Their bluff has been called, will the bishops know when to fold ’em?

Well, I didn’t expect this.

The U.S. Catholic bishops have spent the week denying that they’re simply trying to prohibit health insurance from covering contraception. It’s not about that, they insisted, but about religious liberty.

Today, President Barack Obama called their bluff, carving out an “accomodation” that removes any grounds for a complaint about “freedom conscience” or “religious liberty,” while firmly insisting that the law is still the law, and that the law rightly prohibits discrimination against women in preventive health insurance.

Sr. Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, says her group “is very pleased with today’s White House resolution” and insists that it “protects religious liberty and conscience rights.”

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, praised the White House for “ensuring all women will have access to birth control coverage, with no costly co-pays, no additional hurdles, and no matter where they work.”

I’ll turn to Jodi Jacobson for a summary of the change, since following this news is what she does. “White House Amends Birth Control Mandate: Contraceptive Coverage to be Offered Directly from Insurers,” Jacobson writes:

Today, the White House did the right thing for women, public health and human rights. Despite deep concerns, including my own, based on what transpired in the past under health reform, the White House has decided on a plan to address the birth control mandate that will enable women to get contraceptive coverage directly through their insurance plans without having to buy a rider or a second plan, and without having to negotiate with or through religious entities or administrations that are hostile to primary reproductive health care, including but not limited to contraception.

Under this plan, every insurance company will be obligated to provide contraceptive coverage. Administration officials stated that a woman’s insurance company “will be required to reach out directly and offer her contraceptive care free of charge. The religious institutions will not have to pay for it.”

Moreover, women will not have to opt in or out; contraceptive care will be part of the basic package of benefits offered to everyone. Contraceptive care will simply be “part of the bundle of services that all insurance companies are required to offer,” said a White House official.

“We are actually more comfortable having the insurance industry offer and market this to women than religious institutions,” said the White House official because they “understand how contraception works” to prevent unintended pregnancy and reduce health care costs. “This makes sense financially.”

The way it works is this: Insurers will create policy not including contraceptive coverage in the contract for religious organizations that object. Second, the same insurance company must simultaneously offer contraceptive coverage to all employees, and can not charge an additional premium. This provides free contraceptive coverage to women. The reason this works for insurance companies is because offering contraception is cost-neutral and cost-effective; companies realize the tremendous cost benefits of spacing pregnancies, and limiting unintended pregnancies, planned pregnancies and health benefits of contraception.

White House officials, speaking on background, said that the accommodation — which they stress is not a compromise — fulfills two principals. One is that all women will have access to the health care they need no matter where they work; their access to contraceptive services is guaranteed. “No longer will they have to struggle to pay for it,” said the White House official. At the same time, “we are able to respect the beliefs of religious institutions.” These are two principals, the official said, “that the White House holds dear.”

The rule will be applied to all but the original institutions that were exempted — those for which religious inculcation is their primary purpose — and will not be expanded to include other entities such as hospitals, clinics, or social service organizations.

This is a bit tricky since, as Ezra Klein notes, “there’s a difference between ‘revenue neutral’ and ‘free.’” That distinction leads Kevin Drum to say that “Angels Are Now Waltzing on the Edge of a Healthcare Plan.”

But still, the bottom line is this: Obama gave the bishops everything they claimed they wanted, but not what they really wanted. He gave them everything they asked for, but not the thing they adamantly denied they were seeking. The bishops’ bluff has been called.

Scott Lemieux thinks that’s pretty nifty. “Checkmate,” he writes. BooMan is blunter, saying this accommodation gives the bishops “About what they deserve.”

After all the week’s “Pills ‘n Thrills and Bellyaches,” TBogg sums it up in three words: “Who wins? Women.” He concludes:

It would be in the Catholic bishops’ best interests to claim victory and go home since this takes them out out of the equation, allowing them to do what they do best: pretending that they don’t know that their flock is already telling the Vatican to pound sand by using birth control. They’re not going to like it, but absent total surrender from the White House, they’ve lost whatever high ground they believed they had since the Obama administration has created a compelling illusion of having compromised. Besides, for the bishops, their own house is on fire again and they may want to see to that.

Charlie Pierce is less optimistic, noting that:

[Obama] has proposed a reasonable alternative: the institutions don’t have to provide contraception, but the insurance companies will be required to offer it with no co-pays. In other words, priests don’t kill sperm, insurance companies do.

The problem … is that he has proposed a reasonable alternative to two of the most unreasonable institutions on the planet — the insurance companies and the Roman Catholic Church. … The president has left himself dependent on the avaricious to bail him out against the arrogant. This is not a comfortable place to be.

Oh, and in case you skimmed past the link embedded in that excerpt from TBogg, it leads to this: “8,000 instances of abuse alleged in Archdiocese [of Milwaukee] bankruptcy hearing.”

Say what you will about Joe Paterno, but at least he didn’t spend his last few miserable weeks proclaiming himself to be the standard-bearer for morality or pretending that he was being unfairly persecuted.


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  • The bishops _were_ bluffing: they were claiming that it was about Teh Moneyz — a thing which they might give them a scant legitimate legal basis for their complaint, since being legally compelled to spend money on something they morally object to could be framed as a violation of the establishment clause.

    By “calling their bluff”, Obama has put them in the position of having to either fold, or to admit that it was never about the money, but about forcing their beliefs on people — which would put them unambiguously on the wrong side of freedom of religion.

    Not that I think it’ll work either, since the electorate is uncannily willing to say that freedom of religion only applies when it protects *their* religion.

    Besides, the whole contraceptive thing is really being drummed up by the conservatives because as it becomes increasingly inevitable that Romney will be the closest thing to palatable they can find in a candidate, they need some way to keep the evangelicals from staying home. They’re literally courting people who will say “It’s not worth going out to vote for a mormon. But I guess if you throw in bans on birth control…”

    Incidentally, Santorum has promised that as president, he will overturn any supreme court decision allowing same-sex marriage. Since he’s just promised to violate the constitution, can we have police standing by to arrest him for treason when he takes the oath of office?

  • Matri

    She then tried to make a claim that insurance companies are evil
    bastards (which they kinda are), and that the premiums will be so high,
    that they will ruin the lives of the poor.

    Did you ask her if she opposes socialized medicine?

  • Socialism is evil and will destroy families, didn’t you know?  /sarcasm

    I think she doesn’t understand what it is.  For what she seems to describe in her angry rants against Obama is socialized medicine, but if someone points that out, she vehemently denies it.  

    In fact, I know a lot of people who seem to want socialized medicine and health care, but then when actually faced with the idea of it becoming a reality, they freak and call it evil, and how it will destroy America.  Why is this?

  • I’m kinda hoping the Bishops will go nuts and show how it was about forcing their beliefs on everyone else.  Making their intent clear and public would be nice, instead of them trying to hide behind the farce of “religious liberty.”

    Though I suppose it would be too much to hope that it would shame them (and stop people from listening to them) if they were exposed as seeking to destroy religious liberty for other religions?

    “Since he’s just promised to violate the constitution, can we have police
    standing by to arrest him for treason when he takes the oath of office?”

    YES. This would be awesome.  However, I hope he never takes oath of office.  I find the man despicable in every sense of the word.

  • Michael Ikeda

    establishment clause

    Not so much the establishment clause as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

    (The legal expert that talkingpointsmemo consulted here seems to think that the new regulation is less vulnerable to challenge under the RFRA.)

  • I expect it’s a special case of “People are dumb”.  People want the thing that socialized medicine actually *is*, but are convinced that the *words* “socialized medicine” refer to something utterly different. Something that involves “death panels’ and “not being able to choose your own doctor” and “waiting in lines” and “rationing”.

    It’s a lot like the way people will say “I’m not a feminist, I just believe that women are full people and deserve total equality.” — they actually *are* feminists, but they’ve been convinced that the word actually describes some kind of radical man-hating, family-destroying lesbian agenda.

  • Rikalous


    Incidentally, Santorum has promised that as president, he will overturn
    any supreme court decision allowing same-sex marriage. Since he’s just
    promised to violate the constitution, can we have police standing by to
    arrest him for treason when he takes the oath of office?

    Not when he takes the oath of office, no. We have more stringent standards for proof of wrongdoing than “A politician made a campaign promise to do wrong.”

  • Anonymous

    While I’m still really put out by the fact that contraception somehow became controversial (I mean, really? In the dawn of the 21st century? How did we end up here?), I’m trying to be glass half-full about it.  Of course this “accommodation” won’t satisfy the bishops, but maybe it will satisfy the MSM.  It has been maddening in the past few days to read the various pundits who were pearl-clutching about Catholics being forced to violate their “creed”.  You could write letter after letter to the editor of the paper and point out that CHURCHES WERE EXEMPT and this law applied to church AFFILIATES  that did secular work and hired people of all faith backgrounds and that this policy had been in place for years in several states but it just didn’t seem to get any traction with the pundits and the talking heads.
    One problem with the MSM and a lot of the electorate right now is that they have this notion that COMPROMISE IS ALWAYS GOOD regardless of the subject.  If Obama had told the bishops to go pound sand, no matter how sound his reasons were for doing so,  I know the headline would have said “OBAMA REFUSES TO COMPRMISE” and then the conventional wisdom would have people saying “Obama refused to compromise? Oh noes! Is very bad!”.  Now that this pointless “accommodation”  has been proffered, I hope against hope that the MSM will declare “THE BISHOPS REFUSE TO COMPROMISE”  and finally put an end to all the pearl-clutching. 

  • The Lodger

    Ursula L,

    Thanks. Your comment made the same point mine would have, and was also more knowledgeable (and on time!)

    I’m humbled.

  • Tricksterson

    Thing is their beliefs are enough in line with the other religious loons that they won’t mind the bishops beliefs being forced on others.  There’ll be opportunities to stab the papists in the back after the secular heathen has been dealt with.

  • Tricksterson

    This is a disturbing trend because Gingrich lready said the same thing.