Health insurance

Obama's Contraceptive Failure

The president pretends to accommodate religious objections to his birth control mandate.


A month ago the Obama administration said religious organizations will have to pay for health insurance policies that cover contraception and sterilization, even if they consider those practices immoral. Two weeks ago, responding to widespread complaints that its edict violated freedom of conscience, the administration unveiled a "new policy," under which religious organizations will have to pay for health insurance policies that cover contraception and sterilization, even if they consider those practices immoral.

And people are still complaining. Can you believe it? Last week the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard from a lineup of Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, evangelical, and Jewish leaders who noted that President Obama's supposed compromise, which the White House claims "fully accommodates important concerns raised by religious groups," is "no accommodation at all," as Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Yeshiva University put it.

Under the new rule, Obama explained, "if a woman's employer is a charity or a hospital that has a religious objection to providing contraceptive services as part of their health plan, the insurance company—not the hospital, not the charity—will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge, without co-pays and without hassles." He insisted that "religious organizations won't have to pay for these services."

But they will have to pay for the medical coverage, the price of which will reflect the cost of paying for contraception and sterilization. "Ultimately," Harvard economist Greg Mankiw noted on his blog the day after Obama's announcement, "all insurance costs are passed on to the purchaser, so I cannot see how policy B is different in any way from policy A, other than using slightly different words to describe it."

News outlets nevertheless reported the administration's spin as fact. Reuters claimed "the revised approach puts the burden on insurance companies, ordering them to provide workers at religious-affiliated institutions with free family planning if they request it, without involving their employer at all." The New York Times called the new approach a "concession," saying it "shifts the cost to insurers."

And what prevents insurers from shifting it back? The White House argues that there will be no need, because providing 100 percent coverage for contraception and sterilization saves insurers money by preventing expensive pregnancies and births.

It is not clear why profit-driven businesses must be compelled to do something that supposedly boosts their bottom lines. Testifying at last week's congressional hearing, Catholic University President John Garvey called the administration's cost argument a "Shazam Theory" that "resolves the intrusion on religious liberty by making the compelled contributions magically disappear." Even if the administration were right about the net financial impact of its mandate, Garvey added, his university still would be "forced to pay for…activities we view as immoral."

The mandate's supporters seem genuinely puzzled by the notion that their cost-benefit analyses do not override religious liberty. "Why should an employer's right to reject birth-control coverage trump a society's collective imperative to reduce unintended pregnancy?" asks Harvard College administrator Erika Christakis in a recent Time essay.

Christakis has a degree in public health, which helps explain her unabashed embrace of collectivism and her blithe assumption that individual rights must yield to the demands of medical experts who know what is best for us. But Obama used to teach constitutional law, so he surely understands that the free exercise of religion is supposed to be guaranteed even when it's inconvenient.

By exempting churches from the birth control mandate, Obama concedes their religious freedom is at stake. But he arbitrarily denies that freedom to church-affiliated organizations. Although he acknowledges "many genuine concerns" about the mandate, he isn't willing to address them in a genuine way.

Christakis has some advice for people forced to subsidize services condemned by their religion: Suck it up. She says "the cost of living in a democracy is tolerating moral judgments we don't always like." Yet that is exactly what Obama refuses to do. 

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

© Copyright 2012 by Creators Syndicate Inc.