News Contraception

Pope Francis’ Remarks About Birth Control ‘Methods’ Offend Pro-Choice Catholics

Martha Kempner

While his off-the-cuff comments may have garnered chuckles from some people, many others are offended and point to the Church’s central role in denying women access to birth control.

Pope Francis, on his way home from his visit to the Philippines this week, raised eyebrows when he said that Catholics don’t have to have so many children: “Some think, excuse me if I use the word, that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits, but no.”

While his off-the-cuff comments may have garnered chuckles from some people, many others are offended and point to the Church’s central role in denying women access to birth control.

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said the comments were anything but amusing.

“There’s no doubt that bunnies are furry, cuddly, and comedic. When you start talking about it, it’s sort of hilarious. But Catholics the world over have had to suffer discrimination and prejudice because of the idea that we can’t control our fertility,” O’Brien said in an interview with Rewire. “I think that the Pope’s remarks were offensive. I don’t think he says them with malice. I think the problem for Pope Francis is that he has a blind spot in relation to women.

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The Pope’s comments were said in reference to a woman he had met on the trip who has had seven cesarean sections and is now risking her life to have an eighth child. The Pope called this an example of “irresponsibility” and said that though the woman might argue that she had trusted in God, she’d be wrong.

“But God gives you methods to be responsible,” he said.

O’Brien said he was upset by the accusatory nature of those remarks: “To have Pope Francis pointing a finger as if to say that women are feckless and irresponsible is awful,” O’Brien said. “How dare he talk about this woman like that. Women have had to carry a huge burden in the Catholic Church because of an intransigent hierarchy that has waged war on contraception. Women have died.”

The Pope essentially suggested that this woman had had too many children. He went on to say that three children was the ideal number to demonstrate responsible parenting because it assured re-population.

O’Brien found these comments disrespectful of women and couples “who in good conscience are deciding how many children they should have.”

O’Brien and others noted that the Pope’s comments are particularly disturbing given that he was leaving the Philippines, a country that has used the Church’s doctrine against birth control to significantly restrict access to family planning, especially for poor women.

Emily Rauhala, a correspondent for TIME, has been following the politics of birth control in the Philippines for many years. She wrote:

The Philippines’ Catholic hierarchy has fought long and hard to restrict access to prophylactics. Over the past few decades, as most countries embraced family planning, the Philippines has moved in the opposite direction, discouraging the use of contraception and prohibiting abortion under any circumstance. They cast condom use as anti-Catholic and anti-Filipino, insisting that couples ought to use “natural methods.”

In fact, the Catholic Church in the Philippines has successfully fought a bill to help poor women access contraception. Even after the bill passed, the Church continued to fight it by involving the courts and challenging the law’s constitutionality.

Still, Pope Francis was confident that Catholics could control the number of children they have while sticking to the rules of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which prohibits use of any modern methods of contraception.

“This is why there are marriage support groups in the Church with people who are experts on such issues. And there are pastors and I know that there are many acceptable solutions that have helped with this,” he said.

Presumably the Pope was pointing to natural family planning, which requires tracking a woman’s cycle and remaining abstinent on her most fertile days. O’Brien thinks this is ridiculous.

“Everyone knows that natural family planning is a phenomenal failure,” he said, pointing out that Catholic women with options choose anything else.

In fact, 99 percent of Catholic women in the United States have used modern methods of contraception. Perhaps so that they didn’t have to breed like bunnies.

News Race

At ‘Pro-Life’ Conference, Silence on Police Violence

Amy Littlefield

Among the only contributions to the national dialogue taking place over racial justice and state violence was a card circulated in the exhibit hall by a group called the Radiance Foundation that read “All Lives Matter In & Out of the Womb.”

As one of the nation’s largest anti-choice groups launched its three-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, Thursday, a very different conversation was underway on the national stage.

Across the country, peaceful protests erupted over the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

As Rewire’s Imani Gandy has documented, the anti-choice movement has long attempted to appropriate the language of racial justice and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag as part of a wider effort to shame Black women and cast abortion as “Black genocide.”

But at the National Right to Life Convention, the overriding response to last week’s police killings was silence. Among the only contributions to the national dialogue taking place over racial justice was a card circulated in the exhibit hall by a group called the Radiance Foundation that read “All lives matter In & Out of the womb.”

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Rewire asked convention director Jacki Ragan whether she thought the issue should have been raised explicitly at the conference.

“We are very single issue,” Ragan said. “We are here because of a threat to human life. We believe the unborn child is a human being from the moment of fertilization. We believe the disabled should have the same rights, [the] elderly should have the same rights, so we’re very single issue. So, no, I don’t really think it would be appropriate to address what had happened other than through prayer at the conference.”

At a prayer breakfast on Friday morning, after conference-goers awoke to the news five police officers had been killed by a gunman in Dallas, Rev. Dennis Kleinmann of St. Veronica Catholic Church in Chantilly, Virginia, prayed for guidance “to make this a better world, a world free of war and violence of every kind, including attacks on those who protect us.”

Ernest Ohlhoff, National Right to Life Committee outreach director, addressed the violence more directly.

“I don’t know if any of you heard the news this morning, but unfortunately we had another catastrophe in our country,” he said. “Five police officers in Dallas were killed in a shooting and [at least] six wounded, and I would ask you to pray for them and their families.”

No prayers were offered for Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, or their families. 

Commentary Law and Policy

Here’s What You Need to Know About Your Birth Control Access Post-Supreme Court Ruling

Bridgette Dunlap

Yes, the Zubik v. Burwell case challenged the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive coverage mandate. But that shouldn't stop you from getting your reproductive health needs met—without a co-payment.

In May, the Supreme Court issued a sort of non-decision in Zubik v. Burwell, the consolidated case challenging the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employers provide contraceptive coverage. The ruling leaves some very important legal questions unanswered, but it is imperative that criticism of the Court for “punting” or leaving women in “limbo” not obscure the practical reality: that the vast majority of people with insurance are currently entitled to contraception without a co-payment—that includes people, for the most part, who work for religiously affiliated organizations.

Two years ago, hyperbole in response to the Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby—that, for example, the Court had ruled your boss can block your birth control—led too many people to believe the contraceptive coverage requirement was struck down. It wasn’t. The Zubik decision provides a good opportunity to make sure that is understood.

If people think they don’t have birth control coverage, they won’t use it. And if they don’t know what coverage is legally required, they won’t know when their plans are not in compliance with the law and overcharging them for contraceptives or other covered services, perhaps unintentionally. The point of the contraceptive coverage rule is to make it as easy as possible to access contraceptives—studies show seemingly small obstacles prevent consistent use of the most effective contraceptives. Eliminating financial barriers isn’t enough if informational ones undermine the goal.

The most important thing to know is that most health plans are currently required to cover reproductive health services without a co-payment, including:

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  • One version of every kind of FDA-approved contraception—that is, only the generic or the brand-name version of the contraceptive could be covered, but at least one must be. So you shouldn’t be paying a co-payment whether you use the pill, the patch, the shot, or want long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) like an IUD, which is more expensive, but most effective.
  • Screening for HIV and high-risk strains of HPV
  • An annual well-woman visit
  • Breastfeeding counseling and supplies like pumps

There are exceptions, but most plans should be covering these services without a co-payment. Don’t assume that because you work for Hobby Lobby or Notre Dame—or any other religiously affiliated employer—that you don’t currently have coverage.

The original contraceptive coverage rule had an “exemption” for church-type groups (on the somewhat dubious theory that such groups primarily employ individuals who would share their employers’ objection to contraception). When other kinds of organizations, which had religious affiliations but didn’t primarily employ individuals of that same religion, objected to providing contraceptive coverage, the Obama administration came up with a plan to accommodate them while still making sure women get contraceptive coverage.

This “accommodation” is a workaround that transfers the responsibility to provide contraceptive coverage from the employer to the insurance company. After the employer fills out a form noting it objects to providing contraception, the insurance company must reach out to the employee and provide separate coverage that the objecting organization doesn’t pay for or arrange.

This accommodation was originally available only to nonprofit organizations. But dozens of for-profits, like Hobby Lobby, sued under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)—arguing that their owners were religious people whose beliefs were also burdened by the company having to provide coverage.

The Hobby Lobby decision did not say your boss’s religious belief trumps your right to a quality health plan. What the Court did was point to the existence of the accommodation for nonprofits as proof that the government could achieve its goals of ensuring coverage of contraception through a workaround already in place to give greater protection to objectors. Basically, the Court told the government to give the for-profits the same treatment as the nonprofits.

The Hobby Lobby decision states explicitly that the effect of this on women should be “precisely zero.” The Obama administration subsequently amended the contraceptive regulations, making coverage available to employees of companies like Hobby Lobby available through the accommodation. Hobby Lobby added some headaches for administrators and patients, but it did not eliminate the contraceptive coverage rule.

Next, however, the nonprofits went on to argue to the Supreme Court and the public that the accommodation the Court had seemed to bless in Hobby Lobby also violated RFRA—because having to fill out a form, which notified the government that they objected to contraceptive coverage and identifying their insurers, would substantially burden their religious beliefs.

Following oral arguments in Zubik, the eight-member Supreme Court issued a highly unusual order: It asked the parties to respond to its proposed modification of the accommodation, in which the government would not require objecting nonprofits to self-certify that they oppose contraception nor to identify their insurers. The government would take an organization’s decision to contract for a health plan that does not cover contraception to be notice of a religious objection and go ahead with requiring the insurer to provide it instead.

The petitioners’ response to the Court’s proposed solution was “Yes, but…” They said the Court’s plan would be fine so long as the employee had to opt into the coverage, use a separate insurance card, and jump through various other hoops—defeating the goal of providing “seamless” contraceptive coverage through the accommodation.

When the Court issued its decision in Zubik, it ignored the “but.” It characterized the parties as being in agreement and sent the cases back to the lower courts to work out the compromise.

The Court told the government it could consider itself on notice of the petitioners’ objections and move forward with getting separate contraceptive coverage to the petitioners’ employees, through the accommodation process, but without the self-certification form. How the government will change the accommodation process, and whether it will satisfy the petitioners, are open questions. The case could end up back at the Supreme Court if the petitioners won’t compromise and one of the lower courts rules for them again. But for prospective patients, the main takeaway is that the Court ruled the government can move forward now with requiring petitioners’ insurers to provide the coverage that the petitioners won’t.

So—if your plan isn’t grandfathered, and you don’t work for a church or an organization that has sued the government, your insurance should be covering birth control without a co-payment. (If your plan is grandfathered and your employer makes a change to that plan, then those formerly grandfathered plans would be subject to the same contraceptive coverage requirements.) If you do work for one of the nonprofit petitioners, the government should be making contraceptive coverage available even before the litigation is resolved. And in some cases, employees of the petitioners already have coverage. Notre Dame, for example, initially accepted the accommodation before being pressured by off-campus contraception opponents to sue, so its insurer is currently providing Notre Dame students and employees coverage.

Don’t despair about the Supreme Court’s gutting access to contraception. Assume that you have coverage. The National Women’s Law Center has great resources here for finding out if your plan is required to cover contraception and how to address it with your insurance plan if it isn’t in compliance, and a hotline to call if you need help. The fact that equitable coverage of women’s health care is the new status quo is a very big deal that can be lost in the news about the unprecedented litigation campaign to block access to birth control and attacks on Obamacare more generally. Seriously, tell your friends.