Sisterhood Blog

Was Contraception Move a Master Stroke?

By Sarah Seltzer

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Like many other feminist political junkies this morning, my emotions were sent back and forth.

At first I was dismayed by the announcement that President Obama had agreed to a compromise (or was it an “accommodation”) on his smart policy that would have required employers, even most religiously affiliated ones, to consent to employee insurance plans that included free contraception.The Catholic Church has been raising a huge fuss about this — and the media has largely taken its side — and so the fear was this would be a full capitulation.

But when the plan was revealed, many began to realize that the “accommodation” might have in fact been a master stroke by the administration, at least politically speaking. The new rule will allow women at these institutions that object to contraception coverage to get that coverage, free of charge, directly from insurance companies.

Jodi Jacobson broke it down moments after the announcement:

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.

At a brief press conference to explain this choice, President Obama sounded an economic populist message when he noted that women everywhere, regardless of their employers’ religious beliefs, will “no longer have to pay hundreds of dollars of a year” on contraception, money that could go “towards paying the rent or buying groceries.”

Indeed, the move is widely seen as a shrewd one, in that it shifts the conversation back from religion to women and makes the administration’s critics look like contraception haters, not liberty defenders. Greg Sargent writes:

If Team Obama has its way, the argument will now be about whether all women should have access to contraception, and not about whether these institutions are having their religious freedom impinged upon.

The religious freedom argument was always a distracting ploy. In fact, the bishops object to any employers being mandated to offer insurance that includes birth control simply because they hate the stuff. This move by the President reveals where they stand. As a result of this decision, my inbox this afternoon flooded with press releases of praise for the President and his decision — all from feminist organizations. The facts on the ground for women, they note, don’t change from the original plan. Women’s health is finally being taken seriously.

Still, as others have noted, there are some potential pitfalls here. Republicans in Congress will try to attack this mandate. We are also now segregating contraception just as we do for abortion, perhaps stigmatizing women’s health further. And even as the new rule gets implemented, putting such a personal matter in the hands of insurance companies, who care more about bottom lines than they care about, well, care, carries a risk. The question of privacy and discretion for those people who will want that direct contraceptive coverage (such as minors) from insurers looms, as does whether those individuals, like those in the transgender community, who may not “need” contraception will be able to obtain it.

Terry O’Neill of NOW told Sargent that the real test for this decision will be the girl-walks-into-a-pharmacy test. How easy will it be for a young woman, let’s say, or a single mom who goes to a Catholic (or Jewish) university or works at a Catholic hospital, to get the contraception coverage, get the prescription, walk up to that counter and get those pills, or patches, or rings, or whatever she needs? We will all have to keep a sharp eye on the forthcoming experience of our sisters, daughters and friends, our students and employees alike, to see whether this brilliant politicking is also brilliant policy.


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