The Bishops vs. HHS – What Do You Think?

Recently, a reader of our blog left the following comment on our editorial page:

I would be interested in any thoughts you all might have on the current bishops vs HHS issue. I am trying to sort mine out. I have a number of questions now that, after the Army, I have time to pray, think, and read. This is not a trick question or an attempt at entrapment. I’m really interested.

Oh boy. Suffice it to say, I’m trying to sort my thoughts about this out, too. First of all, I need to be upfront and say I haven’t been following this debate incredibly closely, so I’m happy to defer to or stand corrected by those who know more about it than I do. But essentially, I understand it as this: Catholic employers are being “forced” to include contraception and abortion in health care plans for their employees. I’ve also heard that Catholic hospitals are being “forced” to offer these services, although a very short online search didn’t bring up confirmation of this.

I first heard about this debate when my fiance came to my house outraged after he got off the phone with his uncle who is a priest. His outrage fell on the religious freedom side of the issue. (He felt this mandate trampled on religious freedom and every person’s right to obey their conscience.) Although I understood where he was coming from — I cherish religious freedom, too — on a gut level I couldn’t get to that place of outrage. Because the reality of what this mandate offers women was too important to me. Contraception isn’t a rare or specialized service; it’s something that virtually EVERY adult woman will need at some point in her life, if she wants to a) enter into a sexual relationship and b) not have more children than she can support emotionally, physically, or financially — and there are many, many cases where even just one is too many. So trumping freedom of religion definitely made me squeamish — but so did the thought of women being denied access to safe birth control “just” because they worked for a Catholic organization. I do see contraception as an essential health service, and because the “morality” of denying it causes women to suffer most, I can’t separate my judgment on the issue from the reality of who will be most adversely affected.

When I asked my younger sister about her thoughts on it, she divided the issue as follows: “I think it’s OK for them to force insurance plans to cover those services, because not EVERYONE who works for a Catholic organization is Catholic; those people should have the choice of whether to use those services or not. And if you’re getting insurance through your employer, you don’t get a choice of insurance plans, either. But I don’t think it’s OK to force Catholic hospitals to provide those services, because people can make a choice to go to a different hospital.”

My fiance and I hashed this issue out for a good hour earlier this week, and although he can make strong political arguments on any issue he cares about, I just couldn’t bring myself to choose a side on this one. I felt caught in the crossroads similar to the way I am on the abortion issue: I don’t believe abortion should be illegal, but I don’t agree with having an abortion, either. So I don’t strongly ally myself with pro-choicers or pro-lifers; I’m a “fence-sitter” on this issue that my high school civics teacher once told me you “couldn’t be a fence-sitter on.”

At the end of the night, I finally knew why I felt so trapped, and I told him: “I think they’re BOTH immoral. I think it’s immoral to force a religious organization to do something, and I think it’s immoral to deny women affordable access to contraception.”

So that’s where I stand — still in the middle, but understanding why. I’d love to hear where you stand, too, even if you, like me, hardly know yourself.

13 thoughts on “The Bishops vs. HHS – What Do You Think?

  1. Here’s my two cents: Religious liberty is being trampled on here. It is immoral to force one to act contrary to one’s conscience. It is not immoral to refuse to subsidize a particular product or service for one’s employees. First of all, any employee of an organization that opposes a particular product/service would be unreasonable to expect that organization to subsidize the same, and should, respecting the strongly felt position of the organization, seek out the product/service by other means (like buying it separately).
    Let’s say, for example, that my daughter asked me to pay for any contraception she might want to buy. Would it be immoral for me to refuse to do so? Of course not! I should not be forced to pay for something that I morally oppose. She would be wrong to expect me to do so, and if she respected my conscience she would not press the matter. On the other hand, she would be free to obtain it by other means, and, if she was no longer a child, I would be wrong to try to stop her (aside from trying to persuade her in a respectful manner).

    The fact is, there is an agenda, a worldview, that is being pushed by this mandate. This worldview is contrary to that promoted by the teaching of the Church. Basically, the administration is trying to snuff out opposition by restricting the Church’s ability to promote its worldview. That’s contrary to the free exercise clause of the first amendment, and hostile to the Catholic Church. If it were about giving women the important ability to plan their families, exercising responsible parenthood, then the administration would be leave the Church alone here, being happy that it promotes other methods of family planning (that is, NFP). But its not about responsible parenthood. It’s about promoting a worldview in which procreation and sex, and hence marriage and sex, are separated so that sex can be a recreational activity rather than a responsible act of self-giving love. They want sex to be “safe.” But sex is not “safe” and will never be “safe”. Sex is not “safe” because it is the giving of one’s whole self to another person. Such a dispossession of one’s self is fraught with danger.

    That’s my two cents. Thanks!

  2. Birth Control is affordable, Target, Walmart, and other big stores have $4 or $9 generic prescriptions, which includes birth control pills. So Women are not denied access to Birth Control if they really want it. Also, NFP is an effective way to plan a family. It is cheap and anyone can learn it. So if a woman does not even have $4 she can still learn her cycles and not have children. It just requires a little discipline.

  3. What goes unsaid by the bishops is that religious freedom is built in at the most basic level. If the employee does not believe in birth control, the employee will not seek any. To some extent, this is an admission of failure on the part of the hierarchy: they must sense that many if not most Catholics on Catholic payrolls have not “received” the official teaching, and will not obey it. And that would be risky exposure for the institutional Church. (As an aside, I have not noticed the bishops complaining because Viagra is also covered, or announcing they will investigate how Viagra prescriptions are used.) Perhaps if the bishops were equally outraged over how the tax dollars of Catholics are used to fund unjust and useless wars, or if they chained themselves to prison fences when an inmate was scheduled for execution, or if (like Cardinal Mahony once did) they called on Catholics to exercise their religious freedom by defying proposed laws against sheltering illegal immigrants, their arguments in this case would be more credible.

    • You make a number of good points, Justin. There has been a failure of the hierarchy on multiple levels. I think that their response in this matter is a victory, however, and we should support them for supporting the right thing here, even if they are not vocal enough about everything they should be vocal about.
      As for the unjust wars, etc., I think that there needs to be adequate education on just war theory and Catholic social doctrine. In regards to social doctrine, it seems like Catholics in the US are always either being taught in a way that makes it look like Catholic social teaching is basically embodied in the policies of the Democratic party, or that it is best carried out by Republicans (both of which are untrue). We need to break out of the Right-Left mold and look at our basic principles and how they develop into intermediate principles, and begin to apply them in a system that tries to force into artificial categories. All American Catholics should see themselves as independents politically, and get involved with either party only insofar as it is necessary to promote a Catholic view.

      Lastly, why do you bring up Viagra? There is nothing wrong with Viagra. :)

  4. I would like to agree with Mavfan. Not providing coverage for contraception is NOT the same as denying access to it. I am on the side of the bishops here. Catholic organizations should not be forced to provide medication and procedures that are against it’s conscience. It really is about freedom of religion. The OP says she believes that contraception is an essential health service- Catholic organizations do not. Why should they bend to what you believe, but employees (who have freely chosen to work there) do not have to bend to what the Catholic organizations believe?

  5. I’m on the side of the Bishops…”Keep your Ovaries off My Rosaries” I would say to those seeking to force the Church into going against their own teachings.

    Justin – Viagra treats a physical disorder there is nothing immoral about using it.

  6. I think the bishops are in the wrong here. Freedom of religion is a two-way street: I have the right to practice my own religion, but I do not have the right to impose it upon others. The Church cannot, as an institution, take birth control. Individuals can, but the Church cannot. Therefore, any action that the Church takes to prevent others from making their own choices on the sole grounds of religions obligation is an infringement of those others’ freedom. It does not matter whether those others are their employees: the Church does not have the right to make any individual’s choices for them.

    The way health insurance works in this country is that an employer and an employee both pay money to a third party insurer, who then pays for services. The employer does not pay directly for services. The employer may negotiate with the insurer, but the employer is still essentially just agreeing to a contract. How is it morally any different for the Church to pay indirectly for its employees’ contraception through an insurer than it is for the Church to pay indirectly by paying wages to its employees who then go and pay for it out-of-pocket? Insurance and wages are both financial benefits of employment funded by the employer. This issue really has nothing to do with who pays for it and everything to do with keeping people from using it: the bishops know that a person is more likely to take advantage of a medical service if it is covered. Either way, the funds still came from the Church and the choice was still made by the individual. The bishops are trying to use freedom of religion as an excuse.

    I’d like to further point out that there are several states in which the new law is a moot point, because the state already had a similar law on the books. There are several states that require, on grounds of discrimination, that any insurance plan that covers any prescription must cover all prescriptions: birth control can’t be singled out for exclusion. The Catholic Church has been required to cover birth control already in some of these states. Why haven’t the bishops been complaining all along? My cynical side is inclined to suspect that this legal decision would have elicited a much less vehement protest from the bishops if we weren’t in a presidential election year.

    Then, there’s the theological side of the issue. It’s easy to forget – and for us young adults, easy to have never known in the first place – that Humanae Vitae, the document that prohibits artificial contraception, was a very controversial document at the time of its release. The Pontifical Commission on Birth Control recommended that modern forms of artificial contraception be deemed morally equivalent to the already-acceptable natural forms, and that the decision of which to use be left to individual couples. The Commission was not unanimous, but out of 72 members, only 4 signed a dissenting minority report. The Pope issued Humanae Vitae, which agreed with the minority paper, despite the recommendation of the vast majority of the Commission. Then there is the idea of sensus fidelium, which teaches that doctrinal and theological revelation can come from the body of the faithful as well as from the hierarchy. Considering that statistics show that the vast majority of Catholics have rejected the prohibition on contraception, I think that’s an important thing to at least consider.

    • Monica, I think you miss the boat on a few points. You ask:

      “How is it morally any different for the Church to pay indirectly for its employees’ contraception through an insurer than it is for the Church to pay indirectly by paying wages to its employees who then go and pay for it out-of-pocket?”

      It is morally different because in the first case the Church is directly purchasing a policy that covers contraception for all its employees who may want it, while in the second case, the Church is directly paying its employees, leaving what they do with it up to them.

      Above I used this example: “Let’s say, for example, that my daughter asked me to pay for any contraception she might want to buy. Would it be immoral for me to refuse to do so? Of course not! I should not be forced to pay for something that I morally oppose. She would be wrong to expect me to do so, and if she respected my conscience she would not press the matter. On the other hand, she would be free to obtain it by other means, and, if she was no longer a child, I would be wrong to try to stop her (aside from trying to persuade her in a respectful manner).”

      The example would be closer to the HHS-Church situation if we said that my daughter asked me to give money to a third party, separate from her allowance, that she could draw from to buy any contraceptives she might want. I would not be wrong to refuse, on grounds of conscience, because unlike an allowance, the “fund” is set up (at least partially) for the purpose of providing funding for contraception, which I oppose on moral grounds.

      Can’t you see, then, how the funds come from the Church, and the choice is made by both Church and the individual??

      Finally, you seriously misunderstand the doctrine of the sensus fidelium. Go to paragraphs 12 and 35 of “Lumen Gentium” from Vatican II and see how it describes this reality.
      Aside from the reasons you will find there that the “sensus fidelium” could not be appealed to in the case of contraception, there is another, historical reason. The practical rejection of the Church’s teaching came a great deal through the machinations of theologians and others who told the faithful again and again through the media that contraception was fine and that the Church would change the teaching. This was happening before Humanae Vitae came out and after it came out, except that after it came out the message was that the Paul VI was wrong. There were press conferences and television interviews, etc., pushing this message. So it’s not immediately clear, to say the least, that it’s a matter of grassroots sensus fidelium here.

      Lets just wait until this HHS mandate wakes up the hierarchy of the US to realize that they should have been preaching on the evils of contraception all along, otherwise the hierarchy/faithful gap would have been bridged by now. The Church’s teaching on contraception has, over the years, been understood more and more and has become more clear: for the Christian, neither fertility nor pregnancy ought ever to be treated as if they were a diseases to be treated with drugs, surgery, or any other implements of human ingenuity. Responsible parenthood is another matter all together, and NFP can fill that need better than any of its immoral alternatives.

      • I work for a diocese, so I have some insight here. Th is the way health insurance works. The Diocese negotiates with an insurance company. The diocese pays my premium and gives me the option to cover my family. Believe me it costs a lot to cover my family. This is called a benefit, I can choose to work somewhere based on the salary and benefits that I am offered. So places have very generous benefits packages, I know at one point if you worked for Fedex, they not only covered your health insurance premiums, but those of your family as well. If that benefit is really important to you, you will find a job that has it and work there. If contraception is a benefit you have to have, don’t work for the Catholic Church. But to get to the question, the diocese or Catholic institution would absolutely be paying for contraception.

      • I don’t think your analogy works. For one thing, the Church is not a parent, it is an employer. That is very, very different: an employer does not have the right to make any personal moral decisions for its employees. An employer has no moral authority over its employees. They have simply entered into a contract with one another. An employee is not a minor child, and a compensation package is not an allowance.

        If you want a more accurate parent-child analogy, let’s say you have your adult child on the insurance plan provided by your (secular) employer. Let’s say that that plan covers contraceptives. Would you be morally right to tell your adult child that she could not use that part of your insurance plan because you object to contraception, and you paid for it? No, you would not. You would have two options: either keep her on your insurance or make her get her own. But what if you know your daughter would not be able to afford other health care, like doctors’ visits and medicine when she is sick, on her own? Denying her access to healthcare entirely would be wrong.

        What I really think that this boils down to is whether one believes that healthcare is a human right or not. What it ultimately comes to is that it is the choice of the individual, not the employer, which health care services to use. The religious freedom of the employer does not extend so far as to infringe upon the free choice of the employee. The Catholic Church is not the only church that objects, on religious grounds, to some medical procedures. What if my employer is a Jehovah’s Witness – will my insurance not cover blood transfusions? If my employer belongs to a church that prohibits the use of chemotherapy, what happens if I get cancer? If being forced to pay for insurance that covers birth control is a violation of the Church’s freedom of religion, wouldn’t being forced to cover those things be a violation of other employers’ freedom of religion? Employees should not be forced to choose between healthcare and employment: the argument that they can “just find another job” is easier said than done, especially in the current market.

        There is also something to be said for a bit of realism here. Assuming that the mandate stands, what then? While the bishops can say that they will refuse to comply, there will be consequences for that, I’m sure, some of which may endanger the existence and/or accreditation of Catholic hospitals, charities, and universities. The insurance companies may not be willing to go along with their non-compliance. Which is more important: the moral imperative to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and educate the ignorant, or the prohibition against birth control? What will the cost be of fighting this (and I don’t mean in dollars)?

        One last point: contraceptives do not treat fertility or pregnancy as a disease. Contraceptives ARE often used to treat legitimate medical conditions, such as endometriosis. More importantly, though, is that a disease is not defined by treatment. Using a contraceptive solely for contraceptive purposes does not imply that fertility or pregnancy is a disease any more than NFP does. Whether something is or is not a disease is completely independent of any treatment or lack thereof. Furthermore, if artificial contraceptives did imply that fertility/pregnancy is a disease, it would be through their attempt to prevent it. NFP also tries to prevent pregnancy: if artificial contraception implies that pregnancy is a disease, so does NFP. They are different means to the same end: preventing pregnancy. Either both are done out of motivation for responsible parenthood, or both are done out of the view that pregnancy is a disease. You can’t arbitrarily ascribe different motives to two methods of achieving the same end simply because one uses technology and one doesn’t.

      • You miss the import of my daughter analogy – it doesn’t matter whether or not she’s a minor nor does my moral authority (or lack thereof) over her have anything to do with it. My analogy is intended to highlight that my daughter would be imposing on my freedom of conscience and religion to seek to force me to pay for her to buy contraceptives (through a fund ‘earmarked’ for them). If I did, then both her and I would be morally responsible, though in different ways. The mention of an “allowance” in the second form of my analogy was simply meant to show that me giving her money that was not ‘earmarked’ or ‘intended’ on my end to be used to cover (among other things) contraceptives would not fall under my responsibility, but under hers alone.

        Your alternative analogy is flawed because it no longer involves me offering a policy/fund to my child that provides things I consider gravely immoral. The employer is offering to me and my dependents (in this case an adult child) such a policy, which I contribute to paying, and which I and my daughter are morally responsible for the way we use. In this, different case, the material cooperation of myself in my daughter’s use of the plan for contraceptives or sterilization (or abortifacient drugs) is more remote than in the analogy I used, and may not be immoral (if it was, it would be because of certain other circumstances unmentioned here).

        “The religious freedom of the employer does not extend so far as to infringe upon the free choice of the employee.”
        Granted, but lets define our terms here: does “free choice” mean “ease of access” or does it mean “the ability to choose in accordance with one’s conscience”? If it means the former, then yes, the religious employer would be infringing on employees free choice. If it means the latter, then, no, the religious employer would not be infringing on anyone’s free choice. But the fact is, “free choice” does not mean “ease of access”. The only ‘freedom of choice’ in the real sense of the phrase that is under threat here is that of the Church.

        The fact is, the right of the human being to healthcare does not dictate how they are to receive that healthcare. Shall I assume, then, that you think that contraception is healthcare? For some people, contraception is essentially a recreational drug. For others, it is a means to exercise responsible parenthood. It is a stretch to consider either of those purposes “healthcare”.

        There is no problem with exercising responsible parenthood (in fact it is a responsibility), but the problem comes when we use a means to that purpose which effectively treats fertility and pregnancy as if they were diseases. NFP does not do that. It respects the integrity of the female cycles of fertility, and does not involve any method that hinders her fertility or ends her pregnancy. Thus, it does not involve the “treatment” of fertility or pregnancy as if they were diseases. It does involve the prevention of pregnancy, but not ‘as if’ these were diseases. (BTW, When contraception is used to treat endrometriosis, it is not considered intrinsically immoral by the Church!) It should be clear that I am not, therefore, arbitrarily attributing motives to people. I say the motive of NFP and contraception can be the same, but one of these means treats feritlity or pregnancy as if they were diseases, and the other does not. Could a couple practice NFP with an attitude of disdain towards having kids? Yes, and that would be wrong, but that would not be contraception. Could a couple use contraception with a positive attitude towards having kids in the future? Yes, but their activity now would be in serious tension with their attitude.

        This is an explanation of the Church’s teaching. More and more people are accepting it as they learn it. It’s not going to change. I respect your freedom of conscience and I appreciate your willingness to argue. In fact, I wish we could do it over chips and salsa and fellowship (such a better way of communicating!). In any case, it seems that the President has backed off because of the backlash, though he is attempting to provide another way for employees of Church institutions of getting their birth control. This may turn out to be a good compromise. God bless you, Monica.

  7. I have worked at a small business that did not offer health insurance, I was young and had now dependents. When I got married I knew that I would need that benefit, so I found a job that offered it. I believe some companies offer places to take naps, get massages, or work out. Those are benefits, if a benefit is really important to you, you go to a place where you can get it. Are there some medical conditions where taking birth control pills, or other hormones could help, sure, but if you look at my first post, my point is that many pharmacies have very afforadable generic drug programs, people could get them anyways, without making their employeer pay for them.
    To your point about the differences between NFP and Artifical contraception. Let me first state, that there is a big difference in intention. Not doing something, abstaining from sexual intercourse, is not the same as actively doing something, taking a pill to prevent pregnancy. If my grandmother has terminal cancer in hospice, we could do nothing, make her comfortable and let death happen naturally, or we could do something, and cut her head off. She is dead either way, is there a difference?

  8. Pingback: Marriage Equality, “Morality” Laws, and the Convenient Minority « Young Adult Catholics

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