In January, the Obama administration announced that as part of the health care reform law, health insurance plans would be required to cover contraceptives for women free of charge. The announcement sparked debate among political and religious groups alike. On the one hand, women’s rights groups were thrilled; they viewed removing cost as a barrier to birth control as a way to promote women’s health and prevent unplanned pregnancies. On the other hand, religious and conservative groups, particularly those of Catholic affiliation, saw the requirement as an affront to their religious beliefs. Though Catholic churches would be considered “exempt” religious employers and would be immune to the effects of the law, Catholic hospitals and universities would be considered “non-exempt” and would still have to pay for contraception.
In the wake of the announcement, Catholic bishops, priests, nuns and laypeople joined forces to protest a violation of their religious freedom. As the Catholic doctrine is opposed to the use of contraception, asking a Catholic-affiliated organization to pay for which is against their faith would be rather like Brigham Young to subsidize alcohol – it just wouldn’t make sense.
Obama’s Olive Branch
In the wake of Catholic criticism, the Obama administration unveiled a compromise intended to both respect religious objections and allow access to contraception. Drawing on plans offered in states such as Hawaii, the administration freed Catholic institutions from both paying for birth control coverage and referring their employees to it. Instead, the burden would be shifted to insurance companies, who would be required to provide benefits to employees of religious organizations via separate insurance contracts. Through this option, employees would still have access to contraception, while employers would have no hand in the process. Certainly, there are still some details to be ironed out, such as the issue of organizations that self-insure; however, the Obama administration has assured these organizations than they would not bear the costs.
For many Catholic groups, this compromise is sufficient; others remain opposed. However, the compromise was touted as a success by a number of institutions, including Brookings.
The Congressional Hearing
And here’s where the story gets ugly. After an olive branch had been offered, and after many Catholic organizations had given their support, Congressional Republicans leapt into the debate, sponsoring an amendment in the Senate to block health mandates that are against a business owner’s beliefs. The issue, highly politicized, became one of partisanship as well. Republicans even held a House committee hearing entitled: “Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”
The hearing consisted of five men: Lutheran and Baptist clergy, an Orthodox rabbi, and a Catholic bishop. Each of the men considered President Obama’s policy unworkable on religious grounds. The lineup was met with harsh criticism. Planned Parenthood posted a picture of the five witnesses on its Facebook page with the comment: “These are the witnesses testifying on the birth control benefit right now on Capitol Hill. What is wrong with this picture?” – a question that was met with over 2,000 comments and 5,000 shares. “Today’s hearing is a sham, a shameful exercise,” Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat, declared.
Where Politics Interferes with Governance
When asked about the House Hearing, Representative Joe Walsh, a Republican from Illinois, responded, “This is not about women. This is not about contraceptives. This is about religious freedom.”
Joe couldn’t be more wrong.
This issue isn’t about one of those variables; it’s about all three of them. The people who will truly be impacted by the policies and decisions of the government are the female employees of Catholic organizations who wish to take birth control. To forget that is to lose perspective of whom this debate is truly for – who needs to be represented, in contrast with who is being represented.
This issue is not one which should be decided by a group of five male religious leaders, because that would sacrifice a focus on women’s health. This issue should not be decided by Planned Parenthood, because that might sacrifice the religious perspective. And this issue should not be decided by smear campaigns by one political party or another, because the women who will be affected by these policies will come from both sides of the aisle. This is an issue of women, contraceptives and religious freedom. In order to solve it, we need to look beyond religious and political differences in order to find common ground and start serving constituents rather than serving partisan politics.