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A Distinction Without a Difference

February 10, 2012

Today the Obama Administration caved in, conceding to its bitter critics (including the Conference of Catholic Bishops and most Republican politicians) that its policy requiring all non-church employers’ health insurance policies include free birth control for covered employees.  The new policy would require medical insurance companies to offer birth control coverage directly to covered employees, without employer mediation, also for free.

The new policy has been welcomed by observers of all ideological stripes, from Planned Parenthood to Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association.  Even Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the policy shift “a first step in the right direction”  – definitely a walkback of his full-blown outrage of earlier in the week.

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum wasn’t as placated as the Bishops were:

“This has nothing to do with access.  This is having someone pay for it, pay for something that shouldn’t be in an insurance plan anyway because it is not, really an insurable item. This is something that is affordable, available. You don’t need insurance for these types of relatively small expenditures. This is simply someone trying to impose their values on somebody else, with the arm of the government doing so.”

It remains to be seen whether American voters – Republican and Democrat – will share Rick’s ongoing outrage over birth control.  Would he forbid insurers from covering birth control as a part of health insurance?

What will be the practical difference to women who receive their medical insurance from a tangentially Catholic organization such as a university or hospital?  None.  They will still receive free birth control coverage as part of their insurance policy.

What is the practical difference to employers?  None.  Their employees will receive free birth control coverage through employer sponsored insurance.

Who will pay the cost of free birth control coverage?  It depends on your point of view.  To the extent that employers pay the cost of medical insurance, the employer still pays.  Or one might also argue that insurance companies will pay the cost, since they are required to offer something “for free.”  But since statistically is it less expensive for insurers and employers to pay for birth control than for pregnancy, one might argue that no one pays and everyone saves money.  You decide.

Unanswered questions:

1)  Does a legal requirement to provide medical insurance for employees, through which employees are eligible to acquire birth control, still constitute an infringement of religious freedom of employers who oppose birth control on moral grounds?

2) If an employer’s wages are used by the employee to acquire birth control, does that still infringe on an employer’s religious liberty?

3)  Both Catholic and non-Catholic women use “artificial” birth control at about the same rate – something around 98%.  For whom does the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops speak?

4)  Individual Catholic Bishops answer only to the Pope.  Remember when Evangelical Protestants feared the undue influence of the Pope of Rome in American politics?  I remember the 1960 presidential election – JFK vs. Nixon – very well.  Yet today we see a President of the United States backing down in the face of pressure led by the Conference of Catholic Bishops.   When did Protestant fear of Papism in America melt away?

My thoughts:  the Republican pols who thought that this would be a great issue to use against Obama just had the rug pulled out from under them.  Besides, healthy majorities of Americans supported the OLD policy – their talking point was never going to get any traction.  Will Catholics hold the original policy against Obama?  Not many – and they are the ones who wouldn’t have voted for Obama anyway.

So maybe all this was a master stroke by a master politician – pleasing almost everyone while making his opponents look even more foolish than usual.

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