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Accommodation, Contraception, and Religious Freedom

February 13th, 2012 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Let's pick up where we left off last week, shall we?

On Friday, President Obama addressed the nation and announced a compromise on the question of mandatory contraception.  In short, women who work at religious institutions will still be able to get free contraception, but their employers won't have to pay for it.  That will be pawned off to the insurance company instead.

The details are still hazy, which is precisely where we're often reminded the devil likes to hide.   As Sarah Kliff points out, the simple fact that contraception might be "revenue neutral" for an insurance company doesn't mean it will be free.

The conservative concern at this point is twofold:  on the one hand, costs will get transferred back to religious employers, making this "accommodation" a cheap parlour trick that changes nothing.  On the other hand, the insurance policy that such organizations purchase will still cover contraception, and the pure fact that someone else is paying for them doesn't mitigate the objection that the organization still has to purchase coverage that it objects to.

This latter view was put forward by a whole host of conservative scholars, including a few folks who I view as intellectual heroes and others I consider friends:

It is no answer to respond that the religious employers are not “paying” for this aspect of the insurance coverage. For one thing, it is unrealistic to suggest that insurance companies will not pass the costs of these additional services on to the purchasers. More importantly, abortion drugs, sterilizations, and contraceptives are a necessary feature of the policy purchased by the religious institution or believing individual. They will only be made available to those who are insured under such policy, by virtue of the terms of the policy.

It is morally obtuse for the administration to suggest (as it does) that this is a meaningful accommodation of religious liberty because the insurance company will be the one to inform the employee that she is entitled to the embryo-destroying “five day after pill” pursuant to the insurance contract purchased by the religious employer. It does not matter who explains the terms of the policy purchased by the religiously affiliated or observant employer. What matters is what services the policy covers.


I'll admit I find the idea that insurance companies will hand out contraception and other abortaficients because they happen to be revenue neutral rather far-fetched.

I'm trying to find a silver lining in all this, but my cynical side thinks that the haziness of the modification is simply by design.  Do enough magic tricks and hope that everyone simmers down long enough for the next crises to take over and cause us all to forget this one.  And that may just happen (though the strong reaction by Robby George et al. suggests that it will not).

But is there something that I'm missing from the above?  Is there some reason to think that this is actually a genuinely substantive change in policy?


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.