Obama goes belly-up to angry bishops

The New York Times puts it a little differently. More politely. Too politely.

Facing vocal opposition from religious leaders and an escalating political fight, the White House sought on Tuesday to ease mounting objections to a new administration rule that would require health insurance plans — including those offered by Catholic universities and charities — to offer birth control to women free of charge.

That’s much too polite. What “religious leaders”? What are “religious leaders” anyway? And since when do they get to dictate to the elected government? Since when do unelected self-appointed so-called “religious leaders” get to tell secular representatives what to do? Since when did we give “religious leaders” a veto?

The White House, meaning the Obama administration, could just say that. It could and it should. It could just firmly say that a tiny number of men at the top of the Catholic hierarchy has no standing to boss the administration around.

Really. It should. It should point out, with cold politeness, that Catholic bishops don’t in fact represent anyone, they just act as if they do. They’re not elected, they’re not accountable, they can’t be recalled by the membership – they don’t represent anyone. They boss people, but they don’t represent them.

As the Republican presidential candidates and conservative leaders sought to frame the rule as showing President Obama’s insensitivity to religious beliefs, Mr. Obama’s aides promised to explore ways to make it more palatable to religious-affiliated institutions, perhaps by allowing some employers to make side insurance plans available that are not directly paid for by the institutions.

But that’s not their job, and it’s not something they should be doing. The government shouldn’t be trying to make laws “more palatable to religious-affiliated institutions.” That’s just an opening wedge for theocracy, so it’s a really crappy idea.

Even though Roman Catholic bishops and some Catholic institutions have sounded vocal opposition to the law, recent polls, which Obama officials were pointing to on Tuesday, show that a majority of Catholics favor the new contraceptive rule…

So what business can Obama possibly have helping their autocratic rulers take the new contraceptive rule away?

“I can’t tell you how many times we went over this,” one administration official said, speaking on grounds of anonymity. In the end, it was Mr. Obama himself who made the decision, aides say, calculating that at the end of the day, the issue of public health access outweighed the concerns of the religious institutions.

Good. Quite right. Now stick to it. When the Republicans bleat about “religious freedom,” defend the principle.


  1. says

    I truly, truly hope this shows that Republican candidates hold women in no regard.

    I know it won’t. I know that the fact religious Republicans put the opinions of old Catholic men ahead of womens’ health will go completely out of their radar, but I wish that some major Republican womens’ group says “hey! they don’t give one rat’s patootie about us!” and people listen and 50% of the voting public shifts Democratic.

    Ahh… to dream.

  2. The Lorax says

    Hey, maybe the “religious leaders” can go make a “We The People” petition. That always gets stuff done, right?

  3. says

    Let’s stop, check out from the ethical issues and legal issues, and let’s play pure politics for a moment: what possible political purpose does Obama’s behavior serve? He took a stand against the religious “leaders” who hate him and already work against him, which gives them ammo to attack him even more. Then he caves in, which doesn’t make them hate him any less, gives them momentum to try to force even more concessions, and doesn’t actually disarm them at all. It also makes him look weak and craven to his supporters and the all-important independents who actually agreed with his original stance. It is bad policy, but it is also incompetent politics.

  4. Ashley Bone says

    “But White House officials insisted the president would not back down from his decision last month that employees at institutions affiliated with religious organizations receive access to contraceptives.”

    As far as I can tell, he hasn’t caved on anything yet. Maybe he will, but criticizing Obama on this seems premature.

  5. says

    So just whose “freedom of conscience” are the bishops protecting? Certainly not the women’s — some overwhelmingly large fraction of even Catholic women use contraception. And I’ve had it explained to me that, in Catholicism, individual conscience is supposed to rule one’s behaviour (though I think that’s fenced by the proviso that one’s conscience has been “properly formed“brainwashed).

    So it must be their own consciences they’re protecting. How nice for them.

  6. Gregory says

    This puts the GOP candidates in a real pickle: do they celebrate the fact that Obama is allowing wanna-be theocrats to set America’s domestic policy, or do they shoot at him for submitting to demands of the appointed agents of a recognized foreign power with an embassy in Washington DC?

  7. jeff says

    Are you kidding? They may be a heirarchical mob to you but they are a voting block to him. No more and no less. until these guys lose their right to vote after becoming felons(don’t hold your breath)they are constituency.

  8. Ken Pidcock says

    Since when do unelected self-appointed so-called “religious leaders” get to tell secular representatives what to do?

    Um, since, like, forever? You and I can be angry with the administration for seeming to weaken on its resolve here, but it ain’t exactly unprecedented. That’s a problem with democratic republics. I’ve been rather shocked and disappointed, not with the administration but with American public opinion. There really hasn’t been the outrage against the bishops’ efforts to interfere that I would have expected. This is not a radical policy, and they shouldn’t be getting away with declaring that it is. There’s some possibility that this conciliatory tone will buy the time necessary to turn public opinion against the bishops.

  9. says

    I had a Twitter exchange with a Catholic priest, whom I’ve never met before, that insisted his dollars should not fund birth control, sterilizations, or “day after pills” because he finds all of these things immoral. I tried to explain to him that Catholic money is not magically isolated within a company and in the grand scheme of things, his money has already done so. But of course, he just wanted to change the subject and talk about abortion and “abortion pills”.

    These are the people we’re dealing with here, folks. The people that want to control women’s reproductive rights and keep everyone from having sex without the risk of conception. The guy even told me that, “… having sex for fun is not good.”

    He also insisted that Obama would cave. Sadly, it looks like he may have been correct.

  10. says

    Given our recent run-in with Slacktiverse, I should mention that Fred Clark has a fantastic post on this very issue:


    Of particular note:
    1) It’s only white evangelicals who are majority-opposed to mandatory coverage. *Catholics* FFS seem to be among the most strongly *in favour* of it. See my #6 above.
    2) Over half the states already have this requirement — all Obama is doing is taking it to the Federal level. IOW: this is nothing new; certain Christians are just using it as an excuse to get out their tattered martyrs’ robes.

  11. John says

    I’m not so sure gov’t should be dictating to any organisation, company or religious group what they should and should not fund.

    And as for abortion, I’m wondering what some women posting here think of abortions that take place simply because the foetus is a girl…something that’s becoming common in certain areas of the world.

    Abortion also leads to the possibility of designer babies.

    Do couples have a right to “build” ideal babies using spliced gametes?

    In fifty years time will half of America look like Tom Brady and Gisele Bunchen?

    There is a hitlerian downside to this whole suject.

    What started out so beguiling and “empowering” for women back in ’73 is coming back to haunt them.

  12. Tamar says

    Obama is becoming a delusional dictator, presuming he can trample on the religious liberty rights of others to push his radical agenda. Freedom of religion is in the Bill of Rights, the “right” to pay a doctor to kill your baby in your own womb and call it “privacy” is not.

    There were a lot of Catholic leaders who were promised to their faces that the Health Care plan would not trample upon the religious liberties of religious institutions such as hospitals, colleges, etc. and he not only broken that promise, he stabbed those leaders in the back with a big sharp knife.

    You fool me once, shame on your, fool me twice, shame on me. We won’t be fooled again.

  13. John Horstman says

    @16: You’re obviously trolling, but I’ll humor you. I think sex-selective abortion is a creepy practice that’s predicated on the same ideas about women not being full human beings or as valuable as human beings as men that inform opposition to women’s rights to control their own bodies/reproductive capacities. It think it’s socially destructive, and I’m also pretty sure it’s performed primarily at the behest of men dictating the behaviors of their pregnant wives in cultural contexts where women are not afforded bodily autonomy. That said, it’s every woman’s right to control her own body, and if she wants to do things with her body that I may disagree with, that’s her right (as long as her actions don’t severely negatively impact me, as with shooting me or something; and, no, an embryo is not an autonomous human being with it’s own body and the subsequent right to bodily autonomy and therefore right to life).

    As for designer people, that’s a specious conflation. Abortion has nothing to do with designer people, as abortion is the ending of a pregnancy, while designing people at the genetic level would involve causing a pregnancy. Still, it’s an interesting, if entirely off-topic, question. For starters, you’re overestimating the impact of genotype on appearance; both prenatal environment and lifelong personal environment impact appearance and behavior, even down to whether certain genes wind up being expressed or not. I could be Tom Brady’s twin and look rather different from him if I had different nutritional patterns, exposures to infectious organisms, exercise habits, sunlight exposure, average environmental temperatures, etc.

    Also, I think you’re likely vastly overestimating 1) how many people think Tom Brady and Gisele Bunchen look good and 2) how many people would want to tweak their offspring’s appearances at all. Most people want babies who look like them, not some hypothetical perfect person, and, even beyond that, who specifically share their genetic material (this is one factor contributing to the rarity of ‘interracial’ adoptions and many people’s preferences of procreation to adoption). So, no, ‘genetic purity’ along the lines of the Nazi ideal is only going to appeal to people who already buy into that idea, and it’s disturbing to me that you seem to think that this describes the vast majority of people in this country. Making genetic design possible doesn’t mean everyone, or indeed anyone, is going to do it (sort of like how making abortions accessible to women doesn’t mean that everyone will stop using contraceptives), and those of us who are aware that genetic diversity increases the adaptability of a species and therefore its survival odds are likely to actively resist most to all genetic engineering of our offspring (by the way, genetic diversity providing robustness in the face of changing environmental conditions is the primary reason people object to monoculture and GMO crops, something a disturbing of you, my fellow skeptics/rationalists, seem to fail to understand). Please try not to project your creepy views of humanity onto everyone else.

  14. John Horstman says

    @17: The rights in the Bill of Rights apply to people, not institutions. Institutions DO NOT have religious freedom, individual people do. You’re arguing from a flawed premise, and as a result, you’re just plain wrong (the Affordable Care Act can’t “trample upon the religious liberties of religious institutions” because they don’t have religious liberties to begin with).

  15. John says

    @JOhn Horseman.

    I saw a reference to a CIA fact book a couple months back, that claimed that in some parts of China ( and there are other countries, as well ) there are 120 boys for every 100 girls.

    And sex selection abortions aren’t exactly unkown in N. America either.

    If these women are being pressured to have an abortion because the foetus is a female, then who ultimately is making the “choice”

    And in the future will this deficit of females make patriarchal control over women all the more imperiative? With fewer females around to breed, won’t there be immense presures on them to obey and reproduce?

    When Roe/Wade passed in ’73, I never imagined that abortion would be used in such an anti-female way.

    As for designer babies and gene splicing? Every technology ( and I mean everyone!) ever dreamt up by a human being has at some point been used.

    If allowed ( and boy is there money in this!) the practice will soon become banal and perfect, genetically-tweaked human offspring will become a prized comodity.

    You’ll chose the colour of little Johnny’s hair and eyes the way you choose the colour of a new car.

  16. cpt banjo says

    @19: OK, let’s consider the rights of the individual employer. Must he or she be forced to subsidize something that he or she feels is morally repugnant? True, this may occur in connection with taxation, but taxation is far different than forcing someone to buy a particular kind of product from a third party.

    Let’s also consider the uncritical acceptance of the premise that the government has the right to dictate to employers what kind of health insurance they will provide their employees. The fact that many states do it doesn’t make it right.

    Incidentally, Mr. Horstman, parts of the Bill of Rights such as free speech and free press do indeed apply to institutions.

  17. Taz says

    @22 – The basic argument is whether the government should be able to require employers to provide any health care at all. I think it should. (Of course, we could avoid that argument with a single payer system.) If it should, then it should also be able to require basic coverage.

  18. says

    @23: Except in Canada we actually have a sort of hybrid system: a lot of basic health care services on the public plan, but a bunch of additional important stuff (eg: prescription meds, optometry & glasses, psych services, physiotherapy, dental) are on the patient — unless you work for an employer that provides coverage, which AFAIK is not mandatory, it’s just considered part of the compensation package used to attract talent.

  19. says

    I was raised as a Catholic….or perhaps lowered. 🙂 Whatever. But seriously: I strongly disagree with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops statement, which denounces President Barack Obama’s attempts at compromise as “needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions”. On the contrary, the Bishops comments are themselves a needless religious intrusion upon the proper and legitimate functions of government…functions that serve to promote women’s rights, equality, and fairness for ALL. No one is coming into our Churches and trying to tell parishioners what to believe. BUT If the Bishops want to start businesses that employ millions of people of varying faiths -or no “faith” at all- THEN they must play by the rules. Just because a religious group in America claims to believe something, we cannot excuse them from obeying the law in the PUBLIC arena, based on that belief. They can legally attempt to change the law, not to deny it outright. And if they want to plunge overtly into politics from the pulpit, then they should give up their tax-exempt status. Did I miss something, or when it comes to the “sanctity of life”, is every single righteous Catholic still a card carrying conscientious objector, refusing to take up arms, totally against the death penalty, and against contraception in all its forms? Oh well, hypocrisy is at the heart of politics, and politics masquerading as religion even more so. This country is an invigorating mixture of all the diversity that life has to offer, drawing its strength FROM that diversity. We need to work together to preserve, enrich, and strengthen this unique experiment – NOT to tear it down with poisonous, paralyzing, and un-Christian demonization of each other.


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