By: Karly Berezowsky
The Obama administration mandate requiring employee healthcare coverage of contraceptives has fueled heated debate over the past month and widened the political wedge between the religious right and women’s rights advocates.
On one side of this highly charged issue, which is part of the Affordable Care Act, pro-choice activists argue it is the law and all employers, including religious institutions and faith-based hospitals, businesses, and schools, must comply. At the other end of the spectrum are, primarily, Catholics who are fervently against any form of birth control, consider the ruling to be a violation of their First Amendment rights and worry the vaguely written mandate may be extended to include coverage of other reproductive services. Caught in between the thorny issue are medical professionals, some of whom are at odds with Democrats because the mandate, they say, violates their patients’ right to privacy.
“This issue goes far beyond whether or not someone agrees with the church’s teachings about birth control and abortion,” said Florida Catholic Conference Executive Director Michael McCarron, whose organization serves as a public-policy voice for Catholic Bishops in the state. “It’s about government coercion of religious people and groups, as well as other individuals, forcing them to do something against their conscience,” said McCarron.
The violation of First Amendment rights is at the heart of this contentious issue, specifically because it obstructs the free exercise of religion. “Our government is forcing themselves into the Catholic Church and other religious organizations,” said Mary Ross Agosta, director of communications at the Archdiocese of Miami. “We are guaranteed freedom of religion in our Constitution and the church leaders will continue to pursue, educate, and preach about the right,” argued Agosta.
A COMPROMISE TO MORAL CONVICTIONS?
The federal government attempted to ease mounting objections by excluding religious institutions through an “accommodation” that requires their insurance companies—and not the institutions directly—to provide the contraceptive option. But some Catholic leaders argue that the majority of institutions are still very much involved because they’re often one in the same.
“The federal government is forcing the Catholic Church to accept a law that is contrary to our moral teachings and against our conscience. President Obama’s compromise will not work for the Catholic Church since the majority of dioceses in the country are self-insured,” explained Agosta.
The belief that the contraceptive coverage mandate is immoral resonates with religious leaders across nation, and the compromise comes as a major disappointment for Kathleen Bagg, a spokesperson for the Diocese of St. Augustine. “The action of President Obama’s announcement does not look to be a solution for some…[who] will continue to be forced against their conscience to pay for things they consider to be immoral,” said Bagg.
Chancellor of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Monsignor Michael Reed, concurs and worries that religious-affiliated institutions, such as hospitals, schools, and charities, will not be able to comply with the new ruling. “The compromise would still require us…to provide services that are against our religious principles. This is not acceptable to me as a Catholic and to the Church, which I represent. Hopefully, this mandate will be soon overturned by the courts as a violation of religious liberties,” said Reed.
So far, the administration has largely remained silent about how self-insured institutions will reconcile the problem “other than to say that the details will be worked out in meetings with religious leaders in the days and weeks to come,” The New York Times reported on March 16.
On March 1, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) introduced a birth control exemption bill that would have allowed insurance providers, their recipients, and any employer with moral objections to opt out of the coverage requirement. But not surprisingly in an election year, the Blunt amendment was overturned in a 51-48 vote, largely across party lines. Only three Democrats—Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) —supported the bill, while Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) opposed it. As a result, Blunt has removed himself from the center of activity. “Now it’s up to the House, the administration and maybe, eventually, the courts to see who takes the next move,” he told the press at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In the meantime, there is growing consensus among the nation’s Catholic bishops to wage a legal battle opposing the forcing of Catholic-affiliated institutions to provide any health insurance coverage to their employees. They argue that it’s their First Amendment right to decide whether or not to provide or deny healthcare coverage. “The bishops feel the best solution is to enact pending legislation in Congress that will preserve the right for individuals and entities to provide or purchase health insurance consistent with their religious beliefs and moral convictions,” said Bagg.
BEYOND BIRTH CONTROL AND CATHOLICS
In addition to paying for healthcare services that run counter to the beliefs of Catholics, the religious right fears the mandate may be interpreted to include other reproductive medical services beyond birth control and the morning-after pill.
“Catholic institutions would be required to provide services [that are] not limited to contraception, but includes sterilization and abortifacient drugs,” warned Reed.
On behalf of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Bagg is equally concerned that religious and religious-affiliated institutions will “be forced to provide objectionable services.” These include abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization.
It is not just religious leaders up in arms over this ruling, either. Individual business owners, who morally oppose the use of birth control, and medical professionals, also disagree.
“Obama’s compromise is pathetic. I think the government should stay out of our bedrooms and keep church and state separate,” said Dotti Cahill, a Catholic retired resident nurse, who worked for decades at a Florida-based religious-affiliated hospital. “The government should not mandate these issues. If the government can mandate such things, it could make it mandatory to use birth control or take it away if so inclined. To me, the government has too much power and this is just the tip of the iceberg with Obamacare.”
Cahill said she is worried that the ruling will give the government too much power over personal lifestyles. “Our religious freedoms are in jeopardy from the Obama compromise this only proves how left wing our government has become. As a nurse, a mother, and a woman, I believe that every woman should have the say, not the government or her employer,” said Cahill.
The former nurse of 38 years also points out that patients will be footing the bill through their insurance premiums. “This compromise is penalizing the insurance companies–and all of us will pay,” she said. Cahill added that it “might be the final nail in the coffin” for Obama’s hope of getting re-elected.
Likewise, the Florida National Organization for Women feels the government is overstepping into places it does not belong. President of Florida NOW Delray Beach chapter, Donna Slutiak, said, “I absolutely do not understand why a bunch of middle-aged or older men think they have the right to interfere with basic women’s health care. I am not real happy with President Obama’s compromise, because I believe the anti woman faction within government will keep demanding more and more.”
PLAYING ELECTION-YEAR POLITICS WITH PRIVACY
Many medical professionals across the nation are angry at the federal government’s strong-arming. “It appears that the government is attempting to exert its influence over a religious doctrine. The separation of church and state has long been a founding principal of our constitution. This clearly would set a dangerous precedent for future mandates,” said Dr. Dale Merrell, who practices at St. Vincent’s Catholic Hospital, in Jacksonville.
Merrell believes the contraceptive mandate is not solely a separation of church and state issue. Merrell considers It to be an invasion of privacy for doctors and their patients being treated at Catholic hospitals.
“The decisions that are made between a physician and a patient should be private discourse. There should be no influence by the federal government in the healthcare matters that are of such a personal basis. I believe that the federal government should stay away from these issues,” said Merrell.
The issue of birth control is even more private for many women. “It’s between a woman and her God to decide if she should take an oral contraceptive,” said Angela Steinke, head resident nurse at Jacksonville based St. Vincent’s Hospital. “Each person has a spiritual soul. It is up to the woman and her conscience to decide if taking a birth control is a decision that conflicts with her own morals and values,” explained Steinke.
Although the mandate is directed to health insurers and women can opt to use the coverage or not, Steinke says it infringes on her free will. “It’s a woman’s choice in how she prevents or gets pregnant. And when the government or church dictates how a woman treats herself, it’s a violation of free will,” says Steinke.
Steinke and other GOPers concede that the government ruling had good intentions because it helps those with limited finances obtain birth control. “Money is tight for a lot of people,” said Steinke. And, she reasoned, that in the long-term birth control “is more cost effective and cheaper than raising a child. If it isn’t covered, then unless condoms are used, a woman may end up with a child she cannot afford.”
AN ISSUE OF DISCRIMINATION?
Is it discrimination to deny women the right to covered contraception if it prevents unwanted pregnancies from happening?
On February 23, after Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee in defense of the mandate, the issue hit a fever pitch. “Without insurance coverage, contraception can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school… Practically an entire summer’s salary,” Fluke said, as reported in The Wall Street Journal. Fluke also suggested in her testimony that “modern men” pay “half of the contraceptive costs.”
Fluke’s moving testimony fueled right-wing radio talk shows and, the following day, prompted Rush Limbaugh to call her a “slut.” Although Limbaugh later apologized his incendiary comment prompted 31 advertisers to pull their ads from his program.
Despite the media frenzy, the nonprofit women’s advocacy group American Association of University Women strongly supports optional birth-control coverage by all employers. Erin Prangley, associate director for government relations at the AAUW, contends that it will be a boon to women’s health. If birth control were not offered women would be “back in the Stone Age.”
“In a country where half of all pregnancies are unintended and the rate of sexually transmitted infections is one of the highest in the industrialized world, expanding Americans’ ability to access preventive health care is sound public policy,” said Prangley.
What’s more, she reasoned, millions of women have already used some form birth control during their lives. “Denying women coverage for contraception is discrimination and it is wrong. The AAUW believes the Affordable Care Act put the nation in the right direction by covering women’s preventive healthcare, ending discriminatory gender rating in insurance plans,” said Prangley. The AAUW has supported women’s access to birth control since 1935.
Like her opponents, Prangley agrees that the decision to use birth control is a matter of individual choice. The emotional firestorm, she says, is unnecessary if nobody is forcing the pill down someone’s throat.
“Women are fully capable of making their own informed choices regarding their health within the dictates of their own moral and religious beliefs. These deeply personal decisions should be made without having to consult with an employer about whether contraceptive coverage is included in their health plan,” said Prangley.
In this “modern age” women have rights and a voice. Women should have the right to take free contraception if they want it. Women should have the right over their own bodies and since health care is so vast, it makes sense that these services should be covered because they are an extension of women’s care. Just like eye care and dental, women need these services as well.
Complicating the issue is the involvement of politicians. But in the end, it is a piece of legislation that needs to be followed by the American public. “It is a sad place in history when politicians want to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against women. Access to free preventative care for women, including covering contraception, is the law and all employers need to follow the law and respect women’s choices for their own health care,” says Prangley.
One thing is for certain, the debate, like the constitutionality of Obamacare now coming to a head, will continue to rage between religious officials and the government, between the Republicans and the Democrats, and all of the factions in the middle. Whether or not this is an issue of separation of church and state, invasion of privacy, discrimination, or just another political point of debate remains unclear. Perhaps in November a more agreeable compromise will emerge if the Supreme Court does not declare it unconstitutional in late June.