Andrew Rosenthal Is Not a Politician

February 15, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

Obama Contraception

By Marie Burns:

Sometimes I wonder if Andrew Rosenthal is paying attention. Rosenthal is the editor of the editorial section of the New York Times. He is more often than not on the sensible side of issues. He has written a number of posts in support of a woman’s right to equal health insurance protection, so I think he’s on the correct side of that issue, too. Yet yesterday afternoon, he posted this:

Sometimes I wonder if the White House is paying attention…. Last week, the Catholic Church’s lobbying operation and a bunch of Republicans sent the White House a clear signal: They planned to turn the hubbub over contraceptives into something much bigger. It would be an all-out assault on health care reform, a campaign wedge issue, a chance to expand religious influence, and part of the attack on women’s right to control their bodies.

And, yet, Mr. Obama backed down. Instead of sticking by his initial plan mandating that all religiously affiliated organizations provide insurance coverage for birth control, he carved out a special accommodation for the Catholic Church. He announced on Friday that ‘if a woman’s employer is a charity or a hospital that has a religious objection to providing contraceptive services as part of their health plan, the insurance company – not the hospital, not the charity – will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge.’ This was a mistake, for a lot of reasons, including that it left Mr. Obama open to exactly the sort of attack that the Republicans immediately waged.

As soon as Mr. Obama extended the olive branch, the Republicans introduced legislation that would strip coverage of birth control out of the health care reform law entirely. House Speaker John Boehner signed onto the idea right away, and Mr. McConnell said on Sunday that he would support a measure that would permit any group with a moral objection to birth control to refuse to pay for insurance that covers it. That’s any group, not just religiously affiliated hospitals and universities….

Whether the White House thought it was placating friendly religious groups who felt that the president had gone too far, or hostile religious groups who think he’s wrong on just about everything, it surrendered the high ground on this issue when it agreed that the birth control exemption should extend beyond church walls.

Let’s think about that. Rosenthal notes in the post that “… 99 percent of all American women rely on birth control at some point in their reproductive lives.” So whether or not they “favor” contraceptive insurance coverage for women, at least half of Americans have used, or will use, contraceptive protection. And of course that half of Americans have partners, a large percentage of whom either use contraceptive methods themselves or are aware their female partners are using them. So that’s pretty close to every heterosexual couple and would include, I’d wager, the majority of gay men, too. Where there is a possibility of pregnancy or contracting sexually transmitted diseases, the vast majority of Americans avail themselves of contraceptives.

The Public Religion Research Institute reported that their polling this month (that is, after the administration imposed their original ruling on contraceptive coverage) found that “55% of Americans agree that ‘employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost.’” But there’s more. Fifty-eight percent of Roman Catholics (52 percent of Roman Catholic voters) also say health insurance policies should cover birth control. While only 36 percent of Republicans agree, a full 73 percent of Democrats told pollsters that health insurance should cover contraception.

Nearly half (49%) of Americans say that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception or birth control at no cost. Forty-six percent say they should not have to provide this type of coverage…. A majority of Catholics (52%) [only 45 percent of Catholic voters] say that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to provide coverage that includes contraception.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s “concession” garnered the support of the Catholic Hospital Association and Catholics United, both of which had opposed the original ruling. Planned Parenthood is on board, too. As Laurie Goodstein reports in today’s New York Times, “The near-unified front led by the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops to oppose a mandate for employers to cover birth control has now crumbled amid the compromise plan that the Obama administration offered last week to accommodate religious institutions.”

Along come Republicans, self-righteously beating a drum the majority of Americans don’t march to. It is true that a majority of their own constituency claims to oppose contraceptive coverage, so the GOP leadership was not completely crazy when they decided to start this bandwagon rolling. Discriminating against women seems to be really popular among Republicans, even among Republican women. House Speaker John Boehner said on the House floor, “The House will approach this matter fairly and deliberately through regular order and appropriate legislative channels.” That is, he means to draw this issue out. He thinks it’s a winner. Boehner, a Roman Catholic, comes from a family of 12 children. He and his wife have two children of their own. My guess: Mr. and Mrs. Roman C. Boehner have used birth control. (In 1998, Boehner voted to include contraceptive coverage in the government’s insurance plan.”)

Rosenthal asserts that “Republicans introduced legislation that would strip coverage of birth control out of the health care reform law entirely.” I have not been able to find any reference to that bill, but if I do, I’ll update this column. I do know this: future President Rick Santorum opposes all contraceptive coverage, which is hardly a surprise. He’s against the sex act itself, if not entered into by a husband and wife for the purpose of procreation. And future President Mitt Romney called the original Health and Human Services ruling “an assault on religion,” even though as governor Romney signed a similar Massachusetts state bill into law. Meanwhile, U.S. senators have proposed draconian legislation to curb contraceptive coverage – or any coverage at all. Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have introduced a bill that would allow any employer – whether or not a religious organization – to deny contraceptive coverage if it runs counter to their religious or moral beliefs. Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Missouri) bill is worse: it would allow employers to deny coverage for any medical service that violated their beliefs. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has signed on to the Blunt bill. That is, if your employer thinks it’s immoral for you to have a cancerous mole removed or to get well-patient checkups, s/he can deny you coverage. Under the Blunt bill, you could end up with essentially no coverage because maybe your employer would develop a sudden conscientious objection to medicine. Realistically, of course, employers will not likely go that far. But I think most Americans will figure out this much: “I don’t want my employer messing with my medical care.” Do you want your employer deciding what kind of health care is “moral”?

Some Americans have already figured out that contraceptive coverage saves money. That’s why, in fact, in his “cave” to the Roman Catholic Church President Obama mandated that, if the employer was a religious group who expressed a conscientious objection to birth control, their insurance carriers would have to cover contraception for free. As New York Timescolumnist Nicholas Kristof pointed out in his column this past Sunday,

Every dollar that the United States government spends on family planning reduces Medicaid expenditures by $3.74…. Likewise, the National Business Group on Health estimated that it costs employers at least an extra 15 percent if they don’t cover contraception in their health plans.

For all these reasons, I think Andy Rosenthal is the one who got it wrong here. Almost everybody uses contraception at some time, a majority of Americans say employer-backed insurance should cover birth control, nearly three-quarters of Obama’s base – Democrats – say all employers should cover birth control, and covering contraception saves taxpayer money.

While this issue might be a marginal winner for Republicans in red states or congressional districts, it’s a net loser across all demographics. Rosenthal claims that Obama “backed down” and that was a “mistake.” I don’t think so. I go along with Amanda Marcotte who wrote in Slate, in a post titled, “Obama Punks the GOP on Contraception”:

The fun part of this is that Obama just pulled a fast one on Republicans. He drew this out for two weeks, letting Republicans work themselves into a frenzy of anti-contraception rhetoric, all thinly disguised as concern for religious liberty, and then created a compromise that addressed their purported concerns but without actually reducing women’s access to contraception, which is what this has always been about…. What most people will remember is that Republicans picked a fight with Obama over contraception coverage and lost…. I expect to see some ads in the fall showing Romney saying hostile things about contraception and health care reform, with the message that free birth control is going away if he’s elected. It’s all so perfect that I’m inclined to think this was Obama’s plan all along.

Had the administration begun this issue with the “back-down” position, the Roman Catholic bishops would have opposed that ruling anyway. After saying on Friday – the day President Obama announced it – that they were studying Obama’s new rule, on Saturday they rejected the compromise. By first allowing Health and Human Services to issue a ruling, then coming to the podium himself to offer a compromise that he said was the sort of accommodation that had been contemplated all along, Obama looks, once again, like the only reasonable guy in the room. This, I think, is politics as art.

Rosenthal may be blinded by the fact that, before Obama “compromised,” the New York Times editorial board had wholeheartedly supported the administration’s position on contraceptive coverage. In a January 29 editorial, they wrote,

It was good news that the Obama administration withstood pressure from Roman Catholic bishops and social conservatives to deny contraceptive coverage for millions of American women who work for religiously affiliated employers. Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary, rejected broad exemptions from a new rule requiring all health plans to cover birth control, without a deductible or co-payment.

Perhaps Rosenthal feels burned. The Times editors were right to support the original ruling. But Obama, as a politician, was sensible to finesse it, too. I think that’s what he did. It’s a long time until election day, but I’ll be surprised if denying women contraceptive coverage works well for most Republicans running for office. And for whoever Obama’s Republican opponent is, whether Romney or Santorum, their criticism of the decision will not help them with the general electorate. The whole brouhaha is one more way of popularizing the Affordable Care Act, which a majority of Americans still oppose – although it turns out they like many of its provisions. Contraceptive coverage is one more thing to like about ObamaCare. That, I think, is what President Obama calculated. Andy Rosenthal does not appreciate the calculation. Of course, he’s not a politician.

Marie Burns blogs at


Readers Comments (0)


Reload Image

More in REALITYCHEX (157 of 230 articles)
David Brooks