Ethics & Public Policy Center

A Matter of Principle…

Published in National Review Online on February 2, 2012



The White House held a conference call this afternoon with “senior administration officials” to discuss the recently issued HHS contraceptive mandate. On the call, these officials basically reiterated the same talking points Jay Carney offered on Tuesday: The HHS decision was made after “careful consideration” which in their estimation strikes an appropriate balance “between religious beliefs and access to important preventive services.”

One senior administration official did address the matter of coverage for abortifacients, insisting that the mandate did not include coverage for, as they put it, “drugs that cause abortion.” This is false.

Take the example of ella (ulipristal acetate), which the mandate covers. It’s true that since ella has not been adequately studied as a human abortifacient, the FDA hasn’t approved it as an abortifacient. The FDA does point out that since it’s pretty good at causing abortions in rats and monkeys, doctors should apprise their patients of potential fetal hazards: The primary fetal hazard being death. So when the senior administration official said the mandate didn’t cover “drugs that cause abortion,” what she seems to have meant is that it doesn’t cover drugs that are FDA-approved as abortifacients.

The other questions the administration officials had time to field were mostly about technical details of implementation rather than the substance or justification of the rule. There were no questions about why the administration decided to weigh the merits of “religious beliefs” against “preventive services” instead of weighing coercive bureaucratic rule-making against inviolable First Amendment rights of free exercise. (Obviously, they didn’t have time to take my question.)

Perhaps the most telling moment in the call came when one official conceded that the administration has no idea how many people this exemption is expected to “help.” In other words, in all HHS’s “careful considerations,” there was no comparison of the “benefit” (however marginal) of this exemption versus possible alternatives.

It mattered not at all whether this narrow exemption, when compared to a more robust exemption, expanded coverage to one more woman or one million more women. Coverage simply had to be expanded as a matter of principle. Whoever meets the requirements of the narrow exemption, and decides to take advantage of it, should be grateful they are allowed even that. (Remember when then-senator Obama insisted that capital gains taxes should be raised, regardless of the effect on revenue, “for purposes of fairness”? The same logic applies here.)

Overall, the administration’s defense of the HHS mandate has been an exercise in condescension. In their eyes, the “religious exemption” wasn’t carved out so the government could protect constitutional rights while it addressed what it saw as a compelling interest – those rights, we are told, are not even at issue. In the eyes of this administration, the “exemption” is a benevolent, even gratuitous, concession. HHS even allows a whole year for certain cultural laggards (read: Catholics) to bring their “religious beliefs” up to speed. Is that not generous?

Recently, I warned that Democrats were in danger of becoming seen as the Party of Irreligion. Between its recent showing in Hosanna-Tabor and this HHS nonsense, the Obama administration seems intent on accelerating that trend. That doesn’t bode well for Democrats or religious freedom.

- Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.

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