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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.