White House stands firm in birth control battle

at 01:35 PM ET, 01/20/2012

Two days before the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Obama administration is rolling out a health reform regulation that reproductive-rights advocates will cheer. The rule upholds a requirement for nearly all employers to offer birth control without a co-pay. What’s more, the White House won’t expand exemptions for faith-based hospitals and universities, as religious groups had urged.

The health reform law requires employers to cover birth control without co-pay by Aug. 1 of this year. Faith-based groups that have a religious objection to contraceptives, and whose employees primarily share their religion, can seek an exemption from this mandate.

What the White House announced today concerns faith-based groups that don’t fit that description, religious nonprofits whose employees may not share their religion. Those employers, the administration has decided, will have to comply with the mandate — although they’ll get a one-year grace period, until 2013, to do so.

“This group will ultimately have to offer female employees cost-free contraception, just like others across the country,” an administration official told reporters this afternoon.

This isn’t what many religious were hoping to hear today. For months now, they have lobbied for a wider-reaching conscience clause in this birth control requirement, one that does not hinge on whom a religious institution employs or serves. That would probably allow Catholic universities and hospitals, which tend not to employ primarily Catholic populations, to qualify for the exemption.

The final regulation, however, keeps the conscience clause narrow: Only organizations that are faith-based and primarily employ those of the same faith are eligible for the exemption.

It does, however, give a nod to religious groups’ concerns, allowing faith-based nonprofits an extra year to begin covering contraceptives. White House officials explained the decision as regulatory in nature, rather than responding to the philosophical objections that religious organizations had raised.

“We know that a lot of these organizations may be large organizations, there are approval processes that require the approval of boards,” an administration official told reporters on a call this afternoon. “The transitional period responds to those concerns.”

But that doesn’t really get at what religious groups were concerned about. For opponents of this requirement, birth control coverage was never a regulatory issue. They did not oppose the new mandate because it would require rejiggering their health insurance plan. Their objection, instead, has always been a philosophical one, an issue that this regulation leaves pretty much unaddressed.

On the other side of the issue, you can expect reproductive-health advocates to be cheering this move especially after months of frantic worry that the White House would go against them.

 
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