Saturday, January 21, 2012

Women's Health and Religous Freedom

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared that health insurance plans must cover preventative services for women, including birth control. The goal is that all women, regardless of their faith or where they work or go to school, should have access to birth control if they so choose to use it- without having their access restricted by expensive co-pays or an insurance plan that does not cover contraception.

The move was strongly opposed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who wanted the law to allow for a religious exemption. Obama took their concerns seriously (too seriously, in my opinion), and a meeting with the U.S.C.C.B. sparked outrage and protest from many concerned about religious encroachment on women's health.

But yesterday we learned that Obama didn't pander to religious groups, who want to hide behind religion and religious exemptions to strip women of their rights and endanger their health. Or at least, he didn't totally pander to them. The ruling still includes a religious exemption that allows religious institutions, like churches, and small religious-based nonprofits that can prove that the majority of their employees are people of the same faith, to not provide insurance that covers contraception.

Unfortunately, some people of faith are absolutely outraged by the decision, calling it a "disaster" and saying that Obama is marginalizing people of faith and pandering to the far-left's sexual politics. Even the pope is involved, issuing an address to the bishops of the United States in which he says:

It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres... Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society. The preparation of committed lay leaders and the presentation of a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society remain a primary task of the Church in your country; as essential components of the new evangelization, these concerns must shape the vision and goals of catechetical programs at every level. In this regard, I would mention with appreciation your efforts to maintain contacts with Catholics involved in political life and to help them understand their personal responsibility to offer public witness to their faith, especially with regard to the great moral issues of our time: respect for God’s gift of life, the protection of human dignity and the promotion of authentic human rights.

There are also lots of comments with a liberals-are-so-quick-to-cry-out-separation-of-church-and-state-so-shouldn't-that-also-apply-to-this-outrage! theme.

Honestly, I think the outrage is ridiculous and demonstrates that many people don't understand exactly what separation of church and state means.

Obama isn't pandering to the far-left's sexual politics, because it isn't just the far-left who think that birth control should be accessible. And it isn't just crazy liberal women who use it. As the statement by the Dept of HHS itself says, "Birth control is the most commonly taken drug by young and middle-aged women." And as we know, 97% of Catholic women will use birth control at some point in their lives. This isn't pandering to some far-left sexual ideology, this is ensuring that women have access to a drug that they clearly want and use, one that is crucial to their health and quality of life.

Secondly, the law isn't forcing anyone to do anything that their faith prohibits. It isn't saying that people MUST use contraception. It simply says that if they want it, they need to have access to it. If you are a Catholic woman who strongly opposes contraception at a place where it is now covered by insurance, simply do not ask for a prescription for contraception. The ruling isn't encroaching on your religious freedom to do so.

One of the big concerns over a religious exemption was Catholic universities, where many non-Catholic students attend and many students - both Catholic and non-Catholic alike - are having sex and should be able to do so safely. From what I can tell, universities are one of the few places that will really be affected by the ruling, since churches and many religious non-profits are exempt. I'm sure many people would say something along the lines of, "If you're not Catholic, don't go to a Catholic school!" which is fine and dandy for them to say. However, it doesn't change the fact that by depriving non-Catholics, or Catholics who disagree with the idea that contraception is wrong, access to contraception, they are depriving those people of their rights and their religious freedom. Religious freedom means that you have a right to make a moral decision about your actions and behavior based on your religious beliefs. It does not mean that you have a right to make it impossible for other people to do something that contradicts your religious beliefs.

I suppose a final argument could be made that religious persons are now having to spend their tax money on something that they disagree with. And honestly, I sympathize. I do. Because I have had to pay taxes that largely fund wars I disagree with, prison systems I think are inhumane, a justice system that uses the death penalty, and programs I think are inefficient and ridiculous (hello, abstinence only sex-ed!). But the bottom line is that despite my objections, I had to pay them. Because while I can vote and advocate to change the system, I can't opt out of the system. Catholics, in in particular, should be well aware of the fact that that is how it works, because the last time I checked the Church also disagreed with the recent wars, our inhumane prison system, and the death penalty. Where is your outrage over your tax money being used for these things? Why do I only hear the "tax money" argument brought up around reproductive rights?

I think one of the reasons this ruling has been so difficult for certain religious groups is that it highlights an increasingly divergent understanding of religious freedom. To many religious groups, religious freedom means that no one in the U.S. should have a right to do something they find morally wrong; no one should have access to abortion, no gay couple should be allowed to get married, no one should be able to conduct stem cell research. Yet, as stated previously, that means they are depriving others of their right to religious freedom, to make decisions based on their own construction of morality.

That isn't religious freedom, that is religious tyranny.

14 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Good points well put. Questions about the government requiring or prohibiting something that conflicts with someone’s faith are entirely real, but not new. The courts have occasionally confronted such issues and have generally ruled that the government cannot enact laws specifically aimed at a particular religion (which would be regarded a constraint on religious liberty contrary to the First Amendment), but can enact laws generally applicable to everyone or at least broad classes of people (e.g., laws concerning traffic, pollution, taxes, contracts, fraud, negligence, crimes, discrimination, employment, and on and on) and can require everyone, including those who may object on religious grounds, to abide by them. Were it otherwise and anyone could opt out of this or that law with the excuse that their religion requires or allows it, the government and the rule of law could hardly operate. Thus, the government can forbid discrimination against specified people and apply that law even to those who say their religion allows or requires them to discriminate. In rare (one hopes) circumstances, such a generally-applicable law could put an individual in an ethical Catch-22 if it requires one to take actions one considers immoral. For just this reason, when such binds can be anticipated, provisions may be added to laws affording some relief to conscientious objectors.

    Here, it may be questioned whether there is real need for such an exemption, since no one is being "forced," as some commentators rage, to act contrary to their belief. Employers generally are not required by law to offer health-related benefits to their employees, although the practice of providing such benefits is common. IF an employer chooses to offer health benefits, though, federal anti-discrimination laws and health plan enforcement regulations act to protect an employee’s rights under those health plans. So, depending on whether an exemption to the law is allowed, either employers or employees are put to a choice. If religious employers are exempted from current discrimination and health benefit laws so they can offer health benefits omitting some medications and services, employees can choose whether to accept such benefits or seek employment elsewhere. If current discrimination and health benefit laws are enforced, religious employers can choose to offer health plans complying with those laws or not offer any health plans at all. To the extent that employers already have an option under the current laws consistent with their religious views, they have less need for an exemption from those laws.

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  3. "'Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience,' said Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. bishops’ conference."

    Nobody is forcing anyone to BUY contraception. What was he thinking when he made this ridiculous statement?

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  4. There is some kind of movement in this country to continue the puritanical view that women cannot have choice. This isn't new and it won't be the last we hear of it. Every generation of women needs to stand up for their "choice" because this debate will continue. Ask any woman from the 1970's to date what has been going on in terms of "choice." I bet the answers will be the same. What changes is society's view and the changing tides of government politics. We need to stand up and make decisions for ourselves that make sense. Religious faith is personal and should remain that way. Religious beliefs are very real for many people and should be kept personal and not imposed on others. It is because of human nature that people feel the need to help others and through this effort rely on their religion to see "them" through tough times and so they impose those belief on others even if they are not what the person believes. They do it in the name of "faith." There is nothing wrong with faith if it is your "faith" and "belief."

    A. Maiden

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  5. Even from within the perspective of the Catholic Church, the attempt to manipulate the legislative process as such is alarming. Is not a foundational theological premise of Catholicism that the last court of moral appeal is the conscience of the individual? A basic and, in my opinion, essential, belief in the goodness of humanity is dangerously undermined when the USCCB obstructs universal access to contraception. If the moral choice is so obviously anti-contraception, then that "good" should be so self-evident that it does not require legislative protection, but merely the choice of a free conscience. Catholics, regardless of their opinion on the Church's teaching on contraception, should welcome the freedom for everyone to choose. It is a gesture heralding belief in the goodness of humanity.

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  6. Brett - great points!

    Doug - Thanks for raising the important issue about whether the exemption is really necessary, given that nobody is being forced to act against their beliefs.

    Becky - Thanks for bringing in a theological perspective, and reminding us that Catholic theology does not necessarily support the actions of the USCCB. I actually think your argument that allowing it to be accessible and trusting in the goodness of humanity is quite beautiful.

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  7. The better argument against having health insurance provide birth control is that pregnancy is not an illness. Birth control pills are not preventative medicine.

    In fact, in terms of protecting a woman's health, condoms are FAR MORE effective. Not only do they prevent pregnancy, but they protect against the numerous STDs that can cause legit illness. Condoms are also much easier to obtain, and they are cheap enough that someone working 7 minutes at a minimum wage job can afford one.

    The correct argument is why should I, as a non-birth-control-user, be forced to pay a higher health insurance premium? Why can I not purchase a cheaper plan that is not forced to incorporate the expensive cost of birth control pills? The benefit only goes to a select portion of the population (say, women aged 16-40 or so). Why must the cost be born across all those who purchase health insurance?

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  8. Pregnancy is not an illness, but it can cause a large number of health problems and be expensive. And obviously pregnancy, without an abortion or miscarriage, leads to childbirth. Birth control is preventative medicine because it prevents pregnancy. It helps women have control over their fertility and delay childbirth until they are physically and emotionally healthy and ready for pregnancy, and able to afford caring for their children both in utero and once they are born.

    Condoms are effective at protecting women's health, especially in regards to STIs. But many women like to have their reproduction in their control. They are the ones, after all, who end up pregnant if the condom doesn't work, doesn't get used properly, or if the man refuses to use a condom. Ideally, people having sex would use both birth control pills and a condom, and would have access to both options. Additionally, birth control pills are a popular form of birth control for monogamous couples who are not at risk for STIs. Without looking it up, I would guess that there are few married couples who choose to use condoms.

    I don't think that health insurance plans are going to skyrocket or even be noticeably more expensive now that they must include birth control. The majority of plans already do cover it. Besides, health insurance plans always cover a variety of drugs that the person purchasing the plan will never use. Viagra, for example, is covered by my health insurance plan and I will never use it. And since Viagra is covered by almost every insurance plan, the cost of that drug, a drug I would argue is much less important than birth control, is born across all who purchase health insurance.

    Finally, the "select portion of the population" as you say, is half of the population and workforce. And that doesn't include the wives or daughters of male employees who would also want and need insurance coverage of their contraception. It is the most common drug that women use; a drug that allows families - not just women - to make decisions about how many children to have and when to have them. If that isn't a drug worthy of being covered by insurance, I don't know what is.

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  9. Pregnancy is not an illness, but it can cause a large number of health problems and be expensive. And obviously pregnancy, without an abortion or miscarriage, leads to childbirth. Birth control is preventative medicine because it prevents pregnancy. It helps women have control over their fertility and delay childbirth until they are physically and emotionally healthy and ready for pregnancy, and able to afford caring for their children both in utero and once they are born.

    Condoms are effective at protecting women's health, especially in regards to STIs. But many women like to have their reproduction in their control. They are the ones, after all, who end up pregnant if the condom doesn't work, doesn't get used properly, or if the man refuses to use a condom. Ideally, people having sex would use both birth control pills and a condom, and would have access to both options. Additionally, birth control pills are a popular form of birth control for monogamous couples who are not at risk for STIs. Without looking it up, I would guess that there are few married couples who choose to use condoms.

    I don't think that health insurance plans are going to skyrocket or even be noticeably more expensive now that they must include birth control. The majority of plans already do cover it. Besides, health insurance plans always cover a variety of drugs that the person purchasing the plan will never use. Viagra, for example, is covered by my health insurance plan and I will never use it. And since Viagra is covered by almost every insurance plan, the cost of that drug, a drug I would argue is much less important than birth control, is born across all who purchase health insurance.

    Finally, the "select portion of the population" as you say, is half of the population and workforce. And that doesn't include the wives or daughters of male employees who would also want and need insurance coverage of their contraception. It is the most common drug that women use; a drug that allows families - not just women - to make decisions about how many children to have and when to have them. If that isn't a drug worthy of being covered by insurance, I don't know what is.

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  10. Your point on Viagra is well taken. However, I don't believe there is any law requiring insurance companies to provide it. I would be equally outraged if a law requiring insurance companies to cover Viagra, Rogaine, breast augmentation et al were passed.

    Perhaps the legislation won't cause health insurance premiums to skyrocket. This does, however, seem at odds with your main argument - that birth control can be unobtainable due to expensive co-pays. Also, by your own admission, most insurance plans cover birth control anyway - the new law simply denies people the right to purchase health insurance plans that do NOT cover birth control.

    Lastly, I will stick by my "select portion of the population" descriptor. Prepubescent and post-menopausal females do not require birth control, obviously.

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  11. @Shannon: No matter what one thinks about the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception, and there is plenty to be thought and said, including to what degree a Catholic institution would even be morally culpable in the event of an employee availing themselves of contraceptives purchased through employer provided health care, it is clear that the government mandating that a religious institution engage in behavior that they believe to be in violation of their moral principles is a prohibition on the free exercise of religion.

    Religious freedom does mean that women should be free to make the decision whether or not to use birth control and that they should not be prevented from having any access to legal drugs, but it also means that co-religionists who find that decision to be morally wrong should not be forced to provide those same drugs against their will, and potentially become materially complicit in an act they understand as sinful.

    In the event that a Catholic employer would be exempt from providing such coverage, their employees would not be completely barred from purchasing and using birth control, and particularly within legal frameworks such as the much-discussed Hawaii system, women could have access to contraceptives at no additional cost beyond what they would pay under their normal insurance, a system, as far as I know, which the Catholic Church has no official position against.

    @Becky: Your argument about the Church’s “manipulation” of the legislative process is misplaced, I think, both because the Church isn’t seeking to prevent universal access to contraception, which will remain available on the open market, but simply to not be required to provide it, and also because I think it is clear that the Church isn’t manipulating much of any legislative process right now. I’m also not sure that a moral choice has to be self evident for it to be worthy of legislative protection. There are many who would argue that a conscientious objector to war does not have a self-evident argument, as after all there are many Christians and Catholics (and others) who chose to fight, but that their exercise of conscience is still worth providing an exception for.

    Also as for your point on conscience, I have a couple of less well-formed thoughts.
    1) I think it’s worth pointing out that, the sanctity of conscience always presumes a well-formed conscience, which for Catholics has to include the legitimate consideration of the teaching of the Church. Right?
    2) Though 97% of women who self-identify as Catholic may also self-identify as having used birth control, how many of those women are engaging in an a full formation of their conscience on the issue? I’m not arguing that it’s impossible to arrive at the conclusion that there are legitimate uses of birth control but I’m not sure that every decision to use birth control is necessarily an exercise of conscience in the theological sense.

    I guess, at the end of the day it has to be acknowledged that there is an intra-Church theological issue here about the virtues of the Church’s teaching on birth control and an extra-Church legal issue about whether the HHS mandate, by requiring some Catholics to engage in behavior they believe to be sinful, is a violation of a religious freedom. Again, no matter what you think about the church and birth control, I think it shouldn’t be for the government to make a decision about what constitutes a legitimate occasion of religiosity (which is, I think, why many non-Catholic and non Christian religious groups whose faiths do not prohibit birth control have declared their agreement with the RCC position with respect to the HHS mandate) and so I think the two issues need to be kept distinct, at least as best as possible.

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  12. This Religious Freedom over Women's Freedom is a loser for anyone, and pits the relatively few religious interests against the human rights of 50% of the U.S. population. Why?

    If the GOP is looking for an excuse to lose in 2012, they've surely found it in this one.

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  13. I completely agree Pat! And I sure hope they lose. :-)

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  14. I actually think your discussion that enabling it to be available and relying on in the benefits of humankind is quite wonderful.
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