Commentary Religion

On Contraceptive Coverage, the Government Is Right, the Bishops Are Wrong, and This Is Why

Rev. Harry Knox

The Obama Administration is right to require insurance companies to cover contraception for public employees. The bishops are wrong to seek to use the government to limit the decision-making power of American women.  And they are surely wrong to call what they are trying to do freedom.

Starting June 21, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is sponsoring a series of events nationwide called “Fortnight for Freedom” attacking women’s access to often life-saving contraception. With just six weeks before the historic Obamacare contraceptive coverage measure takes effect, the bishops are creating a public relations opportunity to press their disingenuous claim that the contraceptive coverage rule violates their religious freedom to discriminate against a women’s health measure they don’t like.

In effect, they are seeking to impose their religious doctrine on millions of Americans of all faiths and no particular faith. They are trying to do this by forcing the Obama Administration to back down on an essential basic preventive health care measure that has long – and unjustly – been denied to women.

The bishops’ cynicism in labeling their efforts a defense of religious freedom is appalling. Plainly, the bishops are demanding that the government become their tool in forcing their views on the American people. There is nothing free about that. The shamelessness of it is made worse by the fact that the bishops speak loudly and often about their concern for those who are poor and disadvantaged – people who are among those who most need insurance for contraception, without onerous additional costs, which Obamacare will provide.

As religious traditions teach, the decision to become pregnant and have children is one of the most important decisions people make. These decisions affect all of society and require responsible policies that involve us all, whether we are called to bear the sacred joy of parenthood ourselves or to be partners in creating a culture of loving care.

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Yet the bishops contend that the Obama Administration is limiting their religious freedom by requiring them to pay for or provide contraception for their employees.  Nothing could be further from the truth. The bishops’ ability to believe and teach whatever they want is not hindered by the new healthcare rule. Insurers, not the bishops or Catholic Church-related institutions, are required to pay for contraception. No one at any institution is required to use contraception. But the bishops persist in demanding that the government do their dirty work in crushing the consciences of even their own church members.

What is true is that there is a new standard of care under the Affordable Care Act, which says that contraception is basic preventive health care for women and women should have full and comprehensive access to it without additional cost. For women, this is a critical step forward in closing the gender gap in healthcare. When the bishops protested against this significant improvement in women’s health and lives, the Administration devised a thoughtful compromise. It allows churches to limit the healthcare access of their strictly religious employees (like priests and nuns) but doesn’t allow the bishops to arbitrarily withhold healthcare options for employees of hospitals, universities and other settings that serve and employ the general public. 

If the Administration capitulates to the intense pressure being generated by the bishops during these two weeks, millions of Americans will be penalized – cut off from the care they need because of discredited and outdated doctrines they do not share and that are not in their best interests. Those harmed will include the 98 percent of American Catholic women who, like their neighbors of diverse faith traditions, use contraception at some time during their lives, regardless of the doctrine of their church. 

As faith leaders from the nation’s major traditions, members of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice are making a moral appeal to the Obama Administration.  Women’s individual power to make decisions about their own health is under attack – not the religious freedom of a corporation called the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  We call on the Administration to defend the freedom of American women to exercise self-determination in the most critical area of their lives – their precious health.

The Obama Administration is right to require insurance companies to cover contraception for public employees. The bishops are wrong to seek to use the government to limit the decision-making power of American women.  And they are surely wrong to call what they are trying to do freedom.

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