At the end of January, the Obama Administration refused to change a rule requiring that Catholic institutions provide health insurance coverage for contraception for employees at no additional cost. After Catholic organizations both conservative (including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) and liberal raised an outcry, the White House announced that it would seek to make the rule “more palatable” to religious-affiliated institutions including Catholic colleges and universities.
One possible strategy currently in use in Hawaii would be to let some employers make side insurance plans — which would not be directly paid for by the actual institutions — available. In the case of Hawaii, employees are charged a nominal fee but do not actually end up paying anything extra.
Biden and Daley Warned Obama About Catholic Leaders’ Response to New Rule
Politico reports that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and William M. Daley, the former White House chief of staff — both are Catholic — had warned the President that he would face a backlash in championing the rule that religious organizations provide coverage for birth control in their health insurance plans. Both Biden and Daley said that the new rule could “alienate” Catholic voters in swing states. The New York Times quotes an anonymous administration official who underscored “how many times we went over this.”
It was the President himself who decided on the rule “calculating that at the end of the day, the issue of public health access outweighed the concerns of the religious institutions.” “The president is committed to making sure that all women have access to these important preventive services,” as Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said at a press conference. David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the President’s re-election campaign, emphasized that the intent of the new rule is not to “abridge anyone’s religious freedom” but to provide women with beneficial preventative medical care.
Conservative and Liberal Catholics: Rule Curtails Religious Freedom
Conservative Catholic politicians including John Boehner and Republican leader Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have joined in criticizing the White House, proclaiming that the Obama administration’s proposed rule curtails religious freedom. Boehner has called for legislation to block the new contraception rule. McConnell said that the law is “abhorrent to the foundational principles” of the US. Republican contenders for the presidential nomination have also declared that the President is curtailing religious freedom.
Liberal Catholics including the editorial board of Commonweal have also voiced opposition to the new rule, with some going so far as to say that they feel betrayed that the President is opposing the right to religious freedom. While critiquing the “hyperbolic response of the bishops” and advocating for an arrangement such as that in Hawaii, Commonweal’s editors argue that the administration’s decision is based on an understanding of religion that is “essentially sectarian, and historically Protestant” and that the Catholic Church “should not be forced to abide by such restrictions.”
Catholic Students for Women’s Health Speak Out
But these statements from Catholic officials and politicians both conservative and liberal only represent some perspectives about the issue. Catholic authorities have made their opposition to the rule about insurance coverage for contraceptives clear, but, whatever their claims, there is a plurality of viewpoints.
On Thursday, February 9, the Catholic Students for Women’s Health — which represents a population directly affected by the bishops’ and other Catholics’ attempts to block the contraceptive rule — is holding a press conference at the National Press Club. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former Lt. Governor of Maryland, will be present, as well as women (both current students and an alumna) of a number of Catholic institutions including Georgetown University, the Catholic University of America and Fordham University. A representative from Catholics for Choice will also be present and a student from Students for Choice at American University.
As a recent New York Times article notes, surveys have found that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used contraceptives, the same as in the general population. The Obama administration cannot let religious conservatives, many of whom are male, co-opt the discussion about the contraception rule and make the decisions about health care issues for women who study and work at religious institutions. The voices of women, and especially of female students, at Catholic educational institutions are those that need most to be heard.
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