USCCB triumphans

Let’s have a blast from the past: Katha Pollitt in the Nation in December 2011.

Who matters more to President Obama, 271 Catholic bishops or millions upon millions of sexually active Catholic women who have used (or—gasp!—are using right this minute) birth control methods those bishops disapprove of? Who does Obama think the church is—the people in the pews or the men with the money and power? We’re about to find out. Some day soon the president will decide whether to yield to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which has lobbied fiercely for a broad religious exemption from new federal regulations requiring health insurance to cover birth control with no co-pays—one of the more popular elements of Obama’s healthcare reform package. Talk about the 1 percent and the 99 percent.

There’s already an exemption in the law for religious employers, defined as those whose primary purpose is the “inculcation of religious values,” who mostly serve and employ people of that faith, and qualify as churches or “integrated auxiliaries” under the tax code. That would be, say, a diocesan office or a convent or, for that matter, a synagogue, mosque or megachurch. Even this exemption seems unfair to me—why should a bishop be able to deprive his secretary and housekeeper of medical services? The exemption is based on the notion that people shouldn’t have to violate their religious consciences, but what makes his conscience more valuable than theirs? I would argue that it is less valuable—he’s not the one who risks getting pregnant.

What indeed? Perhaps it’s just that Obama was and is cowed by the institution and the guys who are at the top of that institution. Or perhaps it’s not that he’s cowed by them, but that he’s impressed by them. Perhaps he takes them at their own valuation.

The exemption becomes truly outrageous, though, if it is broadened, as the bishops want, to include Catholic hospitals, schools, colleges and social service organizations like Catholic Charities. These workplaces employ millions; and let’s not forget their dependents and the roughly 900,000 students enrolled at Catholic colleges. Now we’re talking about lots of people who aren’t Catholics, who serve non-Catholics and whose workplace may have only a tenuous connection to the institutional church. The Jewish social worker, the Baptist nurse, the security guard who hasn’t seen the inside of a church in decades—all these people, and their spouses and other dependents, will have to pay out of pocket, even as most Americans applaud the advent of vastly broadened access to essentially free contraception. It’s not a small amount of money at stake, either—the pill can cost $50 a month. The IUD, wider use of which would do much to help lower our high unintended pregnancy rate, lasts for many years but costs $800 to $1,000 up front. How is it fair to make millions of women live under old rules that the rest of society is abandoning precisely because they are injurious to health and pocketbook? Is there a social value in a woman’s having to skip her pills because she’s short $50? If it was any medication other than birth control—sorry, the Pope thinks you should control your cholesterol through prayer and fasting; no statins for you!—more people would be up in arms.

In the event, Obama gave them the first part of the exemption, and SCOTUS gave them the rest. Their rigid sex-hating anti-woman religious views were allowed to trump the views of people who need the coverage and people who think they should have the coverage. It’s a stupidly hierarchical move, given that it’s well known that most Catholics totally ignore the Vatican prohibition on contraception. Why does the fanatical minority get an exemption that harms the more liberal, reasonable majority?

In the bishops’ topsy-turvy world, religious liberty means the state must enable them to force their medieval views on others. Thus it was “anti-Catholic” for HHS not to renew a 2006 contract with the bishops’ refugee-services office to help victims of human trafficking—never mind that the office denied these women, often victims of rape and forced prostitution, birth control and emergency contraception. In what world do people have the right to be hired to not provide services? You might as well say it’s bigoted to deny the Jehovah’s Witnesses a contract to run a blood bank. You can expect more of this self-serving nonlogic from the USCCB’s newly beefed-up Committee on Religious Liberty, which plans to fight for broader religious exemptions in certain areas, such as the “right” to use federal funds to discriminate against gays in adoption and foster-care placements.

Theocrats are flexing their muscles.







  1. thephilosophicalprimate says

    Yes, but… Remember that the administration concluded those negotiations with an effective end run around the problem: They granted the exemptions (appeasing religious interests), and then required the insurers to independently provide contraceptive coverage without charge — which the insurers were actually happy to do for their own bottom-line reasons, since contraception is cheaper than pregnancies and births.

    So, while I absolutely, 100% agree with you (and Pollitt) on the *principles* here, I think it’s also good to remember that in *practice*, that bit of maneuvering allowed the Obama administration to accomplish the desired goal of greatly broadening women’s access to contraception WITHOUT any precedent-setting court battles. For all this fiery rhetoric about conceding to the bullying of bishops, how those court battles might turn out was a legitimate concern of the administration even then, for reasons that are now even more obvious with the benefit of hindsight.

    Furthermore, Monday’s Hobby Lobby ruling all but explicitly invites the administration to engage in the exact same end-run maneuver around the new obstacle it has erected. Practically speaking, this ruling probably won’t actually prevent any women at all from receiving birth control coverage. Thus, the real problem with the recent Hobby Lobby decision remains the legal precedent that it sets — which is a very bad precedent for all sorts of reasons.

  2. imthegenieicandoanything says

    “Theocrats are flexing their muscles.”

    Well, I’m all for doing what we can to push back against the Evil 5ive, I’d say that the Theocrats are grasping at what straws still look able to buoy up their flaccid, stinking, bloated, already-rotting, galvanically-thrashing corpses. They can do very little but try to burn the earth behind them as they lose everything (little, or even none, of which they have worked for, since they don’t deign to actually “work”.)
    That seems to be their only remaining plan, here. It has to be stopped, by however crazed and vain they are, they must be feeling the pressure of reality bearing down on them, and the slow arc of history sailing above their influence.
    They have to be stopped, on nearly every “front” – but deep down only the literally insanely evil among them want to succeed. Deep down, and not even that deep down they want to fail.

    We need to give them what they want, them let them make amends without further bitterness.

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