Why the Birth Control Mandate Is Not About “Freedom of Conscience”


See all our coverage of the 2012 Contraceptive Mandate here.

by No Longer Quivering guest writer, “Sierra”

From the Wall Street Journal:

Vice President Joe Biden said he is confident the administration will find a way to require almost all health-insurance plans to offer free contraception without forcing Catholic institutions to act against their religious beliefs. 

His comments Thursday to a Cincinnati radio station came as the White House tried to defuse a growing controversy over its decision to exempt only a small group of churches and other faith-based institutions from the new health-care rule. Catholic groups and their supporters have complained that hospitals, schools and charities will have to pay for contraception, which the church opposes. 

I’ve been hearing a lot about how requiring organizations to offer health insurance that includes birth control is a violation of “freedom of conscience.” That’s the same logic that was used to justify pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control. (I opposed the latter idea because of its hypocrisy: the Religious Right tells women that if they don’t want to be pregnant, they can choose not to have sex. I would counter that if a person doesn’t want to dispense birth control, he or she can choose not to be a pharmacist.) This time, however, the “freedom of conscience” logic does not work at all

The “controversy” (which is a kind way of saying “the ruckus kicked up by the Religious Right”) is about denying “freedom of conscience” to organizations. Not people. Specifically, not women. Since when did organizations have consciences? The members of their boards of executives might have consciences, and they might agree on some things, but they emphatically cannot speak for every member or every employee of their organization.

The loudest voice in the fray currently belongs to the Catholic Church. Cries have gone up that the Church should not be forced to “compromise its principles” by covering birth control as part of their insurance package. But whose principles are these? A majority of Catholic women were using the pill as early as 1970. A recent report from the Guttmacher Institute (which is contested by Catholic bishops) estimates that 98 percent of “sexually-experienced” Catholic women use or have used the pill. If the opposition were really about “freedom of conscience,” you’d expect to find different statistics.

The truth is, this “controversy” is about the exact opposite of “freedom of conscience.” It’s about denying freedom of conscience to religious women. The Church and the other organizations supporting it are desperately afraid that if they give women access to birth control, they will break down the doors of CVS to get it. The US Council of Catholic Bishops made the following argument:

“[The Guttmacher stat] is irrelevant, and it is presented in a misleading way,” the group said in a statement. “If a survey found that 98 percent of people had lied, cheated on their taxes, or had sex outside of marriage, would the government claim it can force everyone to do so?” 

Except the government isn’t forcing women to take birth control. It’s forcing religious organizations to let women choose whether to take birth control. If the religious organizations in question had faith in their members’ convictions, they would not be worried about paying for something they disagree with because they would trust women not to use it. This so-called controversy is about religious officials taking away women’s freedom of conscience and giving it to the Church. “Freedom of conscience” is code for “the right to enforce conformity amongst religious women.” Actual freedom is about having a choice. The Church and its supporters want to monopolize freedom and choice for themselves while taking those things away from their employees and congregations.

Not to mention where this leaves poor women who aren’t Catholic, but just happen to work at Catholic hospitals or charities because there’s no other work in their area. Forcing people who don’t even profess the same faith as you do to live by your rules is most definitely the opposite of “freedom of conscience.”

If this were really about freedom of conscience, it would be a non-issue. Women whose consciences are not bothered by birth control would be able to practice their faith according to their own relationships with God. Women who accept the Church’s teachings would similarly avoid birth control. This is about religious officials’ fear of losing control, fear that their beliefs don’t match those of their congregations, fear that people will wantonly surge toward sinful abandon if not reined in by financial constraints. It’s authoritarianism cloaked in hypocrisy.

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Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog The Unspoken Words: A Non-Prophet Message.

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  • colleen

    It’s about denying freedom of conscience to religious women.

    No, it’s about denying freedom of conscience to as many women as possible. The relative’ religiousness’ of the women involved is incidental.

  • cmarie

    When I was first married I was anxious to have a baby.  Then I learned that I was not immune to German Measles.  I was vaccinated and notified by my doctor that I MUST avoid pregnancy for the next three months because up until then I had a live vaccine in me.  I was damn glad to have access to the pill during that time.  In fact I stayed on it for five months just to be extra sure.  I was lucky and conceived quickly after that.  A healthy baby… (the pill had protected me from conceiving during the dangerous “live vaccine”  time).   Nine months later, in the delivery room I remember the nurse asking me a series of questions.   I didn’t know if I was having a girl or a boy.  I didn’t want to know.  She asked me “If you do have a boy… will you want him to be circumscised”?  I said “yes I do”.  The nurse explained that the Dr on call at the time, (the one who would almost certainly deliver my baby) had an ethical reason which prevented her from performing circumcisions on babies, because obviously they are newborns and can’t give informed consent.  She explained that if this happened any one of their other Dr’s would be happy to circumcise my son.  I was fine with that.  The woman had her own beliefs.  They didn’t match with mine but they were hers and I respected that.  As it turned out, I had a little girl anyway so it didn’t matter but had I had a boy I would have left the hospital knowing that circumcisions was opposed to her personal beliefs; knowing that I had violated her personal beliefs; knowing that she was morally opposed to my choice.   She had her beliefs; I had mine and in a free country we should both be able to function and get along well.  God Bless that woman… she resuscitated my daughter…. you don’t have to agree on everything little thing…. you just have to show a little respect for those who don’t agree with you on every little thing and know that when it comes to the big things… you both care about the same kid!

  • jodi-jacobson

    You must know that this is hardly a reasonable or rationale comparison.  Comparing what is inarguably an elective procedure–circumcision–with across the board denial to whole groups of women of a basic, necessary medical and public health intervention to which they have a right is unconscionable.

    Your doctor can refuse to do a circumcision. You can easily have your infant circumcised elsewhere.  Women without health insurance can not easily get either basic consistent primary care nor emergency care for the many and often urgent reproductive health interventions or methods that the Bishops seek to deny whole classes of women. Moreover, one individual stating they have a difference in belief is not the same as saying that the entire *institution* has a conscience, even though it is supposedly there to provide evidence-based medical care.

     

    This comparison is a total fail.

     

    Jodi

  • cmarie

    I never said it was a comparison goofball.  I said people who disagree with you are not necessarily evil, but I had to laugh at your comment: “You can go elsewhere to get your child circumcised”… guess what!  You can go elsewhere to work too and that’s from someone who disagrees with the Church on this.  I think Obama came up with a good compromise here.  Remember what happened with Catholic Charities in Massachusetts?  They handled adoptions for many many years.  The state told them they had to be open to placing children in same sex households.  I have no problem with that but the Church did and they just stopped doing adoptions at all.  They are under no obligation to provide any services at all.  Can you imagine the chaos if the Catholic Church started closing their hospitals in the U.S?  I’m just saying their worth trying to work with no matter how much you personally hate them and I have to say the  Obama administration came up with a good compromise.

  • crowepps

    Remember what happened with Catholic Charities in Massachusetts?  They handled adoptions for many many years. 

    When Catholic Charities stood on homophobic principle and stopped controlling adoptions in Massachusetts, and other places, the non-Catholic employees who had been doing the actual work went to work for secular social service agencies and adoptions continued without a hitch.

    Can you imagine the chaos if the Catholic Church started closing their hospitals in the U.S? 

    Why would the hospitals themselves be “closed”?  Most of the administration, physicians, nurses and other staff aren’t Catholic, and they’d all continue to work there after a transfer of ownership.  The 10 or 15% who are wild-eyed, raving ProLife fanatics could be replaced without too  much trouble.  The only change would be the bishops transfer ownership of the hospital to someone else, stick millions of dollars in their pockets, and the provision of health care could continue more smoothly without their interference.  Bishop Olmstead washed his hands of St. Joseph’s and declared it could no longer consider itself ‘Catholic’, and it’s still operating.

    In fact, because of the Bishops’ loud complaining to their parish and to the media about how too much health care was being provided to people who should have *wanted* to die instead, “Catholic Health Care” has a terrible reputation these days, and some Catholic health care organizations are renaming themselves neutral things like “Dignity Health” so potential patients won’t be tipped off they’re a not-so-benevolent dictatorship, where any end of life instructions they’ve written down are irrelevant because “suffering brings you closer to Jesus”, and pregnant women have to die on the floor because the bishops insist showing *respect* for a doomed embryo precludes standard medical care .

  • colleen

    I never said it was a comparison goofball.  I said people who disagree with you are not necessarily evil

    Most of your post was devoted to a boring personal anecdote in which you (of all people) present yourself as calm and tolerant in the face of idiocy. If it wasn’t an analogy or comparison what  was your intention?

    Can you imagine the chaos if the Catholic Church started closing their hospitals in the U.S?

    Remember the hospital in Phoenix where the Catholic hierarchy excommunicated a Nun  who approved a medically necessary abortion on a 10 week old embryo to save the woman’s life? Remember how the Catholic church wanted to make killing pregnant women in these circumstances a matter of hospital policy. The hospital board quite rightly refused because, of course, killing women whose bodies cannot sustain a pregnancy is unethical. Did the Church “close down the hospital” in a fit of pique? No, they couldn’t.   What they did was withdraw the Church’s affiliation. The hospital is no longer a Catholic hospital and, as a result, it is a much better hospital. We can only pray this happens to the rest of the Catholic hospitals in the country.

    A similar thing happened in Boston. Other agencies whose ‘consciences’ didn’t require them to act like ignorant bigots and defy non-discrimination laws won the contract and that work continued with no problem.

     

     

  • prochoiceferret

    Remember what happened with Catholic Charities in Massachusetts?  They handled adoptions for many many years.  The state told them they had to be open to placing children in same sex households.  I have no problem with that but the Church did and they just stopped doing adoptions at all.

     

    Yes, and a secular adoption agency took over their operations. Everyone won, except the people who wanted to discriminate.

     

    They are under no obligation to provide any services at all.  Can you imagine the chaos if the Catholic Church started closing their hospitals in the U.S?

     

    Why would they close them, instead of transferring operations to people who are interested in all of their patients’ health needs?

     

    I’m just saying their worth trying to work with no matter how much you personally hate them

     

    How much we hate them doesn’t have much to do with anything. Not serving the health needs of women, on the other hand, is a bigger deal.