How did the White House let the decision to make Catholic employers offer insurance that covers birth control turn into a huge controversy? It's especially puzzling given that Catholics are 24 percent of the nation's population, and 58 percent of Catholics think all employers should cover birth control for free, meaning just 8.9 percent of the American population should theoretically be mad about the administration's decision. But many of that 8.9 percent are important, and they have friends in high places. Here's a timeline of how this issue came to dominate the news cycle.
Less than a month ago, the Health and Human Services Department said Catholic universities and charities employing non-Catholics have to offer health care that covers birth control for free. Catholic officials were outraged. Did you decide maybe you'd sit this one out? File all those "Obama something something Catholic something something birth control" headlines under the "old fashioned outrage over s-e-x" section of your "don't bother to read" file? Now it's official important, and you need to catch up. Politico's Glenn Thrush and Carrie Budoff Brown explain what happened behind the scenes.
Early November 2011: Then-White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, who is Catholic, arranges a meeting between the president, Vice President Biden, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and himself over the issue. Daley did not talk to female senior staff members before doing so, Politico reports, and Obama was "'mildly uncomfortable' being put on the spot" before he made up his mind about the issue. Obama indicated all sides' concerns would be addressed.
Dolan went public talking like he'd won. He said Obama was "very open to the sensitivities of the Catholic community," The New York Times reported at the time. Democrats respond angrily that "This is a pro-choice president. It’s a surprise that we are even having this debate with the administration," The Times reported. Dolan referred to this meeting Thursday, when he said Obama "gave me promises" on the contraception rule, Reuters reports.
Shortly thereafter: Several of Obama's top female advisers, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (pictured above) told Obama they were mad at Daley's "power play."
Fall 2011: Democratic senators, including Jeanne Shaheen, insisted Obama support the contraception coverage requirement in a conference call with Daley, Politico reports.
December 2011: Newt Gingrich makes this an election issue by saying he'd investigate any rule requiring religious groups to cover contraception.
January 20: The Obama administration announces it will require contraception to be covered at Catholic universities and charities. Dolan immediately puts out a press release calling the decision "literally unconscionable" as well as a video of himself talking about it on the Conference of Catholic Bishops' website.
January 20-ish: Obama adviser Pete Rouse tells groups like Planned Parenthood not to make a big deal of the decision, lest they be seen "dancing in the end zone."
January 28: Dioceses are told to talk about the decision during worship services.
January 29: E.J. Dionne spoke from his pulpit, The Washington Post. "Speaking as a Catholic, I wish the Church would be more open on the contraception question," he wrote. "But speaking as an American liberal who believes that religious pluralism imposes certain obligations on government, I think the Church’s leaders had a right to ask for broader relief from a contraception mandate that would require it to act against its own teachings. The administration should have done more to balance the competing liberty interests here."
February 2: Chris Matthews takes to his pulpit, his MSNBC show, doing a segment on how the issue violated religious liberty. "This is a sad thing," Matthews said. "I'm very proud of the work my wife and I have done... with Catholic charities, but i'm very proud of it and... it's open to everybody. Everybody gets the advantage of these things." One of his guests was liberal Catholic Melinda Henneberger of The Washington Post, who said, "I'm trying to figure out how it could be handled more poorly but I can't... Religious freedom is built into the First Amendment so this is not, to me, a tough call."
February 8: In a private meeting with Senate Democrats, Barbara Mikulski asked Obama reeelection campaign manager Jim Messina why they were screwing up the PR on the issue. Messina said the campaign was working on it. The White House indicates it's looking for a compromise, with press secretary Jay Carney saying, "the president wants all women to have access to birth control but he wants to do it in a way that might allay some of the concerns that have been expressed," NThe New York Daily News reports.
February 9: Of the November meeting, Bishop William Lori, chair of the conference’s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, told Politico, “[Dolan] expressed measured hopefulness when it was over, but all of us understood that the proof would be in the pudding.” But, “The needle didn’t move at all... It could not be said that our concerns were addressed. It could not be said a balance was struck... Bill Daley was involved in this, and we would have regarded him as helpful.”
Dolan tells the New York Daily News he'd love to give Obama a "graceful exit" from the controversy.
February 10, morning: Obama briefs Dolan, Planned Parenthood, and he Catholic Health Association on a compromise.
February 10, afternoon: Obama announces a compromise plan that will shift the cost of contraception from the Catholic employers to insurance companies. In a reversal from what Politico reports was their thinking less than a month ago, pro-choice groups have been mobilized. Planned Parenthood already says it supports the decision, as does the Catholic Health Association.
Not everyone is pleased. It's an election year, after all. Rep. Jim Jordon of Ohio said, "This ObamaCare rule still tramples on Americans' First Amendment right to freedom of religion... It's a fig leaf, not a compromise. Whether they are affiliated with a church or not, employers will still be forced to pay an insurance company for coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs." The Conference of Catholic Bishops hasn't commented yet. Silence must be the "graceful exit" Dolan was talking about.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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