Bishops reject contraception compromise

Allies warned of response to birth control decision

Larry Downing/Reuters
President Obama had to come up with a revised policy for providing contraception to women at no charge after one that said religious-affiliated groups must pay for it sparked anger.

WASHINGTON - It is not like he was not warned.

As President Obama considered a decision on birth control that would turn into an unexpected political nightmare, he heard it from inside and outside the White House: He risked a fierce backlash if he required religious employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception in violation of their beliefs.

During the course of months, Roman Catholic groups and officials spoke with White House aides, sent letters, and wrote opinion columns. Vice President Joe Biden and Obama’s then-chief of staff, Bill Daley, both Catholics, and other top administration officials spoke of the need to be aware of the consequences, given how Catholic groups would view the decision and how it would affect them.


But the president heard from the other side, too. Women’s health advocates and their White House allies were adamant about the importance of making free contraception available to all women; to them, it was a matter of health and fairness. Democratic senators and senior advisers joined in.

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In the end, that is where Obama came down.

What came next evidently surprised the White House.

There were furious protests from Catholic groups, including administration allies. Republicans, and even some Democrats, were outraged.

The rising furor threatened to overwhelm the president’s message and affect his reelection hopes. Obama announced a hasty and embarrassing backtrack Friday.


“This is an issue where people of good will on both sides of the debate have been sorting through some very complicated questions to find a solution that works for everyone. With today’s announcement, we’ve done that,’’ he said. “Religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women.’’

Under the approach, employees at church-affiliated institutions such as Catholic hospitals or charities still could get free birth control coverage, but it would come directly from their health insurer. Employers would not provide or pay for it.

While keeping women’s groups satisfied and soothing some concerns from religious groups, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said the revised policy remains “unacceptable and must be corrected’’ and does not go far enough in protecting religious liberty.

So why wasn’t this approach taken in the first place?

According to a senior administration official, some approaches were considered and rejected as unworkable, but what came Friday simply had not occurred to administration officials earlier.


Back then, administration officials perhaps did not feel the sense of urgency, according to the official, who said the policy process could have been stronger. The official insisted on anonymity to discuss such deliberations.

To many, it seemed a needlessly self-inflicted wound for a president known for taking a politically cautious approach.

The White House said Obama was attuned to the concerns of religious employers, especially since he had worked with Catholic parishes early in his career in Chicago.

But to some Catholics it appeared the administration failed to understand their concerns and how the decision would resonate.

“Lord knows we tried’’ to warn the administration, said Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby.

She said the administration seemed focused on the health issues involved in putting Obama’s health care law in place. “Even though a bunch of us weighed in and said there was this other layer of concern, it’s like above where they ordinarily focus, so it just didn’t compute,’’ she said.

“I don’t think they fully understood the religious liberty side and I certainly don’t think they understood just how it would be received by Catholics,’’ said Stephen Schneck, a political scientist at the Catholic University of America.

They soon found out.

The administration announced the original policy Jan. 20.

Within hours, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops called it an affront to religious liberty and urged Catholics to tell their elected leaders to rescind it.

About a week later, priests read letters from bishops in churches across the nation, expressing their concerns.

Republicans soon pounced. GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich accused the president of an attack on religion. Congressional Republicans announced plans to overturn the policy.

The White House began hearing from generally supportive outsiders as well.

Former Indiana congressman and ambassador Tim Roemer and other moderate Democrats spoke out. Among the organizations that mobilized was Democrats for Life of America.

“It became apparent that this was not going to be something that was just going to lose steam,’’ said Kristen Day, the group’s executive director. “The ranks were actually increasing rather than decreasing.’’

Former Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, said he and Roemer offered the perspective of two lawmakers who had represented conservative Democratic districts.

Stupak said he wondered, “Why would you pick this fight in an election year? In any year, to tell you the truth.’’

“At first they were sort of cool: ‘We know what we’re doing, we’ll get it resolved,’ ’’ Stupak said of the White House. “Toward the end, in the last week, it was more like, ‘We’re working on it, we’ve heard you. We’ll get this thing behind us.’ ’’