Family planning is preventive healthcare for women

It’s hard to understand why Sister Mary Ann Walsh was not able to find a ready answer to her question … Continued

It’s hard to understand why Sister Mary Ann Walsh was not able to find a ready answer to her question “Where’s the religious freedom in birth control mandate?” After all, we start off in a similar place: as a Catholic, I too believe in the primacy of conscience and that the decision to use contraception involves a moral element. Somehow, Sr. Walsh, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which she represents, follow a different route than most people when navigating questions related to family planning. They never arrive at the point where they can see the moral agency of American women as they decide whether or not to use contraception. In reality, freedom—whether you term it religious, moral or personal—is right there in every such act.

When they denounced the call from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to include comprehensive family planning services as a preventive benefit for women’s health under the Affordable Care Act, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) proved once again just how out of touch they are with the beliefs, opinions and needs of Catholics. They discounted out of hand the point of the recommendation, made by experts in the field: family planning is preventive healthcare for women.

The bishops’ conference claimed that for “those who conscientiously object” to family planning, the IOM’s decision “violates [their] deeply-held moral and religious convictions.” That assertion is followed by a wild claim that the recommendation “undermine(s) the good of women and children, the consciences of employers, employees and health plan providers and the common good.” Preventive healthcare for women is morally offensive to Catholics and will undermine the common good? That’s incredible.

Time after time, the bishops raise a canard of religious discrimination, knowing that Americans are loathe to be described as anti-Catholic. But disagreeing with some of the 350 or so Catholic bishops on medical facts or public policies hardly makes one anti-Catholic. In fact, most Catholics disagree with them.

The majority of Catholic voters have rejected the hierarchy’s demands for ever-expanding refusal, or “conscience,” clauses as they lobby to legislate exemptions from services and medications by entities such as hospitals, pharmacies and health insurance plans—which simply do not have a conscience to protect. In a poll conducted by Belden Russonello & Stewart for Catholics for Choice, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of American Catholic voters believe that hospitals and clinics that take taxpayer dollars should not be allowed to refuse to provide medical procedures or medications based on religious beliefs. Moreover, 78 percent of Catholic voters oppose allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control. This comes as no surprise when one considers that 98 percent of Catholic women have used a birth control method the bishops find objectionable. Those women want to be able to get the preventive healthcare they need, and the IOM’s recommendation would make it increasingly possible for them to do so by removing unnecessary obstacles based on a minority’s ideological vision about women, sexuality and reproductive health and rights.

Catholics are indeed called upon to make conscientious decisions in their lives. Catholics are positively not told to substitute their conscience for someone else’s—even though that’s the position the bishops are trying to assert. Catholic teaching requires due deference to the conscience of others in making decisions—meaning that healthcare providers must not dismiss the conscience of the person seeking care.

While the USCCB and others claim that refusal clauses balance freedom of conscience for the provider and the patient, most do not provide protection for the freedom of conscience of the patient seeking contraception, sterilization or any other reproductive healthcare services. The bishops use a sledgehammer approach when it comes to reproductive health, and even seek to institute policies that would allow providers to refuse to provide timely referrals to patients whose very lives may depend on them.

The bishops’ ideas about protecting religious freedom through inappropriate and vague refusal clauses—even when they are called “conscience clauses”—are disrespectful of all of us, including Catholics. Catholics do respect the conscience of healthcare providers, and of our bishops. We just expect them to respect our conscience, too.

It is clear that making it possible for women to realize the decisions they make, according to their conscience, about whether and when to have children, is ultimately respectful of American women who come from any number of faith traditions, or who are agnostic, or atheist, or secularist. This is the freedom of, and freedom from, religion that is in the IOM’s recommendation. Catholics are grateful for it.

Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice.

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  • amelia45

    Thank you for speaking up.

    As one of the Catholics who used contraceptives during my child bearing years, I appreciate your keeping the ability to get them as open as possible. Both my mother and grandmother finally had tubal ligations (also forbidden by the Church) after bearing numerous children. Both were told the next one would kill them. Both had the operation, lived to raise their children and love their husbands. My grandmother handled the issue with the Church in this way. She went to confession after the tubal, told Father ? that she had her tubes tied to assure she would live to raise the children she already had, she would confess it this one time, and then expected that neither of them would ever mention it again.

    She was Irish.

  • thebump

    Caution: The author represents one of the most notorious and vicious anti-Catholic hate groups since the KKK.

  • persiflage

    ‘This comes as no surprise when one considers that 98 percent of Catholic women have used a birth control method the bishops find objectionable. Those women want to be able to get the preventive healthcare they need, and the IOM’s recommendation would make it increasingly possible for them to do so by removing unnecessary obstacles based on a minority’s ideological vision about women, sexuality and reproductive health and rights.’

    This is excellent news! Catholic women are taking charge of their own reproductive destiny in far greater numbers than previously advertised – while ignoring the dictates of celibate unmarried men ruled by a doctrinaire medieval philosophy completely out of touch with the exigencies of modern living.

    Before you know it, you’ll have married priests and gay marriages – all under one roof. The ordination of women can’t be far behind.

    Of course, they’ll need major changes at the Vatican level to make all of that happen – maybe Catholics will get lucky with a progressive Pope the next time around. Meanwhile, love your neighbor and follow your own conscience…..isn’t that what Jesus would do??

  • Carstonio

    Although I don’t belong to any religion, O’Brien’s argument is excellent and apples no matter what religious stance is involved. Even if we’re talking about an individual health practitioner or a pharmacist, it’s a gross distortion of the concept of conscience to argue that supplying birth control to patients goes against their consciences. (For clarity, my point assumes pre-conception birth control and takes the “morning-after” pill off the table.) No one is requiring the practitioners to use birth control themselves. If they see supplying it to patients as enabling or validating wrongdoing, they vastly overestimate their own power and vastly underestimate the sentience of their patients. It’s like they see patients as chickens in a pen who will eat anything thrown at them. O’Brien’s point that Catholics should not substitute their conscience for someone else’s is sound moral advice for anyone of any religious stance.

  • thebump

    Hate to burst your bubble, but no, Catholicism is not going to be dumbed down into a branch of mindless Unitarianism.

  • persiflage

    Interesting that among the Founders of America not a single Catholic can be found – although a number of Unitarians and Deists were present in that august body.

    The Catholic oligarchy in Europe did stimulate the flight to freedom that greatly boosted immigration to our largely Protestant shores.

    Even the Catholics eventually escaped to America – starting mainly with the Irish. The escape from Papal bull continues to this day.

  • thebump

    Persiflage might also educate itself about the history of Maryland.

    The English and Dutch settlers were hardly escaping the pope. The Irish were escaping famine — and brought their religious culture with them lock, stock and barrel.

  • Carstonio

    Bump has a point. I don’t know about the Irish settlers, but the colony itself was founded as a haven for English Catholics, who were facing persecution at home.

  • persiflage

    Carstonio, this link indicates that Charles Carroll defied the Catholic Church and it’s strict rules against political involvement with his own political activism. I’m reminded of that other singular, famous American Catholic John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who also staunchly believed in the separation of church and state.

    I think the Bump has a knot in its tail because of all this wishy-washy progressiveness in the American Catholic Church. In point of fact, the Irish have a more complex immigration history to the US than is contained in Bump’s simple view. The majority of Irish south of the Mason Dixon line are Protestants, who eventually began calling themselves Scots-Irish. There were small enclaves of Catholic Irish in certain southern cities, and of course most Irish immigrants in northern cities were Catholics. Catholic immigration started long before the potato famine.

  • thebump

    Persiflage, may I respectfully remind all of us that it was you who brought up Irish Catholics and claimed they were escaping papism. The Scots-Irish certainly weren’t. And no, I did not mean to imply that I had managed to capture the totality of Irish-American history in a single sentence. But that sentence nevertheless is true.

    As for an “American Catholic Church” — no such thing.

  • Apoorsinner

    Mr. O’Brien completely misunderstands — or misrepresents — Catholic teaching. The Catholic Church exists to impart the teachings of Jesus Christ. She acts like a mother, guiding her children to what is good and healthy. Birth control is not good and is not healthy. It drives a wedge into marriage, permits sex outside of marriage, and leads to a demand for abortions when birth control “fails” (and no birth control is 100% effective, so birth control will fail). Just because many Catholics use birth control doesn’t mean the Church’s teachings are not right. The church’s teachings are right, it’s just that many Catholics have been persuaded — some without much difficulty — to do what is wrong in the Church’s eyes. But if you substituted “stealing” for birth control, you will see just how wrong Mr. O’Brien’s comments are. The church teaches that stealing is wrong, there is a moral element to this teaching, but many in their conscience know that they must steal, and many do steal, therefore conscience trumps the Church and stealing ought to be allowed.