I've written two posts on why I think the HHS mandate is a huge victory for women's rights, why I believe it in no way violates religious freedom, and why providing a broad religious exemption is caving to extremism.
Yesterday, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, published an op-ed in USA Today, affirming that the mandate is necessary and that it respects religion. In the piece, which was obviously a response to outcry from certain religious groups, she talks about how the mandate has no effect on the conscience clause protections for medical providers and that the mandate does not cover abortifacients, as some religious groups have falsely been claiming. She also brings attention to the fact that 28 states, including California and New York, already require contraception to be covered by insurance. Eight of these states have no religious exemption whatsoever. The religious exemption adopted by the federal government, one that provides exemptions for places of worship and religiously-affiliated organizations that can prove that the majority of their employees are of the same faith, is the same as the policy already in place in California, Oregon, and New York. I was actually quite surprised to learn this, given that the Archbishop of New York has been incredibly vocal about the fact that he opposes the federal legislation. But if what Sebelius says is true (and I'm going to assume it is) then nothing will even change for Catholic institutions in the state of NY. So why is he so upset and why does he feel like the federal legislation is an additional assault on his religious liberty? And why does he feel like his religious beliefs should trump the rights of the women who are the life blood of the Catholic schools, hospitals, and even churches in New York?
I'm reminded of a conversation I had recently with a friend, B, who is Catholic, has an M.A. in Theology, and teaches theology at a very conservative Catholic school. Her insurance provides coverage of contraception, even though she works for an uber-Catholic school. She is appalled by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' outrage over the mandate and angry that they are monopolizing the conversation on how Catholics feel about coverage of contraception. In addition to the fact that most women will use contraception, she pointed out that there are already very many Catholic institutions that do provide coverage of contraception. These institutions obviously do so without feeling that they are somehow terrible Catholics or violating any religious dogma, but even they are silenced by the USCCB.
I think B raises an important issue about questioning who the USCCB speaks for and even who we think of when we think of the Catholic Church. She's also left me thinking quite a bit about how women and men within the Catholic Church who do not follow the USCCB's extremist and minority opinion can make their voices heard. How do these women, the 98 percent if you will, make it clear that they are the majority? Is there a way to change that power dynamic if they stay within the Church?
I feel like I'm inundated with anti-choice, or "pro-life," ideology day in and day out. And it is exhausting because it is an attack on ME and my rights. It's not just political, it is personal. But over the past week, watching the whole Komen/Planned Parenthood saga unfold, I've been inspired by how many women and men stood up for reproductive rights. They made their voices heard and the consequences are enormous, not only in that they forced Komen to re-fund Planned Parenthood and provide life-saving cancer screenings, but by showing that the majority of Americans believe in women's rights and reproductive rights; that they care about women's health. Most women use contraception and, according to a recent Gallup poll, 77% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal. Can we keep the momentum from the Komen situation going and change the conversation on reproductive rights once and for all? Can Catholic women change the conversation about what the Church believes? If they expressed their outrage over restricting access to contraception, could they make the USCCB back down, shut up, or even change their position, as Komen did? Can the 98 percent Occupy the Catholic Church?