By Teresa Welsh |
What is being called Obama's attack on Christianity is really the Catholic Church's attack on women's full access to preventive healthcare, specifically contraception. Since the church has never been a champion of women's rights, its opposition to the Obama healthcare legislation that requires insurance plans at Catholic institutions to cover birth control without co-payments for employees, and that may be extended to students, was expected. The administration's policy exempts churches themselves and will have no effect on doctors who object to prescribing contraception. This section of the president's healthcare law will also help make birth control cheaper for millions of women.
The announcement made last month was actually the result of a recommendation by the Institute of Medicine, an independent group of doctors and researchers that concluded that birth control is not just a convenience but is medically necessary "to ensure women's health and well-being." According to the Institute of Medicine report, which was released last July, about half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and about 4 of 10 of those end in abortion. It noted that providing birth control could lower both pregnancy and abortion rates. It also cited studies showing that women with unintended pregnancies are more likely to be depressed and to smoke, drink, and delay or skip prenatal care, potentially harming fetuses and putting babies at increased risk of being born prematurely and having low birth weight.
Rather than accept these positive socio-economic and cultural facts. Republican candidates have said that moral and religious values weigh heavily in birth control issues and that the Obama administration's announcement was a direct attack on religious freedom and a violation of conscience instead of what it was: a thoughtful attempt to ensure an essential preventive health service to women regardless of where they work.
In actuality, opposition to contraceptive policies is an attempt to deny separation of church and state by imposing religious views on all Americans working in and insured by what are church owned or run institutions such as hospitals, social service agencies, and colleges. Such institutions are de facto businesses, not churches whose primary purpose is to spread the faith. Recognizing this, 28 states have laws that require all employers to provide insurance that pays for contraceptive policies. Moreover, despite Catholic teachings, surveys have found that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women, as in the general population, have used contraceptives. Approximately three quarters of Catholic women regularly make use of contraceptive to control their reproductive lives and general heath. If there ever was a compelling interest on the part of the government to provide an essential preventive service to women, this is it. Male-dominated religious institutions such as the Catholic Church and the current crop of Republican presidential candidates should not be able to impose their religious values on over half the American population by hiding behind their politically motivated and sexist interpretation of the First Amendment.
The intent of those opposing the broadest possible application of preventive health services to American women by the Obama administration are not unlike those supporters of 1873 Comstock law and 1919 Prohibition Amendment, which were misguided attempts to legislate public morality. The "free exercise" clause of religion in the First Amendment does not include imposing views that have the potential to harm the health of all women or to legitimize this stealth attempt to dictate public morality by arguing that religious freedom requires it.
About Joan Hoff Research Professor of History at Montana State University
Hannah Smith Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
Jeanne Monahan Director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council
Nancy Keenan President of NARAL Pro-Choice America