An Obama misstep?

Has President Obama made a major political miscalculation at the beginning of an election year? He has announced that his administration will force employer-provided private health-care plans to cover contraception -- even if they are conscientiously opposed to contraception.

It seemed impossible to make American politics even more bitter and polarised, but this decision has done so. Late last year Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, told a pro-choice gathering, “We are in a war.” Obama’s foes were trying to “roll back the last 50 years in progress women have made in comprehensive health care in America.”

Now his foes feel exactly the same way. “The religious truce is officially over,” writes Dr Jennifer Roback Morse in MercatorNet. “The Established Church of Secular Hedonism has declared war on the rest of us, enlisting the might of the United States government on their side.”

How should the debate be framed? Bioethicist Art Caplan says that it is simply a matter of providing access to an essential health service. He believes that it is bizarre that “Somehow making birth control affordable violates some unfathomable view of government-church-employer relations.”

Since most opponents of providing ready access to contraception are Catholics, Obama’s supporters believe that Catholic moral intransigence is the problem. In Caplan’s words, the Catholic “Bishops have declared war – on everyone else’s moral and religious views who happen to work for them.”

However, a number of Jewish and Evangelical groups, along with liberal Catholics who support abortion and contraception are framing it as a First Amendment, freedom of conscience issue. Writing in The Atlantic, Amy Sullivan says that “The question is whether the federal government should be able to require a religious institution to use its own funds to pay for something it finds morally objectionable.”

Many Catholics feel betrayed. Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University, supported Obama vigorously in the 2008 election because of his health care policy and was rewarded with an ambassadorship. He told the New York Times, ““For people attracted to him for those reasons, who applaud the very passage of the health care law, we are just sort of baffled by this. Especially when the train wreck was foreseen, and we kept saying, ‘Not this track, not this track.’ And here came the train and ran us all over.” ~ New York Times, Feb 9

UPDATE, FEB 11 -- President Obama made a concession to opponents on Friday. In a new version of the rule the cost would be shifted to health insurance companies instead of requiring religiously affiliated institutions to pay for contraceptives for their employees. This is basically the scheme which is in place in Hawaii.

The compromise – whose details are still unclear -- is unlikely to quench the controversy. For one thing, thousands of religious organizations self-insure, so it changes nothing. Nor are the insurance companies happy at having to cover the full cost of contraceptives. The White House claims that the additional cost will be offset by a decline in the costs associated with unintended pregnancies.

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