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The Contraception Coverage Debate Isn't Just About the Bishops

By Amy Sullivan

Feb. 9, 2012

Obama should do right by the progressive Catholics who made his health reforms possible and expand the religious exemption to the new contraceptive mandate in the law.

If abortion rights advocates are feeling their oats this week, they have good reason. In just two-and-half a weeks, they've claimed two major victories, forcing the Susan G. Komen Foundation to back off its policy change denying grants to Planned Parenthood clinics and convincing the Obama administration to maintain only a very limited exemption for religious employers in the new contraceptive coverage mandate, which is set to go into effect on August 1. Part of Obama's health-care reform bill, the new mandate will for the first time require most employer-provided private health-care plans to cover birth control without a co-pay or deductible.

These and other political fights over the past year have seen women's health activists adopt an increasingly combative stance. So news this week that the White House is considering broadening the religious conscience exemption have activists firing off action alerts urging the White House not to cave in to the Catholic bishops. But they might want to consider another message instead: thank you.

Let me explain. Abortion rights organizations, pro-choice Democrats, and the media have all characterized the debate over this contraception coverage rule as a struggle between the White House and the Catholic bishops. In its editorial supporting the decision, the New York Times praised the Obama administration for "with[standing] pressure from Roman Catholic bishops and social conservatives." But that's not accurate.

The list of Catholics who have lobbied the administration to consider a broader definition of "religious employer" than now exists -- one that would cover institutions like Catholic universities and hospitals -- includes politically progressive Catholics who have been close allies of the White House, like Father John Jenkins, the president of the University of Notre Dame who stood up to conservatives who wanted Obama disinvited from giving the school's commencement address in 2009. It includes pro-life Catholic Democrats lik