The recent controversy over the Obama’s administration’s requiring that all faith-based institutions such as hospitals must provide contraceptives has led to two completely opposing views. On one hand, the Catholic Church protests having to provide a service out of their own pocket that directly goes against their religious beliefs. On the other, many women’s rights advocates argue that a woman’s reproductive health must be protected no matter what. In short, this is a conversation about personal liberties (a person’s freedom to practice their faith in accordance to that faith) and civil liberties (women’s reproductive rights).
This conversation has been cast as a sort of moral conflict, in terms of the point at which someone fights for their rights instead of fighting for the safeguarding of others’ rights (and vice versa). What position should the Democratic Party take in this two-sided debate? The third option. The good of society, and thus civil rights, is seen by Democrats as the more vital of the two and with very good reason. However, to achieve social progress at the expense of personal freedom is far too high a cost to pay. There must be some way to both move forward on much-needed policy and protect the “other” party’s rights as well. A Catholic’s right to avoid contraceptives is something that such be respected here, not glossed over or ignored. This is something Obama realized after witnessing the outrage of Catholic leaders. He went back and modified the proposal, still requiring that contraceptives be offered at these religious institutions but now at the expense of the insurance companies who cover the worker’s insurance instead of the institution itself.
Many will no doubt say that Obama simply saw Catholics, a hugely important electoral base (since the vast majority of Hispanics are Catholic), as having a negative reaction to his policy and changed it in order to “save face” with his likely supporters come November. That may be true. It is interesting that Obama would take such a risk in an election year, though. He might not have seen this as being that big of an issue. Or maybe he did. Perhaps the President decided that, in the end, putting insurance companies on the spot may have been a smart move politically at a time when many Americans are outraged at corporate power and greed. And the insurance giants have proven to be among the most powerful and wealth lobbying forces of all (as shown during the health care debates). By gaining a victory for women’s rights, and in an odd way at the end social conservatives, while pushing against the insurance companies, Obama has positioned himself well. To be able to dust off an issue like this in an election year is nothing but momentum for a president up for reelection.
Finally, the ultimate shift in the financial burden to insurance companies could end up being a good thing for the insurance industry. By forcing the companies here to focus on preventive care the government is actually saving them money. Fewer unwanted pregnancies for women means fewer unwanted hospital costs for the insurance companies. If Obama were to continue to fight for the health of women and spur further coverage of preventative measure such as cancer screenings his administration could end up effecting how these companies do business. It’s a stretch, sure, but one never knows how things will play out. Obama certainly didn’t think one little requirement would cause an uproar, just as Republicans probably didn’t anticipate Obama taking the criticism with grace and deftly turning the conversation in his favor.
Barrett Goodwin Class of ’13