Romney supports HHS mandate? UPDATED

Contraception coverage came up at the debate last night as part of President Barack Obama's answer to the question about pay equity for women. (There were a lot of surprising turns in response to that question.) Mitt Romney seemed unprepared to talk contraception -- Or maybe this was another planned (and unexplained) pivot to the middle? Regardless, here's what he said:

I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.

To put it in context, here's how Obama characterized his own position in contrast to Romney's:

Now, there are some other issues that have a bearing on how women succeed in the workplace: for example, their health care. (Inaudible) a major difference in this campaign is that Governor Romney feels comfortable having politicians in Washington decide the health care choices that women are making. I think that's a mistake. In my health care bill, I said insurance companies need to provide contraceptive coverage to everybody who is insured, because this is not just a a health issue; it's an economic issue for women. It makes a difference. This is money out of that family's pocket.

Governor Romney not only opposed it; he suggested that, in fact, employers should be able to make the decision as to whether or not a woman gets contraception through her insurance coverage.

What Obama is referring to there is Romney's stated opposition to the HHS mandate and support for the Blunt-Rubio amendment that would allow any employer to refuse to provide contraception coverage. Here's how Romney responded -- and note that he took time out of his answer to the next question, the one about how he's different from George W. Bush, to get this on the record:

I'd just note that I don't believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not, and I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives. And—and the—and the president's statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong.

As Sarah Posner has explained over at Religion Dispatches, Romney is defending himself against claims that no one has ever made. And this isn't the first time he's sent mixed messages on the subject of insurance coverage of contraception vs. conscience claims of employers. But he is now on the record in opposition to the bishops and others who protest the HHS contraception mandate on religious-freedom grounds. Will we hear from any bishops about this?

By the way, LifeNews quotes that same paragraph of Romney's response in an article with the headline "Obama promotes HHS mandate during debate, Romney opposes it." I think they better check that transcript again.

UPDATE 10/18: As David Gibson writes at Religion News Service, Romney's supporters in the prolife movement have been showing unusual flexibility in giving him the benefit of the doubt. I'm not persuaded, as I note in comments below. But in evaluating the significance of what Romney said or didn't say on Tuesday, it seems valuable to consider how his own campaign is handling the question: they're changing the subject. Here's Kerry Healey (Romney's lieutenant governor) on MSNBC yesterday, resisting Andrea Mitchell's attempts to pin down the candidate's position:

The question of whether or not we should force someone to give up their religious freedom to provide insurance coverage in some hypothetical situation, is not really the point most, and women out there there are 5.5 million unemployed women in the country.... [Romney] made it clear that he believes in enforcing religious freedom in this regard but he also strongly supports women's access to contraception and any effort to say he doesn't ... The problem here is that we are talking about these peripheral issues. We need to really be talking about employment, jobs, that's what women care about.

It may even be true that most women don't care about the ins and outs of the contraceptive-coverage mandate. But what I take away from all of this is that Romney doesn't care much about those details either.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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