Birth Control Fix

Obama Moves to Clean Up Mandated Birth Control Mess

The new contraception compromise is a clear sign he learned his lesson last year, says Michelle Cottle.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty

Maybe now Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke can bury the hatchet.

On Friday, the Obama administration put forth its proposed compromise for cleaning up the mandated birth control pile of poo it blundered into early last year.

The Affordable Care Act requires health insurers to cover the cost of contraception at no charge to women. The act includes exemptions for religious organizations, like churches, that oppose subsidizing birth control on moral grounds. But the exemption did not extend to religiously affiliated employers like hospitals or universities, such as Fluke’s law school alma mater, Georgetown. Leaders of the Catholic Church appealed to the White House to allow for broader exemptions. In January 2012, the administration officially smacked down the request, touching off a fierce squabble over religious freedom and women’s rights that caught the White House off guard and sent Obama advisers scrambling to repair the damage.

By mid-February, the White House was offering up a proposal by which insurers, rather than employees or employers, would pick up the full tab for contraception. This placated some religious groups, but the devilish details, including how insurers would recoup those costs, kept the fight rolling. It was in late February that Fluke, speaking to House Dems on behalf of contraceptive coverage, incurred the wrath of Rush, who, with characteristic decency and sobriety, branded her a “slut” and a “prostitute.”

And so the debate raged on.

In many ways, Rush did Obama a favor. The attacks on Fluke were so personal and grotesque and, well, stupid, that they overshadowed the White House’s original fumbling of this issue. (And make no mistake: a Democratic POTUS getting himself labeled as waging a war against religious freedoms during an election year is a pretty big fumble.)

Happily, the craziness of the campaign drew the spotlight away from the issue for the last part of the year, giving everyone time to cool down. Now, the administration is back with a tinker to its original compromise that holds considerable promise for placating (almost) everyone: in cases where religious employers object to birth control, the insurance companies that handle their health benefits will automatically arrange for separate, free, contraception-only policies, the costs of which will be offset by giving the insurers a break on the fees they are charged to participate in the insurance exchanges being set up under the ACA. (That is, of course, the boiled-down explanation of how it works. There is much fine-tuning yet to come.)

Women get access to birth control. Religious groups don’t have to pay for it, or even directly arrange for it. Insurers get a cost offset. Everybody wins! More or less.

That is not to suggest that everyone will be happy. (Are they ever?) And the 44 lawsuits already filed in protest of this particular mandate—then put on hold until the administration clarified its position—will likely start rolling again. Already, the conservative Susan B. Anthony List PAC is grousing about the White House’s assault on “religious and moral freedom.”

But this proposal makes clear that the White House learned its lesson and is trying to show respect for the concerns of religious conservatives. This, in turn, may help separate hard-core opponents of contraceptive coverage from those who simply disliked the my-way-or-the-highway bossiness of the administration’s original mandate. At the very least, the compromise will defang charges from ranters like Rush that Obama is some high-handed, amoral elitist determined to ram his views down the throats of decent God-fearing Americans.

In this political climate, that may be the best the president can hope for.