The Obama administration's decision to require religious institutions to provide health insurance that covers birth control and other contraceptive services has resulted in a firestorm of protest from the Catholic Church and Republican presidential candidates. Given the importance of the issue to many Catholics the administration will have to compromise.
There are more than 65 million Catholics in the United States, the country's largest religious denomination. President Obama carried 54% of the Catholic vote in 2008 according to exit polls. The Catholic Church, which is totally opposed to any form of contraception, oversees more than 600 hospitals nationwide and cares for one in six patients each year. Even so, most employees are not Catholic.
President Obama and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York discussed the subject in a meeting at the White House last fall. "The president seemed very earnest, he said he considered the protection of conscience sacred, that he didn't want anything his administration would do to impede the work of the church that he claimed he held in high regard," Dolan said in late January. "I have to say, there's a sense of personal disappointment."
Yet, according to a report from the Guttmacher Institute, more than two-thirds of all Catholic women use sterilization, the birth control pill, or an IUD. The Institute says that, "making contraceptives more affordable and easier to use reflects the needs and desires of the vast majority of U.S. women and their partners, regardless of their religious beliefs."
Pointing out that 28 states require contraception to be covered by insurance, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defended the policy Monday in a USA Today op-ed. "Today, virtually all American women use contraception at some point in their lives," Sebelius wrote. "And we have a large body of medical evidence showing it has significant benefits for their health, as well as the health of their children." She noted that the cost of birth control might be too expensive for some women who are not covered by insurance.
Former House Speaker and current Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has accused the Obama administration of waging a "war against religion" because of the requirement that Catholic hospitals and universities must cover contraception as part of their employee health plans.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, called the administration's decision on contraception a "violation of conscience." "We must have a president who is willing to protect America's first right, a right to worship God, according to the dictates of our own conscience," Romney said Monday.
But last week The Boston Globe reported, "Romney required all Massachusetts hospitals, including Catholic ones, to provide emergency contraception to rape victims, even though some Catholics view the morning-after pill as a form of abortion." "President Obama's plan certainly constitutes an assault on the constitutional rights of Catholics," C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, said in an interview with the Boston Globe, "but I'm not sure Governor Romney is in a position to assert that, given his own very mixed record on this."
In her op-ed Secretary Sebelius said, "We specifically carved out from the policy religious organizations that primarily employ people of their own faith. This exemption includes churches and other houses of worship, and could also include other church-affiliated organizations." And she noted that doctors are not required to prescribe contraceptives and no one is required to buy them.
Nonetheless, no matter how the administration explains the decision, most Catholics see the proposal as forcing institutions run by the Catholic Church to violate the churches' own moral teachings. And, while well intentioned, this does not make sense and it is not smart politics.