Bell, or anywhere else. Christian Scientists generally don't believe that people need pharmaceutical medicine at all. Scientologists don't believe in psychiatry. If individual employers are allowed exemptions to the birth control coverage mandate, the law could quickly be rendered meaningless.

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