Jewish groups weigh in on contraceptives debate

Jewish groups on both sides of the contraceptives controversy praised the Obama administration’s recent compromise allowing religious institutions to direct staff to alternative health care plans funding such services.

“Under the rule, women will still have access to free preventive care that includes contraceptive services — no matter where they work,” the president said Feb. 10 in a White House news conference, held in the wake of a controversy over his administration’s earlier rule ordering all employers (except houses of worship) to provide the coverage.

But why were Jewish groups so involved in the debate in the first place?

Rabbi David Saperstein

That was a question Jewish officials asked themselves in recent months as tensions escalated between the Obama administration and leaders of the Catholic Church over the issue of who must provide and pay for contraceptive services.

The Catholic Church rejects contraceptive use as immoral, and Catholic bishops protested vigorously when the Obama administration established a federal regulation that would have required an array of Catholic institutions to cover contraception as part of their health insurance plans for employees.

By contrast, the Jewish attitude is more nuanced, and Jewish groups ended up weighing in on both sides of the controversy.

How Jews became involved in the debate — even making suggestions regarding the eventual compromise proposal that the White House hoped would put the controversy to rest — is a tale of deep ties between some Jewish groups and the White House, the interfaith alliances forged by the politically like-minded, and the tendency of Jewish groups to involve themselves in narrow questions that may not affect them directly but have broader implications for the relationship between religion and state.

A number of Jewish organizational officials said at times they felt discomfited being drawn into a dispute between the White House and another religion.

Nathan Diament

Yet Jewish groups weighed in even before the Department of Health and Human Services first issued the regulation that provided only a narrow exception from the contraceptive coverage mandate for houses of worship and other institutions deemed to have a primarily religious purpose — effectively excluding many other religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals, universities and charities.

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director of public policy, said his group joined a loose alliance of religious groups and wrote to the White House to protest.

“We signed on with Catholic groups and other Christian groups expressing concern, and there were conversations over the ensuing time,” he said.

Diament noted that the OU does not reject contraception coverage per se.

“Our concerns are less contraception than that some organizations are deserving of protection [from government mandates] and others are not,” he said.

Agudath Israel of America, the haredi Orthodox umbrella group, also weighed in against the rule. Its Washington director, Abba Cohen, cast the implications as broader than contraceptive coverage. Government mandates conceivably could extend to end-of-life issues, he said, where Orthodox practices at times clash with those of the medical community.

“Fundamentally, we believe that constitutional rights of free exercise [of religion] must be honored,” Cohen said. “It’s not just birth control and abortion, it’s the larger issue of health and medical ethical issues.”

At the same time that Orthodox Jews were joining with other critics of the new regulation, Jewish women’s groups were praising it.

The National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish Women International and Hadassah all favored the plan. It was a natural for groups dedicated to protecting the rights of both Jews and women, said Sammie Moshenberg, director of NCJW’s Washington office.

The focus, she said, was “how can we ensure that women in this country have access to no-cost birth control regardless of where they work.”

She noted that Catholic institutions often employ non-Catholics. It was objectionable, Moshenberg said, “to say that a woman’s employer’s beliefs on this trump her religious beliefs.”

While the Orthodox and women’s groups were coming at the issue from opposite ends, the Reform movement was mulling the inherent contradictions posed by the regulation to two of its core beliefs — the autonomy of religious institutions and the equality of women.

Throughout the process, the White House consulted with Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who is in the president’s group of faith advisory leaders.

On Jan. 20, the White House reasserted its commitment to its August rule: None but the most strictly defined religious institutions would be exempt. But the ensuing expressions of outrage from Catholics — and condemnations from Republicans, as well as some Democrats — caused the White House to seek a compromise.

Saperstein and Orthodox Union officials were among the religious leaders who contributed ideas toward the eventual compromise announced Feb. 10, by which women would still have access to free preventive care that includes contraceptive services no matter where they work, but if a woman’s employer has a religious objection to contraception, her health insurance company will have to pay for the service.

This time, a wide spectrum of Jewish groups was on board. Hadassah, the Reform movement, the Orthodox Union, NCJW and JWI all welcomed the compromise, although some acknowledged there are still kinks to be worked out.

“We commend the Obama administration for ensuring both access to contraception for all women and the robust protection of religious autonomy,” said Saperstein.

Hadassah in a statement welcomed the compromise while adding, “We will, however, watch closely to ensure that the new proposal does not create undue barriers to women’s access to contraceptives.”

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief