Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation.
As if it had finally noticed that women out-number bishops, the Obama administration has decided against permitting religious organizations a broad exemption from rules requiring that all methods of contraception be covered, with no co-payment, by health insurance plans. Strictly religious organizations — churches, missions and such — will be exempt, but not universities, hospitals and charities. As a public health matter, this is excellent news: for women whose health plans don't cover birth control, it can be difficult to obtain and costs hundreds of dollars a year out of pocket.
As a political matter it is also good news, a welcome departure from December, when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius rejected the recommendation of the FDA's scientists — an unprecedented move — and decided not to make Plan B, emergency contraception, available over the counter to all girls and women. It's nice to see someone besides women under the proverbial bus for a change. Still, if I had to choose, I would have expanded Plan B access and let the bishops have their bottle, because normalizing postcoital contraception — yes, indeed, putting it right there in the grocery store next to the aspirin — would help far more girls and women than narrowing the religious exemption. But no, we had those 11-year-old girls to worry about, the ones who would run off to orgies if they could buy EC at CVS.
For some reason, women's health is never just about women's health, the well-being of the 52 percent of the population that spends around thirty years trying not to get pregnant. Someone else is always more important: in December it was licentious children; now it's the anti-contraception clergy. "This egregious violation of religious freedom marks the first time in our history that the federal government is forcing religious people and groups to ante up for services that violate their consciences," writes Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, in the Huffington Post. According to Walsh, religious freedom is reserved for "anybody but Catholics." Nonsense. 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? As an atheist, a feminist, a progressive, I ante up for so much stuff that violates my conscience, the government should probably pay me damages. Why should the bishops be exempt from the costs of living in a pluralistic society? Walsh cites the Amish, who are exempt from buying health insurance because they have a conscientious objection to it, but the Amish are a self-isolated band of would-be nineteenth-century farmers; they don't try to make others read by kerosene lamps or demand the government subsidize their buggies. The Catholic church, by contrast, runs institutions that employ, teach and care for millions of people, for which it gets oceans of public money. A great many of those employed and served aren't even Catholic: at Jesuit universities, almost half the students aren't in the church; at Notre Dame, almost half the faculty is non-Catholic, and that is not unusual. The vast majority of Catholics long ago rejected the Vatican's ban on contraception. Catholic women are as likely to use birth control as other women. What about their consciences?
When 98 percent of members of the church reject the official dogma, you have to ask: who does the church belong to? Theologian Daniel Maguire, arguing for the doctrine of probabilism, says the widespread dissent of theologians from "Humanae Vitae," the 1966 papal bull declaring birth control immoral, frees Catholics to follow their conscience. But, he adds, "the bishops have a terrific amount of scare power for politicians," and for the media too. The Washington Post has published two editorials against the narrow exemption. Columnist E.J. Dionne agrees: "Speaking as a Catholic, I wish the Church would be more open on the contraception question. But speaking as an American liberal who believes that religious pluralism imposes certain obligations on government, I think the Church's leaders had a right to ask for broader relief from a contraception mandate that would require it to act against its own teachings." I wish the Church would be more open on the contraception question? Now there's a ringing defense of women's health and rights! There is someone who really gets the situation of the Georgetown student, profiled in the New York Times, who lost an ovary because her insurance plan wouldn't cover the Pill to cure an ovarian cyst. Dionne proposes a compromise in which women would get referrals to places that provide affordable birth control. (Like Planned Parenthood, which the church is busily trying to defund?) How about the compromise at work in eight states that offer no exemptions from requirements that contraception be covered in all plans that cover drugs? There Catholic institutions have acquiesced. In California, NPR reports, Catholic Healthcare West has covered birth control since 1997. And there's always the compromise in which the church gets no state funds and pays for its own conscience — you know, like the Amish.
The issue is not going to go away. In the Senate, Marco Rubio has introduced a bill to overturn the requirement for religious institutions to cover contraception. Protestants are piling on, with Southern Baptist Convention head Richard Land threatening "civil disobedience" if forced "to choose between obeying God or man." Two colleges, one Catholic, one nondenominational Christian, are suing HHS, emboldened by a recent 9-0 Supreme Court ruling opposing the administration and supporting the right of a Lutheran school to fire a staffer despite civil rights laws.
Forced to choose between God and man, choose women. This time round, let women's health be about women's health.