Balancing Faith and Contraceptives

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne argues against the Obama administration's laudable decision to require employer-provided health-insurance packages to cover contraception. The new rule, according to Dionne, is a "breach of faith" that the "administration should have done more to balance the competing liberty interests here." Dionne's argument is, however, extremely unconvincing.

As an alternative to the Obama administration’s decision, Dionne touts what he calls a compromise. Under Dionne’s proposal, to get coverage for contraceptives, employees would have to pay more for a separate plan to obtain it, but "religious employers that decline to cover contraceptives must provide written notification to enrollees disclosing that fact." The requirement that employers provide written notice before denying people their federally guaranteed statutory rights is, to put it mildly, not an acceptable compromise if you place significant weight on the rights of women at all. Dionne mentions a Hawaii law in reference to his contraceptive compromise, but Gretchen Borchelt of the National Women’s Law Center says that, under the Hawaii compromise, workers forced to obtain different coverage that will cover contraception cannot be charged more (rather than the "modest fee" Dionne discusses). This plan would be better than what Dionne argues for, although 1) it's hard to imagine that critics of the new regulation would be mollified, and 2) the decision would create more paperwork for no obvious reason.

Elsewhere, Dionne effectively refutes his own argument by noting, "While the Catholic Church formally opposes contraception, this teaching is widely ignored by the faithful." For the same reasons Kevin Drum cites at Mother Jones, if opposition to contraception represented a widely practiced tenet of the Roman Catholic faith, I believe that the government's interest in securing gender equity with a reasonable, generally applicable law should prevail, but I can understand seeing this as a difficult question. But forgoing contraception is not central to the faith of most practicing Roman Catholics. There’s not a genuine clash between religious freedom and pressing government interests here; rather, a small minority of religious leaders are seeking a special exemption that burdens women in the name of principles the overwhelming majority of their followers reject. The Obama administration's balancing of the interests here was perfectly appropriate and is better than either alternative Dionne proposes.