Obama Makes a Ghastly Mistake on Contraception…or Does He?

by on March 7th, 2015
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Republicans claim that President Obama made a huge miscalculation when he announced his mandate that religiously affiliated institutions make contraception available as a health care benefit to their employees. Then, they say, he admitted his outrageous mistake when he modified the mandate to require health insurance companies of those institutions to offer contraception instead. The Republicans think they smell blood in the water on this one, but was the mandate really a huge miscalculation and did Obama admit an outrageous mistake?

First, one has to wonder if opposition to contraception is the sacred religious tenant for most Catholics as the Catholic Church leadership and Republicans would have you believe. Consider this, in April 2011, a study by the Guttmacher Institute indicated that 98 percent of Catholic women in the United States use some form of birth control banned by the Catholic Church hierarchy during their lifetimes. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling also found that slightly more than half of Catholic voters think women employed by Catholic hospitals and universities should have access to contraceptives through their health care plans. So, at worst, this is an issue that slightly less than half of Catholic Americans oppose, and logically only a fraction of those would feel strongly enough about it to impact their votes. At best, 98 percent of Catholic women will applaud, possibly in private, the decision since it is something that they choose to do that differs from official church doctrine anyways.

There is an interesting juxtaposition for those who argue that this is an assault on religious freedom. They argue that Obama has violated the tenants of religious freedom by having the government require that women have access to contraception through their health insurance plans if they are employed by a religiously affiliated institution. But for their arguments have substance, one would have to argue that guarantees of religious freedom were meant to be the right of church hierarchies and church leadership to tyrannically rule over the personal lives of their employees. The Catholic hospitals and universities that would be affected by this requirement do not employ or serve Catholics only. Do the Catholic religious leaders running these institutions have the right to refuse their employees, including non-Catholic employees, the chance to make their own choice about contraception? Wouldn’t that put the Catholic leadership in a position of arbitrarily making decisions of conscious for their employees rather than having those employees make those decisions for themselves? The mandate doesn’t require that anyone take the contraception; it just requires that it be available to them if they choose it. Individuals having the right to choose based on their own religious beliefs sounds more like the freedom of religion our founding fathers envisioned than does the right of a church leadership denying that choice to the thousands of people of many faiths that they hire to work in their multi-million dollar institutions.

Second, there are Republican candidates and Congressmen who argue that Obama admitted an egregious mistake by modifying his mandate. They are attempting to capitalize on this and trying to whip it up into a campaign season issue. There are even Republican Congressmen who want to bring the issue to a floor vote as an election year stunt. But was the modification of the mandate really the admission of a mistake?

Could it be that, after the initial mandate was announced, the public – including Catholic Americans – spoke up about not liking the burden of paying for employee health care plans that include access to contraception falling on Catholic institutions? Could it be that someone in Washington, D.C., namely Barak Obama, actually listened and made a modification to the mandate in order to remove an objectionable technicality? The modification of the mandate did not remove access to anyone that would have been granted it under the original mandate. What it did do was remove the Catholic institutions from having to pay for it directly. That situation looks more like one where the voice of the people was heard by someone in Washington and actually acted upon. The public at large, aside from the Catholic hierarchy and opponents of Obama, seem largely satisfied with the modification. This includes many Catholic charities and women’s groups.

The Republicans would be wiser to present this as a situation where the president did overlook a technicality that concerned many Americans, and that, thanks to Republican leadership calling it to attention, it was changed for the better. For Republicans to continue to try to capitalize on the situation by attacking the president on it does not seem to have an upside. If half or more Catholics oppose the Catholic hierarchy’s stance on contraception, it doesn’t seem likely Republicans will get much traction there. If the majority of Americans see the modification as correcting the problem with the original mandate, the Republicans are likely to portray themselves as being divisive and overreaching if they continue to insist Obama does not value religious freedom. If the Republicans in Congress manage to bring a floor vote on the question, most independently minded Americans are likely to see it as another instance of Congress focusing on partisan attacks instead of working together on solving the budget and economic issues that so desperately need their attention.

So, before the Republicans go all out to exploit this issue because they see it as a chink in Obama’s armor, they should think about whether anyone outside of their own conservative base is going to buy it. The more dangerous outcome for them is that independently minded Americans will see it as one more example of how out of touch Republicans are with the issues that really matter.

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