Can White House, Religious Leaders, GOP Reach Consensus on Birth Control?

RAY SUAREZ: And to the battle over contraception coverage.

It's been nearly three weeks since the Obama administration announced new regulations, but the stakes are higher, as both sides harden their positions.

From the Capitol to the White House, the political heat has been rising all week over a new federal mandate on birth control. Under the rule, religious schools and hospitals will have to offer insurance policies that include contraceptive services for employees free of charge. Roman Catholic officials in particular say the rule would force them to violate church teachings.

And Republicans in Congress, like New Hampshire Sen, Kelly Ayotte, have raised their voices.

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE, R-N.H.: This is not a women's rights issue. This is a religious liberty issue. And it can apply to all faiths.

RAY SUAREZ: In a floor speech Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner threatened legislative action, but it was unclear today what form that would take.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: I think the House is going to work, again, through the regular order with real deliberations, about how we protect the religious freedom of the American people. That's the issue. And we're — and we're keenly focused on it.

RAY SUAREZ: Women rights groups and many Democrats, like California Senator Barbara Boxer, are now coming to the administration's defense.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER, D-Calif.: Women in this country are tired of being treated like a political football by Republicans in Congress, who have tried continually and are continuing to try to take away their benefits, to take away their rights.

RAY SUAREZ: White House officials, seeking to defuse the issue, suggest a still-undefined compromise is possible.

Tuesday, on the NewsHour, the president's senior campaign strategist, David Axelrod, pointed out that 28 states already have similar rules.

DAVID AXELROD, senior Obama campaign strategist: We're going to have a year's period of time in which to transition to this. And that will give us a chance to look at what these others — how this is implemented elsewhere, how we can implement it here in the best and fairest way, but certainly advancing the principle that women deserve access to contraception.

RAY SUAREZ: The mandate is based on recommendations from the U.S. Institute of Medicine study that showed reproductive health services without co-pays leads to better women's health.

It was the second major birth control decision in recent weeks. In December, the administration barred selling the Plan B contraceptive to girls 16 and younger without a prescription.

We debate the Department of Health and Human Services decision now with Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Jill Warren, executive director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. It's not an official United Methodist Church body.

Guests, just a short time before tonight's program, the vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, said the White House is trying hard to address the concerns of the church — quote — "I'm determined to see that this gets worked out, and I believe we can work it out."

Given the position of the church, Anthony Picarello, and the current state of the ruling from the Obama administration, is there a middle ground? Can a compromise position be found that leaves both sides getting most, but not all of what they want?

ANTHONY PICARELLO, general counsel, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: Well, the president and vice president, the executive branch, is entirely within — has this decision entirely within their control.

So they can do what it is that we have been urging them to do from the outset, which is to remove these items from the mandate, so that people are not forced against their consciences to subsidize them, to sponsor them in health plans.

They could also dramatically increase the breadth of what is an extremely narrow religious exemption that they proposed in the first instance, which covers really only individual churches and basically a very small perimeter around that. So it leaves out charities. It leaves out hospitals. It leaves out schools.

So they have the power entirely within their hands to expand that. We have been hearing lots of talk for a long time about a desire to accommodate, but we haven't seen any action. And so I think we're going to wait until we see action before we . . .

RAY SUAREZ: But I'm trying to figure out what a broadened — to use your term . . .


RAY SUAREZ: . . . a broadened ruling might look like . . .


RAY SUAREZ: . . . since the two positions are mutually contradictory.

ANTHONY PICARELLO: Well, I don't know that there's so much of a contradiction.

I think, again, what we're looking for in terms of breadth is to protect the religious liberty interests and consciences of all of those who would be affected by the mandate. So that means employers — religious employers, yes, but also employers with religious people running them or other people of conviction who are running them.

It means religious insurers. And they do exist. Under this mandate, they're required to include in their policies that they write things that they don't agree with as a matter of religious conviction, and individuals as well who have to pay for it through their premiums.

So all of those entities are the folks whose conscience rights are affected. And the bishops are concerned with all of them, and they have advocated for all of them.

RAY SUAREZ: It sounds like you want something even broader, not just for the colleges and universities and hospitals, but even Catholic employers.

ANTHONY PICARELLO: Well, yes, because the principle here is that of religious liberty. And it's not only religious employers that are entitled to religious liberty under the Constitution.

So all of those should be protected. They should not be put in this situation in the first place. They shouldn't be required by the government to provide, through sponsorship and subsidy, benefits that are offensive to their moral beliefs.

RAY SUAREZ: Jill Warren, is there a middle ground? Is there a position that you can contemplate that gets Mr. Picarello more of what he wants, without giving away something that you view as essential?

JILL WARREN, executive director, Methodist Federation for Social Action: Well, first let me say how much I appreciate being able to be here on the show with you, Ray, and with Anthony.

The issue for me is that it's not about a religious exemption or creating some sort of compromise position. It's a position of health care and health care policy. And that is different than religion.

And even though I am part of a religious nonprofit, the United Methodist Church and the Methodist Federation for Social Action, we don't see this in any way as a religious issue. So, for me, in answer to your question, the compromise that might be sought by the Roman Catholic tradition isn't one that is of the best public good for all of us that would be covered by this policy.

RAY SUAREZ: Where does — when you hear Mr. Picarello talk about conscience . . .


RAY SUAREZ: . . . where does conscience attach at the nexus of three different entities, insurers, employers and the ensured, who all may want different things?

JILL WARREN: That's right. Yes, that's right.

I think that one of the points that I would like to make in our conversation is that we have a choice about what insurance we choose, whether we choose a sectarian plan or we choose a public plan, or whether we choose no plan at all, or even have access to health care as an insurance option in the first place.

So, as an individual, I can choose what health plan I might most benefit from. I think, in this case, there are insurers, as Anthony has mentioned, and there are hospitals, but they are — there are already exemptions for conscience clauses. And there are sectarian organizations who don't have to provide these services in the first place.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Catholic insured could invoke different options when given a list of possible insurers?

ANTHONY PICARELLO: Well, I wish that were so. I mean, that's precisely the problem, is that what we have is a situation where the federal government has come in and mandated that certain things be included in all health insurance plans nationwide.

This is private plans offered by religious institutions. This isn't governments-only plan. This isn't plans that are offered by people who happen to be government-funded. It's everybody. And so that freedom to which she was referring is exactly the freedom that we're urging. It's not something that's extreme.

It's only what we have currently, which is, when a religious entity wants to purchase a health insurance policy, it goes to an insurance company. It says, I want these things and not these things. And, you know, the heavens have not fallen in the situation where we provide that.

For example, right now, even under the current pre-mandate environment, nine out of 10 employer-sponsored health insurance plans include contraception. So, there's no scarcity of this coverage available. People can simply — they're not forced to work for the church.

If they value that benefit so much, they can just choose a different employer. And if they work for the church . . .

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me jump in there . . .


RAY SUAREZ: . . . because you noted that the heavens haven't fallen.


RAY SUAREZ: And I don't know if they've fallen in the more than two dozen states where these mandates already exist.

What have Catholic institutions done to comply in places that already have similar strictures to the one just announced by the Obama administration?

ANTHONY PICARELLO: Ray, I'm glad you asked that question because it's coming up a lot.

There are 28 states that have some kind of contraceptive mandate. None of them are as broad as the one that the federal government has imposed. For example, all but — the federal government mandate includes a mandate to provide sterilization. Only Vermont does that among those 28 states.

On top of that, most of those states have religious exemptions. And of those, all but three are broader than the one that HHS has chosen. So, basically, there's a lot more accommodation for religious exercise at the state level. And on top of that, states don't even — you don't even need to take advantage of the religious exemption in order to avoid it in other ways, for example, by self-insurance.

Even in the restrictive states, many Catholic entities are able to avoid this by self-insurance.

RAY SUAREZ: Jill Warren, you heard Sen. Kelly Ayotte say that this is not a women's rights issue, not a health issue. This is a religious liberty issue.

What about the health interests that a lot of people on your side of the argument are talking about?

JILL WARREN: Well, it's — obviously, I have a difference of opinion, because it is a health issue. It's a basic health issue.

Contraception, controlling whether you can plan your family, whether you can space your children, whether you want to have children, is a basic health issue. It's a biological fact that women can be impregnated, and against our will, I might add. So it absolutely is a health issue.

Barriers to education, barriers to the work force all center around whether you can control your own reproductive health. And in this case, I don't see it at all as a religious issue because there are already religious exemptions and people who can follow their conscience in making their choices.

So, for me, the policy is just good public policy for the common good.

RAY SUAREZ: Jill Warren and Anthony Picarello, thanks for joining me.


JILL WARREN: My pleasure. Thank you.