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.