In a meaningful act of compromise last Friday, the Obama administration expanded the number of religiously-affiliated organisations exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to provide free contraceptive coverage to female employees. Originally the mandate only exempted houses of worship from the act’s requirement for the provision of contraceptive coverage in employee health plans.
Heavily criticized by religious groups as infringing upon their religious liberty, the mandate now extends to religiously-affiliated hospitals and schools—Georgetown included—which will no longer be required to provide contraceptive services to their female employees.
Of course, employees of these organizations will still have access to stand-alone contraception directly through health insurance companies. Alternatively, religiously-affiliated organisations that choose to self-insure can instruct a third party to provide coverage for employees through separate individual insurance policies.
About 99 percent of American women over the age of consent have used some form of birth control at least once in their lives, even though adequate preventive care was unaffordable for many women prior to the act’s contraceptive mandate. The mandate is thus crucial to women’s health in this country, having granted an estimated 47 million women access to free contraception and other preventive health services since it went into effect last August.
Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church, which officially opposes the use of contraception, and other religious institutions were quick to take up arms against the mandate and its frontwoman, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. They insisted that the mandate infringed upon their First Amendment rights to behave according to their individual religious beliefs, including their refusal to provide coverage for birth control. Nearly 50 lawsuits have been brought against the administration since August 2012.
By providing a third-party option, Sebelius straddles the line between two fundamental liberties afforded by our Constitution. While preserving the religious liberty of the newly-exempt organizations, she ensures females in the workplace their individual right to choose. In the Secretary’s own words: “The administration is taking a step in providing women across the nation with coverage of recommended preventive care at no cost, while respecting religious concerns.”
We congratulate the secretary for reaching a smart, suitable compromise in what formerly seemed an uphill battle, as well as for her unwavering support for the current administration’s commitment to female health. Now that the Obama administration has pushed as far as it can on this issue, it is time for those who oppose the mandate to respond appropriately. The National Association of Evangelicals has rejected the announcement, but U.S. Catholic leaders have yet to respond. To save face, its response should be one of gratitude. If its objection to the old mandate was truly about freedom, and not about a desire to control female reproductive rights, the Church should acknowledge this as a veritable win for religious liberty.