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?


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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. It seems pretty simple:
    Under the original proposal the organization is required to provide insurance that includes coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization.
    Under the compromise the organization is required to provide insurance that includes coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization.

    I hope this clarifies the difference between the two.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson February 13, 2012 at 10:20 am

      Heh. I really would like to believe that there’s more to it than that.




  2. Christopher Benson February 13, 2012 at 11:42 am


    You ask: Is there some reason to think that this is actually a genuinely substantive change in policy?”

    Quick answer: No. The so-called “accommodation” or “compromise” by the Obama administration is nothing more than what Rep. Paul Ryan calls “an accounting gimmick” and “a fig leaf.”

    Thanks for referencing the Univ. of Notre Dame Law School letter. I had not seen that yet.


  3. It has been reported today that even as the so-called “accommodation” was being announced, the original rule requiring direct coverage of these things by employers was being approved in the Federal Register, and is today the law. The Obama administration has made a promise to amend that rule as per the announced compromise on Friday, but at present the rules originally announced are the rules in effect.

    A writer at Patheos said that the original rule is like requiring a Jewish deli to serve bacon, whereas the compromise is like requiring the Jewish deli to hire a gentile who will park a bacon cart in the restaurant and serve bacon. A distinction without a difference.


  4. Matthew Lee Anderson February 13, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    Douthat is worth reading on all this as well:

    “And by winning back the Catholics who wanted to be won back, the White House may have successfully defused the immediate crisis that its own ineptness created. Public opinion is highly malleable on this issue, and by dividing his critics, the president has made it more likely that this will be perceived as a left-right struggle on an issue (contraception) where social liberals have the public on its side, rather than a religious liberty issue that had centrist media types tut-tutting and swing-state Democrats jumping ship. (Compare this Kirsten Powers column on the supposed compromise to her take on the mandate last week, for instance, to get a sense of how the media conversation will probably shift.)

    So the president has probably won today’s political battle. The question now is whether the Catholic bishops in particular, and religious conservatives in general, have a strategy for the longer war.”

    Here: http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/13/divide-and-conquer/


  5. I think that’s absolutely right. The “accommodation” has given cover for the Catholic Left to move back into the White House in good conscience. There will be no interest in the media to continue to cover this controversy, but since it really is a religious freedom issue there may yet be hope of legislative or judicial push back that will block its implementation and sharpen the debate around the first amendment principles that are at stake. Thanks for the Douthat link.


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