Sebelius' Contraception Mandate and the Media

Register News Analysis: Coverage highlighted partisan advocacy, Catholic anxiety and White House reassurances, but did it inform?

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services
Kathleen Sebelius, secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services (photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Last November, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York was rewarded for his persistent efforts to meet with the White House to discuss the pending federal rule requiring Catholic institutions to provide contraception services in their employee health plans.

The “quiet” meeting between the archbishop of New York and soon-to-be cardinal — who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — and President Barack Obama was quickly leaked to the media. Days later, when asked about it during a press conference at the fall meeting of the USCCB in Baltimore, the archbishop expressed measured hope that the president would expand the narrow religious exemption to include an array of Catholic universities, social agencies and hospitals.

Media coverage may have fueled his optimism and that of his allies, with a Nov. 10 headline in The New York Times hinting at a breach of Democratic Party unity: “Democrats Urge Obama to Protect Contraceptive Coverage in Health Plans.” Judging from the story in the Times, Obama was weighing a more robust exemption in the wake of strong objections by many Catholics throughout the nation.

But last week, the president did not diverge from his consistent approach on religious-liberty questions and left unchanged a very narrow exception.

In hindsight, that brief, but widely covered intra-party skirmish is likely to stir skepticism about whether it was just a public-relations ploy that signaled the White House’s sensitivity to Catholic concerns. And an Internet search suggests that balanced, in-depth news coverage of the issues posed by the Department of Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate was spotty or inadequate, in many cases.

Despite months of controversy, readers of some large metropolitan dailies never received a detailed account of the Church’s objections — let alone the broader First Amendment issues at stake. USCCB press releases, statements by U.S. bishops, Sunday Mass homilies, and Catholic media provided more substantive reports on the developing situation.

In general, media stories noted Catholic teaching on contraception but did not explore religious-liberty arguments.

The benefits of contraception were echoed by abortion-rights activists and medical experts, and the rights of Catholic institutions to adhere to Church teaching received little traction.

Press Sampling

Weak or non-existent reporting of Catholic and religious-freedom concerns prompted by this issue began in late 2010 and early 2011, with media coverage of public forums organized by the Institute of Medicine, which had been charged with the responsibility of developing a list of preventive services for women that would be fully covered under the new health-care bill.

Speakers invited to the Institute of Medicine forums included leaders of “reproductive rights” groups, who stressed the need for contraception. But news stories generally ignored the fact that the leaders of Church-affiliated health-care programs were not invited speakers — even though Catholic institutions are the second-largest providers of health care in the nation. 

Thus, an Aug. 1 New York Times story announcing the HHS interim rule offered no opposing viewpoint regarding Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ assertion that “these historic guidelines are based on science.”

The Times included two brief paragraphs noting the U.S. bishops’ concerns and their worries about the religious exemption, but it did not provide any detailed explanation.

An Aug. 1 PBS story, however, was more balanced, including four paragraphs that outlined the concerns of Catholic and pro-life opponents of the interim rule. Throughout the fall, the massive effort by U.S. dioceses to galvanize Catholics to protect the proposed federal rule received little or no attention.

A Nov. 10 Times story, “Democrats Urge Obama to Protect Contraceptive Coverage in Health Plans,” reported on Archbishop Dolan’s meeting with Obama, but focused on the backroom efforts by Democratic abortion-rights activists to block any expansion of the religious exemption.

The story aired some of the partisan arguments repeatedly employed to block the bishops’ demands. It quoted Diane DeGette, a Colorado Democrat and leader of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, as saying, “Millions of women work for colleges, hospitals and health-care systems that are nominally religious, but these folks use birth control and need coverage.”

But the story offered no testimony from constitutional scholars explaining the unprecedented nature of the intrusive HHS regulation, nor did readers learn about the proposed regulation’s practical and financial consequences for Catholic institutions.

On Jan. 20, the day Secretary Sebelius approved the final rule, the quality of news coverage was mixed, with The Sacramento Bee and Washington Post among news organizations that provided a balanced perspective. The Post editorial page also attacked the narrow religious exemption, and in Cardinal-designate Dolan’s back yard, editorials in The New York Daily News and The New York Post opposed the action.

But some headlines put a positive spin on the administration’s actions, with one paper describing the one-year extension for nonprofit religious institutions as a “grace period.”

“Religious Groups Get Delay in Birth Control Insurance Requirement,” proclaimed a blog post in The New York Times.

That blog post repeated, without scrutiny, Sebelius’ claim that the one-year extension struck “the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.”

Quoting Catholics

The Times blog post offered a one-sentence comment from Catholic leaders, balanced with an endorsement of Sebelius’ action by a Catholic with no particular standing in the Church.

“Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, welcomed the decision as a victory for common sense and scientific advice in the interests of the common good,” stated the post by John H. Cushman Jr.

Catholics for Choice is among a group of organizations like Catholic Democrats and Catholics United that have backed the Obama administration’s policies whenever they are challenged by Catholic leaders.

While Catholics for Choice focuses on abortion rights and challenges Catholic teaching on contraception, other groups attempt to advance a broader agenda. In the wake of the final rule, all these organizations issued press releases that generally embraced the need to provide co-pay-free contraceptive services.

On Jan. 20, the Times also published a more comprehensive story that included quotes from a range of Catholic, GOP and pro-life critics.

That story suggested that the push for a broader exemption arose from within the administration: “Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, William M. Daley, and his special assistant for religious affairs, Joshua DuBois, favored a broader exemption.” Daley resigned Jan. 9 from his position.

On Jan. 20, few news stories included comments from prominent Catholics who had vouched for Obama’s sensitivity to pro-life or Catholic concerns before the 2008 presidential election or during the subsequent fight to secure passage of the new health bill.

Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA), a self-identified pro-life senator, issued a statement that expressed regret about the decision and noted that religious freedom, rather than access to contraception, was the priority issue in this case. But Casey’s statement got little play. In contrast, his views received more attention during the 2008 Democratic Party convention, where he was a featured prime time speaker, reportedly signaling the party’s new openness to pro-life values.

Douglas Kmiec, a longtime pro-life legal scholar who authored Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Questions About Barack Obama, a book that drew strong media attention in 2008, made no public statement in response to the final rule, though he wrote a commentary in November that downplayed the unprecedented nature of the federal rule.

After the election, Obama named Kmiec the U.S. ambassador to Malta, but he resigned from that post last year. This week he did not respond to a request for comment left on his telephone at Pepperdine University School of Law, where he teaches.

Daughter of Charity Sister Carol Keehan, the president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, figured prominently in the battle to secure the passage of the new health bill — receiving a pen from the president when the bill was signed, but she played no visibly public role in the struggle by Church leaders to secure a broader religious exemption — though she released several statements over the past five months expressing “concern” about a satisfactory resolution to the dispute over the religious exemption.

On Jan. 20, Sister Carol issued a statement that said she was “disappointed” with the exemption, which she described as “a missed opportunity to be clear on appropriate conscience protection.”

The Sacramento Bee and a few other media outlets picked up her statement, but the woman religious who made Time magazine’s 2010 list of most influential people received no mention in stories published by The New York Times or The Washington Post.  Her spokesman declined a request for further comment.

But if the media’s record on this issue stirs the frustration of Catholic leaders who want the public fully informed about emerging threats to the free exercise of religion, the experience of the past year should also lead to the development of a communications strategy designed to overcome the confusion, lack of interest and partisan agendas on display.

UPDATE, Jan. 30: What is striking about the news coverage is that while media often highlight the plight of the underdog in a dispute with big government, coverage on the contraception issue has generally strengthened the position of the latter. Yesterday in The New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat warned liberals that their tolerance of government coercion could backfire when a future administration builds on the HHS contraception precedent to impose a regulation they oppose.

“When government expands, it’s often at the expense of alternative expressions of community, alternative groups that seek to serve the common good. Unlike most communal organizations, the government has coercive power — the power to regulate, to mandate and to tax. These advantages make it all too easy for the state to gradually crowd out its rivals. The more things we “do together” as a government, in many cases, the fewer things we’re allowed to do together in other spheres,” wrote Douthat.

But today, the Times published a story profiling the struggles of students at Fordham and Georgetown Universities who were forced to spend their own money or encountered health problems because the school health plan did not provide access to contraception. Offering the testimony of a handful of students to attack the insensitivity of Catholic moral teaching, the article suggested that church teaching on contraception actually resulted in more abortions.

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.