The Obama health care plan’s showdown with Catholic institutions belongs in what my husband calls the “too hard file.”
I’m usually clear on what I think about things, but in this case I can see both sides.
The Obama administration, led by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, has mandated that all employers, including certain religious institutions such as hospitals and universities, provide the whole health-care package for all employees, which includes access to contraception. It specifically says that abortion is not covered (According to the FDA, the morning after pill is not an abortifacient.) and churches and other places of worship do not have to provide for contraception coverage.
The Catholic Church is up in arms. Its leaders maintain that having to provide coverage for contraception is against Catholic beliefs and say that, in good conscience, the church cannot agree to that provision. They point to religious freedom as the reason they should not have to comply.
Let’s first consider the side of administration:
It is true that 98% of Catholic women have at some point used birth control and Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as other women. That is not irrelevant.
The church talks about religious freedom, but what about women’s freedom? These are not CEOs who need to be insured. These are working women who often cannot afford birth control on their own. Contraception allows women to live their lives, stay in school, contribute to the work force, stay off welfare, and, most importantly, it reduces the number of abortions. It has been estimated that it would cost the institutions 15 to 17 percent more not to provide these benefits because of medical problems associated with pregnancy, miscarriages and lost work time.
Would more people be hurt by not getting Catholic services (which they would not get only if the church refused to serve them because of the health care bill), or would more women (and therefore families) be hurt by not getting contraceptives?
If we are talking about the religious practices of 2% of women being the reason why 98% of women who are Catholic (or of other faiths) being denied the means to contraception, is that really right? Is it really in the best interest of women, families, the country or even the Catholic Church?
Those who disagree with the HHS plan say that if people want contraception, they shouldn’t work for religious institutions. How realistic is that? Are they all supposed to quit their jobs? These institutions are serving and employing millions who may not have the same beliefs. Should those people be discriminated against?
Plus, more than 28 states already have identical religious employer exemptions.
More than 20 major religious leaders support the Obama administration on this issue, as does Catholics for Choice. In a statement issued Wednesday, these leaders wrote: “The administration was correct in requiring institutions that do not have purely sectarian goals to offer comprehensive preventive health care. Our leaders have the responsibility to safeguard individual religious liberty and to help improve the health of women, their children, and families. Hospitals and universities across the religious spectrum have an obligation to assure that individuals’ conscience and decisions are respected and that their students and employees have access to basic health care service.”
While the HHS rules cover all employers, not just those taking taxpayer money, many of the religious institutions objecting to the mandate do use public money in some way. People with religious objections must watch while tax dollars are spent on executions and wars which violate their beliefs and their consciences. Yet executions and wars continue. And while churches may be vocal opponents of these actions, where is the public outcry from the faithful?
One of the most important arguments for the health care mandate is that so many opponents are from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which is male-dominated and celibate. This is a tiny minority of unmarried men making the decisions about the quality of life for millions of women. That makes no sense.
All these arguments should easily move this issue from the “too hard file,” but the church position makes some good points, too:
If some Catholics, and those of any faith, truly believe that contraception is a sin, we cannot ignore that despite the fact that we have a country in which separation of church and state is sacrosanct. One of the reasons for separation of church and state is to protect the church as well as the state. It is important to be respectful of all religious groups. To ask religious institutions to go against a core belief and their spiritual conscience in this fashion is unjust.
So what is the answer?
President Obama’s spiritual advisor, the Rev. Joel Hunter, has said, “this is fixable and we want to get into the conversation.”
David Axelrod, a senior advisor to the president’s campaign, said this week on on MSNBC, “We certainly don’t want to abridge anyone’s religious freedoms, so we’re going to look for a way to move forward that both provides women with the preventative care that they need and respects the prerogatives of religious institutions.”
The bottom line is that this issue has suddenly blown up into political crisis. Republicans are milking it, accusing Obama yet again of a “war on religion” and trying to turn America into a “secular” nation. This is ridiculous, of course, but is playing well. It’s not just strict Catholics who are disaffected. Those who are totally supportive of contraception are feeling unease about a perceived disrespect for matters of religious conscience. Evangelicals have joined the chorus, as have Hispanics, who are 16% of the population and a key voting bloc in the 2012 campaign. This has become a political issue and the White House understands that. This has become about votes and it’s probably not worth losing the election over.
Even the most fervent supporters of the White House ‘s position have reconciled themselves to a compromise.
The question is this: If the administration folds and the Catholics get an exemption, what are we to do about the women?