Contraception: Controversial Health Care Mandate

The U.S. Health and Human Services department (HHS) recently announced a controversial ruling that would compel most religious organizations to offer contraceptive services as part of their basic health care package. Churches themselves would be granted the “religious exemption.”

Sometimes it may seem hard to defend organizations which in many cases push intrusive meddling upon the rights and private lives of American citizens. Here we have a case where the exact same wrong is being perpetrated upon some of those religious groups. The danger in each case is that the wrongs are perpetrated through the offices of the United States government.

What was HHS thinking? Who would be beneficiaries of this new ruling? PBS reports that while churches themselves are exempt from the new rules, Catholic hospitals and universities must comply.

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: “The new guidelines require most private health plans to cover preventive services, including contraception, for women without charging a co-pay, co-insurance or a deductible. The guidelines were recommended by the non-partisan Independent Institute of Medicine.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: “But many university employees and students on the school’s health plan have used birth control and want the school to comply with the regulation.” — Both citations from the 2/6/2012 PBS interviews by Ray Suarez.

Employees of the affected groups would be covered under the ruling. So students and presumably patients – anyone covered under “most private health plans” – would be included too.

PBS reported that women’s groups generally favor the White House action. Cited as one reason was the fact that millions of women depend on contraceptive services. The ACLU is fine with it because [employee] “individual liberties are not affected.”

It was hard to deconstruct exactly how the United States government rationalized compelling conscientiously objecting religious organizations to provide contraceptive services. If the government can do this to Catholic schools and charities, they can do it to anyone. Are religious organizations just getting a taste of their own medicine?

For religious-affiliated employers, the requirement will take effect Aug. 1, 2013, and their workers in most cases will have access to coverage starting Jan. 1, 2014. Women working for secular enterprises, from profit-making companies to government, will have access to the new coverage starting Jan. 1, 2013, in most cases.” — From USNews (AP)

It’s not about preventing women from buying anything themselves, but telling the church what it has to buy, and the potential for that to go further,” said Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, representing some 600 hospitals.” — From SFGate.

It’s obviously also not about taking away a benefit church organizations had provided before.

As has been widely publicized in the last few days, many Catholic workers and students already avail themselves of contraceptive services (elsewhere) despite their church’s ban on birth control. There are already excellent alternative sources of family planning, including the recently spotlighted Planned Parenthood, which, according to Wikipedia, “is the largest provider of reproductive health services in the United States.”

So the HHS action is not truly remediative: it does not provide or restore services that were not readily available before. So it is not about women’s rights, and probably not about affordability. If this were about a threat to the unquestionable right of women to access and control and their own reproductive rights, we would have to side with reproductive rights. But it is not.

No matter whether we agree or not with the motivation, is it immoral for a government to compel its citizens to act in direct contradiction to their most fervently held convictions if no one else is harmed by those convictions? We have to ask why the ACLU dropped the ball on the individual right to religious freedom.

Would we really be on the moral high ground compelling vicars, priests or their administrators to dispense condoms and morning-after pills?

Under a generalized “religious exemption,” Federal law does not prevent religious organizations from engaging in discriminatory behavior against gays, for example, but the law seeks to ban religious organizations from excluding contraceptive services from its health care insurance programs.

Part of the problem is the hit-and-miss approach our own democracy takes in applying constitutional standards of equality. I think access to reproductive health care is as basic a part of health care as prostate screening. In this light the Administrative dilemma is actually predictable: if reproductive care should be a basic element of a health care package, should religious organizations be exempted from providing complete basic health care plans?

The common ground here, I submit, is freedom. Religious organizations, however much they may be opposed to same-sex civic marriage, premarital sexual relations and other commitments of individual conscience, do not actually have any right or power to legally bar them in the United States. In the other corner, our government has access to almost unlimited power to impose a patchwork of arbitrary mandates upon all of us, no matter how carefully worded our Constitution.

Catholic and other religious institutions are not in any way preventing their employees from obtaining contraceptives. They are simply saying “please don’t expect us to provide them.” I fail to understand why reasonable people would not see the true significance of this.

If I chose to pursue a curriculum of Gay Studies, and decided to pursue it at Holy Names University, wouldn’t it be fair to ask what I could possibly have been thinking?

I’m fully aware that the Catholic Church and many other religious groups are still engaged in an unrelenting effort to deprive millions of Americans of civil rights by lobbying our legislators and influencing our laws.

But violating their religious and political freedoms, whether we like how they exercise them or not, is not the way to go about it.

I support federal oversight of health care plans, because of the deplorable track record of private US employers, insurers and HMO’s in providing access to affordable comprehensive health care. But I remain aware that kerfuffles like this one are a really good argument against federal oversight. The government needs to back off.

That our government should persist in this high-handed tactic would be utterly bizarre. The Administration’s contrived legal gimmickry is dangerous, and the President should personally rescind it. If it gets that far, I doubt the Supreme Court will smile benignly upon this.

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3 thoughts on “Contraception: Controversial Health Care Mandate

  1. My post ought to have stated more explicitly that I favor the inclusion of birth control services in health care plans. My article targets only the decision to require church service organizations, such as religious charities, schools or hospitals, to comply with the HHS provision even when they conscientiously object to it.

  2. Friday New York Times:

    “The administration plan most closely resembles Hawaii’s, in which employees at religious institutions whose health insurance plans do not offer free contraception can get birth control through side benefits. The difference, though, is that whereas in Hawaii the employees nominally pay for the benefits, the Obama proposal would shift the cost to insurers. Administration officials hope that insurers will not object because in the long run, they argue, contraceptives end up saving more money than they cost because they prevent unwanted pregnancies.”

    Though this revised plan, announced this morning, should alleviate the worst concerns of Catholics, those religious organizations originally opposed to any form of birth control will remain opposed to it, and the implicit gaffe in the original Administration political calculation has encouraged GOP House Speaker Boehner to announce legislative efforts to scrap the whole thing if the Obama Administration does not rescind it.

  3. Pingback: Church vs. State: Religious Freedom vs. Freedom of Speech | La Parola

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