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The Obama Administration's Contraception Mandate

An Attack on Religious Freedom


In mid-January 2012, as supporters of abortion rights prepared to celebrate the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and tens of thousands of pro-lifers were headed to Washington, D.C., to protest the same, the Obama administration announced that it would require religious institutions that provide healthcare for their employees to provide coverage for contraception and contraceptive services, even when such coverage would violate the moral teachings of those who run the institutions. This measure seemed particularly aimed at the Catholic Church, the last major Christian denomination that still upholds the Christian teaching on contraception that extends to the time of the apostles. (See my summary of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae vitae for more information.)

Many Catholic supporters of President Barack Obama reacted in surprise, but the writing had been on the wall for some time, beginning with President Obama's appointment of Kathleen Sebelius as his secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

A Slap in the Face of Catholics

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, August 19, 2008, in Warren, MI. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
(Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Sebelius came to HHS from Kansas, where she had been governor for six years. A professed Catholic, Sebelius is radically pro-abortion, and during her political career in Kansas, she received considerable funding from the notorious late-term abortionist Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered on May 31, 2009.

As governor, Sebelius vetoed four major pieces of pro-life legislation, including one that would have struck at the heart of Tiller's business by requiring that women who seek late-term abortions be provided with information on alternatives. For her public and persistent defense of abortion, Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann warned Governor Sebelius that she should not receive Holy Communion.

While the appointment was the Obama administration's first major slap in the face of Catholics who adhere to the Church's moral teaching (the choice of Joe Biden, a pro-abortion Catholic, as his vice-presidential candidate was hardly surprising), it would not be the last, and Secretary Sebelius's HHS would be at the forefront of the administration's attacks on the Catholic Church.

The Contraception Mandate: A Defining Moment

Later in 2009, President Obama delivered the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, which also granted him an honorary law degree. (See President Barack Obama at Notre Dame: A Defining Moment for the Catholic Church in America.) His speech foreshadowed his administration's justification of the contraception mandate, substituting "fair-mindedness" for truth and redefining faith to exclude any moral beliefs that conflict with his own ideology.

Still, the blame for what happened at Notre Dame lay as much with the university administration as it did with Barack Obama. The same could not be said of President Obama's decision to impose the contraception mandate. Many Catholics who had supported the administration's healthcare reform had done so because they believed President Obama's promise that his plan would provide a generous exemption for religiously affiliated institutions. When the mandate was unveiled, the exemption was narrowly construed to cover only actual houses of worship.

In doing so, President Obama overplayed his hand, and even many Catholics who dissent from the Church's moral teaching on artificial contraception rose up in opposition, because it was clear that the battle was not truly about artificial contraception or public health but the freedom of religious institutions to act on their beliefs. If the administration prevailed on this issue, what other Christian beliefs might the administration attack next?

When Is a Compromise Not a Compromise?

As opposition rose among Catholics, and as other Christian denominations (as well as representatives of non-Christian religions) joined in, President Obama offered a "compromise" on February 10, 2012. At its heart, the "compromise" was a shell game: Religious institution would no longer be required to pay for coverage of contraception and contraception services for their employees; insurance companies would, however, be required to provide it without charging the employees an additional fee.

In other words, for the first year of a new plan, insurance companies would have to eat the additional cost; after that, they could adjust their premiums to cover their own expenses while pretending that the additional cost was not the result of the contraception mandate. Not surprisingly, the few Catholics who fell for President Obama's "compromise" were those who desperately looking for a way to vote for him once again in 2012.

The Obamanomics of Contraception

Put on the defensive once more, the Obama administration began to make an argument that contradict their original one. Contraception, Secretary Sebelius argued, was so inexpensive that insurance companies could give it away for free; the additional cost would not have to be passed on to employers in the form of higher premiums down the road. Yet the administration had based its earlier argument that the contraception mandate was necessary on the claim that contraception is an essential health service that is too expensive for the average employed woman to be able to afford.

President Obama: A Uniter, Not a Divider

Caught up in the contradictions of its own arguments, the Obama administration found itself losing ground. The Notre Dame speech had prompted opposition from many U.S. Catholic bishops (see President Barack Obama at Notre Dame: A Defining Moment for the Catholic Church in America for examples), but by mid-February 2012, every Catholic bishop in the United States had publicly condemned the HHS's contraception mandate.

This unanimity was unprecedented. Combined with the number of Catholics who had supported Obama for president in 2008 but who now opposed the contraception mandate, it signaled a rough road ahead not only for the HHS mandate but for the President's reelection campaign.

And then, on May 4, 2012, Georgetown University announced that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius would be one of 28 speakers at the university's 2012 commencement ceremonies.

To be continued . . .

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