Don’t backpedal on contraception

In August, the Obama administration announced some very good news: thanks to the Affordable Care Act, and following the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, contraception would be covered by insurance plans as preventive care.

The health care reform law already requires insurers to cover “preventive health services” for free, but the announcement was part of a process that defines what those services will include. According to Health and Human Services, insurers would be required to cover not only contraception, but also HPV testing; breastfeeding support, supplies, and counseling; and domestic violence screening and counseling.

That’s the good news. The bad news is, Roman Catholic bishops and other church leaders are lobbying hard against the preventive care, and there’s growing talk they may get an exemption. The New York Times notes in an editorial today that the administration is weighing “an expansive exemption that would cover employees of hospitals, universities, charitable organizations and other entities that are associated with religious organizations but serve the general public and benefit from public money.”

President Obama should stand firm against the church’s overreaching. Allowing a broad exemption for health plans sponsored by employers that object to contraceptives coverage would amount to imposing church doctrine on millions of women who may differ with the church’s stand on birth control and who may not be Catholic. It would deny them coverage for a critical need.

The new rules already contain an exemption for churches and other houses of worship, similar to provisions upheld by the highest courts in California and New York. Moreover, nothing in the rules requires religious objectors to use contraceptives or stands in the way of advocating against their use. By now, some 28 states require employer-provided insurance plans to cover contraception, so the federal policy is hardly a radical departure. […]

The contraceptives mandate is one of the administration’s proud achievements. Weakening it should not even be on President Obama’s radar screen.

The rumors this week have been discouraging about the White House’s plans, though it appears a formal decision has not yet been made. The president may need some added encouragement to do the right thing, and in this case, that means rejecting the demands of the bishops.

E.J. Dionne Jr. had a column on this earlier in the week, and the West Wing should pay careful attention to the conclusion: “If the administration is pressured into refusing any accommodation on the contraception rules, the people who will be undercut most are progressive Catholics who went out on a limb to support the health-care law and those bishops holding the line against the Catholic right by standing up for the church’s commitment to social justice. This will only strengthen the most conservative forces inside the Catholic Church. That can’t be what advocates of reproductive rights really want.”