February 10, 2012

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION appears to have found an elegant way out of its contraceptive problem — or, perhaps more to the point, to the political problem created by its approach to contraceptive coverage. As we wrote after the previous policy was announced last month, increased access to contraception is important; requiring contraception as part of the standard health insurance package, without deductibles or co-payments, makes sense. But given the strong objections of the Catholic Church to contraception, it also makes sense to exempt religious employers from having to spend their own money on a service that violates their moral views. The administration recognized the need for such a carve-out, but it erred in drawing it too narrowly, to cover churches but not Catholic hospitals, charities and other such religiously affiliated institutions.

The solution unveiled Friday passes the buck — literally — to insurers. The religiously affiliated employers themselves will not be required to pay for coverage or to direct employees to other ways to obtain it. Instead, the responsibility for providing coverage will be shifted to insurance companies. This is, most likely, a win-win situation. Covering birth control pills or IUDs costs insurers less than covering a pregnancy. In situations where contraceptive coverage has been required, costs have not gone up as a result. So it may be that no one ends up losing. As President Obama put it, “Religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women.”

Wrinkles remain to be worked out. Will insurers, confronted with this demand, comply? What about religiously affiliated institutions that self-insure? Nonetheless, the announcement was a move in the right direction. Both Planned Parenthood and the Catholic Health Association expressed support. A “resolution has been reached that protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions,” Sister Carol Keehan, president of the latter organization, said in a statement. “The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed.”

Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes mandates even for purely secular employers to cover birth control, still called the move a “step in the right direction.”

It’s unfortunate that the White House, which was fully aware of the strong feelings on both sides of the issue, failed to reach this resolution before the outcry. That is especially true because one fallout from the episode has been ill-advised calls to provide protections to non-religious employers as well as to religious institutions. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have introduced legislation that would prevent the government from requiring “any individual or entity to offer, provide, or purchase health insurance coverage for a contraceptive or sterilization service . . . to which that individual or entity is opposed on the basis of religious belief or moral conviction.” That approach stretches religious accommodation beyond any reasonable bound. It would be impossible to administer. But it is part of the unfortunate whirlwind that the administration helped sow.