Obama Moves Away From NY Model on Birth Control Mandate

Thursday, February 09, 2012

President Obama speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House. (Alex Wong/Getty)

President Barack Obama announced Friday plans to modify a new federal demand that religious employers offer workers free coverage of birth control pills — moving away from a version of the policy that exists in New York.

The White House is calling the move an "accommodation" for those opposed to contraception. The revised mandate would put the federal government in a position similar to some states that already require contraceptive coverage -- but allow exemptions for certain religious institutions.

It's not clear whether outspoken critics, including religious leaders and Republican politicians, will be satisfied with the proposal.

In New York Connecticut, and 26 other states, the only exempt institutions are churches, where the majority of people they employ and serve are presumed to share anti-contraception values. Twenty of them provide conscience exemptions to different categories of religious organizations, according to a study [PDF] by the Guttmacher Institute, which focuses on sexuality and reproductive rights.

That leaves most religious hospitals, schools, universities, charities and social services mandated to provide workers with contraception, because they employ and serve a broader group of people.

Under Obama's modified plan, workers at religious institutions will be able to get free contraception from other supplemental health insurance plans.

Faith leaders celebrated Obama's decision and, in a statement, praised it as a "major victory for religious liberty and women's health.

But some felt the modification was not a enough. Doug Napier, senior counsel for the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, described the change as a "sleight of hand."

"It is still forcing people of faith to subsidize practices and treatments that violate their values, their morals, and their religious beliefs," he said in a statement.

The federal rule being debated in Congress would supersede state laws – and would also force self-insured institutions to cover contraception (and to accept other mandates from which they’re currently exempt, such as covering young adults on parents’ plans through age 26). In New York, about 45 percent of people with employer-based health coverage get it from self-insured plans.

“Our student health center does not prescribe contraception, and you can’t get it on campus,” Fordham University spokesman Bob Howe said. “But our insurance, for both students and employees, does cover contraception, and people can get a prescription and purchase the medication wherever they want off-campus. That’s a requirement of state law.”

The Archdiocese of New York, on the other hand, does not offer contraception to the 6,000 employees who work for its main office, school system and charitable wing. It’s allowed to do this not simply because it is a church – it’s actually much more than that – but because it’s “self-insured.”

Organizations that are self-insured directly pay for employees’ health benefits without outside insurance, so they are not subject to state regulations.

Dolan has not said where he would would draw the boundaries of exemption. Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the Catholic Bishops, suggested adding hospitals, schools, universities and charities would not be enough. Picarello, who declined to be interviewed by WNYC, told USA Today on Thursday that "good Catholic business people” also should not be forced to offer employees access to contraception.

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

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, said this demand would open the way for a much broader group of employers to deny contraceptive coverage.

“It’s very important that bosses not be able to tell employees what medicines they can and cannot take,” Gillibrand said in an interview with WNYC. She said the rule as it currently stands exempts more than 335,000 churches and other houses of worship, and that should be enough.

“What we’re talking about are large employers, like hospitals and universities -- major employers for a whole region in a state,” Gillibrand said. “They have to play by the same rules as everyone else. You can’t pick or choose which laws you want to apply.”

On Friday, Gillibrand praised Obama's compromise.

“I commend the White House for its final rule that adheres to a core principle that the power to decide whether or not each individual woman uses contraception should be with that woman – not with her boss,” she said in a statement.

More in:

Comments [17]

Political Physics: Force = Madness X Absurdity

The religious hard-liners have foisted another misguided political decision into America’s national health care policy. Their right to free-speech allows them to present their opinion, their right to petition the government is in full force unabated and unthreatened by any attempted action of the government, and their right to exercise their religious beliefs are not only unchallenged but as fully protected as ever. So in this religiously dangerous political environment, a large portion of Christian religious groups and organizations are up in arms about the governments assault on their beliefs. Their claim: that the Obama administration is trying to force them to go against their beliefs.

At the center of this perceived attack on personal conscience is the forced obligation to provide employees with access to birth-control under their health care insurance. But as a Christian I am disturbed by the same level of disregard that these faith-based groups and organizations are remonstrating about regarding their responsibility to treating their fellow men and women with respect, compassion and charity. I am troubled that in defense of their freedoms, which aren’t being abridged or threatened that they are causally tossing aside the rights and freedoms of others. This is not only an unchristian act, but also a debasement of our American freedoms, principles and values.

If I understand their line of argument, they contend that they are being forced to pay for health care and medical procedures that they are opposed to on the basis of their religious beliefs. This does sound like a totally improper and immoral invasion upon their faith. But claiming it; doesn’t make it true, or valid, or appropriately judged. The physics of their position depends upon the axioms that that claims are dependent upon.

Are they being forced to pay for a health care benefit that they do not accept as a morally correct act? Are they being forced to violate their right of conscience in any action? Does their religious belief require or direct them to oppose and resist the government imposed obligation regarding health care? If the axioms of their position are neither self-evident nor necessarily consistent with their beliefs then the derivative conclusion of their faith-based actions are invalidated.

The rest of the comment can be found at now4yourconsideration

Feb. 10 2012 10:45 PM
Caitlin from Up State NY

PhillieG - Lighten up, Francis. Frank Burns is joking.

Feb. 10 2012 05:56 PM

Birth control IS health care and 'pro-family'. The Pill is taken for many more reasons than pregnancy prevention. It helps reduce endometrial and ovarian cancer by more than 40 percent. It's a treatment for Endometriosis. It even helps acne.

If Catholic organizations want to operate like a private business, they can start paying taxes and give up government funding.

Feb. 10 2012 05:51 PM
PhillieG from Monroe NY

@Frank Burns:
"My own religious conviction is that God punishes us with disease and rewards us with good health, and that it is a sin to ever try to intervene in his will medically."
As someone who has cancer, I can only hope that one day you either get cancer or have a massive heart attack and no one intervenes...
I don't know what's worse, your lack of empathy or your lack intelligence.

Feb. 10 2012 03:54 PM

I don't understand how any organization can dictate exactly what is covered under their medical insurance. If you are covered by UHC for example, wouldn't you have the coverage that everyone has if they choose the HMO option? Can they say "you're covered for everything BUT birth control"?
It's a woman's choice, not the churches. As others have said, the church is misogynistic.

Feb. 10 2012 03:48 PM
brian from Manhattan

E.J. Dionne has it right. Obama made a mistake. He had made alliances with progressive Catholics who supported his health care proposal, and without whom it may well not have passed. He promised to maintain exemptions on the basis of conscience. This is not an issue about birth control. The bishop's teaching on the matter is ludicrous.
Once the president tweaks this, progressive Catholics will be back on his side, and the bishops will be left with the evangelicals and Republicans.

Having said all that I am very disappointed with the reflexive reactions of so many listeners. Next time around as Dionne says, it could be Quakers wishing an exemption from ROTC. C'mon folks, put your viscera on hold and put on your thinking caps.

Feb. 10 2012 12:13 PM

Contrived election year "culture war" issue to distract from income inequality. Democracy can be a real farce.

Feb. 10 2012 11:24 AM

Is the church permitted to hire employees based on their religous practices?
If they cannot, why should they be allowed to impose religous doctrine on employees?

Feb. 10 2012 10:44 AM
Dorothy from Chelsea

There's a terrific picture of Dolan in the NYTimes today, accompanying an article about the bishops lying in wait for the Obama administration "screw-up" (pun intended).

I'd like to say "me too" to everything Betsy from Albany wrote. The Catholic Church (from which I escaped at 20) is no different from other misogynist religions (which shall be nameless) that see women primarily as dangerous temptations for innocent men -- and all those bishops, archbishops, and cardinals who are hiding in this all-male enclave which doesn't allow women any authority over their own religious lives.

Feb. 10 2012 10:41 AM

Does the church pay for Viagra? If that is covered in their prescription plans, how is this not an equal violation of church teachings? Why are the bishops not up in arms about Viagra? Seems highly unlikely that most Viagra users are getting it for procreative sex.

I cannot believe that Catholic bishops who are out of touch with their own members are determing what health services women will have access to. It is 2012!

Feb. 10 2012 10:35 AM
Joanne from NYC

I have a good idea - instead of all these men commenting on what is basically a woman's health issue why don't we find some women to talk to. Enough is enough of men commenting on the issue of birth control! Men are not in control of our bodies and when are they going to get it. I would also like to know if the church's healthcare program provides for any viagra-like medications.

Feb. 10 2012 10:34 AM
Roberta from Brooklyn

There is going to be a huge gender gap on this issue, just as there is with Gingrich. Even if Catholic women don't want to say so, they will see the injustice to employees of Catholic institutions to have to jump through extra rings to get what they deserve.

Feb. 10 2012 10:34 AM
Sarah from NYC

EJ, where does it stop? I understand that the bishops want Catholic business owners to be allowed the exemption as well If I work for a business owned by a Jehovah's Witness, should the insurance they provide cover my need for a blood transfusion? I used to work in a small business owned by Christian Scientists (an art gallery NOT a religious institution. I was a part-timer, but if I'd been full-time, should they have been required to provide ANY medical insurance for me?

Feb. 10 2012 10:33 AM
political pop from america

catholics pray to saints in heaven when the bible says not to anyway right????

Catholics dont offer holy communion unless your catholic which also doesnt make any since right???

Feb. 10 2012 10:24 AM
LL from queens

I hope the Obama administration does not get wobbly? If this is a requirement already in 28 states why the big deal and why the 'outrage' by the MEN who run the catholic church..
I don't see the same outrage and use of their significant wealth and political clout and influence to fight child abuse, including child slavery and the outragous child poverty in this country.

Feb. 10 2012 10:06 AM
betsy from albany ny

As a New Yorker I am completely baffled that this is a controversy.

Of course everyone should have access to birth control. I'd bet that the Catholic Church has no problem paying for viagra, does it? Nah, not about controlling women's sexuality.....or is it?

This isn't about religious freedom, it's about not letting churches oppress its female employees. And the fact that the majority of Catholic women practice birth control should have invalidated the religious freedom frame from the beginning.

So, who is letting this be a controversy? The media.

Feb. 10 2012 08:41 AM
frank burns

My own religious conviction is that God punishes us with disease and rewards us with good health, and that it is a sin to ever try to intervene in his will medically.
I'm therefore stripping practically everything out of my employees' policies. If I can't, I won't be able to sleep nights, because I would have a guilty conscience imagining to what unnatural ends they might choose to apply their insurance, and of course I can't be stopped from stripping out those policies, because my Republican friends are backing me on this, since it is a matter of my own religious freedom.
Plus, I save a lot on the health premiums I pay to cover my work force, since their pay package basically only includes chiropractic care and homeopathy, which don't offend my religious scruples because I deem them entirely ineffective.

Feb. 09 2012 06:39 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


Latest Newscast




WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public


Supported by