Post Classifieds

The Catholic case for contraception coverage

By Jon O'Brien
On February 3, 2014

  • Catholics accept some and reject other forms of contraceptions. Nancy Phelan Wiechec/CNS

(RNS) - The ongoing debate about the state of religious freedom in the United States is riddled with distortion and half-truths. There is certainly an important debate to be had, but sadly it's not the one we hear much about.

 Much of the current debate centers on the requirement for insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, which adds a second flashpoint to the mix: reproductive rights. The question that we really need to answer is this: whose religious freedom are we talking about?
 Some, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, would have us believe that the only voices that matter are theirs. But there are 75 million Catholic voices in the U.S. today, and the bishops represent only 300 of them. We need to take into account the freedom of all employees, no matter where they work, to exercise their personal beliefs without the bishops imposing theirs upon them.
 Our overarching concern is the protection of both individual rights in health care decisions and individual religious liberty from institutional intrusion. The bishops are right that the debate is about religious liberty and contraception, but their end goal is clear: Having failed to persuade Catholics in the pews to follow their ban on contraception, they are attempting to use the legislative and judicial processes to eliminate access for as many people as possible.
 Let's set the record straight on a few issues.
 The religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution has two sides, freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Too often, we hear about the first part, and the second part is ignored. They are both equally important.
 Individuals have consciences, they have health care needs and they have religious liberty. They deserve to have these rights and needs respected and protected. Institutions, however, do not. The constant bleating about institutions having their conscience violated by the contraceptive mandate is a bogus argument.
 Some argue that schools, hospitals or any places of employment, faith based or not, have a "conscience" and "freedom of religion." They do not. According to my Catholic tradition, individuals have consciences and deserve to exercise them without coercion. Institutions - both secular and "religious institutions," as well as "religious organizations" - do not have the right to claim "consciences" in order to trample on the conscience rights that properly belong to their employees.
 I recognize and support the right of individual medical professionals to decline to provide services they consider immoral. When they refuse to provide services, they should provide simple and local referrals for the same services so that the health, conscience and rights of the patient are not denied. However, it goes too far to grant such refusal rights to an entire institution - such as a hospital or managed-care provider - or, for that matter, to allow blanket exclusions of coverage for certain health care services.
  Contrary to many claims, the new regulations require coverage of all FDA-approved methods of contraception, but they do not require coverage of abortion medications, such as RU-486. Emergency contraception, such as Ella or Plan B, does not terminate existing pregnancies - it prevents a pregnancy from occurring.
 The majority of Catholics support equal access to the full range of contraceptive services and oppose policies that impede upon that access, including access to emergency contraception. A strong majority (78 percent) of Catholic women prefer that their hospital offer emergency contraception for rape victims, while more than half (57 percent) want their hospital to provide it in broader circumstances.
 Already, too many religious employers are allowed to completely deny contraceptive coverage to their employees. A workaround from the Obama administration:

  • denies too many women affordable access to the healthcare they need;
  • constitutes state-sponsored discrimination by denying certain women equal access to contraceptive coverage available to others simply on the basis of where they work;
  • represents an affront to religious freedom by allowing employers to override the beliefs and practices of individual workers; and
  • offends the Catholic ideals of the primacy of individual conscience, workers' rights and social justice by leaving some women behind.

But even that isn't enough for the bishops. Perhaps Jon Stewart put it best when he concluded a recent segment on this matter with the words, "Just because someone works for you doesn't mean you can control their personal lives." That extends to employees of a comedy show as well as the bishops conference.
Jon O'Brien is president of Catholics for Choice, an independent Washington-based group that supports abortion rights and reproductive freedom.

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