Catholic Birth Control Fight About Healthcare, Not Just Religion

The framing of the issue of required contraceptive coverage in religious terms obscures the real question.

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Why, in the 21st century, is birth control still such an uncomfortable subject in America?

Leaders in the Catholic Church (and many others) are horrified at federal rules that will require church-affiliated institutions, like hospitals and universities, to provide coverage for contraception in their healthcare plans. The church does not believe in birth control, and sees the mandate as an outrageous violation of religious liberty. More vociferous complainants have called the policy an assault on Catholics or Catholicism.

[Check out editorial cartoons about the contraception controversy.]

The framing of the issue in religious terms—or in terms of religious freedom—obscures the real question, which is the right of people (usually women, since prescription contraception generally applies to them) to decide whether to have children, and how many children to have.

From a practical perspective, it's true that allowing Catholic-affiliated entities to refuse to cover birth control for employees (many of whom may not be Catholic or even people of any faith) is not that burdensome. People can buy birth control on their own; they don't need it paid for by their healthcare plans. But there is a similar argument that the practical impact on Catholic universities and hospitals is not that heavy, either: No one is asking priests to hand out birth control pills.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

The moral question is a deep and sincere one for the church. But there is a moral question, too, for women. Should they be treated like another class of people, provided less healthcare coverage, simply because they choose to have sex without the intent to procreate? It's especially jarring for a woman who might not be Catholic, perhaps employed as a cleaning staffer at a hospital, who would then be forced to live by the rules of a church hierarchy she does not choose.

Casting the issue as an assault on Catholicism or faith is insulting to people of faith. For people who believe in God, the faith is personal, deep, and unshakeable. It provides guidance during times of tumult, comfort during times of tragedy. For someone who truly believes in God, nothing can take away that faith—certainly not a coworker whose birth control pills are covered under their employer's insurance plan.

Critics have argued that the rule allows the government to dictate rules to a religious institution, and there is some truth to that. But 98 percent of Catholics have used birth control, despite the teachings of the church. If Catholic-affiliated institutions are allowed an exception, is that not arguably asking the government to try to buttress a religious rule the church has not been successful in enforcing?

[Laura Chapin: Mitt Romney and the GOP’s War on Birth Control]

The institutions in question are not the churches themselves; certainly, no one is asking a parish to equip nuns with diaphragms. The entities are already intermingled with government, paying taxes and receiving federal funds. And while many of us rightly recoil at the idea that the government can tell us what to do just because they pay for part of what we do, the government does that all the time. Poor people who get food stamps are subject to restrictions on how to use them (and the House recently passed a bill banning the use of welfare dollars in strip clubs, not that there's much evidence this is a problem). There are always strings attached to federal funds. That's why every state raised its drinking age to 21; former President Ronald Reagan threatened to withhold their highway funds if they didn't.

The church doesn't want to pay for contraception—even indirectly—and that sentiment is sincere and should be respected. But it's not necessarily workable. We all pay for things, through our taxes or health insurance premiums, which we'd rather not subsidize or don't use. Some people hate the idea of paying taxes that go to welfare recipients. Others (and many of them deeply religious people) don't want to pay for wars. People who don't have children subsidize the public educations of other people's offspring. Single people end up subsidizing the healthcare of people on "family" plans, which are more expensive than single-patient plans but still cheaper per-person. On some level, none of it is fair, but it's the only way to operate in a society of people with different lifestyles and different political views.

[See a slide show of 10 things that are (and aren’t) in the healthcare bill.]

How far are we willing to go to protect religious freedom and practices? If an institution run by Jehovah's Witnesses said it didn't want to provide health coverage that paid for blood transfusions (since Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in receiving transfusions), there would likely be a public outcry. Why is the contraception question so much more loaded?

Perhaps it's because many people, religious or not, are still uncomfortable talking about sex. They have it, and they use birth control to avoid unplanned pregnancies, but still find it hard to acknowledge it. Birth control, then, is seen as a tool of some hush-hush, slightly scandalous activity, instead of an element of basic healthcare for women.

This is a country that in theory, at least, cherishes religious freedom. But when religious teachings collide with public health, public policy or community standards, the lines get blurred. The right to practice one's religion is absolute. The right to impose it, even in back-handed ways, is not. The controversy involving the Catholic Church and the Obama administration is a painfully emotional one, but it's not entirely about religion. It's about whether family planning will be acknowledged as basic, women's healthcare.

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  • See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.
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