The Catholic contraception kerfuffle

The Obama administration mandated that health insurers cover birth control, and the ongoing drama is being framed in respect of the repression of poor, poor Catholics. How dare the government infringe on their freedom to police women’s bodies through their religion, blah blah blah. The next time someone brings up the Catholic aspect, obliterate it with the following three points:

1. There’s no legal basis:

“At a more fundamental level, though, the HHS rule simply doesn’t violate a cognizable free exercise right. In 1990, the Supreme Court decided a case called Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). Two men, members of the Native American Church, used peyote in their rituals. They were employed in Oregon as counselors at a private rehab clinic. Oregon outlawed peyote, with no exception for religious use. The men were subsequently fired once their drug use was discovered, and applied for unemployment benefits. The state of Oregon denied them benefits because – guess what? – they were fired for committing a crime under state law, and had committed work-related misconduct.

The case found its way to the Supreme Court, where the court set down a new rule. The standard for determining if a regulation burdened the free exercise of a religious adherent or organization was whether the law was neutral toward religion and generally applicable, lacking any pretext designed to obscure a hostility toward religious practice. The court even stated that to permit otherwise under the First Amendment “would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

The author of this religion-destroying opinion? Noted Catholic Antonin Scalia.”

2. It’s not even about religion, it’s about gender:

The polling data backs this up; Catholics and non-Catholics support requiring all employers to cover insurance in roughly equal numbers. In fact, Catholics are slightly more likely to do so than the general public, mainly because evangelical Christians are suppressing the overall support numbers; only 38% of them want the mandate. What we’re seeing here is fundamentalist evangelicals and fundamentalist Catholics using ordinary Catholics as cover to push a misogynist agenda. I know, shocking, right?

But there’s another aspect to this story I want to talk about. The polling data makes this clear that there’s no conflict between Catholics and everyone else. But there are two groups that show huge divergences in the polling data on this: men and women.

“However, women were significantly more likely to favor free contraception through employee healthcare plans at 62 percent versus 47 percent of men, while 54 percent of women agreed religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should provide this coverage versus 43 percent of men.”

The religious arguments have no real effect on men’s support or non-support of it; they either think it’s a benefit or they don’t. And the majority don’t. The spread between men and women on whether or not contraception should be a covered benefit is 15 points. The non-existent spread between Catholics and non is drawing a bunch of attention, but here is the real story. The only reason this is controversial is that a majority of men oppose it.

3. Catholics freak out about birth control because it prevents pregnancy, but most women use it for other reasons:

I’m sure every religious person will change their mind about the situation after being confronted with evidence. Right?


  1. inspectorspacetime says

    I am worried about the RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) implications, which I don’t fully understand. RFRA is a terrible law passed in the 90s, essentially intended to overturn Employment Division v. Smith. It’s been struck down with regards to state law, but it still applies to federal laws.

    Unlike the Constitution, which allows any neutral, generally applicable to apply to religious and secular citizens alike, this is a Congressional act preempting other laws unless the government act burdening religion can pass strict scrutiny. Strict scrutiny says the government needs to assert a compelling interest, and the law needs to be narrowly tailored to fit that interest: it has to be the least-restrictive means to accomplish the goal.

    So, I think we have three main options to get around it. I assume the administration’s banking on something to keep this in place. The first is simply that the health care reform act postdates RFRA, and as such is written in such a way as to exempt itself. I’d be interested to find something there.

    Secondly, we can argue that there’s no religious burden here. After all, nobody’s being forced to use birth control, they’re being required to provide real health insurance. It’s something, anyway.

    Third, there’s the argument that access to contraception is a compelling government interest. This has been upheld before, in the state-level fights on this subject. There are citations to the compelling interest in gender equity, and there are arguments to be made that control of fertility is an extremely important interest that the government allow women to do so. It’s more complex and not predictable, but it’s out there. I think there’s hope. Who knows where the narrow tailoring question comes out.

  2. says

    The quote from Scalia is actually Scalia quoting a much earlier case about mormon polygamy in Reynolds v. United States, 1878. That is, if you doubt Scalia’s ability to be that clear and awesome, you can pawn it off on someone way older :)

  3. says

    Of course men don’t care if women get access to contraception. They are not the ones who have to deal with the consequences of pregnancy. They can just walk away. Why are Americans reverting back to the Middle Ages where women’s rights are concerned?

  4. Buffy says

    I’m sure every religious person will change their mind about the situation after being confronted with evidence. Right?

    That’s the funniest thing I’ve read all day.

  5. says

    I wish I had this information when I had my Twitter exchange with a Catholic priest. It was my first one! And believe me, that was the strangest interaction I’ve ever had with another human being.

    Once I sifted through all the birth control, sterilization, abortion, and Ella nonsense, I finally got what I was after.

    They want to control a woman’s reproductive rights and keep anyone from having sex without the risk of conception – you know, just having sex for fun. As a matter of fact, I said this to him, for which he replied, “Having sex is fun. Having sex for fun is not good. You deserve better, my friend.”

    Well, my wife of 18 years would certainly disagree.

  6. says

    unless they work for a house of worship that objects

    They think a person’s employer–not even just the state–should have a say in their medical decisions. This just blows my mind. At least when I think about that fact divorced from all the other misogynistic, patriarchal bullshit permeating our society.

    I’m utterly astounded. If I work cleaning up a church or a mosque, they get to decide what legal chemicals I put into my body? It’s just crazy. My internal organs? None of your fucking business. If I want to follow this doctrine or that, that’s my choice, and I can choose to take whatever consequences your god or your church want to hand out, if that’s what I want to do.

    Just another reason why you Americans should push for universal, single-payer healthcare.

  7. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    A bunch of old, unmarried virgins want to control peoples’ sex lives because “that’s what Jebus wants.”

  8. bitguru says

    One thing that blows blows me away about this kerfuffle
    is that many otherwise intelligent people on the TV/radio/
    newspapers are unintentionally redefining pregnancy to be
    something that happens before implantation.

    I mean, if they want to _intentionally_ redefine pregnancy,
    we can discuss it and maybe come to a consensus. But that’s
    not what they are doing. It seems that most of them are just
    ignorant to what pregnancy means and has meant for a long
    time now.

    Does this bother anyone else?

  9. Hypatia's Daughter says

    #5 mtlskeptic The statistics support your claim, but I am totally unable to understand why. Men don’t get pregnant but they can be saddled with too many mouths to feed (if they have ethics), or paternity suits (if they don’t).
    Maybe I live a sheltered life, but I don’t personally know any man whose goal is to leave a trial of fatherless children he takes no responsibility for.
    Are these guys just too stupid to realize how often regular sex leads to pregnancy? Don’t they realize how little they will get if their partners have to worry about pregnancy every time they have sex? Do they plan to invest in 25 years worth of condoms or get the Big Snip?
    Or are they just so f’in selfish that they want a regular sex life but expect women not only to take the responsibility for birth control but also pick up the tab?

  10. Hypatia's Daughter says

    #11 bitguru Ohh, definitely ignorance. Carefully nurtured by some religious wackaloons (both Catholic and Prot fundie) who deliberately cloud the issue because they are against birth control. While some are against bc that prevents implantation of a fertilized ovum (because they consider that abortion), these wackalooons think any bc that prevents fertilization is wrong. By confusing the issue, they appeal to those who are against or ambivalent about abortion.

  11. says

    They may say they don’t mean to leave a trail of unsupported, fatherless children, but that’s what, in effect happens. They move on to new girlfriend/wife and think of child support as paying the old girlfriend/wife money. Why should they pay for something they’re no longer getting sex from? So they work under the table or move around or live off of new girlfriend/wife so they don’t have to pay. How can the law stop them? It’s hard for a single parent to go chasing someone through the court system, and even when you can pin them down, there’s no money to be had. Either that, or they have so much more, they can wear you away until you give up trying.

    My mother had a divorce settlement agreement (drawn up without lawyers, though signed and notarised) where there were no kids involved and it took years and lots of lawyers fees and in the end, she had to take far less than what the asshole had agreed to. I can only imagine the torture for someone with young kids to feed and look after.

    Disclaimer: This does not describe all men, but a sizable class of them.

  12. says

    The thing is that you’re assuming people are concerned about when pregnancy begins, as opposed to when the life of a particular human organism begins. The embryo is obviously alive before it implants in the uterus. Pro-choice and pro-life people talk past each other on this constantly; pro-choice people think that the opposition to abortion is an objection to ending a pregnancy, but for pro-life people it’s an objection to ending the life of the embryo. Of course, then there’s the whole discussion of whether taking a medication that might have the side effect of making implantation more difficult is the equivalent of killing the embryo (my take: no).

  13. says

    Actually, the ones I see fighting for the scope of the mandate to be adjusted are females, not just males. These are also people for whom the statistics Jen quoted are meaningless because it’s an issue of what they believe.

    Most of them don’t give a rat’s butt if the rest of us use contraception — they just don’t want to be forced to pay for it because they don’t believe in it.

  14. Robert B. says

    O.o 58%? I knew “the pill” had useful side effects, but… wow. Looking at that, we shouldn’t even be framing the question as “should insurance pay for contraception?” What’s really being decided here is, “should insurance refuse to pay for a medicine just because it can be used for birth control?” Naming a pill by only one out of (according to the legend of that pie chart) at least five valid theraputic uses is just a bad and biased use of the language.

  15. says

    #12 Hypatia’s Daughter. I think you’re right that men don’t want to leave a trail of children. It’s not like it’s pre-meditated. I just think it’s easier for men to ignore the consequences of their action because they are not as tied to the potential child as a woman is. It’s easier to walk away when the child isn’t growing inside you. So if you have an easy out, you don’t think about what it’s like not to have the easy out. It’s also easy for them to forget, that even if they do stick around, they don’t have to carry the kid to term and give birth. So there’s no risk to their health. Or their career. It’s easy to forget how much contraception has allowed women to take control over their own lives instead of being controlled by circumstances.

  16. ashleybone says

    There’s a petition in support of the new policy at There’s also one demanding it be rescinded that has a few thousand more votes. I wish I could dislike that one.

  17. Timid Atheist says

    I’m one of those many women who uses birth control to regulate my period. I don’t have one anymore because of how I use my BC and is it ever glorious to not be crippled by pain and blood once every twenty eight weeks. I’m one of those that has horribly heavy periods and it only got worse after I had my child nine years ago.

    I’m all for people not using BC if that’s what they want. HOWEVER, not providing the option for your employees, when it’s very possible most of those employees are NOT of that religion, is just unfair.

    Under this law I’ll soon, I hope, be getting my $40 BC for free and that is a burden this single mother can only thank the government for lifting.

  18. hieropants says

    Well, considering hormonal birth control works by preventing ovulation and therefore preventing the formation of zygotes anyway, it seems to me they’re not just redefining pregnancy to start before implantation, they’re redefining it to start before ovulation.

    I mean, yes, technically ova are alive, too, but to assign full personhood rights to them (making it a crime to keep them locked up in the ovaries against their will I guess?) seems a little unfair.

  19. techspoon says

    I have to sneak in here to mention a study on Catholic women and sex…

    The study shows that 89% of never-married Catholic women (age 20-24) are “sexually experienced.” From all age groups who are sexually experienced, 98% of them have used some form of contraception. It goes on to say that 31% of those use birth control pills (as opposed to condoms, IUDs, etc.).

    So, like everybody else, Catholic women have premarital sex and protect themselves against pregnancy. Shocking. I guess, though, if all the leaders in your organization are male, you can be totally oblivious to the prevalence of sex and birth control amongst your loyal church-goers.

  20. Synfandel says

    Of course men don’t care if women get access to contraception.

    Yes, every last one of us men is an uncaring self-centred bastard. That’s why none of us ever falls in love, marries, or raises a family.

  21. Synfandel says

    Just another reason why you Americans should push for universal, single-payer healthcare.

    It never ceases to astonish me that there is so much resistance to this approach in the U.S. Is it just that the private health insurance industry is an incredibly successful lobby?

  22. ZombieFood says

    I’m pretty baffled as to why the Republican nominees think they can get votes by objecting to this. “Obama wants you to have free birth control! Vote for me and I’ll make you pay out of your own pocket for it!” Yeah, I can see women everywhere flocking to the polls to vote Republican.

  23. Tom Singer says

    Medicines, such as birth control pills, are prescribed for specific purposes. Insurers doesn’t cover the medicine, they cover the combination of medicine + purpose. Thus, if your coworker is prescribed drug A for condition X, and insurance covers it, that is not a guarantee that your prescription of drug A for condition Y will be covered.

    I would guess that most women haven’t been prescribed birth control pills for acne prevention. I would guess most dermatologists wouldn’t widely prescribe a medication for acne that has a side effect of preventing conception. I would guess most insurers wouldn’t cover acne medication for the presumably large portion of that 14% that have relatively mild acne.

    Also, we’re not talking about insurers. We’re talking about employers.

  24. Tom Singer says

    Are certain employment benefits mandatory? I assumed they were optional. Maybe (this seems more likely) the government provides certain rewards to employers that offer some minimum level of benefits, and the real argument is over that minimum level to qualify, but presumably employers who object to providing that can opt out of whatever rewards the govt offers.

    If the govt is bidding a contract to build a monument to somebody, and you’re a Jehovah’s Witness who believes that qualifies as idolatry, you just don’t bid on that contract, right?

  25. ParatrooperJJ says

    It doesn’t have anything with your employer making medical decisions for you. You are already free to get birth control if you want it. The Church shouldn’t have to pay for it though.

  26. ParatrooperJJ says

    You don’t think that in single payer the government won’t say what drugs it will cover or not? If you think that you’ll have the same choices as you do now you are kidding yourself.

  27. says

    “Well, considering hormonal birth control works by preventing ovulation and therefore preventing the formation of zygotes anyway”

    Most of the time, yes. It also alters the cervical mucus in a way that inhibits sperm transport and reduces the chance of fertilization.

    However, there are those — both pro-life and pro-choice — who believe that if those mechanisms fail, hormonal birth control might also alter the lining of the uterus so that an embryo can’t implant. The case for this is weak, but not non-existent, and a lot of people just assume that it’s true. (I have been trying for months to get Rachel Maddow to stop stating this on her show like it’s a fact, to no avail.)

  28. shac says

    I started taking birth control pills for birth control, but now I take it for both acne and night sweats. Works wonders! I believe a lot of women take bc for acne and other things otherwise why would you keep taking it when not in a relationship? As many women I know do.

  29. Azkyroth says

    Well of COURSE they didn’t mean EVERY man. Even though that’s the straightforward interpretation of what was said. I guess, um, we’re supposed to have faith that the individual speaker we don’t know is better than that or something, because typing “many” or “some” or “certain kinds of” is just SUCH AN ONEROUS BURDEN, it’s much better for us to just selectively interpret everything that’s said in the most flattering way possible.

  30. Azkyroth says

    …so, basically, we can choose either to have the decisions about what drugs to cover made by assholes who are unapologetically in it for the money, or by assholes who pander to popular sentiments and have to pretend they’re not in it for the money.


  31. Azkyroth says

    Why should we be forced to subsidize their beliefs? That’s what exempting them from the requirements placed on other employers amounts to if you aren’t reasoning circularly from the assumption the church’s position is right…

  32. Steve says

    It’s possible to have both, you know. A public health care system that guarantees a certain standard for everyone (and that can include very expensive treatments for things like cancer that would certainly bankrupt you in the US). And a private system if you want better or preferential treatment instead

  33. says

    Here goes Jennifer again…can’t quite grasp the religious thing. Doesn’t get it.

    What’s a pagan do do?

    First off, you’ve presented absolutely no evidence, whatsoever.

    The Church has not, will not, cannot, ever subscribe to poll-based theology. That’s for liberal Protestants. And brainwashed Planned Parenthood types. You know those PP minions who couch their unconscious Marxist indoctrination around “women’s issues”, “paternalism”, or other misogynist mythology.

    While Jennifer may pay homage to Doctors for America—I don’t. And there’s millions like me. These idiot ‘Doctors’ support unrestricted abortion and contracepted abortion—so their opinions are worthless to Catholics. They may have a non-binding medical opinion, but it isn’t a valid theological or moral opinion.

    All that matters is the mind of God. The will of God.

    And what is that ellusve will of God?

    Go forth and multiply.

    And also, Jesus said, “I will build my Church.”

    He didn’t say churches.

    The Magisterium of the Catholic Church (the official teaching body of God’s Church on earth) has condemned artificial contraception, and all forms of abortion since its inception. For over 2000 years.

    It’s ok if the Episcopal Church changes its teaching on contraception and abortion or whatever…because it isn’t that church, that one Jesus Christ established. And history clearly demonstrates that. Ditto for the Presbyterians, Evangelicals, etc.

    The Church has made its pronouncement. Artificial contraception is wrong—but Natural Family Planning has its place in Catholicism. And is a lot more fun. But you need discipline to practice it. We can see how the adolescent regressives of the MTV crowd, who are constantly reaching for candy and cookies, might struggle with even the mildest forms of restraint.

    Oh Miss McCreight, I have let the traditionalist Catholic judge, Antonin Scalia, know that you are taking his legal rendering out of context and inferring that he supports the recent anti-Catholic manoeuvring of the Comrade Obama administration. I’m sure—as a staunch Catholic—he love that.

    I hope you have deep pockets.

  34. hieropants says

    “You know those PP minions who couch their unconscious Marxist indoctrination around “women’s issues”, “paternalism”, or other misogynist mythology.”

    I know, right? I was trying to talk to a bunch of Planned Parenthood-types about pregnancy and they were all “The workers shall control the means of production!” and I was all OH COME ON the person (“corporation”, if you will) is beholden to the will of the shareholders, not the workers! Those women should think long and hard about all the people who invested in their pregnancies, because THAT’S WHAT CAPITALISM IS ABOUT.

    Fucking hippies.

  35. Azkyroth says

    Oh Miss McCreight, I have let the traditionalist Catholic judge, Antonin Scalia, know that you are taking his legal rendering out of context and inferring that he supports the recent anti-Catholic manoeuvring of the Comrade Obama administration. I’m sure—as a staunch Catholic—he love that.

    I hope you have deep pockets.

    I’m mystified that this kind of completely frivolous legal threat isn’t actionable in and of itself.

  36. dianne says

    The Catholic approved “rhythm method” causes more embryo wastage than any other form of birth control. Odd that they haven’t withdrawn approval of the method after this became known.

  37. dianne says

    While Jennifer may pay homage to Doctors for America—I don’t. And there’s millions like me. These idiot ‘Doctors’ support unrestricted abortion and contracepted abortion—so their opinions are worthless to Catholics.

    This is a perfect ad hominem attack. Totally unable to refute the claims made in the post (they being inconveniently true), former oocyte goes on about how DfA is pro-abortion. So what? The question is are they correct about OCP being used for things other than contraception? The answer is a definitive yes.

  38. hypatiasdaughter says

    Oopps – comment #13 was meant for another thread. I wondered where I put that damn thing!

  39. hypatiasdaughter says

    Naughty, Naughty catholic church! Did Jesus not say “looking upon a woman with lust in your heart” is the same as actually committing adultery? Meaning, the sin is in the intent as much as the actions.
    Natural Family Planning is having sex with the desire not to get pregnant – meaning your intent is to have sex for fun without the intent of conceiving. NFP is morally the same as artificial birth control; it just takes a little more planning and has a few percentages higher failure rate.
    The proponents of NFP are like a 5 year old who promises to be good, while he has his fingers crossed behind his back. “Gee, God, I’m not really having sex without wanting conception. I’m just having sex only when I am pretty sure I cannot conceive.”

  40. says

    Your line of thinking and your analogy are way off. Artificial contraception and NFP are not related in practice, or philosophy. A Catholic still has to have morally valid reasons for implementing NFP—but it allows the action to remain open to the will of God onetheless.

    Jesus also said, those whose sins you retain—are retained, etc. The Catholic Church, as God’s final representative on earth, has decreed artificial contraception is morally wrong for purposes of preventing conception, but NFP can be employed for valid reasons—


    Catholic doctrine holds that God created sexual intercourse to be both unitive and procreative.The Catholic Church teaches that an act which deliberately attempts to divorce the unitive and procreative meaning of the marital act is opposed to God’s plan for life and love in the order of creation. “Any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means” is opposed to this order and is therefore forbidden according to orthodox Catholic teaching. Thus, artificial birth control methods are forbidden, as are acts intended to end in orgasm outside the context of intercourse (e.g. masturbation or oral sex that is not part of foreplay). At the same time, not having sex at all (abstinence) is considered morally acceptable.

    Engaging in marital relations at an infertile time in a woman’s life (such as pregnancy or post-menopause) is also considered acceptable, since the infertile condition is considered to be created by God, rather than as an act by the couple. Similarly, under Catholic theology, it may be morally acceptable to abstain during the fertile part of the woman’s menstrual cycle. Increasing the postpartum infertile period through particular breastfeeding practices — the lactational amenorrhea method — is also considered a natural and morally unobjectionable way to space a family’s children.

    The Catholic Church acknowledges a potential benefit of spacing children and use of NFP for this reason is tolerated. Humanae Vitae cites “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions” as possibly compelling reasons to avoid pregnancy. Couples are warned, however, against using NFP for selfish, immoral, or insincere reasons. Catholic sources extol the benefits children bring to their parents, their siblings, and society in general, and encourage couples to have as many children as their circumstances make practical. (Wikipedia)

  41. says

    Angelina, with Mars in Aries, and Brad with Mars in Capricorn make a dynamic and lively pair. Brad does have a rather subdued, even inhibited, sexuality, which cannot be said of Angelina, who is spontaneous and feisty. Angelina can feel that Brad locations also much limitations on her lifestyle, and she refuses to be tamed. Brad is very absorbed in his perform, and might feel that his partner wastes also a lot time on impulsive behaviour.

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