By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Birth control and the Church: The missing context

Even a card-carrying secular humanist like me couldn’t help but be troubled that the Obama administration was ordering the Catholic Church to provide birth-control coverage to its employees despite Catholic doctrine prohibiting the practice. My angst only grew last week, when liberal commentator Mark Shields voiced his objections to the policy on the “PBS NewsHour.”

As it turns out, the controversy has much to do with the media’s all-too-characteristic inability to do their homework and provide context.

Which is why you need to read Julie Rovner’s NPR report in which she discovers that the federal government has been requiring religious organizations to cover birth control since 2000. The rule, as is the case with the Obama administration’s approach, applies to non-religious institutions run by religious organizations, such as hospitals and universities.

The only difference is that under the 2000 rule, birth-control coverage was subject to the normal insurance co-pay. Under the current federal health-care law, contraception must be provided free of charge. But it’s the coverage itself that’s the issue, not whether there’s a co-pay.

Referring to the Obama rule, Sarah Lipton-Lubet of the ACLU tells Rovner, “[A]s a legal matter, a constitutional matter, it’s completely unremarkable.”

What’s hard to understand is why the White House didn’t make sure everyone knew there was little that was new about the policy. But it is the news media’s job to provide context and analysis. In this case, and in all too many cases, they have failed miserably.

Photo (cc) by Ceridwen and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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Follow-up: Copyright and the New York Times


More on copyright, the Phoenix and the Times


  1. BP Myers

    And at 12:15 P.M. (it would seem) we will see him cave on this issue, in the same way he caved on the NYC mosque (“a bad idea.”) The man can out-Clinton Clinton when the need arises.

    Forget Romney lacking an inner core of principles. We should revisit this same issue with the incumbent.

  2. John Geoghegan

    I can’t say I’m stunned by this sort of thing anymore. Too often, I feel that the media mainly transcribes what voices say, rather than doing research to check what they are told. The White House should recognize this reality, and should have been prepared to feed the media that would actually report it (i.e., not Fox) what the actual change is. I’ve learned that, to get the truth about something, I have to avail myself of many sources — usually I’ll find one that actually does some digging and isn’t some second-hand party to anonymous sources.

  3. Daniel Storms

    Besides the Title VII guarantees upheld in the 2000 decision, the Supreme Court, in a majority judgement voiced by Catholic Antonin Scalia, stated in 1999 that religious beliefs cannot and do not trump law. The case then was Native American use of peyote in sacred ceremonies; two men were denied relief from being fired and denied unemployment compensation because of their peyote use. Your fellow Massachusetts scribe Charlie Pierce had an excellent blog piece in Esquire on the legal nonsense surrounding the claim of unconstitutionality surrounding the HHS decision (which Obama is already caving on anyway), citing not only Scalia but Felix Frankfurter as well. The Church’s claim that not only religiously affiliated institutions but any religiously driven employer may deny as a matter a conscience any benefit it deems against its philosophy/morality is dangerous nonsense. HHS’s original rule was correct; or would people prefer, say, Jehovah’s Witness affiliated institutions having the right to deny insurance coverage for blood transfusions, for instance?

  4. C. E. Stead

    For a second, set aside the product being supplied and its purpose. By what right does the Federal government mandate that a private enterprise provide a product for free to the general public? Is there any limit to the amount of product provided? Is the vendor allowed to write off the cost on theri taxes – and if not, what other products will the government compel private companies to provide for no cost? And what form does this compulsion take – what is the punishment for failing to comply? Can a company refuse to accept a commercial arrangement with the entitiy that triggers this free product? And if they can refuse to enter into such a commercial agreement, is that a violation of Federal anti-discrimination laws?

  5. Adam Riglian

    Why should context get in the way of good ol’ fashioned righteous indignation?

    This must be an age-gap thing for me. I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school, the whole bit. Yet, I don’t remember anybody ever caring about birth control pills or condoms. Maybe they said that they did, but in practice, do not recall anyone ever giving a you-know-what.

  6. Hartley Pleshaw

    “Liberal commentator” Mark Shields?

  7. Jerry Ackerman

    I wonder whether the lack of digging results from the “do more with less” mandate tossed at newsrooms, or lethargy, or inexperience — or what. Good for NPR for probing a little deeper.

  8. Brad Deltan

    By what right does the Federal government mandate that a private enterprise provide a product for free to the general public?

    By the virtue of providing substantial tax breaks to these non-profit institutions. Charlie Pierce has done an excellent job to draw a line in the sand on this one: at what price does the Church value its beliefs? If it feels so strongly about this, it could renounce its tax-exempt status.

    And of course, since this is Charlie Pierce we’re talking about, he’s got a lot more to say on the topic…the man writes about a novel and a half’s worth of posts every three days on that blog. Always-entertaining reading, but dammit Charlie I’ve got work to get done and I’m spending too much time on your blog!!! 🙂

    (by the way, Dan…for whatever it’s worth, I’d say Charlie disagrees with you about Mark Shields on this topic)

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Brad: Both you and @Hartley have called me on referring to Mark Shields as a liberal. Look, he’s the liberal half of the Shields-and-Brooks duo on the “PBS NewsHour.” I have no problem with calling him a weak liberal, a half-hearted liberal, a wan liberal, whatever you like. But he’s the liberal. If I were a conservative, I’d probably be just as irritated that Brooks was carrying my flag. He’s even less conservative than the Massachusetts moderate.

  9. Hartley Pleshaw

    That Mark Shields is the designated “liberal” on the PBS SnoozeHour pretty much says all that needs to be said about said program. Like Alan Colmes and Pat Caddell, “Liberal Stooge” (as in: front man for conservative media) should be his permanent Chyron graphic. That’s he’s in the tank for the Vatican on this pretty much says it all about this guy. And he’s been at it for at least three decades now. For some reason, I still remember his 1983 op-ed piece in the Globe, entitled, complete with exclamation point, WATCH OUT FOR MONDALE! Yes, here is someone who actually got excited about Walter Mondale. I also remember FAIR’s print ad campaign of a few years back, which featured pictures of Shields, Sam Donaldson and a couple of other worthies, under the very appropriate title, “I’m Not a Leftist, But I Play One on TV.” That’s the perfect description of Mark Shields.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Hartley: I thought Caddell had morphed into a right-winger. No? Does Fox bill him as a liberal?

  10. Hartley Pleshaw

    I believe that he’s listed as a “Democratic Strategist”–excuse me, “Democrat Strategist” in FoxSpeak–on Fox. Of course, Caddell weasled his way right a long time ago, so, like Mark Shields, his opinions don’t much matter to me. I just object when people try to palm themselves off as being something they’re not.

  11. Brad Deltan

    I don’t watch PBS so I can’t really comment on this, I was just passing on Charlie’s rather caustic assessment of Shields. From your followup, I’m not surprised a guy like Charlie feels that way.

    I get the feeling that calling him the liberal is like calling me the Queen of England. You can do it all day, and maybe if there’s enough makeup involved, a few suckers will believe it, but that doesn’t mean it’s accurate in any sort of objective sense. 🙂

    Also worth noting, I see the Boston Globe (at least the mobile version) is just relaying the AP story about Obama’s “compromise” announced today…and that story is remarkably lacking in objectivity, but it makes up for it with hysterics. Christ, is THIS what passes for “journalism” at the Associated Press these days??? Presumably this story was written AFTER the NPR story that reveals that the “conflict” over all this is based purely in politics and has nothing to do with reality.

    Note: I’d level the same charge at Pierce, who also only kinda-sorta alludes to NPR’s scoop, in his most recent post on the topic (scroll down to the “update”) but he’s not acting as a journalist, either…merely a commentator. This Ben Feller at the AP should be ashamed of himself for writing that copy.

  12. C. E. Stead

    @Brad – you totally misunderstand me.

    “By the virtue of providing substantial tax breaks to these non-profit institutions.”

    I’m not talking about the churches – I’m talking about the insurance companies. If the insurance company cannnot charge the employer/church a premium for the product, and they cannot charge the employee/consumer a co-payment for the product, by what authority does the government mandate that the insurance company provide the product free of charge?

    Will GM also be buying you a car because it’s being regulated by the government?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @C.E.: Oh, please. Insurance companies are regulated to the gills. This is nothing novel. And, as has been noted elsewhere, the insurers have no problem with this because birth control is so much cheaper than pregnancy. You should ask your hero Mitt about this. He’d tell you the same thing. Or at least he would have in 2006.

  13. C. E. Stead

    @DK – so you are saying that if governments regulates a business/industry, then by extension they can order that business to provide products for free?

    Can we get Menino to ordain free dinners at 9 Park?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @C.E.: Insurance prices are heavily regulated. Free is just another price point. It’s in the law — it’s not something Obama made up. And the insurance companies are happy to do it, since it will save them a lot of money compared to covering pregnancy-related costs. You seem to be laboring under the misconception that health insurance has something to do with the free market.

  14. Mike Benedict

    I’m hard-pressed to note any industry that operates in a truly free-market vacuum. Everything is regulated, either directly or indirectly.

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