The Catholic Church's battle with the Obama administration over health care coverage for contraception is a strange one, not because the two sides see this issue differently but because the American public is playing silent majority, largely sitting this one out. The administration got into trouble with the church when it announced a rule for health insurance that would require all employers, even church-related institutions, to cover contraception as the 2010 national health care law is implemented.
Catholic bishops responded as if they were ayatollahs and Obama had drawn a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. They — joined by many Republican commentators and some GOP presidential candidates — declared that Obama was waging war against the church. Religious freedom prohibits the government telling church members that they had to buy products they consider sinful, they said, ignoring the fact that no one will be required to purchase or use contraceptives. Some compared the rule to ordering the church to ordain female priests.
Cooler heads would see the administration's rule as a requirement to provide not contraceptive pills or devices but health insurance. Government mandates, after all, require taxpayers to pay for all sorts of things (wars, for example) that their religion forbids. But the bishops would not relent from their claim that the administration policy violated freedom of religion.
The administration backed down, at least part of the way, adjusting the wording of the rule to put the onus on the insurer, not on the employer, to provide contraceptive coverage. This is little more than a veil because the cost of all health coverage is paid by the employer (and, usually, the employee, who pays a share in most situations), and neither the bishops nor the conservative pundits are satisfied.
This argument has dragged on for a week, despite polling that shows the vast majority of Americans approve of requiring health insurers to provide contraceptive coverage. Polls also show that the vast majority of American Catholics practice forms of birth control the church considers a mortal sin. While bishops (who aren't dealing with this issue in their personal lives) and conservative commentators raise hell over this matter, the American public, including Catholics, approve of the use and insurance coverage of contraception. You'd hardly know that from the news media coverage or the heated statements of critics.
Another aspect of the Obama administration's promotion of contraception has received little media attention. A few weeks before the contraceptive coverage imbroglio, the administration announced that the health care regulations would require that contraceptives be provided at no cost to insured women. That is a pretty broad leap: Insurers would have to pay the full cost of contraceptives without any co-pay at the pharmacy, not even a penny. No other prescription would receive this exclusive treatment.
This provision, even more than the rule that so irked the bishops, is a political favor thrown to women's groups at the expense of all other people buying health insurance. While promoting this provision as an assurance that all women will be able to obtain birth control, regardless of economic status, the administration ignored the sensible axiom that giving anything away for free increases demand for it. Co-pays by patients have been instituted for years to make people think twice before seeking treatment. Are free contraceptives a greater good than free blood pressure pills or free insulin or free anti-cancer drugs?
The only reason for making contraceptives free of any co-pay is to win the women's vote.