Political Animal


February 02, 2013 9:24 AM The Obama administration’s birth control cave-in: bad policy, bad politics

By Kathleen Geier

Yesterday brought news that the White House had once again “compromised” on a woman’s right to reproductive health care. The newly announced compromise would allow employees at large not-for-profit organizations with religious affiliations, such as universities and hospitals, to receive contraceptive coverage, while at the same time enabling their employers to weasel out of paying for it. The employees’ insurers would automatically enroll them, at no cost, in a separate insurance policy in addition to the regular one, which would provide the contraceptive coverage. That way the money that pays for anything to do with those awful icky lady parts would never have to pass through the no doubt morally unimpeachable hands of their ever so pious employers.

This compromise, btw, is essentially the same one that was already in place, only now the definition as to what counts as a religious employer has been widened. As Sarah Posner reports, the wonderful organization Catholics for Choice strongly opposes the new rule, explaining that

the new definition of religious employer expands exempt employers from just houses of worship to organizations that are operated or financed by houses of worship, including Catholic parishes or dioceses. As a result, said Hutchinson, many Catholic elementary, middle, and high schools, in addition to some Catholic charities and social service organizations, would be exempt from providing the coverage.

Posner does point out that pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America support the new rule, while the usual panoply of anti-choice groups oppose it. It’s also true that so long as the rule works out the way it’s supposed to, no one will be denied birth control who would otherwise have received it. The Administration has merely tacked on an awkward and completely unnecessary bureaucratic mechanism, in an attempt to ease the bigoted and irrational fears of the religious far right.

I have to ask, to what end? Violating women’s rights to appease religious bigots sets a dangerous precedent. What’s to stop a Republican president from issuing rules and executive orders that go even further in the direction of catering to religious zealots who oppose fundamental reproductive rights? What quarter does the Obama administration think they’re gaining with these kinds of shenanigans, anyway? All they do is insult the women who are the Democratic Party’s base — especially unmarried women, who are now the largest single group of reliably Democratic voters (in 2012, they were 23% of the electorate, and 67% of them voted for Obama).

As for the misogynist, anti-sex authoritarians who are clearly desperately pining for women to go back to the barefoot-and-pregnant days … well, I agree with Adele Stan — there’s no pleasing those bastards. The Obama administration may have hoped to deflect the avalanche of lawsuits that have been filed by religious organizations over mandated contraception coverage, but those legal actions aren’t going anywhere. Observers say that the issue will almost certainly eventually make its way to the Supreme Court.

I have one more general point to make about this issue, and it’s this: your health insurance is part of your total compensation package, and as such there’s no discernible difference between it and the rest of your paycheck. It’s all money, and money is fungible. And just as your employer has no right to tell you how to spend your paycheck, for damn sure he has no right to dictate how you choose to use your health insurance. Empower him with that right, and you empower tyranny. Worse, you empower tyranny in one of its most noxious forms, both because it is so intimate and personal (your health and reproductive decisions are nobody’s business but your own), and also because it tends to be intractable (because your economic survival depends on maintaining your employment).

Bush supporters used to remind us, ad infinitum, that elections have consequences. Interestingly, they would even say this when the only election in question was the one they stole! But President Obama has now won two elections handily. A major subject of contention in the most recent one was the War on Women, and Republican attempts to turn back the clock on women’s reproductive freedom. Look: we won, big. Those issues are settled. It would be nice if the Obama administration acted like it.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • schtick on February 02, 2013 11:16 AM:

    The caveman.

  • Celui on February 02, 2013 11:33 AM:

    Kathleen, this is an important and well-written critique of this latest band-aid offered by the Obama administration. As much as I agree with you (and Hillary) that 'What Difference does it make now??' is the essence of the issue, it's a perfectly designed sop to the complainers that they can now remain 'pure' and the women employees can now continue to receive contraception through their insurance. It's almost a 'different door to the same destination' decision. And, this may forestall or eliminate some of these nonsense lawsuits that appear on the horizon. What galls me just as much as this idiocy is the attitude that religious tenets should overshadow the commonsense provisions of the ACA laws. I'm all for separation of church and state, and here the churches are demanding to be decision-makers in state affairs.

  • mk3872 on February 02, 2013 11:34 AM:

    Umm ... Kathleen - How can these 2 things be true in the same story?

    "This compromise, btw, is essentially the same one that was already in place"

    "The Obama administrationís birth control cave-in"


    Bad politics, eh? Legal experts chimed in yesterday stating that it was necessary to better define the exemptions in order to fight the lawsuits already in the system.

    I fully understand the liberal desire to ding the president from time to time.

    But at least do so when it makes sense.

  • Dave Swanner on February 02, 2013 11:45 AM:

    Churches were already exempt. But hospitals, just because they're owned by charitable institutions are exempt as well. So if you're a nurse, whether you're a 'religious employee' relies not on your job, but if you're working for HCA or a Catholic run hospital. If someone is running a business, they aren't a religious organization.

    That was the whole deal that was being obscured behind the 'religious freedom', which I don't agree with.

  • LaFollette Progressive on February 02, 2013 11:57 AM:

    What mk3872 said. This isn't a "cave-in", because it's the exact same policy from the perspective of a woman seeking health insurance from her employer. It's just a bureaucratic dodge to enable sexist Catholic institutions to wash their hands of any direct responsibility.

    I agree that it's irritating on several levels, not least of which being the tacit acceptance of the right-wing claim that "religious freedom" entails the right of employers to discriminate against employees who don't share their religious views.

    But from a practical perspective, given that this regulation will soon be legislated in front of the Roberts court, it seems to me like a smart move. It provides a fig leaf against the sort of inane conservative legal arguments that win 5-4 decisions these days, and gives Justice Roberts an out if he doesn't feel like rocking the boat.

  • John on February 02, 2013 11:57 AM:

    This is stupid, but I don't really understand what the point of calling it a "cave-in" is. Surely the most important thing is that women get contraceptive coverage? The rest of the "compromise" is a fig leaf - the right gains nothing substantive.

  • aimai on February 02, 2013 12:04 PM:

    I usually agree with you Kathleen--in fact I eagerly await your weekend postings here--but this time I think you are wrong. Not just wrong because the Obama administration has simply shown that there is "more than one way to skin a cat" but because I think ultimately this shift totally undercuts the religious organization shtick at the same time it pays it a kind of lip service.

    As far as I can see the new rule creates a space for Religious organzations, so called, to stamp their feet and act out their dislike of women while permitting women workers to go right around them directly to the insurer or the exchanges. In other words: as the organization itself stops having any choice in the health care it provides its temper tantrums will cease to matter.

    In addition you might look at this from the point of view of a young woman or family ma being hired into one of these organizations. Now all competitive jobs will include a health care package with a defined benefit including free contraception and a panoply of important women's health care goodies and your possible future employer is going to do and say...what? The HR people are going to say "Don't worry! You will be able to access everything you would at employer-down-the-street. We just have to pretend we don't know." Its really not going to make them look good and its not going to have any deleterious effect on women employee's rights to conctraceptive care.

  • Citizen Alan on February 02, 2013 12:23 PM:

    Personally, I would prefer a "compromise" in which any business entity, religious or otherwise, that wants to can opt out of contraception coverage, but they must give every employee a pay raise equivalent to the average cost of contraception coverage which the employee can spend on whatever she (or he) wants in order to compensate them for what is, ultimately, a reduction in the benefits to which they are otherwise entitled. Since most of this so-called debate is mere posturing anyway, most of the people complaining about the policy would fold like a cheap suit rather than increase pay for their employees.

  • Neildsmith on February 02, 2013 12:28 PM:

    "Violating womenís rights to appease religious bigots..."

    Sorry... I just don't give a hoot what religious people do to their fellow travelers. So now we all know... If you don't drink the Kool-Aid, don't join (or work for) the cult.

  • Mimikatz on February 02, 2013 1:19 PM:

    As I understand it, the point of the clarification was to draw a line between "legitimate" religious employers such as Catholic institutions with religious doctrines and individuals with prejudices, like the owner of the Hobby Lobby who also thinks some forms of birth control are abortifacients. Even if the individuals are Catholics i think they don't get special treatment, as the policy seems only to apply to non-profits. Individuals (at least for-profits) have no exemption or special deal and the religious institutions do. This way an employer can't decide he objects on religious grounds to surgery as violating human bodies so his health plans don't cover surgery. Can Jehovah's Witness employers exclude blood transfusions?

    I don't think it is a new cave, just a reiteration of the original cave. In light of the Cardinal Mahoney revelations the Catholic Church would do well to stay away from trying to regulate other people's sexuality.

  • FlipYrWhig on February 02, 2013 1:32 PM:

    If there's a way to do something that harms no one while assuaging to some degree the fears of bigots and the bigot-adjacent, how is that a problem? It's like craving a fight when you've already won. This language of malefactors being "empowered" and women being "insulted" and violated" seems way, way disproportionate to the reality. If you were correct, wouldn't NARAL and Planned Parenthood be a little less sanguine?

  • FlipYrWhig on February 02, 2013 1:36 PM:

    BTW, have any religious bigots claimed this decision as a victory? If not, why are you so intent on giving one to them?

  • c u n d gulag on February 02, 2013 2:12 PM:



    A surrender?
    Not really.

    It's a work-around.

    Plus, I think all of these kinds of "allowances" will eventually grease the way for 'single-payer,' somewhere down the road - as a way to kind of make all converage standard.
    But, maybe I'm overly optimistic, which is not really like me.

  • FlipYrWhig on February 02, 2013 2:30 PM:

    @ c u n d, I had a similar reaction on that last point. The idea of being automatically enrolled in a government-funded insurance program (which is what I gathered was the policy, going by what Ezra Klein and his guest were discussing) is a positive precedent. My only hesitation about having the government as insurer is that politicians like to meddle in women's health in a way that for-profit insurers don't, because pregnancy and children are expensive and they care more about the bottom line than about ideology. So a fully public system in the USA would be susceptible to political manipulation.

  • RepubAnon on February 02, 2013 6:18 PM:

    One of the drivers of this type of compromise is fear - fear of what the Roberts Court might do if they get their hands on it. The fewer excuses someone such as Justice Scalia is given to decide the law tramples on religious freedom, the more likely the law will stand.

    Remember, Justice Roberts upheld the law as a tax rather than on the basis of the Commerce Clause - give him another shot at it, and we may lose the entire act.

  • Kitty of the Apocalypse on February 02, 2013 6:28 PM:

    Kathleen, with all due respect, are you high?

    Do you know what this move actually does? It removes the religious organizations' right to bitch and reveals them for the misogynist jackasses that they are. They don't have to pay for it now, so it's none of their business, right? So if they want to object, they're going to have to publicly admit that what they really want is full control over a woman's decisions about her body.

    In what way is this not a win for women AND the administration?

  • DisgustedWithItAll on February 02, 2013 6:45 PM:

    President Mammoth Cave enjoys being humiliated and enjoys even more humiliating his supporters.

  • Doug on February 02, 2013 6:57 PM:

    And yet another deeply-reasoned and thoughtful posting by DWIA.
    //snark off//

  • Rabbler on February 02, 2013 8:34 PM:

    Assuming that the moderates are actually on the long and winding road to single payer, wouldn't this be a perfect opportunity set up a government insurance program for this particular use and later expand from there? Doing this would get test cases on the way to SCOTUS and provide future cover or at least a better understanding of the status quo.

  • mrs j on February 02, 2013 11:19 PM:

    I honestly think this is inevitable. I expected it.
    The administration has to deal with so much, including the tea partying states that refused or declined to implement the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

  • Rick B on February 03, 2013 2:39 AM:

    I see no Constitutional way in which an employer can be given the right to demand his employees follow the orders of any religious institution. This is a nation which professes freedom of religious conscience - to individuals! Institutions can override the conscience of individuals only through convincing them, not through government coercion.

    There is no right for institutions, be they religious, business or otherwise, to demand that the government use its police powers to enforce their orders on people who do not personally voluntarily accept those orders.

    Contract law? The government determines what orders can legally be enforced in contracts. Gambling debts, for example, cannot be enforced as contracts. Neither can the orders of any religious institution or leader.

    If the government is going to exempt employers from having to provide birth control or abortion services in employer health insurance that is a voluntary restriction government places on itself. There is no Constitutional provision requiring it. But if the government permits the employer to somehow skate on its healthcare responsibilities and then provides an alternative access to the patient to such insurance coverage in order to salve the conscience of the employer, OK. That's a legitimate action on the part of the government. Anycost should be borne by the employer, though, not by the taxpayers.

    The fact that providing birth control coverage and the abortion coverage actually reduces the overall medical expenses that the insurance companies have to cover simply increases the profit to the insurance companies. It's simple god-given insurance math.

    If the conscience-ridden employers feel their authority is being thwarted let them take it up with god for making the cost be less when sensible health insurance is offered to women. And if instead of being conscience-ridden the employers are simply attempting a power play to force the government to bend to their will, tough shit. They lost this game big time.