Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

"It was a pretty extraordinary situation . . ."

White House Press Secretary downplays revolt against HHS contraceptive mandate

31 January, 2012

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
The White House

Sean Murphy*


The Obama administration has decided that, as a matter of public policy, individual women should not have to pay for "FDA approved contraceptive services," which include surgical sterilization, contraceptives, and potential embryocides and abortifacients.  The reasons offered for this policy are mainly economic and socio-political. 

Since sterilization and birth control have to be paid for by someone, the administration intends to force others to pay for them through insurance plans, even if they object to doing so for reasons of conscience or religion.

The Obama adminstration announced on 20 January, 2012, that it would proceed with plans to force employers to pay for insurance coverage for "contraceptive services" (which include surgical sterilization and potentially embryocidal and abortifacient drugs and devices).  The Orthodox Jewish Union and National Association of Evangelicals were among those who protested within days of the announcement.  The response from the Catholic Church was particularly noteworthy.  By the end of the month, over half the Catholic bishops in the country had denounced the plan in letters to their congregations or public statements.  Many stated bluntly that they would refuse to comply with the law.

When introducing his question on the subject, a reporter at the White House press briefing called this  "a pretty extraordinary situation."  What follows is an annotated extract of the questions and answers on this topic during the news conference.

- Administrator

For Immediate Release
31 January, 2012
Office of the Press Secretary
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 1/31/12

 [Full text & video]. . . with great speed through the United States Senate.

Q Second topic -- the Catholic Church. It was a pretty extraordinary situation on Sunday in parishes all across the country, individual priests were reading letters from their bishops in that particular parish that were pretty much denouncing the Obama administration about these provisions dealing with contraception, Catholic hospitals and whatnot in connection with the Affordable Care Act. I guess my question would be, how does the administration justify having the federal government institute a law that basically forces people to violate their religious beliefs?

MR. CARNEY: Well, that misrepresents actually what the --

Q How so?

MR. CARNEY: -- decision about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act --

Q How does that misrepresent --

MR. CARNEY: Well, let me -- let me -- let me answer. The decision was made, as we have said in the past and Secretary Sebelius has said, after very careful consideration, and the administration believes that this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious beliefs and increasing access to important preventive services. We will continue to work closely with religious groups during this transitional period to discuss their concerns.

It's important -- to go to your point -- that this approach does not signal any change at all in the administration's policy on conscience protections. The President and this administration have previously expressed strong support for existing conscience protections, including those relating to health care providers. That support continues.

Project Comment: Acting on a promise made by President Obama during the 2008 election, the administration eviscerated a protection of conscience regulation enacted under President G.W. Bush. President Obama's  revised regulation cleared the way for the demand in the new "preventive services" regulation.

I also would just note that our robust partnerships with the Catholic Church and other communities of faith will continue. The administration has provided over $2 billion to Catholic organizations over the past three years in addition to numerous nonfinancial partnerships that promote healthy communities and serve the common good.

Project Comment: In September, 2011, the administration cut funding to a successful anti-human trafficking programme run by the Catholic Church because it would not provide contraception and abortion- even though the evaluation of the Catholic programme demonstrated its superiority to the other applicants.  [NCR; NRLN]

Q The bishops are saying just the opposite. They're saying that basically if somebody is working in a Catholic hospital and they don't cover contraception for their employees, that they're in violation of federal law. So I don't understand how you're saying that there are still conscience protections. They would violate the law, wouldn't they?

MR. CARNEY: Well, this does not direct an individual to do anything, first of all. The new guidelines require most private health plans to cover preventive services, including contraception, for women without charging a copay, coinsurance or deductible.

Project Comment: The answer does not address the issue raised by the question: coercion of employers to pay for services to which they object for reasons of conscience.

The guidelines were recommended by the nonpartisan, independent Institute of Medicine. The administration also released a proposed regulation that allows nonprofit, religious employers that offer insurance to their employees the choice of whether or not to cover contraception services.

Project Comment: The exemption in the regulation is so narrow that Priests for Life, a group that publicly advocates the Catholic position against contraception, will be compelled to offer its employees insurance coverage for contraception. The group has sued the federal government. [Priest for Life News Release]

After reviewing comments from the public, the administration announced that the final rule on preventive health services will ensure that women with health insurance coverage will have access to the full range of recommended preventive services, including all FDA-approved forms of contraception.

Project Comment: "FDA-approved forms of contraception" include surgical sterilization and drugs and devices that may cause the death of an embryo before implantation (embryocides) or after implantation (abortifacients).

And I would just note that we will work with religious groups during a transitional period to discuss their concerns. But this decision was made after careful consideration by Secretary Sebelius, and we believe that the proposal strikes the appropriate balance between religious beliefs on the one hand and the need to increase access to important preventive services for women.

Project Comment: The stated commitment is to discussion only, not to accommodation.

Q Last thing on this. E.J. Dionne, though -- I mean, a lot of Republicans have attacked -- but a Democrat who's Catholic, E.J. Dionne, wrote in The Washington Post yesterday that the President, in his words, "utterly botched this policy." And he said he, "threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus." So despite everything you just read, you have Democratic Catholics saying that that's not true.

MR. CARNEY: The idea that there are people who disagree -- well, Ed, all you're pointing out is that there are people who disagree with the decision. We understand that not everyone agrees with it. All I can tell you is it was made after very careful consideration based on the need to balance those two issues and that the necessity to provide access to preventive services for women was an important consideration.

Q What about the constitutional right to freedom of religion? Is that still --

MR. CARNEY: I don't believe there are any constitutional rights issues here, but I would refer you to others to discuss that. That's not -- I understand that there's controversy and we understand that and we will continue to work with religious groups to discuss their concerns. But on the other side of this was the important need to provide access to women to the preventive services that they require.

Project Comment: But see Colorado Christian University v. Kathleen Sebelius et al; Bemont Abbey College v. Kathleen Sebelius et al; EWTN v.Kathleen Sebelius et al. Again, the commitment is limited to discussion, not accommodation.

And the thing you just read to me was a political observation. This was a policy based on the merits.

Q Jay, if I could follow up on that --

MR. CARNEY: No, let me -- let me move around here.

Q The bishop of Phoenix said Catholics shouldn't comply with this law. Will there be any consequences for not --

We cannot- we will not - comply with this unjust law."(Letter from Bishop of Phoenix)

MR. CARNEY: I'm the wrong guy to ask

Project Comment: Avoids answering the question.


Q Thanks. On Iran, DNI Clapper told Congress . . .[Full text & video]