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Via a pastoral letter, Archbishop Robert Carlson has formally added his name to the roster of American Catholic heavyweights who oppose the Obama administration’s new rule that would widen access to contraception. He claims he is doing so in the name of “rights of conscience.” The Missouri legislature is also jumping into the fray because “religious groups should not have to pay for birth control or abortions for their employees if that would violate their beliefs.” Specifically, GOP Senator Scott Rupp “introduced a measure Tuesday to amend the state’s constitution and forbid state laws or rules that force an individual, employer or health care provider to cover the costs of birth control or abortions.”

All this gum-flapping on the topic of “conscience” and “religious freedom” leaves me with few questions and observations:

— Does this rule force anyone to buy or use contraception?  

— Does this rule force any specifically religious organization staffed by members of the church in question to field health care plans that cover contraception?

— Does anything in the new rule, Senator Rupp, mention abortion or even drugs such as the morning after pill (RU486)?

— Are any insurance providers required to provide coverage for contraception?

The answer in all cases is emphatically no.

The new rule does, though, require that contraceptives be included in insurance plans offered by religiously-affiliated organizations with a non-religious mission that employ individuals who are not necessarily members of the affiliated churches. If such organizations do not comply, they stand to forfeit federal funds or tax credits. The argument offered by the Archbishop and by Senator Rupp is that, by offering such a health care plan, the church in question is being forced to indirectly subsidize (horror of horrors) contraception. That this reasoning is, at the very least, questionable is obvious when one considers a number of questions that it gives rise to:

— Don’t many of these religiously affiliated organizations derive income from public payments for services they render, or from the federal government? So why are the churches carrying on like they bear the brunt of paying for the health care these institutions provide their employees and, in the case of colleges and universities, students.

— The whole issue of indirect culpability is problematic. For instance, if a religiously affiliated hospital were to have saved the life of Hitler – knowing that he was was in the process of instituting the final solution – is the affiliated church indirectly responsible for Hitler’s crimes? If so, should the doctors have let Hitler die? Or, perhaps, even hasten his death? You can, doubtless come up with numerous parallel if less extreme examples. (I only mention Hitler because already some right-wing fools have predictably started comparing the new rule to the rise of the German Nazis. We can all play at rhetorical overkill.)

— How expansive should arguments about rights of conscience be? What about a religious businessman who thinks contraception is the devil’s tool and  wants his business to be granted the same religious exemption the churches are demanding in order to curtail his female employees’ access to birth control?

— To narrow the frame of reference of the question above, why are some religions and religious issues privileged over others? As Katha Politt puts it in regard to Catholic opposition:

Are Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other pacifists exempt from taxes that pay for war and weapons? Can Scientologists, who abhor psychiatry, deduct the costs of the National Institute of Mental Health?

— Should conscience rights take precedence over public welfare? Certainly, the courts don’t always think so. Consider, for instance, the Supreme Court decision that found polygamy illegal because it was successfully argued not to be in society’s interests.  

— What about the right of non-believing employees to be free from religiously motivated interference in their personal lives, “freedom from religion” if you will, which is arguably implicit in the construct “freedom of religion”?  Senator Rupp and the Archbishop would, presumably, answer that such individuals are free not to seek employment at religiously affiliated institutions. In a time of massive unemployment, most of us can readily see that this response is both callous and unrealistic, and, even from the point of view of the institutions in question, would lead to undesirable consequences.

Actually, to get an idea about why this argument fails, just turn the tables. If the issue is really one of conscience, aren’t religiously affiliated organizations free to give up the federal funds that are tied to their compliance with the rule? No fuss, no bother. One could even argue that it hardly behooves tax-exempt organizations like churches to take taxpayer dollars in the first place. Conscience does not operate in a vacuum.

— To take the question of rights one step further yet, what about the conscience rights of women to plan their families for the benefit of their children? Why should Archbishop Carlson’s Catholic conscience rights have more standing than that of an agnostic nurse in a Catholic hospital?

— If the issue is so pressing that the august leaders of the Catholic Church and GOP lawmakers have to leap in wearing their heavy stomping boots, why have religiously affiliated organizations, such as, for instance, Depaul University, Boston College and Caritas Christi Catholic hospitals in Massachusetts, been willing to offer their employees, without handwringing and undue melodrama, insurance plans that cover contraception? Several states, in fact, have enacted similar mandates:

Over half of Americans already live in the 28 states that require insurance companies cover contraception: Several of these states like North Carolina, New York, and California have identical religious employer exemptions. Some states like Colorado, Georgia and Wisconsin have no exemption at all.

— Finally, could there be hidden agendas on the part of folks like the Archbishop and Senator Rupp?

In the context of the Archbishop’s righteouos indignation, I’ll point out that according to a recent poll, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 58% of Catholics support requirements that Catholic affiliated colleges, hospitals and charities offer access to birth control in their insurance plans. It is well-known that many, if not most, Catholics use birth control – 98% according to the Guttmacher Institute. If Church leaders like Archbishop Carlson cannot control their wayward flocks, why should the U.S. government be subborned into doing so via state edict?

As for Senator Rupp, maybe he smells an opportunity to make trouble for the opposition while reaping some pander points. He can ga
rner credit with sex-obsessed zealots by opposing contraception, and he can do it by making ostensibly high-minded claims about “freedom of conscience.” He has to know that the claims are weak; why else would he evoke abortion – a non-issue in the new rules, but a guaranteed alarm bell to the aforesaid zealots?

No matter how you slice it, the  self-congratulatory, high-minded dudgeon of the anti-birth control crowd ignores the welfare of real people while limiting the right of all women, all individuals actually, to make their own health choices in private.  I wouldn’t want to ask my boss if I could use birth control and I don’t think you should have to do so either.