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Bishops Might Reconsider Approach in Contraceptive Coverage Fight

Bishops Might Reconsider Approach in Contraceptive Coverage Fight

March 14, 2012 — Catholic bishops could be rethinking their strategy for fighting the new federal contraceptive coverage rules, according to sources close to influential members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Reuters reports.

Although there is no indication that the bishops will abandon their fight to dismantle the rules, divisions within USCCB could spur discussions about new tactics when the group meets in Washington, D.C., this week, sources tell Reuters. The bishops currently are circulating a draft statement on religious liberty that would broaden their focus beyond contraception. Martin Nussbaum, a private attorney who has consulted with the bishops, said the statement condemns various local, state and federal policies as assaults on religious freedom.

By widening their religious freedom message, the bishops hope to rally Catholics and garner public support, according to Reuters. Thomas Reese, a Catholic priest and Georgetown University scholar, said the bishops need to ask "strategic and tactical questions" about what "political reality tells them" (Simon, Reuters, 3/14).

The new rules implement a provision in the federal health reform law (PL 111-148) that requires health plans to cover preventive services without copayments or deductibles (Women's Health Policy Report, 2/24). After an outcry from many Catholic leaders against the original religious exemption to the rules, the Obama administration modified the plan so that religiously affiliated employers will not have to offer contraceptive coverage for their employees, but their insurers will have to provide it directly to women at no additional cost.

Although the changes satisfied some religious groups, including the Catholic Health Association, the bishops continued to voice opposition to the rules. According to Reuters, the divisive rhetoric "has made some bishops uncomfortable." In an interview this week with the Religion News Service, Bishop William Lori said that divisions among Catholics have allowed the administration to address concerns with various factions instead of crafting a solution that appeases everyone in the church.

The administration has said it will not make additional changes to the exemption. An administration official said the White House would incorporate input from the bishops on how to accommodate Catholic institutions that self-insure. However, the official noted that the underlying goal of the rules would not change. "Women will still have access to preventive care that includes contraceptive services, ... no matter where they work," the official said (Reuters, 3/14).

Contraceptive Coverage Timing Could Differ for Students, Professors

The one-year extension for religiously affiliated employers to comply with the contraceptive coverage rule raises questions about whether students and professors at Catholic universities and other religious institutions will have to wait until August 2013 for the provision to take effect, Kaiser Health News' "Capsules" reports.

Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center said the delay applies to religiously affiliated employers and thus would only affect employees of religious academic institutions. Because students are not employees and student health plans are typically individual policies that they purchase on their own, "[w]e don't believe the one-year accommodation should apply," Greenberger said (Andrews, "Capsules," Kaiser Health News, 3/13).

Fluke Writes That Efforts To Silence Women on Contraception Will Fail

In a CNN opinion piece, Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke writes that she has been speaking out "to send a message that that contraception is basic health care" because she "believe[s] that stories of how real women are affected are the most powerful argument for access to affordable, quality reproductive health care services." She notes that "despite the misinformation being spread, the regulation under discussion has absolutely nothing to do with government funding: It is all about the insurance policies provided by private employers and universities that are financed by individual workers, students and their families -- not taxpayers."

Although "opponents of reproductive health access demonized and smeared me and others on the public airwaves," their efforts to silence supporters of contraceptive coverage have "clearly failed," Fluke writes, adding, "Attacking me and women who use contraception by calling us prostitutes and worse cannot silence us" (Fluke, CNN, 3/13).