A lot of ink has been spilled in the last few weeks about the national fervor over contraception, health insurance, and religion. Nearly everyone has commented – some thoughtfully, some hilariously, some infuriatingly. Actually, mostly hilariously.
Authorities in the Catholic Church as well as other religious figures have said that the requirement that they offer their employees insurance that covers contraceptives forces them to go against their deeply held religious belief that the use of contraceptives is wrong. President Obama has since offered a compromise, wherein religious institutions are exempt from the requirement, but women are still offered the choice of birth control from the insurance company itself.
While I am firmly in support of the requirement, I think the larger debate raises interesting an question: what influence should religion and the religious have on public policy?
I majored in Religious Studies in college, and so this question – along with “When is (Insert Holiday)?” and “Can (Insert Religion) eat (Insert Food)? – feels like one that I should have an answer to. Unfortunately, I have no answers – but I do have a few thoughts.
My religious education and background has given me a great respect for religion, religious practice and religious people. Religious people often form communities that place helping the less fortunate at the center of their mission. Say what you will about the role of women and the plague of child abuse in the Catholic Church (and we could all say plenty), but Catholic Social Policy and other Catholic teachings advocate strongly for selfless care of others. This mission is played out through the work of Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals and other institutions.
So, in many ways, I have respect for Catholic institutions. And I respect the rights of a Catholic woman to choose not to use contraception based on the teachings of their Church, just as I respect the rights of any women – Catholic or otherwise – to make her own decisions about contraceptives. And, for the record, 98% of sexually experienced Catholic women have made the decision to use birth control.
What I don’t respect, and what we cannot tolerate, is when the religious beliefs of one group dictate – not just influence, but dictate – government policy that impacts many, many people outside of the religious group. It is not just Catholics who are affected by the rule – Catholic universities, hospitals and other institutions employ and provide insurance for many non-Catholics. This is why President Obama’s compromise is a good one – it manages to protect the rights of women to adequate and affordable health care, but doesn’t force Catholic institutions to engage in behavior that they feel violates their beliefs. The compromise comes from a place of respect for religious institutions and individuals, without sacrificing women’s health.
But certain members of religious communities, including several Congressional Republicans are not satisfied. The latest development in this saga is the Blunt Amendment, co-sponsored by our own Senator John Hoeven. The Blunt Amendment allows any employer to opt out of providing insurance for pretty much any reason. Obama’s exemption already allows this for religious institutions; this is just a way to allow more people to deny contraception to women. It’s a way to deny women the right to make their own choices about their health. That’s what it’s about. The Amendment will be voted on March 1st. so if there’s still time, run to your phone, call your congresspersons and ask them to vote against the Blunt amendment.
Also, not for nothing, but any group that makes decisions about women’s bodies and health that refuses to allow women to represent themselves – whether we’re talking about the Catholic Church or Congress or Fox News– is in serious need of reform. Tell your congressperson that, too.