Obama’s Contraception Problem

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Maybe should have split that baby Photo: Mark Wilson/2011 Getty Images

Should religious organizations that offer health insurance to their employees have to cover contraception? The Obama administration decided the answer is, more or less, yes. There’s an exception for religious organizations that cover members of their own faith. The New York Times editorial page applauds the decision. But Times columnist Ross Douthat notes that this creates a perverse situation:

The new health care law requires that all employer-provided insurance plans cover contraception, sterilization and the morning-after (or week-after) pill known as ella, which can work as an abortifacient. A number of religious groups, led by the American Catholic bishops, had requested an exemption for plans purchased by their institutions. Instead, the White House has settled on an exemption that only covers religious institutions that primarily serve members of their own faith. A parish would be exempt from the mandate, in other words, but a Catholic hospital would not.

Ponder that for a moment. In effect, the Department of Health and Human Services is telling religious groups that if they don’t want to pay for practices they consider immoral, they should stick to serving their own co-religionists rather than the wider public. Sectarian self-segregation is O.K., but good Samaritanism is not. The rule suggests a preposterous scenario in which a Catholic hospital avoids paying for sterilizations and the morning-after pill by closing its doors to atheists and Muslims, and hanging out a sign saying “no Protestants need apply.”

That does sound pretty ridiculous. E.J. Dionne, writing in the Washington Post, argues that the administration has screwed over its liberal Catholic supporters, which seems incontrovertible.

I think one relevant point here is that, by the standard of medical care, contraception is not terribly expensive. It’s not the sort of cost you need to insure against. If all medical care cost what contraception costs, there would be no such thing as “health insurance.” We would all just pay for it out of pocket.

Now, to be clear, I think the Church’s prohibition on contraception is absurd, and I’d like contraception to be as easily available as possible. But the importance of contraception to health insurance is relevant because the broader question is sorting out the line between a religious organization’s right to its own theology and the rights of nonbelievers, and the burden of sacrifice here seems out of whack.