America’s Big Religious War ended on Friday. Or at least it ought to.
A little more than a year ago, the Obama administration set off a bitter and unnecessary clash with the Roman Catholic Church over rules mandating broad contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The Department of Health and Human Services’ announcement of new regulations is a clear statement that President Obama never wanted this fight.
The decision, the administration’s second attempt at compromise, ought to be taken by the nation’s Catholic bishops as the victory it is. Many of the country’s most prominent prelates are inclined to do just that — even if the most conservative bishops seem to want to keep the battle raging.
But more importantly, the final HHS rules are the product of a genuine and heartfelt struggle over the meaning of religious liberty in a pluralistic society. The contraception dispute was difficult because legitimate claims and interests were in conflict.
The vast majority of Americans believe that health insurance should cover contraception. At the same time, the Catholic Church has a theological objection to contraception, even if most Catholics (including regular churchgoers) disagree with its position. The church insisted that its vast array of charitable, educational and medical institutions should be exempt from the contraception requirement.
The church made a mistake in arguing its case on the grounds of “religious liberty.” By inflating their legitimate desire for accommodation into a liberty claim, the bishops implied that the freedom not to pay for birth control rose to the same level as, say, the freedom to worship or to preach the faith. This led to wild rhetorical excesses, including a comparison of Obama to Hitler and Stalin by one bishop and an analogy between the president’s approach and the Soviet constitution by another.
But the church had good reason to object to the narrowness of the original HHS definition of what constituted a religious organization entitled to exemptions from the contraception requirement. If an organization did not have “the inculcation of religious values” as its purpose and did not employ or serve primarily those who shared the faith, it got no exclusion at all.
The problem is that the vast charitable work done by religious organizations to help millions, regardless of their faith, is manifestly inspired by religion. The church could not abide the implicit reduction of its role merely to private expressions of faith. Don’t most Americans devoutly wish that religious people will be moved by their beliefs to works of charity and justice?
The HHS rules announced Friday scrapped this troubling definition in favor of long-established language in the Internal Revenue Code. In an interview, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius showed a becoming humility, and it would be nice if this rubbed off on her critics. However defensible the original rules might have been, she said, “they really caused more anxiety and conflict than was appropriate.”
“What we’ve learned,” she said, “is that there are issues to balance in this area. There were issues of religious freedom on two sides of the ledger” — the freedom of the religious institutions and the freedom of their employees who might not share their objections to contraception.
This is where the other accommodation kicked in: Many Catholic institutions self-insure. While the administration rightly wants broad contraception coverage to include hospital workers, teachers and others at religious institutions, it also seeks to keep religious organizations from having “to contract, arrange, pay or refer” for coverage “to which they object on religious grounds.”
Under the new rules, employees who want it will be able to get stand-alone coverage from a third party. Some of the costs will be covered by small offsets in the fees insurers will have to pay to participate in the new exchanges where their policies will be on sale. It’s an elegant fix.
There are two reasons for hope here, particularly for Catholic progressives. First, the administration recognized the problem it had created and resolved it. Vice President Biden played a key role here, keeping lines of communication with the church open.
Second, many bishops have come to realize that the appearance of a state of war with Obama not only troubled many of the faithful — Obama, after all, narrowly carried the Catholic vote — but also threatened to cast a church with strong commitments to immigrants, social justice and nonviolence as a partisan, even right-wing organization.
This war has been bad for everyone involved. Obama has moved to end it. Here’s a prayer that the bishops will also be instruments of peace.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, February 3, 2013
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has approved a controversial package of abortion restrictions that will limit abortion access for women who live in rural areas, require doctors to prove that mentally competent women haven’t been “coerced” into their decision to have the procedure, and enact unnecessary, complicated rules for abortion clinics and providers. The governor signed HB 5711 into law on Friday despite widespread protests against the omnibus anti-abortion measure.
Snyder claims that HB 5711 “respects a woman’s right to choose while helping protect her health and safety.” But women’s health advocates warn the law will seriously threaten women’s access to the health services they need by imposing harsh regulations on abortion clinics and providers:
Critics of the Michigan law fear its insistence on new, standalone facilities will hurt women in rural and low-income areas as it could force some clinics to close. They say questioning women on whether an abortion is voluntary subjects them to a type of interrogation.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion rights group that opposed the measure, said it could force many existing abortion providers in the state to either tear down their offices and rebuild from the ground up — or shutter their practices. [...]
“Safety was never the intention of this law. The only thing this law accomplishes is to make a difficult decision even more difficult,” said Rana Elmir, the communications director for the Michigan ACLU.
Michigan legislators were quick to capitalize on this year’s lame duck session to push through controversial abortion restrictions, potentially because five anti-choice state lawmakers lost their seats in November’s election. The majority of Michigan voters support legal access to abortion services.
By: Tara Culp-Ressler, Think Progress, December 31, 2012
“Save The Babies Or Save The Budget”: Dear Conservatives, Your Opposition To Family Planning Comes With A Huge Price Tag
Conservatives have long painted themselves as the guardians of fiscal sanity. But they have also fashioned themselves as the guardians of the innocent babies being preyed upon at Planned Parenthood. Even though abortions make up just 3 percent of the services Planned Parenthood provides—and many clinics don’t provide them at all because of restrictions placed on the funding they receive—conservatives have long held a legislative grudge against the organization and have even broadened their contempt to other family planning clinics.
That deep-held distaste for women’s health providers led Texas lawmakers last year to slash $73 million from all of its family planning services and shift the money to other areas of the budget. This blunt instrument hit all of the state’s women’s health providers, but was meant to target Planned Parenthood and deny it taxpayer dollars—even though the clinics that received state subsidies for care never performed abortions.
This may be in line with their staunch opposition to what they see as a baby-killer, but that ideology comes with quite the price tag. News has surfaced that for the two-year period between 2014 and 2015, poor women are expected to deliver nearly 24,000 babies that they wouldn’t otherwise have had if they had access to state-subsidized birth control. Those extra births will cost taxpayers as much as $273 million, with between $103 million to $108 million of that hitting the state’s general revenue budget alone. Much of the cost comes from caring for those infants through Medicaid.
Lawmakers may not care about what this means for the lives of the low-income women who are now bearing and raising children whose births they would have otherwise prevented had they had access to contraception. But conservatives, the fiscally responsible party, are now thinking twice about the budgetary implications. The New York Times reported last week that “a bipartisan coalition is considering ways to restore some or all of those family planning dollars, as a cost-saving initiative if nothing else.” It’s not like the budget hit should come as a surprise, however. When the cuts were initially debated, an estimate was circulated that they would lead to an extra 284,000 births at a cost of $239 million. Yet the cuts passed, “a price that socially conservative legislators were willing to pay in their referendum on Planned Parenthood,” as the Times reports.
And unfortunately, the ideological battle against Planned Parenthood will not be brought to a complete cease-fire, even in the face of these stark numbers. Planned Parenthood will almost certainly be excluded from any reinstated family planning funding because of an existing ban against taxpayer money going to providers who are “affiliated” with clinics that perform abortions, even if they don’t do so themselves. While there are other women’s health providers in the state, RH Reality Check’s Andrea Grimes set out to find out whether the hundreds of listings on Texas’s website actually provide the services women need. She found that “many of them don’t provide any kind of contraceptive care, don’t take Medicaid Women’s Health Program clients, or are simply misleading duplicate listings.”
And the ones that do offer the right services likely won’t be able to meet the huge increase in demand. Grimes cites a study that found that Planned Parenthood accounted for half of the state’s women’s healthcare, serving nearly 52,000 clients. The remaining providers mostly serve ten or fewer patients. That’s just not going to cut it for all of the women who now need to find care.
Continuing to deny funding to Planned Parenthood will keep costing the state, even if other clinics see their funding reinstated. To the tune of an estimated $5.5 million to $6.6 million as a result of paying for the entire women’s health program on its own, rather than receiving the 90 percent federal matching funds, as well as paying for a higher number of births that will have to be covered by Medicaid funds.
Texas is a huge state, so its case sticks out like a sore thumb. But it’s not the only one to go after family planning services and Planned Parenthood. As the Guttmacher Institute reports, last year some states felt compelled by the federal push to ban federal funds from going to Planned Parenthood to look at whether providers in their states that use private funding for abortion should be barred from receiving state funding or, in some cases, federal Medicaid reimbursements. Currently, six states prohibit some providers from receiving family planning funds and in three the restrictions apply to those that provide abortion or are affiliated with agencies that do.
So conservative lawmakers across the country will now be faced with a choice: save the babies or save the budget. Because it’s clear that you can’t do both. Organizations that provide contraception—and, it must be said, abortions—not only do great service to the women who need to control their fertility and their lives. They do great service to taxpayers. By giving women access to contraception, publicly funded family planning organizations save us $3.74 for every dollar we spend in avoided Medicaid costs associated with unplanned births. Their services saved federal and state governments $5.1 billion in 2008.
As Texas has just found out, those aren’t imaginary numbers. They are very real. Whoever says that contraception and abortion aren’t economic issues should take a second look. They have a huge impact on women’s financial situations. But, perhaps higher on conservatives’ checklist, they have an enormous impact on the budget.
By: Bryce Covert, The Nation, December 10, 2012
“Something Is Stirring”: There Is New Space For Debate And Rethinking Of The Catholic Church’s Rightward Tilt
To say that the Belle Harbor neighborhood on New York City’s Rockaway Peninsula was slammed by Hurricane Sandy understates the case. Like many other parts of the region, it has suffered the kind of devastation we usually associate with wars.
In these circumstances, people turn to government, yes, but they look first to trusted friends and to neighborhood institutions that combine deep local knowledge with a degree of empathy that arises only from a long connection with residents of a particular place.
Two of my brothers-in-law who have been washed out of their homes are involved in one such group, the Graybeards, a local nonprofit recently featured on the “NBC Nightly News.” They immediately took up the task of restoring the city blocks they love.
And at the heart of the relief effort is the Roman Catholic parish of St. Francis de Sales, the epicenter of so many practical works of mercy that it has received a mountain of earned media attention. The Post published a photo last week of a big Thanksgiving dinner organized in the parish gym where I once watched my nephews and my niece compete fiercely on the basketball court. Last week, for a moment anyway, competition gave way to fellowship.
I intend to come back again to the determined struggle of this neighborhood to rebuild. But I also hope that the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops contemplating the future of the church’s public and political engagement notice how the witness of this parish has inspired people far beyond the confines of Catholicism.
During the presidential campaign, many bishops, though by no means all, seemed to enlist firmly on one side of a highly contested election. The church didn’t endorse anyone, but some bishops made clear their preference for Mitt Romney over President Obama. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was about as clear as he could be short of putting a Romney-Ryan sticker on his car.
“I certainly can’t vote for somebody who’s either pro-choice or pro-abortion,” he told the National Catholic Reporter. On the other hand, he said of low-tax conservatives: “You can’t say that somebody’s not Christian because they want to limit taxation.” No doubt Paul Ryan smiled.
For such bishops, the election came as a shock. I’m told by people who attended the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops post-election meeting this month in Baltimore that many of them had been convinced Romney would win. Yet Romney not only lost; he also narrowly lost the Catholic vote, partly because of overwhelming support for Obama among Latinos, the fastest-growing group in the church.
The fallout: disarray in the Bishops’ Conference. This is actually good news. One person’s disarray is another’s openness. There is now new space for debate and a rethinking of the church’s tilt rightward over the past several years.
One surprising result in Baltimore was the refusal to endorse a vague statement on the economy after the document came under attack from more progressive bishops for failing to deal adequately with inequality, the rights of unions and poverty. Rarely does a document reach the floor of the conference and then fail to win the two-thirds majority necessary for approval. Something is stirring.
There are also influential bishops who now want to work with the Obama administration to secure a compromise on the contraception mandate under the health-care law. This, too, would be a positive break with the recent past, and the president should seize the opportunity. He can provide contraception coverage while building on the adjustments he has already made in the mandate to accommodate the church’s legitimate conscience concerns. And there’s nothing that should stop the bishops from cooperating with the administration and other progressives on behalf of immigration reform.
But above all, the bishops need to learn what I’ll call the St. Francis de Sales lesson. A church looking to halt defections among so many younger Catholics should understand that casting itself as a militantly right-wing political organization — which, face it, is what some of the bishops are doing — clouds its Christian message. Worse, the church seems to be going out of its way to hide its real treasure: the extraordinary examples of generosity and social reconstruction visible every day in parishes such as St. Francis and in the homeless shelters, schools, hospices and countless other Catholic entities all over the nation.
Politics divides Catholics. The works of mercy bring us together and also show the world what the power of faith can achieve.
By: E. J. Dionne Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, November 25, 2012
In this year’s campaign furor over a supposed “war on women,” involving birth control and abortion, the assumption is that the audience worrying about these issues is just women.
Give us a little credit. We men aren’t mercenaries caring only for Y chromosomes. We have wives and daughters, mothers and sisters, and we have a pretty intimate stake in contraception as well.
This isn’t like a tampon commercial on television, leaving men awkwardly examining their fingernails. When it comes to women’s health, men as well as women need to pay attention. Just as civil rights wasn’t just a “black issue,” women’s rights and reproductive health shouldn’t be reduced to a “women’s issue.”
To me, actually, talk about a “war on women” in the United States seems a bit hyperbolic: in Congo or Darfur or Afghanistan, I’ve seen brutal wars on women, involving policies of rape or denial of girls’ education. But whatever we call it, something real is going on here at home that would mark a major setback for American women — and the men who love them.
On these issues, Mitt Romney is no moderate. On the contrary, he is considerably more extreme than President George W. Bush was. He insists, for example, on cutting off money for cancer screenings conducted by Planned Parenthood.
The most toxic issue is abortion, and what matters most for that is Supreme Court appointments. The oldest justice is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a 79-year-old liberal, and if she were replaced by a younger Antonin Scalia, the balance might shift on many issues, including abortion.
One result might be the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which for nearly four decades has guaranteed abortion rights. If it is overturned, abortion will be left to the states — and in Mississippi or Kansas, women might end up being arrested for obtaining abortions.
Frankly, I respect politicians like Paul Ryan who are consistently anti-abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. I disagree with them, but their position is unpopular and will cost them votes, so it’s probably heartfelt as well as courageous. I have less respect for Romney, whose positions seem based only on political calculations.
Romney’s campaign Web site takes a hard line. It says that life begins at conception, and it gives no hint of exceptions in which he would permit abortion. The Republican Party platform likewise offers no exceptions. Romney says now that his policy is to oppose abortion with three exceptions: rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at stake.
If you can figure out Romney’s position on abortion with confidence, tell him: at times it seems he can’t remember it. In August, he abruptly added an exception for the health of the mother as well as her life, and then he backed away again.
Romney has also endorsed a “personhood” initiative treating a fertilized egg as a legal person. That could lead to murder charges for an abortion, even to save the life of a mother.
In effect, Romney seems to have jumped on board a Republican bandwagon to tighten access to abortion across the board. States passed a record number of restrictions on abortion in the last two years. In four states, even a woman who is seeking an abortion after a rape may be legally required to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound.
If politicians want to reduce the number of abortions, they should promote family planning and comprehensive sex education. After all, about half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which conducts research on reproductive health.
Yet Romney seems determined to curb access to contraceptives. His campaign Web site says he would “eliminate Title X family planning funding,” a program created in large part by two Republicans, George H. W. Bush and Richard Nixon.
Romney has boasted that he would cut off all money for Planned Parenthood — even though federal assistance for the organization has nothing to do with abortions. It pays for such things as screenings to reduce breast cancer and cervical cancer.
Romney’s suspicion of contraception goes way back. As governor of Massachusetts, he vetoed a bill that would have given women who were raped access to emergency contraception.
Romney also wants to reinstate the “global gag rule,” which barred family planning money from going to aid organizations that even provided information about abortion. He would cut off money for the United Nations Population Fund, whose work I’ve seen in many countries — supporting contraception, repairing obstetric fistulas, and fighting to save the lives of women dying in childbirth.
So when you hear people scoff that there’s no real difference between Obama and Romney, don’t believe them.
And it’s not just women who should be offended at the prospect of a major step backward. It’s all of us.
By: Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, November 3, 2012