Just in time for Valentine’s Day, America’s President and one of its most prominent religious groups have launched a brawl that reminds us yet again what a royal pain women are. They can get pregnant – but even worse than that, nowadays, they can decide whether or not to get pregnant.
This week, Obama drew the ire of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops when he announced that Catholic-run institutions – such as schools and hospitals which serve and employ people of all backgrounds – could no longer deny their female employees insurance coverage for contraceptives.
Perhaps I shouldn’t read too much into it, but I can’t help it. I infer that Catholic employers welcome only those females who are abstinent, pregnant/trying to become pregnant, or infertile/menopausal.
The official line from the Catholic Church is that birth control is immoral – God wants you to have as many babies as possible, so United States public policy should not promote or enable contraception. Never mind that repeated polls on the topic of contraception in America reveal that a majority of voters support the availability of birth control, and that a huge percentage of American women (up to 99%, according to some sources), including Catholics, have used it. In current polls on this particular Catholic health-care fracas, even a majority of Catholics themselves believe that these institutions’ employees should have access to birth control. Even a Fox News poll shows that a majority of those asked support Obama’s mandate.
This is probably because, if you ignore the outrage over religion for a minute, a giant US employer is denying its staffers important health care, which other employers routinely offer, for reasons that are not practically, financially or legally based.
This hasn’t stopped Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, as well as the Republican Presidential candidates, from trumpeting that they will not abide this terrible intrusion upon America’s freedom of religion. Some Democrats in Congress have agreed that the Catholic institutions should not have to pay for insurance that covers birth control.
Our Founding Fathers obviously thought freedom of religion was important – it’s the first item up for business on the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights, first line of the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
I’m no Constitutional scholar. But here is my understanding of this sentence:
Ok, I get it, the waters here are tricky. By telling Catholic employers that their health-care policies must cover contraceptives against their sacred moral convictions, isn’t the US Government making a law that forces a particular religious group to curtail the practice of their religion?
Perhaps government has no right to make any kind of mandate about what employers or insurers should or shouldn’t cover (anyone opposed to Obamacare can explain it to you). Why should Catholic-run institutions have to offer insurance that covers birth control, when they’re morally opposed to it?
For my part, for all the screaming about Constitutional protections for religious practice, I’m still not convinced that the bishops’ stance falls under the protection of the Bill of Rights. As far as I can tell, Obama is not mandating that anyone become Catholic or not become Catholic (“no law respecting the establishment of religion”), and he’s not curtailing the ability of anyone to practice their Catholic faith (“prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). What he is curtailing is the ability of a Catholic employer to press its beliefs on non-Catholic employees (or, as polls suggest, Catholics who use birth control despite the word of His Holiness).
But because politicians and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops can howl much louder than average Americans who support fair insurance practices, Obama has suggested a compromise on his mandate. Instead of the Catholic institutions paying the cost of the health insurance that provides birth control, the insurers used by these institutions will instead be required to pick up the tab for the Catholic employees’ contraceptives. That way, Catholic institutions are not being forced to pay for something they find immoral.
Of course, this hasn’t dampened the rage one bit. The bishops still find the whole thing wretched, because in the end, the women their church employs will still have easy access to birth control, and that is what the bishops can’t abide.
It’s clear to me that in this case, “freedom of religion” in fact means the freedom of powerful Catholics to press their beliefs on others. And here we have the extraordinary proposition that religious devotees are not truly free to practice their religion unless they’re also able to force others to comply with their beliefs.
Because no-one is more qualified to decide what happens to ordinary working women’s ovaries than a group of powerful, celibate men.
Some Republicans insist that Obama’s compromise is not feasible because it’s unfair to burden the Catholic institutions’ insurers with the cost of birth control coverage. It only adds to an already over-burdened system and will drive costs up for everyone. But this isn’t realistic. Most insurers already cover contraceptives. If you were to ask the insurers of the female employees of Catholic-run institutions if they could bear to cover the cost of those women’s birth control, I bet the only problem would be that the insurers could not say “yes” fast enough to quell their fears that the women would become pregnant on the insurer’s dime.
Many news stories on this topic report that the bishops’ rights or freedoms have been “violated”. Just as American and European politicians should stop likening ideologically opposed colleagues to Hitler, let’s not pretend that Catholic bishops are in any way “violated” by a woman’s having access to birth control. Insurance policies are being required to offer contraception coverage to American workers regardless of their employers’ religious beliefs; it’s not as if the bishops are being forced to organize anti-child rallies in the candlelit bedrooms of women who use Nuva-Ring. Last time I checked, my choice to avoid pregnancy does not stop any bishop anywhere from living his life as he chooses (unless, of course, the life he chooses is a mission to control my reproductive health – but especially since I don’t work for him, I doubt he has legal grounds for that).
Here are some diagrams for you:
Now that I said all that, I don’t actually believe that this whole mess has anything to with an investment in protecting Americans’ sovereign rights. Just imagine the uproar if the large-scale American employer in question was Muslim instead of Christian, and denied its employees coverage of some sort of preventive medical care to which devotees of Islam are opposed, and Obama pronounced that this Muslim-run employer had the right to arbitrate its employees’ access to medical treatment according to the employer’s religious beliefs.
All the happy inter-faith community centers in the world could not drown out the screams of “Sharia!”
In truth, it’s all about who’s powerful and popular in America (Christians), and who’s got a lot of money and government lobbying power (Christians).
Like I said before, let’s face it, women are just going to be a problem either way. Between paying for the care associated with childbearing and paying for birth control, insurers will always choose the latter, and those darn women will go on continuing the human race (or not), no matter what the bishops or the health care system has to say. Meanwhile, the majority of citizens in a democracy support public policy that makes birth control easily available – not to mention the importance of some forms of birth control in preventing deadly infections. If you also believe that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has more of a voice than it should in American health-care policy, feel free to share this essay.
Freedom of religion is such a major loophole in the law, huh. Is there something you can’t get away with by claiming that you are acting according to your religious beliefs?
The only way out of this that I see is to establish a religion called “child-free-ism” (goes well with pastafarianism, jediism and copyism). And then sue anyone who infringes on YOUR freedom of religion!
Or better, establish 10 new religions. At some point the system will collapse and everyone will just give up the whole religion thing.
I’m sure several aspects of my life could be easily funneled into a new religious belief. What a comfort to know that my predilections will always qualify for Constitutional protection under this philosophy. Thanks for reading and thanks for your response.
When I first heard of this, (I just read the headlines. Can’t glean too much from that.) I thought that they wanted to have them cover abortions. I’m strictly against abortion for my own reasons, so I can see why Catholics see the way they do.
But when it comes to birth control, I think it is an important part of keeping women healthy. Birth control is used for other things other than preventing pregnancy. PCOS needs to be treated with hormones (aka birth control.) So why should someone who would potentially be infertile without birth control be prevented from being treated? It’s a serious condition, and has every right to insurance coverage. (Besides they want women to be fertile…)
And women can’t be pregnant all the time. >.< And taking care of a dozen kids won't be good for the mental health, either.
And ultimately, since they do have a diverse group of employees, why not let them choose?
I think some conservative commentators have jumped right on to claim that Obama was mandating Catholic employers pay for abortions, but as far as I can tell, there’s no truth to that, and it’s just people fomenting rage with misinformation – the issue is contraceptives, not abortions (though, to the detriment of women everywhere, some religious groups are distinguishing between the two less and less).
Thank you for bringing up the very important point of birth control used for reasons other than, well, birth control. There are a lot of medical conditions whose symptoms can be controlled with contraceptives, and women shouldn’t be denied this health care option if they need it.
Of course women can’t always be pregnant and sustain their health, and it’s true, there’s probably not many of us that could handle more than a few kids, especially in bad economic times. I think therefore that all good women, even married women, must choose between having sex and having a reasonably-sized family. I’m sure husbands love this choice as well. Alas, the polls I’ve been seeing show that something like 98% of Catholic women polled in the US have used or would use birth control.
It’s never been about them paying for abortion – why would you even think that????? That alone shows the ignorance and lack of insight into the soul of the Church you have. The Catholic Church vows to allow nature and the natural order of God’s will to run its course. Man invented birth control and abortion. God created life. These are the beliefs of the Catholic Church. The church is against intruding on life’s natural beginnings within the womb of the woman. That is why they teach abstinence and you know it’s the ONLY 100% proven method of birth control although birth control pills are a close second by introducing damaging hormones as well as good ones into a woman’s body. In this day and age too much government via public schools telling teenagers “it’s ok to have sex” is another invasion of the government on the family. We the people have rights not to pay for this and the Churches most certainly have rights not to pay for it and I really don’t see why it is such a big discussion since next month PPACA is going to be heard in the Supreme Court and after them upholding the Church’s right to not have women in their clergy – I am confident they will uphold their first amendment right here too. If they don’t that will be when the battle for the presidency really gets red hot because there will be backlash by those who voted Obama into his office.
One very key thing you and so many others missed is in the bill itself (I did read all 2700 pages and these pages more than once) – The law declares that only those institutions which will only provide to their “own kind” and members of their faith alone are 100% EXEMPT from having to participate. Here in America there is but ONE faith and ONE faith alone that is so very segregated from all others and that is the faith of Islam. Their colleges do not allow anyone who is not Muslim in and their hospitals and GROCERY STORES will NOT serve anyone other than those wearing the Muslim apparel. All 100% EXEMPT in this law. Nobody really cares about the fact that we are going back to the days where segregation is favored by our government. Catholic hospitals and Charities (which I volunteer for) serve the PUBLIC all faiths and that includes Muslims, atheists, protestants and jews. ALL are served because that is the way Jesus taught us to be. This law is all about segregation and not uniting a nation in any way. It is about trying to make the church look illegitimate to the role that government plays in our lives. Nowhere in my teachings is there room to “serve” or bow to my government – Jesus first, Yourself last and Others in between J O Y
My own home church is also roiled by the controversy of whether they should ordain women – like the Catholics, they still find women unfit for spiritual leadership. So I can relate to that struggle, though probably unlike you, I support the work of women in religious leadership.
I don’t believe this essay says anything about the church having to pay for abortion, though I think a commenter brought it up. I agree it would be pretty repugnant for the Catholic institutions to have to pay for abortions, but contraception is a different issue.
Are you sure Muslim establishments are so exclusive? I’m not getting the sense that these are establishments you attempt to visit regularly.
I think the US still has rampant problems with de facto segregation, though I think those problems are mostly racial and not religious (see our prison system, for example), but you raise interesting points.
If you really are concerned about government intrusion into the family, why don’t campaigns like Santorum’s worry you? I think the truth is that people who support Santorum, yet call for stronger individual and family rights, are really supporting a vision where the government forces or promotes a certain version of family life that supporters deem correct. If Santorum was discussing something other than the Christian heterosexual family model sans birth control, his supporters would probably be a little less invested in his vision for government statements about the family.
Again, thanks for your comments.
If you are a liberal in the form at which you preach you will NOT visit this site – a site where the truth is told. All those I know think they are above the truth.You can literally pick out the S I N within your writing – Shifting focus, Ignoring facts and Name calling. That is the SIN I refer to.
I think I find myself leaning liberal on most social issues and conservative on a lot of economic/government issues. No one party fits me all the time, and therefore I’m actually registered as an independent voter and judge candidates on their merits as I see them rather than voting with one party or the other. I read the article you’ve linked to and I find it interesting, with a lot of valid points. It doesn’t convince me to support Santorum, but I do think a lot of testy, anti-religion Americans could do with more reminding that the USCCB is not necessarily a source of doctrine – they’re more in a PR function, as I see it, and don’t always stand for official Catholic doctrine. I sure would hate it if people judged my home church by the most vocal/prominent members/organizations within it – these individuals often spout things that have little basis in the church’s actual doctrine or history, just like the USCCB, perhaps. The beliefs people personally embrace will always be a bit subjective and not defined by the word of any church’s public face.
I’ve been writing a while so my writing has been called a lot of things, from brilliant to boring and pugnacious to hilarious, but I’ve never been labeled with literary SIN – I’m kind of enjoying it.
LOL! You just made my day with that last statement. Just had to say. 😛
Thanks Alicia. I do what I can in a cruel, cruel world.
That’s an amazing picture of Timothy Dolan. I like the cartoons as well. I’m interested in your thoughts on what I wrote about this issue: http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/what-makes-pregnancy-a-disease/. I think I’m a different combination of “left” and “right” jigsaw pieces from you, but I’m interested in talking about it rationally, unlike some of these crazies who you’ve been more polite than I would be in responding to.
Thanks for visiting and thanks for your comment. I like to keep a sense of respect and, if possible, humor for my commenters, even those with extreme views. My views probably seem extreme to many others.
A note to my readers: check out Morgan’s link. I don’t agree with everything he says, but boy is it well-stated and thought provoking.
Random guy checking in to completely miss the point:
Men are cool, too.
Yeah, I’m married to a pretty awesome one. I don’t mean to denigrate men – I just tend to think that women lose their voice in public discourse more than men do. So I try to speak up for them. However, I’m planning for some less female-centric posts in the near future.
Why do you head your blog “Fiction Need Not Apply”? Your own post is full of fiction: “a giant US employer is denying its staffers important health care”. No, it’s not. By that standard, any kind of copay or coinsurance or deductible would constitute “denial of healthcare”. Horrors, my own insurance plan is “denying” me $3,000 worth of healthcare every year! Contraceptives run $4-$9/month at Kroger, Target and Wal-Mart. Stop grandstanding.
“I infer that Catholic employers welcome only those females who are abstinent, pregnant/trying to become pregnant, or infertile/menopausal.” You’d infer wrongly, you might actually talk to the thousands of women happily employed by Catholic Charities, Notre Dame University, dozens of Catholic hospitals etc. They have a choice who to work for, and they knew going in that contraceptives weren’t covered. Many even use contraceptives – just not paid for by the Church.
“religious devotees are not truly free to practice their religion unless they’re also able to force others to comply with their beliefs.” No one is being forced to comply with Catholic beliefs. That’s a flat lie.
By contrast, Catholic institutions ARE being forced by the government to abandon their beliefs. The “compromise” changes nothing, unless you believe insurance companies will simply cover all these employees for free! Obviously, they’ll pass the cost back to the employer – it’s a cheap accounting trick. And the hundreds of institutions that self-insure or use Catholic insurance are entirely out of luck. So much for “if you like your plan, you can keep it”!
If it is balance you seek, please practice what you preach.
It’s true that employees of Catholic institutions aren’t technically being denied contraception – if you have enough money in your pocket, you do not have to be on an employer’s health plan to access birth control. You can get it yourself, and Catholic-employed women of sufficient means are not barred from obtaining contraception. However, effective contraception is not always as cheap as those opposed to this mandate claim. Some people really might rely on their health insurance to obtain birth control.
I’m sure there’s many women who are happily employed by Catholic-run organizations. And just judging from some of the responses I’ve gotten to this blog post, not to mention articles in the wider world and my knowledge of Catholic friends’ lifestyles, there seems to be a huge divide between what the USCCB or even the Pope says, and what ordinary American Catholics practice. Presumably some of the 98% of Catholic women polled (according to some sources) who either use birth control or support its use are employed at these institutions along with secular, Jewish, Protestant, Mormon, Muslim, etc counterparts. I’m sure many of these women have something workable in place for their contraception, unless there is indeed a much higher birth-rate among Catholic-hired employees compared to non-Catholic-hired employees (interesting question, I wonder if anyone’s studied that – i.e., does the Church’s refusal to provide insurance-paid contraception result in the kind of practical impact you’d assume they want on birth rates? Does keeping birth control out of insurance coverage increase pregnancy rates among their employees? If not, does that prove the Church is merely content to be making a statement about its beliefs? Sorry, kind of a tangent, I know).
Of course no-one’s being forced into a wholesale following of Catholic beliefs, but especially since the law in some US states where these institutions operate already dictates that contraceptives should be covered by employer-offered insurance, these institutions are, for religious reasons, failing to provide an access to important preventive care that other employers (and most insurers) routinely and automatically cover. This is noteworthy. I think this is mentioned in a comment above too – contraceptives are not always used to prevent pregnancy; they’re sometimes treatments for a range of medical issues. Women employed by Catholic institutions, especially if they really do rely on their health insurance for their care, should not be denied this treatment option b/c of their employers’ religious beliefs. I think it’s fair to say that this Catholic tenet could easily affect the private lives of non-Catholic women (or birth-control-using Catholic women), and in this sense, a religious belief is being pushed inappropriately on a potentially wide segment of the population.
Do you realize that in the same breath, you’re arguing that contraceptives are so cheap women don’t need coverage for them, and then also insisting that the cost of contraception would hurt the whole system by being shunted back to the institutions anyway, because the insurers won’t bear that extra cost? When it comes to women buying their own contraceptives, opponents say that’s how it should be since contraception is supposedly so cheap. But then when we talk about requiring insurers to pay for it, suddenly they trumpet that this will add onerous costs to the whole system. Can ordinary women collectively bear a cost that insurers or the overarching institutions cannot? Of course the cost of contraception doesn’t handily disappear just because Obama mandates insurers pay for it.I know some Church institutions self-insure, and yes, some liberal commentators that been blithely blind to that fact. But as I argue above, women of child-bearing age are most likely going to cost insurers either way, and contraceptives are a drop in the bucket compared to pre and post-natal care and birth.
And I still stick with my original assertion. Catholic institutions are NOT being forced to abandon their beliefs. No Catholic is being forced to use birth control against his or her will. These institutions are merely about to lose one tool they’ve previously been able to use to try to ensure their employees, no matter their background, comply with the employers’ worldview. Any Catholic head honcho who doesn’t believe in the use of contraception can continue to not use it – in his or her own home. A different choice in the homes of his or her employees does not constitute forcing the institutions to “abandon their beliefs”. Those who are complaining about an attack on the religious freedom of these institutions are indeed claiming that the leaders of those institutions should have the right not only to personally practice their own faith, but to push a tenet of that faith onto non-Catholic employees through health-care policies that in some states are actually subverting existing laws.
All that being said, I appreciate your visit and your comment. Part of the balance I try to cultivate is that folks of all spectrum of opinions are welcome to respond.
Thanks Alaina for the thoughtful response, I appreciate it. I don’t think you’ve refuted any of my 3 primary points. There is certainly a divide among American Catholics on the Church’s teachings on contraception, but that’s entirely irrelevant: you don’t adjust First Amendment protections to allow the government to override it based on polling data (think about that slippery slope for a moment). It is not for the government to arbitrate what a Church believes.
I’m glad you’ve conceded, a little, that nobody’s religious beliefs are being “forced” on anyone. But you’ve doubled-down on the access chimera by stating “these institutions are, for religious reasons, failing to provide an access to important preventive care”. Wrong. Failing to fully pay for some health benefit DOES NOT DENY ACCESS. Period. By your standard, ANYTHING a plan doesn’t fully pay for without copay or coshare or deductible is being “denied access”. Is that really what you mean? Then Obamacare is “denying access” to all kinds of treatments. Be consistent.
You close by stating “Catholic institutions are NOT being forced to abandon their beliefs. No Catholic is being forced to use birth control against his or her will.” Those are entirely separate points, and this may be the root of the confusion. Nobody has argued anyone is being “forced to use birth control”. Not me, not the bishops, nobody. Conversely, no one working for these institutions today is being forced NOT to use it, as you claim (and in fact many employees do). But the institutions are absolutely being forced to pay for drugs and procedures that contradict their core beliefs. Whether you or I find those beliefs silly is irrelevant. Indeed I strongly disagree with the Church on contraception. But I feel even more strongly about the First Amendment’s protections for religious liberty, and am appalled at the government’s overreach here.
This may be a sidebar, but I didn’t quite follow your comment about “subverting” existing state laws. It reminds me of something few have noted in this debate: a crucial distinction between the state mandates and the HHS rule.
HHS chose the narrowest state-level religious exemption as the model for its own (New York, California, Oregon). But even without a religious exemption, religious employers can avoid the contraceptive mandates in all 28 states by self-insuring their prescription drug coverage, dropping that coverage altogether, or opting for regulation under a federal law (ERISA) that pre-empts state law. The HHS mandate closes off all these avenues of relief. That’s why this is such a big deal, despite similar-sounding state laws that even some Republicans supported.
True, for the most part it is more about facilitating or failing to facilitate access, not strictly denying access. I’m also not trying to argue that anyone’s being forced to use birth control or forced to not use it. I still don’t think I’m convinced this is a violation of the first amendment, as you believe, but I appreciate your points and your willingness to engage with evident intellect and civility – too often these debates are mere screaming fests between extremists on both sides.
Perhaps this too personal and therefore irrelevant, but I guess part of my frustration on this issue is my sense that throughout our country’s ongoing debates about the health care system, birth control and other kinds of reproductive care for women are constantly held up as so spiritually and morally problematic that this female care is somehow separated out for special handling versus other kinds of healthcare, or even outright denigration or denial, in the debate over healthcare. At the every least, it’s raked in repeated cultural controversies while women’s needs are pushed aside for political and religious grandstanding. I firmly believe that part of the reason these issues about access to women’s reproductive care remain controversial is exactly because it’s about care for WOMEN, who almost across the board have less of a voice than men do in the world. I just wish that someday, women in America could all have access to safe, high-quality reproductive care of their choosing without it becoming a righteous firestorm. Men don’t have to face similar obstacles in obtaining any kind of healthcare for their bodies. Maybe you’d enjoy a post I wrote awhile back about whether gov’t health care should cover contraceptives as “preventive medicine”. Or maybe it will incense you – I don’t know. Either way it might pique your interest.
Come back anytime. Your comments add much to the debate!
Isn’t it interesting, that this bru ha ha, is all about Women?
That men, can receive Viagra or other sorts of stimulants for their sex life in health plans, never surfaces in the mind of RC Clergy or Catholic Politicians, as being anything but OK. Why? simply because it is the mind of the RCC that, as well as other religious groups, (that since the days of early Israel,) Increasing your tribe gives you either Military superiority to defeats those “others”, occupying the land you want, or Political might in government.
Originally, it was a “Quiver full of arrows,” (sons,) that were important, Women, just ovens in which to produce them.
It is this world view, that today raises the Ire of Popes and prelates about the freedom of Women to control their own bodies and reproductive life. “How can we take over the World if we don’t control the population?” and, we must remember that Rome has basically stated infallibly, that Democracy is just another “Ism” that will eventually pass away in favor of their Theocratic rule of the entire world…
Roman Catholic Prelates have the right to set rules for members of their own faith group, not for the rest of Humanity, even if they believe it is in their best interest. If, they wish to exempt themselves from Civil Laws, then they must give up and return any Government funding they receive. Funding makes them liable to the Civil authority and its Laws.
If this is such a great and important Intrusion on their religious belief system, the answer is simple. Opt out of the system, as they have done elsewhere with med clinics and adoption agencies, or self insure their own institutions. I’m sure, that with the Money they give up, other institutions with American Values, will pick up the slack.
The RCC, found ways to side step and deal with the Nazis, With repressive Communist Governments, and with the Dictatorships of S. America in recent past history. But they can’t with a Democratic Government who supports Freedom of Religion? Could this just be a smoke screen, to hide their Illegal behavior, their support of Pedophile Priests, and underground attempts to subvert the American way of Democratic life?
As A Catholic, albeit an Old Catholic, raised as A Roman Catholic, I abhor this intrusion on our Democracy. Real Christians will see the Mummery and stupidity of self serving hypocrites, apply the teachings of Jesus to what is happening and move on to continue establishing the True Kingdom of God, on earth which includes Real Democracy.
Peace & Joy,
+Neil V. Christensen, c.s.e.f., Th.D.
Presiding Bishop, OCC, Dioceses of St. John the Divine, in the USA.
Thanks for reading and thanks for your perspective. You do bring up a very interesting point about Catholic bishops being able to work with all kinds of horrific situations throughout recent history, and they can’t handle tangling with US policies of religious freedom?
Thanks for pointing out the theme of control. For a long time, I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that opposition to necessary female health care like contraception is not about upholding Jesus’s edicts for human life. I think the truth is that there are very, very few things in this world that ultimately are not controlled by elderly religious men. I think the bishops (so accustomed to demanding practical, moral and spiritual authority) are, perhaps subconsciously, unbearably steamed about anything in human society that they cannot control. The inside of a woman’s body falls squarely in that tiny category of worldly things that elderly religious men do not control. So these bishops do whatever they can to bring it under their control – i.e., denigrating contraception and hurting women’s ability to access it.
To the chagrin of many members of my own church, especially the men in charge, this female “oven” will continue to write what she thinks.