Bishops Reject Proposed Compromise with Obama on Contraception Coverage

Yesterday’s news on the contraception coverage requirement was dominated by two seemingly contradictory events: two polls showing that most Catholics agree with the Obama administration rule, and signals from David Axelrod and Obama spiritual advisor Joel Hunter that perhaps there was a compromise in the offing.

But the primary compromise proposed, known as the Hawaii compromise, has been declared unacceptable by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The National Catholic Register reports:

[A] key official in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says the Hawaii bill — repeatedly cited in media commentary — would not resolve the conference’s concerns and would, in any case, be overridden by the federal rule.

“I’ve reviewed the Hawaii law, and it’s not much of a compromise,” said Richard Doerflinger of the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities and the bishops’ chief lobbyist on life issues in the nation’s capital. “The Hawaii contraceptive mandate has many of the same features as the new federal mandate.”

Like the federal rule, he said, the Hawaii bill “covers all FDA-approved ‘contraceptives’ (including drugs that can cause an abortion); and the religious exemption is very narrow (though it does not include the requirement that the religious organization serve only people of its own faith to be eligible).

“It adds an extra feature — the requirement that any religious organization that is exempt must still tell all enrollees how they may directly access contraceptive services and supplies in an expeditious manner.”

In other words, the Catholic Church must directly send women to drugs and devices that are morally wrong and can do harm to them.

The Hawaii compromise was first proposed in October by Melissa Rogers, the former chair of Obama’s Advisory Council to his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She described the Hawaii law, and a similar one in New York, as allowing religious employers that refuse to cover contraceptives to “provide written notification to enrollees disclosing that fact and describing alternate ways for enrollees to access coverage for contraceptive services.” However, Rogers also noted that “these state laws are far from perfect. Further, we need more information about how they have worked in practice for all concerned.”

Reproductive health advocates say in practice the laws are problematic. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, says a law like Hawaii’s or New York’s “isn’t something that works well when it comes to women getting services they need.” Such a law, he told me yesterday, “puts the onus on employees to jump through hoops” to get the coverage they need.

“It may seem reasonable on the surface,” said O’Brien, “but it sends the wrong message, namely: that an employer’s personal beliefs may interfere with an employee’s conscience and therefore make it more difficult for him/her to access the healthcare coverage that he or she needs.”

In New York, which allows for this “self-insurance,” O’Brien said, “we have heard horror stories” of how it operates in practice. Imagine, he said, working at a Catholic school and going to your employer to request this special coverage. “We’ve heard anecdotal evidence that some workers at certain religious institutions have had to sign testimonials stating that they understand that contraception is against their employers’ beliefs, thereby bullying them into either not seeking insurance that covers contraception or into jumping through hoops to try to access it,” O’Brien said.

In any case, it doesn’t seem like a solution that the Obama administration could use to satisfy anyone.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email