So did Barack Obama fold?
On Friday, after taking heavy criticism from Catholic groups and the political right over a regulation that would have required religiously-affiliated hospitals and universities (not churches) to offer their employees health insurance that covers birth control (with no copays), President Barack Obama went on live television to announce a shift. Now, insurance companies will have to offer employees of religious organizations the birth control coverage directly, without charging extra for it. (The details of the new birth control coverage plan are here.)
Some media outlets will no doubt call this a surrender by the president. But it's not. Here's why:
- Everyone who was going to get birth control coverage before will still have access to it. Employees of Catholic schools and hospitals aren't always Catholic, and most sexually active women who aren't trying to get pregnant use birth control. The new rule will not allow the religious views of the leadership of religiously-affiliated organizations to dictate whether birth control is provided to their employees. The intent of the first version of the rule was to make birth control easier to get. The new rule will achieve that goal. "No woman's health should depend on who she is, where she works, or how much money she makes," Obama said in his statement. This policy ensures that.
- The coverage will still feature no copayments. The insurance companies that are being required to offer birth control coverage directly to the employees of religious organizations will have to offer it for free. There will be no difference in cost between the plan that covers birth control and the plan that doesn't. The Obama administration justifies this by noting that studies suggest that covering birth control is cost-neutral or even saves money for health insurers because it's cheaper than pregnancy; it spaces out pregnancies, leading to healthier kids, and has other beneficial health effects.
- The policy change still won't satisfy the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposed the birth control provision from the start. It's not a cave if your opponents aren't getting what they actually want. What the bishops desire is for the entire birth control rule to be repealed. They believe that no employer—religious affiliation or not—should be required to offer birth control coverage. UPDATE, Friday 3:45 EST: The bishops have released a statement on the policy change that says they're "studying" it and it's a "first step in the right direction." It's unclear whether they'll ultimately retreat from their original position or simply say this attempt is a good step but not sufficient.
- The most important reproductive rights groups—Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the American Civil Liberties Union, and so on—all support the policy shift. You can bet that these politically savvy groups would be hollering to high heaven if they thought that women had been betrayed.
- This whole scuffle was an intriguing policy dilemma, pitting women's health advocates versus faith leaders waving the banner of religious freedom. But with this move, Obama has demonstrated that it's possible to sidestep the red-hot politics of the dispute and work out a reasonable policy outcome that's backed by reproductive rights groups and the Catholic Health Association. It's not likely, though, that the social conservatives who have bashed Obama as an implacable foe of religious freedom will give it a rest.