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.