Contraception: Catholics Split On Insurance Debate

The Obama administration has revised a provision of the president's health care law concerning birth control coverage. Now, religious-affiliated organizations may decline to provide the coverage, but allow the employees to get free contraceptives through their health insurer.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, one provision of President Obama's health care law has become the focus of intense debate. Catholic bishops say they still oppose a requirement that most employers fully cover contraception in their health care plans. They oppose it even after President Obama widened an exception for religious employers on Friday.

But while the bishops remain opposed, it is not hard to find parishioners who feel differently, as NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Maria Burger's blonde hair whipped in the freezing wind outside the 10 a.m. mass at Shrine of the Sacred Heart church in northwest Washington yesterday. Saying that the church's directives are meant to be in people's best interest but...

MARIA BURGER: The reality of practice, it rarely intersects.

KEYES: No one who agreed to talk took the bishop's side. Like Burger, those who did talk think people are selectively following the bishop's rules. She quotes recent studies which say that 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraceptives.

BURGER: The edicts are not being followed and I think the public is doing what it will.

KEYES: Berber says she doesn't like the way the church injects itself into political debates.

BURGER: These people feel that they need to enforce whatever it is that they need to enforce. But in terms of public practice and in terms of public health, I'm more in favor of accessibility to contraception, however it may be.

JULIE MARTINEZ-ORTEGA: I think that the bishops are really placing their energy in the wrong the place.

KEYES: Julie Martinez-Ortega says if one looks around the pews in this extremely diverse, very pretty church, it seems clear that most Catholics don't agree with the bishop's view.

MARTINEZ-ORTEGA: Well, you can just, you know, count how many people in the pews have more two or three kids with them. In fact, I think most of us here have one or two at most. So, you could sort of, you know, infer from that what you may.

KEYES: Martinez-Ortega says she'd like to see the church focusing more on fighting the death penalty at the national level or offering financial support to the unemployed. And she says if the Catholic Church is an employer, they should act like one. She notes other employers aren't allowed to use race or religion to discriminate, and she doesn't think the church should either.

MARTINEZ-ORTEGA: We can't let the people who happen to work for Catholic institutes, especially those who aren't Catholic themselves, have to not get care that they need to have in order to be able to have healthy, fulfilling lives.

KEYES: Parishioner James Miceli says both sides in this debate blew it.

JAMES MICELI: It was just a disaster of messaging on both sides.

KEYES: The self-described liberal Catholic says both religious freedom and women's rights are important to him, but he calls this a battle that nobody won.

MICELI: The Obama administration lost a ton of credibility and the Catholic Church looked ridiculous in a lot of ways.

KEYES: Miceli says it's another misstep from an administration that got strong support from young progressives and 54 percent of the Catholic vote in 2008.

MICELI: He frustrated a constituency that's very set in its ways and probably needs their hands held every so often.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: At his side, Shanna Corey echoed others here who are frustrated by what they describe as messaging blunders by the Obama administration, but say they still intend to vote for him this fall.

SHANNA COREY: I'll choose the lesser of two evils maybe.

KEYES: Several of the parishioners here said this single issue isn't enough to affect their choice in November.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: So, it wasn't hard to find Catholics - at least at that one church - who differ with the bishops. The bishops, as a group, say they are still concerned despite the wider exception for religious employers, which allows health insurance companies who favor contraception directly. The bishops say they're still studying the details of the Obama administration mandate, which they say may still affect some people who object to contraception. The bishops call that, quote, "unacceptable, raising serious moral concerns."

It's NPR News.

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