Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that health insurance plans would be required to provide preventive care services for women, including contraception, at no extra cost and with no co-pays or deductibles. This January, they announced that certain religiously affiliated organizations would have an additional year to comply with this rule, but they would not be exempt from the requirement. It is still possible for a religious employer to be exempted if it meets the following four criteria: it must have “the inculcation of religious values as its purpose”, it must “primarily employ persons who share its religious tenets”, it must “primarily serve persons who share its religious tenets”, and it must be a non-profit organization. Under these standards, a church or synagogue would not be required to provide contraceptive coverage through their employee health care plans. However, religiously affiliated hospitals, universities, and charities would still have to cover contraception.
In the wake of this directive, over a hundred Catholic bishops have spoken out and claimed that this requirement is an attack on their religious liberty and a violation of their conscience. Officially, the Catholic Church’s doctrine on birth control holds that separating the procreative element from heterosexual intercourse is a sin. This includes the use of condoms, birth control pills, injections, IUDs, and other artificial methods. Instead, the church approves of “natural family planning”, which involves reserving sex for the phases of the menstrual cycle when a woman cannot become pregnant. So, according to the church, it’s okay to choose to prevent pregnancy by intentionally having sex during a time of known infertility, but it’s not okay to choose to prevent pregnancy by medically or mechanically precluding the possibility of fertilization. It’s not entirely clear to me how that doesn’t encompass the technique of ensuring that an egg won’t be present to be fertilized when you’re having sex, but I’m sure they’ve justified it one way or another.
In any case, whether the requirement to cover contraception is against the beliefs of Catholics is largely irrelevant. The hospitals and colleges which would have to provide this coverage employ people from every walk of life and every belief system. These Catholic-affiliated organizations do not exclusively hire Catholics. We’re talking about hospitals and schools that all kinds of people go to, and all kinds of people work at. With this objection, Catholic bishops are demanding that employees of the University of Notre Dame, St. Joseph’s Hospital of Phoenix, and practically any religiously affiliated business, should not have the same access to contraception that any other employees would. Why should non-Catholics and non-believers be denied that coverage simply because they work for a business that’s associated with a certain church?
Further, does this requirement actually conflict with the conscience of Catholics? Their doctrine considers contraception to be sinful, and their leaders have condemned this directive, but what do everyday Catholics think? Do they, too, have a problem with birth control? No! A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 49% of Americans overall agree that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required to provide health care plans that cover birth control at no cost. How many Catholics agreed with this? 52%, dropping to 45% among Catholics who vote. The difference in support for this requirement between Catholics and all Americans is negligible. A survey by Public Policy Polling confirmed this, finding that 57% of voters believe women employed by Catholic hospitals and universities should have the same rights to contraceptive coverage, and 53% of Catholics agree with this.
But how do Catholics themselves feel about the use of birth control? A 2011 report by the Guttmacher Institute found that out of all Catholic women who have had sex, 98% used contraception other than the church-endorsed “natural family planning” method, which only 2% of them rely on – “even among Catholic women who attend church once a month or more”. 68% use IUDs, hormonal methods, or male or female sterilization. Another 15% use condoms. The statistics are largely the same for Catholic women who are married: only 3% use “natural family planning”, and 72% use IUDs, sterilization or hormonal methods.
If that’s the case, then why are these Catholic bishops claiming it would violate their conscience if Catholic-affiliated businesses are required to provide access to birth control methods which a strong majority of Catholic women have already chosen to use? Why are they depicting this as an attack on Catholic values, when most Catholics don’t share those values at all? When Catholic views on this policy hardly differ from those of Americans altogether, there is no way this can be honestly characterized as something that has a disproportionate impact on Catholics.
So why are the media uncritically parroting and validating this plainly inaccurate narrative? Why is Reuters running a story titled “Obama risks Catholic vote with birth-control mandate”, when surveys indicate he isn’t risking the Catholic vote any more than the average American vote? Why is USA Today letting Archbishop Timothy Dolan use their opinion page to allege that this policy is “un-American” – a claim which, in light of recent polls, doesn’t even make sense? Why does the archbishop of Atlanta get coverage for saying that “The Church is going to fight this regulation with all the available resources we have”, when a majority of church members don’t consider this worth fighting against, and many of them are actually using the very birth control methods at issue here?
If this is supposed to be about respecting the conscience of Catholics, then why has everyone been focusing on the bloviations of a handful of bishops, while ignoring the millions of Catholics who disagree with them? How does that possibly respect their values?