By Louise Melling, Deputy Legal Director, ACLU
Recognizing the importance of birth control to women’s health and lives, the Obama administration stood firm today against the political strong-arming of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other religious groups that oppose contraception. This is a major victory for women’s health that we should all celebrate. But the path to today’s victory was not a foregone conclusion.
Last summer, following the recommendation of a non-partisan panel of medical experts, the Department of Health and Human Services issued guidelines requiring new insurance plans to cover contraceptives. The bishops, the political arm of the Catholic Church, immediately cried foul, claiming a right to use their religious beliefs to discriminate against millions of women of all faiths who use contraception.
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To be clear: No one is requiring people of faith to stop preaching that contraception is sinful, if that’s what they believe, or forcing churches to buy contraceptive coverage for their ministry. In fact, the proposed guidelines included an exemption for religious institutions like churches or synagogues that hire people of the same belief for the purposes of advancing that faith. This didn’t satisfy the bishops and others. For example, the bishops have demanded that institutions like religiously affiliated hospitals and universities — institutions that serve and employ millions of non-Catholics — be allowed to deny coverage for contraception. But try as they might, the bishops could not prevail over the simple truth:
Religious freedom gives everyone the right to make personal decisions, including whether and when to use birth control based on our own beliefs and according to what is best for our health and the well-being of our families. It does not give religious groups the right to impose their beliefs on others.
Virtually every woman of childbearing age, including 98 percent of sexually active Catholics, practices some sort of contraception at some point. Women use contraception to prevent unintended pregnancies, plan their families and protect their health. Birth control medication is also commonly prescribed for a variety of treatments unrelated to pregnancy prevention. This is why the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine initially recommended to HHS that insurance companies be required to cover contraceptives in the first place.
Moreover, insurance coverage for contraception is not a radical idea. Most states already require coverage for contraceptives. And Catholic institutions across the country have been offering plans that include such coverage with apparently no detrimental effects to the Catholic faith overall. Catholic hospitals alone employ almost 800,000 people. For these employees, as well as teachers at religious universities and workers at other religiously affiliated organizations, taking a job at one of these institutions doesn’t mean they’re signing up to join the church.
After careful consideration of different views, the Obama administration stood firm for women’s health. It declined to expand the proposed exception.
The Obama administration’s duty is to American people of all faiths. We commend HHS for standing up for what is right. But we must continue to be vigilant because one thing is for sure — this will not be the last time the bishops try to use their bully pulpit to impose their religious beliefs on an unsuspecting nation.