Obama Should Have Listened to Biden on the Birth-Control Mandate

What Women Really Think
March 2 2012 11:27 AM

Obama Should Have Listened to Biden on the Birth-Control Mandate

Amanda and Meghan, thank you for weighing in on the birth control permission slip and the (exhausting) birth-control debate.  First, I want to make abundantly and redundantly clear that I’m generally in favor of most government efforts to make birth control affordable and readily available—for all the reasons that you cite, Amanda. Some of us pro-life are at least pragmatic: I greatly prefer reduced abortion rates to personhood statutes and other extreme viewpoints.

But Amanda, I disagree with your idea that it’s somehow nefarious for employers to have control over your benefits. If there were some universal benefits package that applied to everyone, that might be the case. But as it is, bankers have different benefits than journalists, teachers have different benefits than fast-food workers, and so on. Some benefits packages cover rehab (really! I’ve seen this!) and fertility treatments and have low or no deductibles. Some packages have high deductibles and cover less. That’s not going to change, even when Obamacare is fully implemented. Employers offer what they can afford to offer, or what they feel is important to offer.  (Again, I love birth control. I’ve used it for more than half my life. Employers who cover it should be applauded. Just saying.)

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As for the contraception debate and religious freedom, I stated yesterday that I think the Catholic Church is behind the times on birth control. But it’s their policy, and in this country we have a proud tradition of defending the rights of even people and institutions with whom we disagree. I’ve been criticized for not acknowledging Employment Division v. Smith, wherein the Supreme Court ruled that Oregon could prohibit peyote use under its drug laws despite claims that the peyote use was protected under the free exercise clause. This set a precedent that the Constitution did not require freedom-of-religion exemptions to laws. But neither does it prevent the government from allowing freedom-of-religion exemptions. Two points here: I did not realize that court precedent served to shut down debate on a topic. (This is actually useful information! The next time my liberal friends start yammering about the evils of corporate personhood, I can just shout “CITIZENS UNITED,” and we can start talking about something else.) A more serious point:  Just because there is no requirement to offer a free-exercise exemption to a mandate does not mean that it was a good idea for Obama to include the Catholic Church in his birth-control provision. If he really thought the Catholic bishops were going to line up behind him on the birth control mandate because once upon a time the Supreme Court ruled that Oregon could outlaw peyote use, he was either hopelessly naive or—and I’m starting to lean toward this position—making a political calculation that he could drive conservatives crazy and prompt them to respond with, say, the Blunt Amendment, even though polls favor Obama on birth control (because who doesn’t love free stuff?).

Meghan, I understand that the birth control bill has many medical benefits and that in many respects it’s just a hormone. I get angry about Catholic universities that tell college students they can get the pill for medical reasons and then refuse to do so. But I think this is something that could possibly have been figured out in regards to the birth control mandate and the Catholic Church if only the Obama administration had worked on a compromise BEFORE announcing the mandate. Had they gone to representatives of the church and said, “Hey, we know this could cause problems and we want to do what’s best for everyone,” and still the Catholic Church had refused even reasonable accommodations for women who need the pill for medical reasons, Obama would have had the high ground.

I don’t often find myself saying this, but Obama should have listened to Joe Biden: “I was the one that was tasked to meet with the National Conference of Bishops, and others and Cardinal Dolan, to talk about this,” Biden said in an appearance at Iowa State, conceding that the administration “screwed up” the first time. “The fact of the matter is, the ultimate resolution to this problem is where it should have been in the first place.”

Rachael Larimore is a Slate senior editor.

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