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Contraceptive Coverage - Not "A War on Religion" But a Basic Part of Comprehensive Women's Health Care

By February 10, 2012

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In politics, timing is everything. So despite the fact that the Obama administration announced back in August 2011 that contraceptive counseling and FDA-approved contraceptive methods be included (without cost or co-pay) by employers in new private health plans written on or after August 1, 2012, it's only become a hot button issue now that we're in a volatile election cycle. The rules were put in place last year then clarified and reiterated on January 20, 2012 by the US Department of Health and Human Services, but the debate has intensified in the past week. As of this writing, we're waiting to hear from President Obama in a news conference scheduled just past noon today.

The opposition comes from the bishops of the Catholic Church who insist that contraceptive coverage not be forced on Catholic universities, hospitals, and social service agencies.

Yet as NPR reported this morning, rules requiring contraceptive coverage have been in force for years. On BNPR's health blog Julie Rovner states, "The only truly novel part of the plan is the 'no cost' bit," and includes an audio clip from an ACLU representative who adds "as a legal matter, a constitutional matter, it's completely unremarkable."

As Rovner explains:

In fact, employers have pretty much been required to provide contraceptive coverage as part of their health plans since December 2000. That's when the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that failure to provide such coverage violates the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. That law is, in turn, an amendment to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlaws, among other things, discrimination based on gender.

While the conservative right has framed the argument, casting the move as "a war on religion" in the US, that argument draws attention away from the true issue of women's health care. Including coverage for contraceptives is not the same as forcing an employee to use these methods. It all comes down to individual choice. If health care coverage is truly a "benefit" then that should extend to comprehensive coverage of women's health care needs.

Birth control is a basic fact of most women's reproductive lives, including Catholic women. A number of studies have shown that 98% of Catholics use birth control (in such "artificial" forms as pills, barrier methods, prescription drugs as compared to. the "natural" rhythm method) at some point in their lives. Even conservative NY Times columnist Ross Douthat acknowledges "most studies do show that only 2-3 percent of Catholic couples never use artificial means of birth control" which comes to a sum total of "hundreds of thousands of people."

In Catholicism, as in many other religious faiths, there is individual choice; there will always be practitioners who pick and choose what to believe and follow and what to ignore or discard. Should a handful of bishops or the "hundreds of thousands of people" who are truly faithful control public policy to the point at which others are denied "benefits" extended to the general public?

The sad reality is that it's a tough economy. Having birth control included or excluded from one's benefits package isn't going to be a make or break for a woman grateful to find employment after being out of a job for days, months, even years. But it does ignore the larger social concerns of women and our society. The economic cost of unplanned pregnancy is high, as is the impact on a woman's ability to work and care for an already existing family. With a high divorce rate in this country (another of life's realities frowned upon by the Catholic Church), odds are good that many women with children will become single mothers, and the statistics for this group are disturbing; 1 in 3 single mothers struggle to feed their children.

Denying contraceptive coverage at the same time we cut back on social service programs that provide food and basic support to families in need, we are hurting millions of people in a very real and tangible way, not merely "hundreds of thousands of people" in a theoretical way. If President Obama caves in and makes this exclusion in contraceptive coverage, he does so at our peril.

Related articles:

Free Birth Control? What's Covered By Insurance Under the New Health Care Plans


February 10, 2012 at 5:03 pm
(1) Don B says:

The government has a right to regulate insurance, not religion. And that is what it is doing in this case. The Catholic Church is claiming that THEY are being forced to pay for something which they oppose on religious grounds. But they are not.

If providing health insurance is a benefit of employment, then the cost of the premium is, strictly speaking, paid for by the employee in exchange for her/his work. If the employee has a religious/moral objection to buying insurance that includes coverage for birth control; they can waive coverage.

The better compromise would be to require womens’ health issues to be covered in all insurance plans as proposed; but allow the covered party (the employee, not the employer) the right to waive that specific coverage, while still receiving coverage for all else.

February 13, 2012 at 2:22 am
(2) KM says:

The author seems to be missing the big picture. This is INDEED a new problem. Because of the “Affordable care act” , employers are now COMPELLED to offer insurance benefits. In spite of the pregnancy discrimination act, employers were previously allowed to decline to provide such insurance benefits altogether, if they found some part of the benefit objectionable. That is no longer the case. The references to the pregnancy act are not relevent, except to the extent that Obama’s compromise will likely now place the religious organizations in violation that statute.

February 15, 2012 at 10:14 am
(3) Marcia says:

I want to start by saying I was raised Catholic and I am old enough to remember the concerns the citizens of this country had when JFK announced he was running for the Presidency. He was Catholic and no one wanted his religious beliefs to influence his decisions should he be elected. I now see at every turn a local Catholic priest or Bishop criticizing the President and receiving coverage on news channels, demanding he change his policy, sending letters to their parishoners for them to demand the same. This offends my sensibility. Contraception for women should be made available and covered by our Health Plans. It is offensive that the “Priests” of this country are so unaware of the health benefits to women. This issue should never have been about religion. Why is it religiously more accepted that a man in his 70′s (or any age) have Viagra covered than a woman of child bearing years (or any age) have contraception covered. The fact that I am not on the Pro-Life side does in no way mean I an Anti-Life…I am PRO-CHOICE, you make your choice and I make mine. I always felt the ANTI-CHOICE marchers could perhaps better donate their time and money to all of the unwanted children’s agencies that are caring for children that are the result of an unwanted pregnancy. Not all cases have a happy ending, in fact, the majority do not. How may of the men marching ANTI-CHOICE are behind in their child support payments. No one that is PRO-CHOICE is demanding that anyone be forced to use contraception in any manner. This issue concerns women’s health, nothing more.
I think the Catholic church could better spend their time doing some much needed house cleaning within their organization. I know this is going to sound vulgar, and that is not my intent, but why don’t they focus on the pedophile issues and resolve that completely before interfering in women’s health benefits.

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